Dunnicaer, or Dun-na-caer, is a precipitous sea stack just off the coast of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, between Dunnottar Castle and Stonehaven. Despite the unusual difficulty of access, in 1832 Pictish symbol stones were found on the summit and 21st-century archaeology has discovered evidence of a Pictish hill fort which may have incorporated the stones in its structure. The stones may have been incised in the third or fourth centuries AD but this goes against the general archaeological view that the simplest and earliest (Class I) symbol stones date from the fifth or even seventh century AD.

Sea stack

Dunnicaer in Scotland, UK

Sited between Stonehaven and the similarly situated Dunnottar Castle, the sea stack is in Strathlethan Bay, with Downie Point to the north and just offshore from the cliffs at Bowdun Head to the south. It is cut off from the mainland at high tide and the flat, grassy summit is entirely surrounded by precipitous cliffs some 30–35 metres (100–115 ft) high.[1][2] The conglomerate rock is lower Old Red Sandstone.[3] At the time of the hill fort the location may have been a promontory and subsequent erosion of the cliffs has turned it into a stack with a summit plateau about 20 by 12 metres (66 ft × 39 ft), much smaller than it was in Pictish times.[4][5][6]

Hill fort

Aerial video
Drone photography of Dunnicaer during excavation[7]

During archaeological investigations on the summit in 1977 and 1982 nothing of significance was found.[8] In 2015 new excavations by an Aberdeen University team started to reveal the presence of a hill fort and excavations were continued in the following years.[9] There had been a stone rampart framed with timbers leading southwest to the mainland. From radiocarbon dating of the timber the fort has been dated to being used between the second and fourth centuries AD making it the earliest known Pictish fort in Scotland.[note 1] A hearth and the footings of internal rooms have been found. Glass, samian ware and black-burnished ware pottery and a lead weight have been excavated: all unusual for so far north of the frontier of the Roman empire.[10] Over the centuries some parts of the fort have collapsed away with the erosion of the surrounding cliffs, particularly to the east.[1][4][11]

The discoveries suggest that the fort was a substantial, high-status building, with stone and oak timbers brought in from a distance.[12][13] It was later abandoned, possibly when the inhabitants moved to Dunnottar,[note 2] and possibly because of problems with the erosion of the stack.[16][5]

Symbol stones

Lithographs of symbol stones (1856 & 1867)
Illustrator: P.A. Jastrzębski[note 3]
(1) 0.69 m x 0.46 m – double disc and Z-rod
(2) 0.68 m x 0.38 m – fish symbol with triangle and central dot[17][18]
Illlustrator: Andrew Gibb
(1) 0.46 m x 0.23 m – crescent with triangle

(2) 0.68 m x 0.38 m – double disc and Z-rod
(3) 0.38 m x 0.15 m – double disc

(4) 0.1 m cube – various incisions[19][18]

As early as 1819 a symbol stone had been prised from the stack to be used as a hearthstone but the inscriptions had excited little interest. In 1832 some youths had climbed up and found a wall on the summit plateau of the stack. They threw some of the stones down into the sea and when they were later recovered some of them proved to be Pictish symbol stones.[20]

In 1857 these symbol stones were documented by Alexander Thomson.[18][21][note 4] They were illustrated in John Stuart's 1856 and 1867 volumes of The Sculptured Stones of Scotland published by the Spalding Club.[18][17][19] A thorough description of the symbols was published in 1992.[24] One stone is now in the Marischal Museum and the others are at Banchory House.[18][note 5] The design and relatively small size of the stones is unusual and it shows them to be of an early date[26] – they were probably set into the wall of the rampart that has been dated as third to fourth century AD.[4][14] – this is a much earlier date than the conventional view that the simplest and earliest (Class I) stones are from the fifth or even seventh century AD.[27]


  1. In particular, it predates any archaeological finds at the site of Dunnottar Castle to the south.[5]
  2. Dunnottar is described in the Annals of Ulster as being under siege[14] in 681 and 694 AD, presumably derived from accounts recorded contemporaneously at Iona.[15]
  3. Jastrzębski acknowledged by Stuart as "Mr. Jastresbski" but the plate is signed "P.A. Jastrzębski". The lithographers were the Aberdeen firm of Keith and Gibb.
  4. Canmore dates this to 1860 but the Archaeology Data Service gives 1857.[18][22] Thomson called the site "Dinnacair"[23] but there is no reason to suppose this was because of a disappointing reaction from his colleagues in Glasgow.
  5. Banchory House became known as Banchory-Devenick House or Beannachar House. The cubic stone is missing; the 0.68 m x 0.38 m double disc and Z-rod stone is in the Marischal Museum; and the others are at Beannacher House.[25]



  1. Noble, Gordon. "The Northern Picts Project". www.abdn.ac.uk. University of Aberdeen. Archived from the original on 13 March 2017. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  2. Alcock & Alcock (1992), p. 280.
  3. Gillen, C.; Trewin, N.H. (1987). "23. Dunnottar to Stonehaven and the Highland Boundary Fault". In Trewin, N.H.; Kneller, B.C.; Gillen, C. (eds.). Excursion Guide to the Geology of the Aberdeen Area. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press. pp. 265–273. ISBN 0 7073 0496 2.
  4. Noble & Sveinbjarnarson (2015), p. 19.
  5. "Evidence stacks up that rocky outcrop was home to earliest Pictish fort". www.abdn.ac.uk. University of Aberdeen. 28 July 2015. Archived from the original on 16 September 2015. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  6. Noble, Goldberg & Hamilton (2018), pp. 1334–1335.
  7. Howell, John (16 December 2015). Drone images of Dunnicaer. Noble, Gordon. Aberdeen University. Archived from the original on 11 January 2019. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  8. Alcock & Alcock (1992), p. 281.
  9. Stalker, Fiona (16 April 2015). "'Significant' Pictish fort discovery". BBC News. Archived from the original on 13 January 2017. Retrieved 11 January 2019.
    Stalker, Fiona (16 April 2015). "'Significant' Pictish fort found off Aberdeenshire coast". BBC News. Archived from the original on 13 January 2017. Retrieved 11 January 2019.
    Stalker, Fiona (28 July 2015). "Pictish fort 'is Scotland's oldest'". BBC News. Archived from the original on 15 April 2019. Retrieved 11 January 2019.
    "Second excavation at sea stack fort". BBC News. 15 April 2016. Archived from the original on 15 May 2016. Retrieved 11 January 2019.
  10. Noble, Goldberg & Hamilton (2018), p. 1335.
  11. Noble, Goldberg & Hamilton (2018), p. 1339.
  12. "Archaeologists unearth 'oldest Pictish fort in Scotland' on Aberdeenshire sea stack". HeraldScotland. 28 July 2015. Archived from the original on 10 January 2016. Retrieved 11 January 2019.
  13. Campsie, Alison (27 October 2018). "Pictish Stones paint a different picture as experts say they date back to third century". The Scotsman. Archived from the original on 11 January 2019. Retrieved 11 January 2019.
  14. Noble, Goldberg & Hamilton (2018), p. 1334.
  15. Alcock & Alcock (1992), p. 267.
  16. Keate, Georgie (29 July 2015). "'Extreme' archaeologists discover Scotland's oldest Pictish fort". The Times. Archived from the original on 12 January 2019. Retrieved 11 January 2019.
  17. Stuart (1856), pp. 14 & Plate XLI.
  18. Historic Environment Scotland. "Dunnicaer (37001)". Canmore. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  19. Stuart (1867), pp. 9 & Plate XV.
  20. Thomson (1857), p. 70.
  21. Thomson (1857).
  22. "Thomson, A., (1857). Notice of Sculptured Stones found at 'Dinnacair', near Stonehaven". ADS Library. Acchaeology Data Service. Archived from the original on 15 January 2019. Retrieved 14 January 2019.
  23. Thomson (1857), p. 69.
  24. Alcock & Alcock (1992), pp. 278–280.
  25. "Golux" (12 May 2010). "Dunnicaer symbol stones". Flickr.com. Archived from the original on 11 January 2019. Retrieved 11 January 2019.
  26. Henderson & Henderson (2011), p. 171.
  27. Noble, Goldberg & Hamilton (2018), pp. 1341–1342.

Works cited

Further reading

  • Chalmers, Patrick (1848). The Ancient sculptured monuments of the County of Angus. illustrated by P.A. Jastrzebski. Edinburgh: Patrick Chalmers. – the illustrator also drew some of the images in Stuart's first volume of Sculptured Stones Of Scotland

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