Glebe, Desertegney, Inishowen, Co. Donegal

Cup-and-Ring Stone:  OS Grid-Reference – C 30754 37541

Archaeology & History

Incredible setting -incredible carving

This is an incredible find—dare I say a beautiful find—uncovered beneath the soil a few years ago on farmland close to the shore of Loch Swilly by one of the farm-workers.  We were lucky inasmuch as when it was found he noticed curious markings on it.  Informing the farmer, between them they peeled back the rest of the soil and found the incredible carving that we see here in Bettina Linke’s photos.

Etched onto a sloping stone overlooking the blue panorama that is Loch Swilly, this petroglyph has a 180º view of the landscape, from the southeast through to the northwest.  This panorama—unimpaired by trees thanks to its proximity to the sea loch—was probably an important ingredient in the mythic function of the carving and is something we’ll return to shortly…

Local rock art specialist, Liam McLaughlin was informed of the discovery and, along with Bettina Linke, they met up with the farmer who showed them the carving.  I have little doubt that they were very impressed by what lay before their eyes!  They told that the rock,

“is aligned east-west with the visible motifs, apart from a few cup marks, situated at the western end of the outcrop. Interestingly, the northern half/leaf is little worn and individual peck marks, made millennia ago, are clearly visible, suggesting it may have been covered for most of the time. The southern half is clearly worn and smoothed out and therefor appears to have been exposed for a considerable amount of time.”

Archetypal cup-and-rings
Ancient solar motif?

One of the most impressive elements in the overall design is the solar motif, i.e., a series of concentric rings (in this case three) with a number of ‘spokes’ reaching outwards as if to indicate the rays of the sun itself.  This is shown clearly in one of Bettina’s photos here.  This symbol is found on other neolithic carvings in Ireland: not least the incredible designs in the Newgrange complex where the solar alignment is unmistakable.

The discovery of the carving was reported to the Irish National Monument Service and added to the Heritage Environment Inventory where a detailed report was subsequently written, much of which is extracted here:

“The rock art panel is on an outcrop of bedrock, aligned east to west and slightly sloping in this direction towards Lough Swilly and Knockalla Mountains, also known as the Devil’s Backbone. It lies in an arable field near a field wall in rough ground.  Visibility is good to the SE, S, W, and NW across Lough Foyle and the Fanad peninsula.”

On the northern section of the stone,

“There are three large motifs and well preserved with cup and pecking marks between them.  There are traces of a fourth large motif on the east end but the rock surface has been eroded or damaged, making it impossible to ascertain the design of the motif.

“Starting from west to east, the top large motif has three rings and a diameter of 43cm.  The centre cup mark is shallow and has a diameter of 5cm.  There is second shallow cup mark between the 2nd and 3rd ring in the southern part of the motif. Its diameter is 3cm.  One tail, is running from the inner ring outwards to the west and a second one is running towards the north.  Peck marks, covering the motif, are still visible, particular in the rings.

“The motif below has four rings and a diameter of 39cm.  The centre cup mark is very shallow and has a diameter of 4cm.  And like in the above motif it has a tail running northwards.  But a special mentioning has to be made of the unusual heart shape of its rings with the indentation to the south.  Peck marks are still visible in the rings.  As far as could be made out, there are five cup marks between those two motifs with diameters between 3cm – 5cm.  This part also contains several single peck marks of about 1cm in diameter.

“The next large motif below has a diameter of 37cm, three rings and a centre cup with a diameter of 3cm. A tail appears to divide the motif into an eastern and western half. Another tail seems to run from the centre cup through the inner and middle ring towards east.

“Large peck marks of 1cm diameter cover the entire motif, which can be particular well seen in the embossed space between the middle and outer ring.  There are more, large peck marks above the motif to the west as well as four possible shallow and small cup marks.  Although the two closed to the motif, in what appears to be a twin configuration, could be two independent but slightly damaged peck marks.

“All of the three motifs on the northern wing leave the distinct impression that they may have been sun wheels with some spokes no longer visible or not visible during our visits.

“The southern wing:

“Like the northern ring the large motifs are placed in the western end of the wing with only a few cup marks on its eastern tip.  The edges of the carvings are rounder and more worn, although some rings and cup marks are distinctively deeper. The latter might suggest that these motifs were carved at a different time and by different hands. It also appears that this wing was longer exposed than the northern one.

“The motifs are as followed from west to east: two deep cup marks on the northern side. Diameter for the upper one 5cm in diameter, for the lower one 4cm. There could be a shallow third one below and a damaged one to the south.

“Next in the centre of the wing is a large, three ringed motif with a diameter of 40cm and a centre cup mark, 3.5cm in diameter. Some of the photos show possible if faint tails or spokes, suggesting that this also could be a sun wheel motif.  No visible peck marks.  Below is a small double ring motif with a diameter of 17cm and a centre cup mark with a diameter of 2cm. Just below and to the south-east is a cup mark, circa 3 cm in diameter. Beside it to the east another cup mark about 5cm in diameter. There are one or two, maybe three circa 2.5cm cup marks in the white lichen area to the north-east of the small ringed motif. And some faint peck marks appear between the large 3 ring motif above and the small ringed motif close to the natural split of the bedrock.  The next motif below is a deep double ring motif with a diameter of 26cm and a centre cup mark of 5cm. No tails or spokes could be detected. The white lichen area with up to three possible single cup marks is just beside it, close to the natural dividing crack.

“In the middle of the southern wing are faint traces which suggest that there could have been another motif, now destroyed, of an estimated diameter of 28cm.

“The eastern tip has one large cup mark of 10cm and 3 small cup marks between 2.5cm and 3cm.  There might be a fifth but damaged cup mark.”

Somerville’s astronomical lines
The setting sun: a mythic function?

The fact that the stone itself is aligned east-west and pointing towards the outline of the Knockalla Mountains, suggesting “a solar/sunset alignment at the equinoxes” may well be true, but whether this was intended or not is another matter.

Intriguingly, one of the archaeo-astronony pioneers, Boyle Somerville (1909) wrote a article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland about a number of summer solstice alignments he thought existed in this precise locale.  Amongst them was one he found running from the standing stone at Cloghbane on the other side of Loch Swilly—known as the White or Rowan Stone—heading northeast to the small mountainous peak of Bulbin, approximately 7.1 mile away.  Somerville found that,

“The outline of the mountains visible to the northward from Cloghbane shows two sight-lines that undoubtedly were used from this position.  One is for the summer solstitial sunrise over the prominent peak Bulbin; the other is over a low and small but conspicuous round-topped headland, towards the mouth of the Lough, which is in line with an exactly similar hill behind it; their two summits being practically coincident, forming a single sky-line; so that, from Cloghbane, their angle of elevation by theodolite is the same.”

The primary motifs

The first alignment is the relevant one here: it not only relates to the rising sun at solstice in 1000 BC, but our Glebe petroglyph lies right on the edge this alignment! (give or take a few yards)  Whether or not this is a coincidence we cannot say for certain, but the ‘solar motif’ in the design would seem a strong indicator that implies some sort of solar function here.

As always with cup-and-rings, their non-linear designs tickle our minds with possibilities, probabilities and that there thing called the mysterious, which Einstein described as “the source of all true art and science…”

One final and important thing to anyone who may want to visit this site: please contact the farmer and ask his permission if you want to see it.  Cheers. 😉


  1. Lacy, Brian, “The Irish Archaeological Studies of Boyle Somerville, 1909-1936,” in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, volume 138, 2008.
  2. Lacy, Brian, et al, Archaeological Survey of County Donegal, Donegal County Council 1983.
  3. Somerville, H. Boyle, “Ancient Stone Monuments near Loch Swilly, County Donegal,” in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, volume 39, 1909.

Acknowledgements:  Massive, huge huge thanks to Bettina ‘Grianan Swilly’ Linke for the superb photos and data for this site profile.  And (although he doesn’t know it yet!) thanks are also due to the farmer and his employee who rediscovered the carving and to Liam McLaughlin who put pen to paper and told the rest of us about it.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

St. Columba’s Well, Derry, Co. Derry

Holy Well (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – C 43117 16615

Archaeology & History

Long since gone, there are very few references to this once sacred site, which seemed to comprise of three sacred wells next to each other, each with its own formal dedication.  This would have made it one fuck of an important place in early- and pre-christian times.  But even when Thomas Colby (1837) and his mates surveyed the area, it seems like it was on its last legs.  He told that:

Site on Colby’s 1837 map

“As connected with the ancient history of Derry the sacred springs, called St. Columb’s Wells, claim some notice in this place.  They are, or rather were, three in number — for one has been dried up, or diverted from its original locality — and are situated near the Roman Catholic chapel, outside the wall.  It appears from the Irish annals that each of these wells had its peculiar name, one being called Tobar Adamnam, another Tobar Martain, and the third Tobar Colum — but the two former names are now quite forgotten, and the springs are popularly called St. Columb’s Wells.  They are regarded with much superstitious veneration by the Roman Catholic peasantry, but no celebration of St. Columb’s festival is now held at them.”

The wells were found very close to St. Columba’s bullaun stone, which possessed its own healing abilities.  The two sites had symbiotic ceremonial relationships with each other, doubtless performed in bygone centuries on St. Columba’s old festival date of June 9.


  1. Colby, Thomas, Ordnance Survey of the County of Londonderry, HMG: Dublin 1837.
  2. Doherty, William, Derry Columbkille, Brown & Nolan: Dublin 1899.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

St. Columba’s Stone, Shantallow, Derry, Co. Derry

Petroglyph:  OS Grid Reference – C 4386 1934

Also Known as:

  1. Chieftain’s Installation Stone
  2. Inauguration Stone
  3. St Columb’s Footprints
  4. St Columb’s Stone

Archaeology & History

St Columb’s feet carving

To be found in the grounds of Belmont House School, just 1¾ miles (2.8km) north of Derry’s other Columba’s Stone, this is one of the many petroglyphic “footprints” that folklore ascribes to Ireland’s saint Columb/Columba/Columbkille (and other variants).  Said to have originally been carved at the great fortress of Grianan of Aileach, 4½ miles (7.2km) to the west, this great block of stone—roughly 6 feet square on top—has the distinct sculpturings of two feet, each about 10 inches long, etched into its sloping surface.  Archaeologically speaking, there’s little more to say about the stone; but its traditions are another thing altogether and are of considerably greater importance…


Like the carved footprint on top of Dunadd in Argyll with its association of tribal initiations, the traditions relating to this footprint follows the same path, so to speak.  It was H.P. Swan (1938) who gave us a good summary of the olde lore here, telling that,

“It is almost absolutely certain that it was brought from the Grianan of Aileach after its destruction, probably by an O’Doherty for his own installation.  If so, the task of removal was no joke, for the stone weighs some seven tons.  It was the “crowning stone” of the Kinel-Owen, or, in other words, the stone upon which the chieftains of the great O’Neill clan were inaugurated.  They reigned in Aileach for many centuries.

“At his installation, as supreme head of the clan, the newly-chosen chief was placed upon this stone, his bare feet in the footmarks; a peeled willow wand was put into his hand, as an emblem of the pure and gentle sway he should exercise over his tribe; an oath was administered to him by the chief ecclesiastic in the neighbourhood, that he should preserve inviolable the ancient custom of his country, and deliver the succession peaceably to his tanist (successor); after which, descending from the stone, he turned himself thrice backwards and thrice forwards, to signify that he was ready to meet all foes, from whatever quarter they might come; and was then, with wild acclamations, hailed as their chief by his assembled clan.

“At the time of Ireland’s conversion to christianity by St Patrick, that holy man visited the Grianan (about AD 443), where this stone had been so used for centuries before; Owen was then King; he was converted from Paganism to the new faith and baptised by Patrick; at the same time, the saint consecrated this stone, and blessed it as the crowning-stone of the Kinel-Owen for ever.  Time, however, has proved his blessing futile, as may be read in the account of the Grianan, which was deserted by the Kinel-Owen after its destruction by the O’Briens in 1101.”

The ritual described here cannot be taken lightly, nor seen as a presentation of fiction, for its ingredients are found echoed in kingship rites in many cultures.


  1. Swan, Harry Percival, The Book of Inishowen, William Doherty: Buncrana 1938.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

St Columbkille’s Footprints, Drumcavany, Co. Donegal

Bullaun Stone:  Grid Reference – C 093 154

Also Known as:

  1. St. Columb’s Stone
Photo thanks to Catherine of We Love Donegal

Archaeology & History

St Columbkille’s place in Irish history was considerable and, said Maghtochair (1867), he was said to have “founded more than one hundred churches and religious houses.”  His feet, also, have been carved or burned into a number of rocks scattering the Irish landscape.  Not to be confused with his ‘feet’ that are carved near Londonderry, the ones here have been classed in the archaeological inventories as a bullaun and, wrote Brian Lacy (1983) in the Donegal Archaeological Survey, can be found on,

“A 2m long ledge of rock outcrop containing two depressions, c.0.33m in diameter x ).1m deep.  They are known locally as St. Columbkille’s footprints.”

As can be seen in the above photo, the ‘footprints’ seem to have been artificially outlined at some time long ago, to make them more notable.


  1. Lacy, Brian, Archaeological Survey of County Donegal, Donegal County Council 1983. p.307
  2. Maghtochair, Inishowen – Its History, Traditions and Antiquity, Journal Office: Londonderry 1867.
  3. Sconce, James, “Cup-Marked Stones,” in Transactions of the Edinburgh Field Naturalists, volume 5, 1907.
  4. Swan, Harry Percival, The Book of Inishowen, William Doherty: Buncrana 1938.

AcknowledgementsBig thanks to Catherine, of the We Love Donegal website.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

Bride’s Well, Ballintemple, Wicklow

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – T 17340 77380

Archaeology & History

The earliest OS-map of this area shows this well a hundred yards or so northwest of an old church and just a few yards east of the stream that is now in woodland; but unlike today, when the early survey was done there were no trees, enabling a clear view of the waters.  When Myles Ronan (1927) wrote of the place, he told that it was still visible.  The site was added to the Grogan & Kilfeather (1997) county inventory where they suggested it’s probable relationship with the legendary St Brigid.  This seems highly probable.  Does anyone know if the Well is still there?


  1. Grogan, Eion & Kilfeather, Annaba, Archaeological Inventory of County Wicklow, Stationery Office: Dublin 1997.
  2. Ronan, Myles V., “The Ancient Churches of the Deanery of Arklow”, in Journal Royal Society Antiquaries, Ireland, December 1927.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Pipers Stones, Blessington, County Wicklow

Stone Circle (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – N 96998 14582

Archaeology & History

This stone circle was found close to the roadside and is remembered today only by the street-name of ‘Pipers Stones’.  Shown on the first OS-map of the area, the site was destroyed sometime before 1838.


In a folklore motif found at a number of megalithic rings, Grogan & Kilfeather (1997) tell us that the name of this circle,

“refers to a tradition that people caught dancing on a Sunday were turned to stone.”


  1. Grogan, Eion & Kilfeather, Annaba, Archaeological Inventory of County Wicklow, Stationery Office: Dublin 1997.
  2. o’ Flanagan, Michael, Letters Containing Information Relative to the Antiquities of the County of Wicklow, Bray 1928.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

St. Patrick’s Well, Ballinvalley Upper, County Wicklow

Holy Well (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – T 2481 8173 

Archaeology & History

Highlighted on the 1838 OS-map, Grogan and Kilfeather (1997) report that there are  “no visible remains” to be seen of this holy well.  The cult of St Patrick is still celebrated in Ireland every year on 17 March.


  1. Grogan, Eion & Kilfeather, Annaba, Archaeological Inventory of County Wicklow, Stationery Office: Dublin 1997.
  2. Lynch, Geraldine, “The Holy Wells of County Wicklow,” in Wicklow History and Society (edited by K. Hannigan & W. Noland), Dublin 1994.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

Stone of Mannan, Clackmannan, Clackmannanshire

Legendary Stone:  OD Grid Reference – NS 91114 91891

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 48321
  2. Clackmannan Stone
  3. King Robert’s Stone

Getting Here

The Stone of Mannan

The Stone of Mannan

Take the A907 road between Alloa and Kincardine, and up the B910 into Clackmannan.  To get into the village, depending on which route you’re coming in, go up the Kirk Wynd or the Cattle Market—both of which lead you to the Main Street where, beneath the old clock tower, you’ll see the Market Cross and its companion erection just to the side. You can’t really miss it!

Archaeology & History

The phallic upright!

The phallic upright!

The history of this curious-looking giant phallic stone, sat quietly on the Main Street of sleepy Clackmannan village, isn’t as heathen as you’d expect when first seeing the huge upright—but there are mysteries and myths gathered about it.  The county of Clackmannan itself takes its name from this stone—but not the entire stone that we see today; merely the rounded, smaller element on top.  For it’s this that’s the real Mannan Stone. The rest of it, the tall upright pillar, was only attached to the smaller rounded stone—the Stone of Mannan— in the first-half of the 19th century.

First mentioned as a place-name in 12th century writings, the story of the stone was best told by Peter Miller (1889), who wrote:

“The old ‘clack’ or stone that forms the prefix to the name-word Clackmananmust be of considerable antiquity.  Its form and appearance have nothing to excite remark. The two larger portions of the stone are battened together with iron, and the portion forming the cleft appears to be detached from the larger one.  It is only the legend or tradition respecting its history and its association with the name-word Clackmanan that makes it interesting to the antiquary. Its dimensions are as follows: —It is over 3 feet in length, 2 in breadth, and about the same in thickness.  Its form is oval, and it has a deep cleft on its upper side.  The stone has nothing peculiar about it to indicate what it may have been originally, or the uses it was made to serve in early times.  There is no appearance of its ever having had an inscription or any ornamentation upon it.  It is simply a boulder-stone stone of whinstone, such as are found in abundance at the Abbey Craig near Cambuskenneth.  It was placed on the tall boulder slab on which it now stands, brought from the Abbey Craig in the year 1833 by the late Robert Bruce of Kennet, and the late Professor Fleming, who was then minister of the parish.  Previous to that time it lay on the ground alongside of the old jail and court-house of Clackmannan, close by the old cross of the town…”

Clackmannan Stone (after Miller)

Clackmannan Stone (after Miller)

The old stone & its upright

The old stone & its upright

Mr Miller then went on at some length to show the derivation of ‘Clackmannan’ to be from the old Irish, meaning “the stone of the monks.”  It seems a plausible theory too.  Despite this, Watson (1926) deemed it to be the ‘Stone of Manau’, being deemed vaguely as the people of the land north of the Forth.  The great Celtic scholar John Rhys (1888) declared Clackmannan to derive from the Irish deity or hero-figure, Manannan, as have other academic authorities since then.  But it’s all just a bit vague if we’re wanting ‘certainty’…

When T.C. Crouther (1936) wrote about this, he said how the Stone of Mannan had originally come from a position only a few hundred yards south of its present spot, at a place known as Lookabootye Brae  (NS 912 911), just above where the land begins to drop down closer to sea level.  This doesn’t seems too improbable.  Close to this spot could once be seen the sacred site of the Lady Well.

At the turn of the 21st century the stone was caged by the local council as it was beginning to crumble and was in danger of collapse; and so, the local council repaired the great upright and its sacred top-stone—albeit at the staggering cost of £160,000!!!  As the local people and other masons know to this day, the job could have been done for a fraction of that cost with equal efficiency.


Said by T.C. Crouther (1936), the local council, and others to have got its name from the sea god Mannan, other legends have grown around this fascinating old rock.  When Edwin Adams (1863) wrote about it, these were the tales that local people gave him:

“Its legendary history is curious. When King Robert Bruce was residing in Clackmannan tower, and before there was a town attached to that regal mansion, he happened, in passing one day near this way on a journey, to stop awhile at the stone and, on going away, left his glove upon it.  Not discovering his loss till he had proceeded about half-a-mile towards the south, he desired his servant to go back to the clack (for King Robert seems to have usually spoken his native Carrick Gaelic), and bring his mannan, or glove. The servant said, ‘If ye’ll just look about ye here, I’ll be back wi’t directly,’ and accordingly soon returned with the missing article.

£From this trivial circumstance arose the name of the town which was subsequently reared about the stone, as also that of a farm at which the King stopped, about half-a-mile from the south, on the way to Kincardine, which took its name from what the servant said, namely, ‘Look about ye,’ and is so called to this day.”

But as the various dates in this tale simply don’t add up, it seems that the writer had been easily fooled.


  1. Adams, Edwin, Geography Classified, Chapman Hall: London 1863.
  2. Drummond, James, Scottish Market-Crosses, Neill & Co.: Edinburgh 1861.
  3. Drummond, James,”Notice of Some Stone Crosses, with Especial Reference to the Market Crosses of Scotland,” in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 4, 1862.
  4. Gordon, T Crouther, The History of Clackmannan, Civic Press: Glasgow 1936.
  5. Miller, Peter, “Notices of the Standing Stones of Alloa and Clackmannan,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 23, 1889.
  6. Rhys, John, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, Williams & Norgate London 1888.
  7. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the Counties of Fife, Kinross and Clackmannan, HMSO: Edinburgh 1933.
  8. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, The Archaeological Sites and Monuments of Clackmannan District and Falkirk District, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 1978.
  9. Simpkins, John Ewart, County Folklore – volume VII: Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Fife, with some Notes on Clackmannan and Kinross-Shires, Folk-Lore Society: London 1914.
  10. Small, John W., Scottish Market Crosses, Eneas Mackay: Stirling 1900.
  11. Watson, W.J., The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland, Edinburgh 1926.


  1. Nataraja’s Foot – Skullduggery

Acknowledgements:  Big thanks to author Marion Grace Woolley for use of her photo in this site profile. 🙂

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

St. Patrick’s Well, Portpatrick, Wigtownshire

Holy Well (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NX 0010 5412

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 60610

Archaeology & History

St Patricks Well on 1849 map

This long-lost  holy well was located on the southeast side of the town.  It was highlighted on the first OS-map in 1849, but its waters were disrupted shortly after this. Daniel Conway (1882) told that,

“It flowed where there was a quarry used for the harbour works. The writer of this notice heard from two men, John Mulholland and Owen Graham, dwelling at Portpatrick in 1860, that they had seen on the rock beside the well what tradition said was the impression of the knees and left hand of St. Patrick.”

When the holy wells writer E.M.H. M’Kerlie (1916) came to visit this site, it was “no longer to be seen.”  He wrote:

“The water which issued from a rock on the south side of the village is now diverted by means of pipes into another course.”


  1. Agnew, Andrew, The Agnews of Lochnaw: The History of the Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway, A. & C. Black: Edinburgh 1864.
  2. Agnew, Andrew, The Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway – volume 1, David Douglas: Edinburgh 1893.
  3. Conway, Daniel, “Holy wells in Wigtonshire,” in Archaeological & Historical Collections Relating to Ayr & Wigton, volume 3, 1882.
  4. Harper, Malcolm MacLachan, Rambles in Galloway, Edmonston & Douglas: Edinburgh 1876.
  5. M’Kerlie, E.M.H., Pilgrim Spots in Galloway, Sands: Edinburgh 1916.
  6. MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
  7. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
  8. Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in Galloway – County of Wigtown, HMSO: Edinburgh 1912.
  9. Walker, J. Russel, “‘Holy Wells’ in Scotland,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol.17 (New Series, volume 5), 1883.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian 

Rathgall Hillfort, Coolkenna, County Wicklow

Hillfort:  OS Grid Reference – S 9020 7315

Archaeology & History

Early aerial photo of Rathgall hillfort

A prehistoric ‘fort’ with a long history behind it, with recent excavations finding burial and settlement remains from the Bronze- and Iron Ages.  The following article about this impressive archaeological site was written by Barry Raftery’s in an early edition of Antiquity journal (1970), following excavation work here.  He wrote:

“Rathgall is a large and imposing hillfort situated on the end of a long ridge some 6km east of Tullow, Co. Carlow.  It is sited impressively and commands a fine view on all sides.  The defences of the fort comprise four roughly circular, concentric ramparts.  The three outer banks, though largely overgrown, appear to be of earth faced with stone; the inner one is built entirely of granite boulders, many of considerable size.  The fort covers some 18 acres (c. 7 hectares); its overall diameter is about 310m. (Orpen 1911; 1913)

“Excavation in 1969 was confined, with the exception of one short trench, to the inner enclosure.  This is surrounded by the granite wall, dry-built and of poor quality.  It is made up of a series of straight lengths so that, though superficially the enclosure appears to be circular, it is in fact polygonal.  The entrance is a simple break on the western side.  The wall varies in thickness from 7m in the southeast, to 1.5m in the north, though the reason is not immediately clear.  In height the wall varies from 2m to 2.5m.  The minimum internal dimensions of the enclosure are 44m and 46m.

“About one-quarter of the enclosure was excavated in the northeastern quadrant.  A trench 2m wide and 20m long outside the wall and running into the interior was begun and this demonstrated the existence of occupation outside the wall.

“The first season’s excavation suggests the presence of at least three main phases of occupation on the site — Late Bronze Age, early Iron Age and Medieval.  The relatively thin soil covering on the site does not as yet allow the periods to be clearly defined stratigraphically.

“About 1500 objects came to light, over 1000 of them being pot-sherds.  The great majority belong to the Early Iron Age phase of occupation, apparently the period of densest settlement on the site.  As well as the remains of circular and rectangular structures, the excavation also revealed a number of very large hearths and a bank-and-ditch enclosure hitherto quite unsuspected.

“This latter feature partly underlay the granite wall.  The ditch had been filled in and the bank denuded before the construction of the wall.  The latter averaged about 50cm high and lay outside the ditch, which was dug carefully to a V-shaped section.  In width it varied from 1.5 to 3.5m at its edge and in depth from 75cm to 1.1m

“Bank and ditch enclosed an area about 35m in diameter.  So far no entrance to this enclosure has been distinguished, though there appears to be a gap in the south-east which may be an original opening.  It is noticeable that the bank runs, without a break, straight across the entrance to the stone enclosure, further emphasizing the lack of structural connection between the two features.

“The relationship of either of these enclosures to the outer lines of defence is not clear and so elucidation of this problem must await further excavation.  It seems, however, that the granite wall is a late feature and is probably of medieval date.  The massive outer ramparts, on the other hand, are more likely to belong to the Early Iron Age occupation of Rathgall.

“Over the whole area so far excavated indications of rectangular houses were frequent.  The walls of these houses were formed of timber posts, generally of no great size; they were set usually singly but sometimes in paris, in bedding trenches 30 to 40cm wide.  The upright posts presumably formed the framework of wattle-and-daub constructions.  There appears to have been extensive rebuilding, so that the plans are greatly confused and not always easy to interpret.  The houses were quite large: one of them was as much as 7.5m in length.

“These houses belong to the latest phase of occupation on the site and appear to be contemporary with the construction of the granite wall.  They were built on top of the fill of the ditch and were confined by the wall: there is no indication anywhere of house foundations running underneath the wall.  Green-glazed sherd from the fill of the bedding trenches suggests a 13th-century date for these houses and a late 13th-century silver coin points in the same direction.

“A circular bedding trench, apparently concentric with the large V-shaped ditch, was found in the centre of the stone-walled enclosure.  One-quarter of the bedding trench was exposed in the 1969 excavations.  In section it is roughly U-shaped and is 25cm wide and 30-35cm deep.  It encloses a space about 18m in diameter.  Its outer edge is for the most part lined with packing stones of medium size.  One metre inside this bedding trench and running concentrically with it for about one-third of the excavated arc there is a second bedding trench of similar type.  Whether these bedding trenches represent the remains of a large timber house of whether they were for a timber stockade is uncertain; further excavation may provide the answer to this problem.  As regards relative dating, however, it is clear that the circular structure, whatever it was, was earlier than the rectangular houses, for the bedding trenches of the latter lay above the trench for the former.  As well, some sherds of coarse ware of a date appreciably earlier than medieval times were found in the fill of the circular trenches.

“In turn, a huge oval hearth was found beneath the circular structure.  The hearth consisted of a steep-sided, flat-bottomed pit, 3.1m long and 1.5m wide, dug into the yellow subsoil.  A large quantity of black, burnt material came from the hearth and there appeared to be three main phases of use, each separated from the other by a layer of rough cobbling.  The hearth also produced sherds of coarse pottery, including two decorated fragments.  The decoration takes the form of one sherd of a row of finger-nail impressions and on the other a row of simple nicks in the edge of the rim.

“Large hearths of this type are, indeed, a feature of the site as a whole.  Five in all have so far come to light: one, especially elaborate, consisted of a large rectangular pit, 2.85m by 1.2m, dug 40cm into the subsoil.  At each corner there was a circular pit; two of these pits look like post-holes, the other two appear to be much too large to have served such a purpose.  All the hearths have produced coarse pottery and can thus be placed in their relative chronological position, though as yet none appears to be related specifically to any single structure on the site.  It may be that these were open-air hearths, covered by some sort of canopy.

“In addition to the hearths, the rectangular houses, the circular structure and the ditch and bank, a large number of post-holes were found.  Some of these were large, some small, but in no case could any positive pattern be established.

“The importance of the structural remains on the site is equalled by the significance of the material recovered.  The finds from the medieval period have already been referred to and the rectangular houses with which they were associated.  Before this there appears to have been a lengthy period when the site was not occupied.  The occupation before the beginning of this break appears to have been intensive.  It is characterized by large quantities of very coarse pottery.  This distinctive ware may be termed Freestone Hill Ware after the importance of the hillfort site of that name in County Kilkenny where the pottery was first isolated.  At this site it was associated with Roman bronzes of the 4th century AD and with a coin of Constantine II (Raftery, 1969).

“The sherds represent coarse, flat-bottomed, bucket-shaped pots, usually of a reddish, crumbly ware with very large grits.  Distinctive rims are characteristic: they are rounded, flat, T-shaped or internally bevelled.  At Freestone Hill a striking feature was the presence on many of the rim sherds of a row of small perforations; similar perforated rims are included in the Rathgall material.  In addition to the pottery, blue glass beads, bones, spindle whorls, portions of a lignite bracelet and many other objects of normal domestic refuse came to light.  A complete saddle quern was also found.  The most interesting of the Early Iron Age finds, however, was a small tinned strap-mount, beautifully decorated with a combination of openwork and incised curvilinear ornament of sub-La Tene type.  The art on this object has much in common with that on a bronze mount found at Freestone Hill and both appear to have a vital bearing on the transition from the true La Tene art of pre-christian times to the great flowering of art in Early Historic Ireland.

“Both at Freestone Hill and at Rathgall these decorated bronzes were associated with coarse pottery of identical type.  The pottery at the former site was dated to the mid-4th century and there, at least, the date is hardly in doubt.  It is possible to suggest a similar dating for the Wicklow material.  Coarse pottery of this type may, however, have had a fairly long life and indeed Freestone Hill may give but a central date for the group.

“Several points of some significance in relation to this pottery must be stressed.  Firstly, no excavated ring fort (rath) has ever produced this kind of ware — indeed, it is absent from any excavated site of the Early Historic Period in Ireland.  On the other hand, it is found increasingly in hillforts — to such an extent in fact, that it appears more and more to be basically a hillfort phenomenon.  Apart from the two sites referred to above, similar coarse sherds come from the hillforts at Clogher, Co. Tyrone, Emain Macaha, Co. Armagh, Downpatrick, Co. Down, and possibly also from Dunbeg in the same county.  In the present state of our knowledge therefore, it seems that Freestone Hill Ware may be regarded as characteristic of Irish hillforts: there is as yet no evidence for its continuation beyond the middle of the 1st millenium AD.

“The origins and ancestry of Freestone Hill Ware are matters which can hardly be discussed here, but pottery of this type without the perforated rims, may go back to pre-christian centuries.  Indeed, the indications at Emain Macha tend to confirm this possibility and Freestone Hill Ware may well have had its origins in the so-called Flat-rimmed wares of the Late Bronze Age in Ireland.

“This problem seems very real at Rathgall, since here are strong indications of Late Bronze Age activity.  This is the third of the three phases of occupation of the site.  Mould fragments of clay were recovered which were used in the manufacture of objects of Late Bronze Age type — swords, possibly spears and socketed implements with a rope moulding round the mouth of the socket.  The relationship of these fragments to any of the structures which were uncovered during the excavation is not clear.  In fact, apart from the mould fragments (and possibly the saddle quern) there is nothing else which can with certainty be assigned to a late Bronze Age context.  Some of the mould fragments came from the immediate vicinity of one of the large hearth, some from the fill of the ditch, and from the ditch also came the saddle quern.

“The presence of the mould fragments in the ditch is complicated by the discovery, in the very bottom, of fragments of pottery which seem to belong to that class known as Cordoned Ware which occurs in southwestern Britain and northwestern France in the centuries before and just after the birth of Christ.  It would seem then either that the mould fragments found their way into the ditch during an in-filling operation which took place at a time subsequent to the original Late Bronze Age occupation of the site, or alternatively that the pieces are contemporary with the Cordoned Ware, thereby suggesting a remarkable continuity of Late Bronze Age types in Ireland.

“At all events the construction of the ditch can be dated with reasonable certainty to the period of the Cordoned pottery.  Pottery of this type has never before been found in Ireland and its implications regarding Irish/British and Irish/Continental connections in the Early Iron Age — as well as having an important bearing on the development of the Irish hillfort — are considerable.

“The question of the date of the hearths is as yet a matter of some doubt.  It has already been pointed out that in one area  a hearth was overlain by both the circular enclosure and the much later rectangular structures.  This hearth at least belongs to any early phase of the occupation of the site and since all the five hearths so far revealed by excavation are not apparently associated with specific structures and have several points in common, such as size and details of construction, it seems reasonable to suggest that they may be broadly contemporary.

“All the hearths produced coarse ware and it therefore seems to be of prime importance to be able to distinguish between the Freestone Hill type of pottery of the Early Iron Age and the pottery to which the name Flat-rimmed Ware has been given and which is dated to the Late Bronze Age.  It may be that both are in the same developmental tradition and it is hoped that further work on the hillfort at Rathgall will help to elucidate the problem involved.”


  1. Harbison, Peter, Pre-Christian Ireland, Thames & Hudson: London 1989.
  2. Raftery, Barry, “The Rathgall Hillfort, County Wicklow,” in Antiquity journal, volume 44 (no.173), March 1970.


  1. Rathgall Hill Fort on Irish Antiquities
  2. Rathgall Hillfort on Megalithic Portal

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian