Just a few short miles outside Edinburgh is the Iron Age site of Castlelaw, a hill fort established around 2,500 years ago on the slopes of the Pentland Hills.
Sites such as this exist all across the central belt of Scotland. There's evidence of up to four Iron Age forts within Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, and the site of Edinburgh Castle is itself a prehistoric site of settlement. (The tribe which lived on the Castle Rock for a time were known as the Gododdin, a pretty warlike people who are believed to have once spent a full year feasting on their site - high above the surrounding landscape - before marching south to fight the tribes of northern England...)
The Iron Age is a period of time from roughly 800 BCE until the arrival of the Romans in Britain around 43 CE, following the periods known as the Stone Age and the Bronze Age - the names are taken from the common materials which became used as tools and weaponry in their respective times. Some estimates put the population of Britain in that period between 3 and 4 million people, with Scotland at that time still occupied by tribal groups who lived in communities across the vast landscape.
The site at Castlelaw was a fortification, featuring a series of boundary ditches and defensive ramparts which remain evident in the landscape, with the site originally having had a wooden palisade or wall built to protect it from attackers.
Most interestingly, however, the site also has an unusual example of a souterrain (from the French for 'under-ground'), accessed today via a short set of steps which lead into the subterranean chambers.
This underground structure was not a residential space - though it's understandable to imagine people living here - but a storage room or cellar where the settlers of Castlelaw hill fort would have been able to stash food and other valuable resources. Dug into the earth, the walls are lined with stones and would originally have had a timber or thatch roof to protect it from elements.
The people who lived at Castlelaw would have been farmers, working the land, who occupied wooden huts or roundhouses within the defensive structures of the hill fort, looking out over the surrounding landscape.
It's a fairly harsh and unforgiving piece of land, even today, and it's not difficult to imagine that life here would have been pretty difficult and inhospitable. Our Iron Age ancestors would have been much more resilient to the challenges of the Scottish climate than we are today!
So the underground storage spaces would have been crucial to making the best of their harvests, protecting the produce from the weather and ensuring a constant supply of food all year round, especially over the winter months.
The site at Castlelaw hill fort was excavated in the 1930s, and the souterrain examined and covered with a concrete roof, including glass portals to allow natural light into the space, which is easily accessed by visitors.
One of the archaeologists who investigated the site in 1931-2 was Dr Margaret Stewart, who became the first woman to be elected as Honorary Fellow to the Society of Antiquities of Scotland, a cultural organisation which occupied the gallery built by John Ritchie Findlay (today the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) before moving to its current headquarters at the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street.
Finds from the 1930s excavation of the site include Roman pottery sherds - not so unusual given the nearby Roman presence at Cramond - examples of local pottery, German buckles and ornamental decorations, and cup-marked stones, a form of prehistoric rock art.
These indicate that the community here had access to trade with a variety of external groups who brought goods from well beyond the local area, including items sourced from right across Europe. Perhaps they may even traded with the Goddodin, in what is the heart of Edinburgh today.
Descending into the small tunnel of the souterrain at Castlelaw is like walking through a doorway that takes you back in time, and although there's no costumed guides or much in the way of information panels, there's something remarkable about just standing in a space created by humans over 2,000 years ago.
You can still put your hands on the ancient drystone walls, which were constructed by a group of people living here long before Scotland as we know it today could even have been imagined. If those stones could talk, imagine the stories they'd tell...
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