I jumped the fence near the monument. I had spotted a rabbit run right through a track in the field earlier so suspected this was the way to go. More animal tracks rose upwards on the hill before me but there was no discernible path. The far end of the field brought another fence to climb and I immediately entered what looked like Mirkwood in miniature. Only here it had the added bonus of rusty barbed wire sticking out all over the place like old snares. In the minutes it took to cross this glade, I took a few in the feet and legs and one in the face. A vague path remained underfoot; remnants of the last use of the fort in the mid-17th century maybe. I followed the path while climbing the ancient trees and came out at an opened rusty gate that hadn’t been closed for hundreds of years.
This being high summer I had to make my way through the masses of ferns, eye-high thistles, long grass and dry heather before making it up to the first plateau and my first proper look at Dùn Eibhinn, the island of Colonsay’s ancient hill-fort.
From my viewpoint below it looked like the ideal place for a fort and king’s house, as these places normally do. Were places in the past better chosen as sites for building on? Today we build on mine shafts, next to rivers and flood plains without long term consideration. We settle in desert and places known for drought and famine. Did historical builders consider the land more than we currently do when constructing?
The base of Dùn Eibhinn itself shot upwards, a scramble to climb on this south east face, though it would have undoubtedly been the entrance for reasons I had yet to have knowledge of. Guarded these days only by forests of ferns, jaggy nettles and the ubiquitous national flower, Dùn Eibhinn is flat topped with perfect views to Jura, Islay and beyond. Once on the top, failing to avoid the mass of sheep and rabbit excrement, I realised how steep the hill fort actually was. It would be a fair climb for anyone to get up the north facing sides now, all flat rock and steep verges, let alone there being defensive walls and most likely, defenders trying to stop you.
After spending some time on the hill-top and circumnavigating its base, I climbed the neighbouring peak. Higher and more pointed than Dùn Eibhinn, it afforded me a better view of the actual fort site. Here I sat for a while, enjoying the view and trying to picture what Dùn Eibhinn looked like in its Viking era heyday.
This was and is a magnificent place, a gem amongst the ancient hill-forts where nothing remains. I am a big fan of Historic Environment Scotland. I’ve been a member for years, read their monthly magazine cover to cover and we visit their sites regularly as a family. For all the good work H.E.S. does, I much prefer places like this, the bits where no one goes. The ancient and the forgotten. No gift shop, no café, no visitors. Seriously none, there ain’t no pictures from here on Google maps. As much as I like Stirling or Urquhart Castle places like Dùn Eibhinn and Dunadd, where we visit once a year, remain my favourites for the reasons that there is nothing left. You need to use your imagination here and that’s all right with me. As we try to keep history alive in our castles and palaces, at re-enactments, summer jousting, and special open days we should remember that there is greater history all over that is already dead.
“We must not bury the past
Or we will be buried by the future.”
Currently listening to: Càirdeas Fala, Sons of the North
From the Dùn Eibhinn monument stone.
“The detached rocky knoll situated on the skyline directly in front of the viewer is the site of Dùn Eibhinn (Dun Eivan). This dun, or fort, is believed to have been built by the High King Gille Adamnan as a royal residence in the early 11th century. It was a seat of Viking power in the Western Isles and occupied by descendants of Gille Adamnan, including Somerled and his grandson Donald, progenitor of Clan Donald. The fort came into Clan Macfie possession in the early part of the 13th century.
The Macfie or MacDuffie Chiefs were Keepers of the Records for the Lords of the Isles and the Clan provided many of the Priors for the Priory on Oronsay. Malcolm, last Chief of Clan Macfie, moved to Dùn Eibhinn in the early 17th century and the fort fell into disuse from that time.”