In the footstep of Kings


This post is by Nancy Jardine. 

Early this week, I enjoyed a fabulous tour of a large swathe of Scotland on my way to attend a wedding on the west coast of Scotland. To get to my hotel at Lochgilphead, I had to drive about 240 miles across Scotland through some fabulous countryside. There is no direct route there because the Grampian Mountains get in the way! Because of the distance involved going to the wedding meant a 3 day trip.

scotland dotcom websiteThe black dot to the north east is where I live and the black dot towards the bottom left is Lochgilphead, the nearby red dot the wedding venue at Crear.

Of course it was just too tempting to not look into what I could do regarding sightseeing on the trip. I’ve been to the Argyll and Kintyre peninsula before but not specifically to see any ancient heritage sights. A little bit of research and I was happy dancing.

Dunadd!  One of the most important sites in Scottish and northern Irish history. Dunadd Fort was the ancient stronghold of the kings of Dal Riata from approximately AD 500 to AD 800, though the site has been used since the Iron Ages. Dunadd, meaning fort on the River Add, was only about 4 miles from my hotel in Lochgilphead. At only around 175 feet high, there was a short climb involved but it was possible to squeeze in a quick jaunt between an early breakfast and a pick up at 1 p.m by the coach taking my husband and I to the wedding at Crear on the west coast of the Argyll Peninsula.

Dunadd Fort

The The rocky outcrop of Dunadd Fort rises from the flat valley which is now partially reclaimed farmland but otherwise bogland of – the Moine Mhor – meaning the ‘Great Moss’. It sits near the River Add and it’s possible that at one time it may have been an island. Dunadd was the royal centre of the kingdom of Dal Riata (also written as Dalriada), Dal Riata in Gaelic meaning Reiti’s Share or Reiti’s Tribe.

We learn from medieval text entries for AD 683 in The Annals of Ulster that the kings from Ireland, known as the ‘Scotti’ came to Dunadd and colonised the area- not a long sail since there are only around 11 miles between northern Ireland and the coast of Argyll. (NB the entries were recorded in The Annals of Ulster much later than AD 683 and are thought to have been copied from earlier original annals) The Scotti people were Gaels. They became the Kings of the Scots, gave the name to Scotland and gave it its Gaelic culture. The kingdom of Dal Riata stretched northwards to Ardnamurchan (just below Kinlochleven on the above map) , south to the island of Arran and the Mull of Kintyre and westwards to Northern Ireland. The kings who lived at Dunadd were well-connected and had good contact with important individuals and peoples around Europe. The nearby sea, ships and sailors played a key role.

The gateway to the houses and workshops at Dunadd

When at its most popular, Dunadd Fort was surrounded by stone ramparts, possibly as many as four lines of fortifications.  Entry to the fort was via a natural cleft in the rock. There would have been wooden gates controlling access and inside the walls there were a number of houses and workshops.

Dunadd was an important trade centre, iron and gold being smelted on site. The ‘raw’ gold probably came from Ireland and the product was fashioned into impressive elaborate jewellery. The smelted iron was formed into weapons. Wine and herbs were brought in from southern Europe. Traces of rare minerals from the far east have been found which were used to make dyes for scribes to use in colouring ecclesiastical manuscripts- on nearby Iona and other monasteries.

The ‘citadel’ / king’s mead house was above here.

Climbing a little higher than the workshops level there was another set of ramparts below the summit where it’s thought an important stone ‘citadel’ was built on the flattened peak. This was the great hall, or mead house, of the king where important business was conducted and where feasting was likely in good times.

The inauguration stone of kings at Dunadd

Just below the summit on a natural outcrop lies the inauguration stone of the kings of Dal Riata. The footprint carved deep into the rock is an impressive sign of Scottish kingship. During the coronation ceremony, when the new king placed his foot into the imprint he was not only pledging to do his utmost for his people of Dal Riata but was also pledging to be the ‘keeper of the land’ itself.


Honestly! My right foot hovered, me thinking it was sacrilege to set my foot in that place but it was as though magnetic and amazingly, like Cinderella, my foot fit! 

Kings of Dal Riata from King Aedan mac Gabrain AD 574 – 608 ( probably the first Christian king) to Kenneth MacAlpin AD 834 – 859 were invested at Dunadd. Kenneth MacAlpin is credited with the honour and achievement of uniting the kingdoms of both the Scots and the Picts at time of great pressure from maurauding Vikings.

King Aedan mac Gabrain would have been a familiar figure to St. Columba and his monks on the island of Iona which isn’t so far away. (On the top map, Iona lies just to the west of the Isle of Mull)  By the time of Aedan’s accession, his inauguration ceremony would have been part pagan (his being married to the land) and part Christian (when he would have been blessed by the Abbot of Iona).

In Gaelic folklore it was the hero, Ossian, who leapt to Dunadd from Rhudle Hill one kilometre away. His foot gouged out the footprint, his knee on landing carved out the basin and his outstretched fingerprints possibly made the ogham script that is carved alongside on the stone. But that’s a full story for another day…

The ‘basin’ carving.

Dunadd lost its importance after the unification of the Scots and the Picts when the site of the kings moved to Scone, in Perthshire. The perfection of its strategic position was prized no longer which is sad since it truly has excellent 360 degree views from the summit.

The River Add twinkling into the distance

I’m extremely glad that I made the effort to spend the couple of hours at Dunadd and I didn’t have to rush too much to get changed into my glad rags for the wedding!

Nancy Jardine

Nancy Jardine writes:

Historical Romantic Adventures set in Roman Britain/Scotland

Contemporary Mystery Thrillers

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25 thoughts on “In the footstep of Kings

  1. Nancy, I love this history. The stories are so empowering and exciting. I’m glad you could make the side trip to such a ‘mythical and magic’ place in Scotland’s history. Doris


  2. What a lot of research you must have done and now you have it recorded. Such a mythical place. While I was reading it I thought of how “the only constant is change” however. Changing powers, meaningful sites of power etc. That is beautiufl country however and I loved reading the history of it. Thanks for sharing and glad you got to the wedding!


    1. I was very pleased to be invited to the wedding as well, Neva. And you’re correct about the ‘change’ aspects. Seats of power have shifted to new places in Scotland as the centuries moved on.


  3. Now that you’ve walked in Dal Riata, a place wrapped in the mists of history and myth, you have the setting and background info for a historical romance novel. In your place, I’d be unable to contain myself… I’d soon have a preliminary outline for such a book. Oh well….


    1. I just might, Mike, but if you’ve got the time there’s scope for you as well! A few authors have already written about Kings of Dal Riata, ones I’ve read years ago, though I’m not sure about any newish ones. I’ve got some notes…. 😉


  4. How wonderfully fun for you, Nancy! So glad that the trip worked out for some research and historical wanderings — and your glad rags were marvelous! Thanks for sharing such cool information!


    1. Thank you- about the glad rags. There’s still such a lot of ‘Scottish’ history that I’m very vague about so I love learning/or re-learning some of the early aspects.


  5. As always, your histories are fascinating. I’m hoping to take a trip to Ireland next summer. Perhaps I could pop over and say hello!


    1. You’d be very welcome, Joe! I’ve only been to Ireland once, so far, though it should be more than that since my paternal grandfather was from County Cavan.


  6. I love the footprint in the rock and pledges that the kings took to protect their land. With great power comes great responsibility. (Superman quote) It’s fascinating to see where we’ve come from.


    1. Not a story of those kings- not yet, Kate, but as I said to Mike above, mental notes are made, so who knows? I guess I can be called an opportunist because I fitted in that history jaunt. The wedding was of the daughter of my best friend at school so my husband and I weren’t involved in any pre-wedding meet-ups that morning.


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