Archaeologists studying ancient Pictish carvings began excavations at Trusty’s Hill in Galloway, Scotland in 2012. While the study of such symbols is both a fascinating and important endeavor, research at the Trusty’s Hill site has revealed something even more astonishing: the long-lost kingdom of Rheged. The dominant kingdom in northern Britain until the seventh century, Rheged’s actual location has been disputed for centuries.
Researchers initially chose the Trusty’s Hill site because Pictish symbols were carved into a rocky outcropping near its entrance. Such Pictish carvings are more common further north, but quite rare as far south as Galloway. The Picts were a loose confederation of Celtic tribes that lived in what is now northern and eastern Scotland during Roman occupation of the British Isles. While their exact origin is unknown, the Picts were eventually absorbed by other Gaelic cultures of the region.
Archaeologists discovered timber and stone fortifications, a royal hall, and a blacksmith’s workshop. This type of structure is known as a “nucleated” fort, a stronghold from which the local royals would have ruled the surrounding countryside. Dating to around 600 CE, the fort had numerous defensive reinforcements and enclosures in the same style as other high-status settlements of the period in Scotland.
In fact, this was not a simple farming village, but a far more important regional center that managed the surrounding farms and natural resources on a large scale. There is also evidence of leatherworking and wool spinning operations at the site, along with a metal workshop that produced high-quality objects in gold, silver, iron, and bronze. Archaeologists studying the site believe that the Pictish symbols flanking the entrance indicate that royal ceremonies took place at the fort.
Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles tell the story of the amazing discovery in their book The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged (Oxbow Books, 2016). Bowles said, “This was a place of religious, cultural and political innovation whose contribution to culture in Scotland has perhaps not been given due recognition. Yet the influence of Rheged, with Trusty’s Hill at its secular heart…and Urien its most famous king, has nevertheless rippled through the history and literature of Scotland and beyond.”
Rheged and its powerful warrior king, Urien, inspired some of the earliest medieval poetry composed in Britain, by the poet Taliesin. Some Arthurian legends say that Urien married Morgan Le Fay, King Arthur’s sister, but the marriage was not happy. In one version of the story, Morgan plotted to use the sword Excalibur to kill Urien and Arthur and take the throne herself with her lover.
Previously, historians thought Rheged might have been located in Cumbria, a county in northwestern England. Surviving early medieval historical records show King Urien’s dominance in southern Scotland and northern England before a rival group wiped out the settlement in the early seventh century. The site was destroyed by fire, suffering sustained burning for weeks or even months as evidenced by many sections of the timber-reinforced stone rampart found to be fused together. As the researchers concluded, “The deliberate and spectacular destruction of Trusty’s Hills is a visceral reminder that the demise of this kingdom in the early seventh century AD came with sword and flame.”