The Dun Deardail project

The vitrified hillfort of Dun Deardail (Derdriu’s fort) sits high above Glen Nevis, overshadowed by Ben Nevis looming opposite. It was built in the middle of the first millennium BC, around 2500 years ago, and was eventually destroyed in a catastrophic fire. Recent archaeological excavation has investigated both the terraced interior and its imposing ramparts.

The Dun Deardail project is part of the ambitious Nevis Landscape Partnership and is funded by Forestry Commission Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund, in partnership with AOC Archaeology and the University of Stirling.

Archaeologists have investigated the possible entrance to the fort, the techniques of rampart construction (and its destruction) and have explored the nature of occupation within the hillfort by looking for evidence of houses, hearths and workshops.

dun deardail website

The results will inform ongoing conservation management in regard to visitor pressure, particularly access pinch points and visitor erosion on the ramparts and flanks of the hillfort.

The project also aims to help deliver Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy. Encouraging public engagement, providing volunteer training opportunities and opening up archaeological learning opportunities for local schools have all been central to the project. Hundreds of school children have visited the site; and the Dun Deardail Archaeology Festival and Open Day attracted many families and visitors.

Vitrification

The process of vitrification occurs when a timber-framed drystone rampart is destroyed by fire. With temperatures reaching over 1000° C, the heat from the blaze begins to melt the rubble core of the rampart. As the burning rampart collapses, the rocks first fracture and then become liquid. When the fire burns out and the rampart finally cools, the burnt and molten rocks form large blocks of conglomerated stone.

digging at dun deardail

The Sorrow of Derdriu

The wonderful thing about archaeology is that for all the forensic investigation and laboratory analysis, we still need to use our imagination to recreate the past. This task is made easier with archaeological reconstruction drawings and by using historical sources.

The Sorrow of Derdiu is a famous Celtic myth linking dramatic events in Iron Age Ulster to an unnamed Scottish hillfort. We have used the myth to explore the one thing we knew for sure about Dun Deardail (‘Derdriu’s fort’): that it was once destroyed by fire. We still do not know whether the fire was deliberate of accidental – but we do now have a much better idea of when the fort was built, with radiocarbon dates indicating construction around 500 BC.

The new creative narrative of ‘The Sorrow of Derdiu’ (illustrated by Alan Braby and retold by Matt Ritchie) can be read in this poster (PDF 3.75MB).