The Iron Age

The Iron Age marks the last stage in the prehistoric development of global civilisation, preceded as it was by the Stone and Bronze Ages, and brought to an (abrupt) close in Britain by the Roman conquest. Typically, the Iron Age is defined as the period in any given civilisation’s history at which the production and use of iron implements becomes widespread, in effect replacing the weaker bronze tools and weaponry in use. Due to the extreme northern situation of the British Isles, and the even more-remote locality of Scotland and its border regions, the Iron Age did not begin here until it was already over in other, more advanced parts of the world (for example, in Greece).

Whilst evidence of Bronze Age settlement in the Scottish Borders abounds, we retain an even greater record of Iron Age presence. As in earlier ages, it was the habit of our ancient ancestors to colonise the summits of hills and mountains, sometimes with single dwellings, other times with whole communities, even as the seats of great kingdoms. However, given the Bronze Age’s trend toward settling the valleys, rather than the hilltops, it is quite possible that the Iron Age hillforts decorating the Border ridges were used only in times of perceived danger. There are more than two-thousand Iron Age hillforts known in Britain, and over three-hundred of those are located in the Scottish Borders (with one-hundred or so present in Roxburghshire alone – many more designated instead as ‘earthworks’, ‘settlements’ or ‘enclosures’). The hills surrounding Hawick, particularly to the south, have many of these fortified settlements. The Slitrig valley alone has had about a dozen identified.

Border hills crowned by Iron Age hillforts include Ruberslaw, Bonchester, Burgh, the Dunion, the Eildons (the northernmost summit of which hosted the largest Iron Age hillfort in Scotland, constructed around the 10th century BCE), Kirkton, and Southdean Law. A particularly good example is on Whitecastle Hill, between Chapelhill farm and Branxholme Loch. These forts would have served as defensive positions from which to hold off the later-arrival of the Romans, and in many cases, they were repurposed as signal stations upon Roman conquest. When the Romans did arrive (around 70CE) earlier-migrated tribes speaking Brythonic were already well established in the Borders, alongside the Votadini (known to the Romans and later cultures at the Goddodin) whose capital was Edinburgh.