Burghead Pictish Fort

Burghead, United Kingdom

The present town of Burghead was built between 1805 and 1809, destroying in the process more than half of the site of an important Pictish hill fort. General Roy’s map shows the defences as they existed in the 18th century although he wrongly attributed them to the Romans. The fort was probably a major Pictish centre and was where carved slabs depicting bulls were found; they are known as the 'Burghead Bulls'. A chambered well of some considerable antiquity was discovered in 1809 and walls and a roof were later added to help preserve it. Each year on 11 January a fire festival known as the Burning of the Clavie takes place; it is thought that the festival dates back to the 17th century, although it could easily predate this by several centuries. Burghead is often known by locals as The Broch, a nickname also applied to Fraserburgh in nearby Aberdeenshire.

A recent dig just beyond the boundary of Burghead at Clarkly Hill has uncovered Iron Age circular stone houses and Pictish building foundations, as well as silver and bronze Roman coins and a gold finger ring possibly from the Baltic region. Significant evidence of large scale Iron smelting has also been found, providing evidence that iron was probably being traded from this site. The National Museum of Scotland has carried out significant exploration which leads it to believe this is a significant site of interest.

The Burghead Well, which lies within the perimeter of the promontory fort, was discovered in 1809. It consists of a flight of stone steps leading down to a chamber containing a tank fed by springs. There is a frieze in the upper walls, a pedestal in the southeast corner and a sunken basin in the northwest corner. The discovery was made during excavations for a possible municipal water supply after an elderly fisherman recalled a tradition of a well in the vicinity. Various additions such as re-cutting the steps and deepening the tank were undertaken, but the flow of water proved to be insufficient for the proposed new function. At the time of discovery it was assumed that both the fort and well were of Roman antiquity and it was described as a 'Roman bath'. Later in the 19th century it was suggested that it was an early Christian baptistery possibly associated with the cult of St Aethan, but its origins remain obscure to this day. It is almost certainly of Dark Age provenance and clearly had some ceremonial significance. It is possible that its main purpose was as a water supply for the fort and may suggest a Pictish interest in water spirits.

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