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Description of Region

The Iron Age

The Iron Age in South-West Scotland - the period when metalworking technology advanced to allow production of weapons and tools in iron - began around 700 B.C. and includes the brief periods when Scotland was incorporated into Roman Britain in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.. Archaeologists and historians give an arbitrary end date for the Iron Age at A.D. 400 - the abandonment of Britain by the Romans - but in reality, in Scotland there was little social and economic change between late Iron Age society and Early Historic society which followed from the 5th century.

Scotland- like the rest of North-West Europe before the Romans - was a Celtic warrior society with tribal territories in the Lowlands and Highlands. Language was the only common denominator between the Celtic peoples, who shared some aspects of their cultures but differed in others. Ptolemy's Geography, written around 140 A.D. gives the names of the tribes which occupied South-West Scotland. Much of present-day Dumfries and Galloway was occupied by people of the Novantae tribe. To the east in the Borders, but perhaps also in eastern Dumfriesshire, were the Selgovae people. In Ayrshire and north to the Clyde were the Damnonii or Dumnonii. It is believed that all spoke a common P-Celtic or Britonnic language, which is the root of the present-day Welsh, and also Manx, Cornish and Breton. There are a several surviving Britonnic place names in Galloway, such as 'Threave' and 'Terregles' both including the word 'tref', meaning a farmstead.

South-West Scotland was largely cleared of forest before the Iron Age, and the people lived in small settlements, and practised a mixed agricultural economy, growing a form of barley and raising cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. The high standard of metal goods found in Galloway indicates a wealthy society, which may have been based on the exploitation of its copper resources. There is possibly an early mining site at Tonderghie, near Whithorn, and mining tools and ingots have been found at Barhullion near Port William.

Most families lived in timber, wattle and stone round houses, varying in diameter from 6m - 15m., which might have provided accommodation for an extended family. Round houses might be clustered together and enclosed for example as at Rispain Camp in Wigtownshire. In South-West Scotland in particular, round houses were built on artificial platforms in lochs. These are called 'crannogs', and there are many examples known in Ayrshire and Galloway, for example at Lochlee near Tarbolton, or Dowalton in Wigtownshire. Dating evidence from excavated crannogs suggests that this form of settlement was current throughout the Iron Age period. Lochs and bogs appear to have been of religious or ritual significance during the Iron Age, for high value metal goods have been recovered from them, which appear to have been deposited as an ritual offering. This includes the Carlingwark hoard deposited in a cauldron in Carlingwark Loch near Castle Douglas around A.D. 100 which included a quantity of Roman military and Iron Age native metalwork. The Torrs pony cap, dating to around 200 BC, and found in a bog at Torrs, near Castle Douglas, is another example. Both finds are displayed in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Hill forts are more common in Dumfriesshire and Kirkcudbrightshire than in Wigtownshire. Once thought to be the strongholds of a tribal elite, they may be thought of as hill-top villages, containing numbers of round houses. Included in this group are small promontory forts found along the coastline of South-West Scotland. The fort at Burnswark, Dumfriesshire was one of the largest of these. In the west of Galloway are examples of stone built brochs (large towers) and duns (small, substantial stone walled houses or forts). These types of structure are more commonly found in the North and West of Scotland, and therefore indicate the spread of building customs down the west coast and into Galloway. This, and the distribution of certain artefacts, suggests an East-West cultural boundary between the Rivers Cree and Fleet.

The Iron Age warrior was armed with a long sword, a shield and a spear. Chariots were also used in warfare, or for ostentatious display. Two near-identical horse harness guides or terrets were found recently but separately in Crossmichael parish, just north of Castle Douglas. When these are considered with other high value Iron Age objects found nearby, for example the Carlingwark hoard, the Torrs pony cap and the mirror from Balmaclellan, it may be suggested that the area of the Dee valley around present day Castle Douglas was of particular social and economic importance. It was perhaps a tribal focus for the Novantae. This may have determined the Roman Army to site a major Roman fort at the river crossing of the Dee at Glenlochar, just north of Castle Douglas.