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Settlement (Pictish)

Site Name Dunnicaer

Classification Settlement (Pictish)

Alternative Name(s) Dun-na-caer; Stonehaven; Dinnacair

Canmore ID 37001

Site Number NO88SE 2

NGR NO 88227 84649

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Aberdeenshire
  • Parish Dunnottar
  • Former Region Grampian
  • Former District Kincardine And Deeside
  • Former County Kincardineshire


Field Visit (28 July 1965)

Although Dunnicaer is still inaccessible, the grass-covered remains of a small sub-circular structure can be seen at its NE end.

The five Pictish symbol stones are still at Banchory House. Four of them are built into the main wall of the garden on the east side of the present tennis-court, while the other is in the ground at the 'Italian Garden' on the NE side of the main house. All are in an excellent state of preservation. NJ90SW 6 Also in the main garden there is a cup-marked stone, of unknown provenance.

The owner of Banchory House has specially requested that the position of the stones should not be published.

Visited by OS (R D) 28 July 1965.

Reference (1980)

There are several descriptions of these stones; that (no. 4) bearing a double disc and Z-rod is in the Anthropological Museum, University of Aberdeen, while the others are at Banchory House (NJ 915 024).

No. 1 measures 0.69m x 0.46m and is incised with the double disc and Z-rod, rudely drawn, but with unusual flourishes.

No. 2 measures 0.68m x 0.38m and is incised with the fish symbol, having a triangle with a central dot above the head.

No. 3 measures 0.46m x 0.23m and bears a crescent symbol crossed with an equilateral triangle.

No. 4 measures 0.68m x 0.38m and bears the double disc and Z-rod symbol.

No. 5 measures 0.38m x 0.15m and bears a rough approximation of the double disc symbol.

No. 6 is nearly cubical in shape, measuring 0.1m each way. It bears on the front a circle and the end of a Z-rod; on the back, a circle and the letter 'R'?; on the right side, a circle (or the letter 'Q') with a small cross, and on the left, a 'T' combined with the circle as well as the cross.

Information from R Jones 1980; RCAHMS 1994.

Field Visit (March 1982)

Dunnicaer NO 882 846 NO88SE 2

On two separate occasions in the 19th century Pictish symbol-stones were discovered on the precipitous sea-stack known as Dunnicaer, which stands detached from the cliffs 700m N of Dunnottar Castle. The summit of the stack is covered in deep tussocky turf and, although there are a few loose stones around the edges, no trace of any structure is visible. One of the surviving symbol-stones, which bears a double disc with Z-rod, was removed from the stack about 1819; the other four, which were found in a wall around part of the summit, were thrown down into the sea in 1832. One of the stones was recovered at the time, another about 1852, and the remaining two in 1857. The designs they carry are a second double disc with Z-rod, a fish with a triangle, a crescent with a triangle, and a pair of circles with central dots, respectively.

RCAHMS 1982, visited March 1982

(Stuart 1856, 14, plate xii; Thomson 1860; Stuart 1867, 9, plate xv; Allen and Anderson 1903, iii, 200-201; Ritchie 1915, 34-7; Henderson 1958, 60;DES, 1977, 19)

Desk Based Assessment (12 October 1982)

NO88SE 2 8821 8464

(NO 8821 8464) Dunnicaer (Sculptured Standing Stones found) (TI)

OS 25" map, (1904)

An ancient settlement appears to have been situated on the, now inaccessible, isolated rock called Dunnicaer, or Dun-na-caer (Ritchie 1915), but it has never been properly explored. Watt believed it to have been a fort, used at some time as the retreat of a hermit. Stuart (1856) suggested that it was an ecclesiastical settlement of early missionaries, while Simpson believed that it could have been a retreat for Ninianic missionaries occupying the promontory on which stands Dunnottar Castle (NO88SE 11).

In 1832 several stones were thrown into the sea from a low, buried, wall along part of the edge of the rock. Subsequently a number of them were recovered and six of them bearing Pictish symbols - mainly of regal and religious significance (Thomas 1963) - were published by Stuart, who says that there were others which have disappeared. Alexander Thomson (1862) purchased five of the stones illustrated by Stuart and had them preserved at Banchory House (NJ 9150 0232), NJ90SW 6.

J R Allen and J Anderson 1903; J Stuart 1856; 1867; A Thomson 1962; J Ritchie 1915; J C Watt 1914; C Thomas 1963; I M Henderson 1960.

The summit of Dunnicaer is covered in deep, tussocky turf and, although there are a few loose stones around the edges, no trace of any structure is visible.

RCAHMS 1982.

Information from OS (IF) 12 October 1982

Reference (1997)

Five class I symbol stones.

Dunnicaer 1 : Double disc and a complex Z-rod.

Dunnicaer 2 : Fish with a triangle above.

Dunnicaer 3 : Crescent with triangle.

Dunnicaer 4 : Double-disc and Z-rod on face with on the reverse remnants of a mirror,a comb and a flower.

Dunnicaer 5 : Two discs.

A Mack 1997.

Excavation (13 April 2015 - 17 April 2015)

NO 8821 8464 As part of the Northern Picts Project surveys and excavations have been undertaken in an area stretching from Aberdeenshire to Shetland targeting sites that can help contextualize the character of society in the early medieval period in northern Pictland.

An evaluation was carried out, 13–17 April 2015, at Dunnicaer Sea Stack, the location of five Pictish Class I symbol stones found in the 19th century in a low stone wall said to have surrounded part of the stack. The stack can only be accessed at low tide, but may have been a promontory in the Pictish period.

During the evaluation a total of five trenches were opened with the aim of evaluating the site and state of preservation. The trenches suggest the presence of a fort or enclosed settlement on the stack with significant evidence of major erosion at the stack – particularly on the E side. Trench 1 was located towards the eastern part of the surviving stack summit where a division between an upper and lower area of the stack surface is evident. Here a possible stone revetment was evident on the N side of the stack. The trench did not reveal clear traces of a bank or wall, but one small posthole was found within the trench.

Trench 2 was located along the southern edge in order to verify the presence of an enclosing bank or rampart on the S side of the stack. The excavation revealed low foundations of a rampart c2m wide which had evidence for stone facing on the interior side, but was heavily robbed. Within the line of the stone facing three beam slots were found dug into the subsoil. Smaller postholes suggest the rampart included both timber beams and upright posts – part of an elaborate timber-lacing set into the subsoil of the stack.

Trench 3 was placed in the lower citadel to establish if any structures or activities took place there. The trench revealed floor deposits and a stone-built hearth with flat hearth slabs and upright stones revetting the hearth edge. A few small fragments of heavily degraded animal bone were found in the layers above the hearth.

Trench 4 was placed on the northern edge of the stack. Here a number of postholes and possible traces of beam slots were identified, but the trench was not fully excavated.

Trench 5 was opened in the centre of the fort. Here a series of small postholes suggest the presence of timber structures within the fort.

A topographic survey was conducted at the same time and used to create a surface model of the stack. This suggested the presence of other structures surviving below the tussocky turf on top of the stack.

Archive: University of Aberdeen

Funder: University of Aberdeen Development Trust in association with the Tarbat Discovery Centre

Gordon Noble and Oskar Sveinbjarnarson – University of Aberdeen

(Source: DES, Volume 16)

Note (9 June 2015 - 6 September 2016)

Dinnicaer is a rock stack detached from the cliffs in the bay N of the large headland known as Bowduns. Very difficult of access, there is little to see in the deep tussocky grass clothing the summit, which measures about 55m in overall length and expands from a narrow spine at the SW end to a maximum breadth of 16m at the NE end (0.03ha). Nevertheless, five Pictish symbol stones now at Banchory House (NJ 91561 02468) were found here, one in 1819 and four in 1832, the latter in 'a wall' on the summit and thrown down into the sea (Thomson 1860; Stuart 1856, 14, pl xll; 1867, 9, pl xv). While a few stones were visible around the margins of the stack when scaled by an RCAHMS investigator in 1982, there was no trace of a wall, but in April 2015 excavations directed by Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen uncovered the remains of a timber-framed rampart at least 2m in thickness on the NW and SE margins; a hearth was also found (Noble 2015).

Information from An Atlas of Hillforts of Great Britain and Ireland – 06 September 2016. Atlas of Hillforts SC3111

Excavation (11 April 2016 - 22 April 2016)

NO 8821 8464 As part of the Northern Picts Project surveys and excavations have been undertaken in an area stretching from Aberdeenshire to Shetland targeting sites that can help contextualize the character of society in the early medieval period in northern Pictland. A ten day field season carried out at Dunnicaer, 11–22 April 2016, aimed to further the investigation of settlement remains on the sea stack from

which five Pictish symbols have been recovered.

During the 2016 season five trenches were opened. The main trench (c5 x 7m) was located in the upper terrace and identified two stone-built hearths and associated floor layers in the SE half of the trench. A fragment of Samian pottery was found in the fill of cut features associated with one building. Adjacent to the floor layers were two pits, both of which had multiple sherds of handmade pottery and one pit also contained a burnishing stone for metalworking. Further trenches in the upper terrace

identified a metalled surface towards the W part of the promontory and revetment material on the S side of the stack. The revetment material appears to have been put in place to level the sloping edge of the stack and may have supported a rampart.

In the lower terrace multiple floor layers and two hearths were identified. The floor layers abutted natural rock outcrops and one hearth lay on top of the other indicating successive phases of a structure on the lower terrace.

No postholes were identified suggesting the walls of the structure were made of turf or non-earthfast timbers.

Archive: University of Aberdeen

Funder: Univeristy of Aberdeen

Gordon Noble and Cathy MacIver – University of Aberdeen

(Source: DES)

Excavation (5 June 2017 - 15 June 2017)

NO 88224 84644 (NO88SE 2) As part of the Northern Picts project surveys and excavations have been undertaken in an area stretching from Aberdeenshire to Shetland targeting sites that can help contextualize the character of society in the early medieval period in northern Pictland.

During a ten day field season, 5–15 June 2017, a 10 x 5m trench was excavated on the upper terrace of the sea stack. This was targeted to expand upon previous work at the site in 2015 and 2016 (DES 17, 2016), which had identified a spread of pits, postholes and other cut features related to structures, plus several hearth settings and timber palisade

slots. The 2017 trench identified further features related to the settlement and confirmed that many areas of the stack had collapsed, truncating the remains of the archaeology. At least two hearth settings were situated next to cliffs and indicated a number of structures have been lost to erosion.

The excavation examined the upper terrace in more detail and identified the remains of many cut features including pits and postholes, a series of hearths and truncated floor deposits, a stone wall-base and some cobbled surfaces. These remains represented multiple structures and several

phases of building on the upper terrace of the stack, several of which have already been dated to the 3rd – 4th centuries AD. The 2017 excavation fully recorded these and revealed that the stack had been the focus of intense occupation in this period with several phases of rebuilding and reworking.

Finds of samian ware, glass, local hand-made prehistoric pot, a rotary quern fragment and a spindle whorl combined with the structural evidence and the Class 1 symbol stones found in the 19th century all point towards this site being a fortified settlement active in the 3rd – 4th centuries AD,

spanning the late prehistoric/early medieval transition period.

Archive: University of Aberdeen

Funder: University of Aberdeen

Gordon Noble and Cathy MacIver – University of Aberdeen

(Source: DES, Volume 18)


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