Standfirst: Citizen archaeologists have shed fascinating light on Pictish hillfort life.

High above the meandering silver River Tay and sheltered by Perthshire hills, the spot offered a perfect location to see for miles around.

And for the high status occupants of the hillfort near Dunkeld, the site was more than an impressive eyrie from which to survey the rolling countryside and stay safe from any threats that may be on the horizon.

For alongside important members of the fort’s household were some of the most skilled craftsmen of their times, who produced objects of beauty, jewellery and trinkets, tools and practical metal pieces – sometimes, it’s thought, all coming together to feast and to celebrate as one.

Thanks to a citizens’ archaeology project, a fascinating image of how an important Pictish hillfort looked and lived in its prime has emerged from generations hidden beneath choking weeds and thick plants.

King’s Seat Hillfort was uncovered by the determined ‘amateur archaeologists’ of Dunkeld & Birnam Historical Society after years of only being able to look at the site from a distance and imagining what might lie beneath the wild overgrown slopes.

Now the findings of their remarkable excavation have been translated into a series of artist’s images, interpretation panels, leaflets and an online guide – helping to bring a snapshot of Pictish life in Perthshire the 7-9th centuries AD to life.

It is one of the final instalments of a long running project dubbed ‘The Dig’ which drew together people with little experience of archaeological excavations but with a driving desire to unearth the hillfort’s secrets once and for all.

Working alongside archaeology students and professional archaeologists over a three-year period, they uncovered a string of fascinating finds and new understanding of the hillfort’s possibly royal role.

Dave Roberts, Secretary of Dunkeld and Birnam Historical Society said: “The Dig has been a wonderful and enjoyable experience for all of us volunteers.

“We were able to work alongside knowledgeable and helpful experts to help uncover the fascinating story behind Kings Seat. This has helped us understand more about the history that has made Dunkeld and Birnam the special place it is today.”

The existence of the site had been known for at least the last century and the hillfort protected by law as a nationally important site. However, the team - with help from SSEN Distribution staff volunteers used to working on high power lines - had to chop away tree branches, thick growth and stubborn rhododendron bushes to even reach the hub of the fort and begin their excavations.

It revealed a fort consisting of a series of defensive earthworks constructed around a central ‘citadel’ enclosure measuring about 35m x 25m at the summit of the hill. A cascading series of ramparts below enclosed a flight of lower terraces, while separate areas emerged to indicate where craftsmen carried out their work.

Along with evidence of metal and textile production, the dig teams found Anglo-Saxon glass beads and pottery from the south of France, which suggested the Pictish occupiers were perhaps more sophisticated than might have been previously imagined, with possible trade links with continental Europe and a love for the finer things in life.

Other finds included Roman glass that had been reused as gaming pieces, and evidence of feasting, with a large hearth big enough to roast a hog.

The discoveries led the community volunteers and archaeologists to conclude the hilltop fort was an important Pictish power centre, which was probably occupied by the area’s ‘elite’ of their time.

David Strachan, Director of Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust, which worked with Dunkeld & Birnam Historical Society and archaeological contractors AOC Archaeology Ltd on the excavation project, said: “It was known that there was a site there for around 100 years but it was so hugely overgrown that it was difficult to actually get up to it.

“And while it had been surveyed in the 1950s or 1960s, it had never been excavated. Removing all the vegetation and excavating it confirmed what was suspected, that it was not an Iron Age fort but a later Pictish fort.”

He added that fragments of highly specialised metal work suggested the craftsmen at the hillfort were employed in creating attractive ‘luxury’ items, while foreign made pottery shed new light on how people in the area may have interacted with others passing by on a route which today encompasses the A9.

“It shows how connected they were,” he added.

Working in partnership, the Heritage Trust and Historical Society developed the project to explore the site through a programme of community archaeological excavation. With the help of AOC Archaeology, over three years local volunteers joined professional archaeologists to survey and excavate the site.

The site is protected as a nationally important Scheduled Monument, and permission to carry out the work had to be granted first by Historic Environment Scotland.

Radiocarbon dating of artefacts and structural remains indicated the site was an important centre of local power, with influence over the trade and production of high-status goods from the Pictish period, c.400-900 AD.

The artefacts uncovered are also in keeping with other high-status, royal sites of early historic date in Scotland, including the early Dalriadic capital of Dunadd, in Argyll, and more locally at Dundurn near St Fillan’s by Loch Earn.

Full details of the archaeological team’s findings are expected to be published within the next two years, while the story of how the Dunkeld & Birnam Historical Society uncovered the hillfort is now being shared through interpretation panels, leaflets, a school education pack and online.

Ruth Brown of the Dunkeld Community Archive said: “This has been an amazing project and we look forward to sharing the story with local people and visitors alike – those unable to visit the site will be able to view a presentation and see reproductions of some of the finds in the Community Archive.”

Details of the hillfort excavation will be discussed by PKHT Director David Strachan during an online talk on 11 May. For information go to