Friday, June 20, 2014

Setting the Scene

Dumyat in the background, a Pictish megalith in the foreground. Our flat is just behind the trees at the edge of the rugby pitch.

Alistair Moffat:

At the western end of the Ochils, Dumyat was a fire-hill and also once a place of power. Its unusual name is from the Dun or Fortress of Maeatae, an early Pictish kindred whose kings defied the might of Rome. In 208 A.D., the warrior-emperor Septimius Severus marched north with a vast army of 40,000 legionaries and auxiliaries to destroy them and devastate their homelands. It was and remains the largest army ever seen beyond the Tweed, but it failed to humble the Maetae. The name of the western summit, Castle Law, recalls the defiance of the Pictish kinds and the traces of their fort can still be clearly seen.

From the eastern summit of Dumyat proper, an immense vista opens up to the south and east. In the half-dark of the night of 23 and 24 June 1314, those who gathered in the needfire will have been able to make out the distant glint of the River Forth as it looped and meandered across the flat carseland on its way to the widening horizon of the firth and the North Sea beyond. On the far side of the lazy river, the Roman road that brought the tramp of Severus' legions runs from the line of the Antonine Wall northwards past the foot of Dumyat to the outpost forts of the Gask Ridge and on to Bertha, Perth. In 208 and 1314, it was a vital artery, threading a way between the Forth and its marshy floodplane on one side and the wild hill country in the west.

Now marked on a modern map as the Gargunnock and Fintry Hills, the watershed ridges of the Carron Water and the Bannock Burn, this range of rolling hills across the waist of Scotland was seen as a frontier for many centuries. Known as Bannauc, it appears in the tale of the sixth-century wandering of a mystical Welsh monk, St Cadoc, and in the roll of British Celtic warriors mustered for battle with the insurgent Angles in the south in 600 A.D., men came from 'beyond Bannuac.' Composed by the far-famed bard Aneurin in Edinburgh for the kings of the Gododdin, the epic poem sang of the rumble of war below Dumyat and the jingle of Dark Ages cavalry moving along the road by the Forth.

Legionaries and the warriors of half-forgotten kings passed below the glowering rock of Stirling. Singular and dramatic it rises above the flat carseland like a sentinel. Flanked by the floodplains to the east and the Bannauc and the treacherous Flanders Moss to the west, the fortress on the rock guarded the north road, the only road to Scotland beyond the Forth.

Watchers on the fire-hill of Dumyat could see something else, something that will have hollowed out their bellies with fear. Far in the distance, they could make out the clustered pinpricks of hundreds of fires beyond the dark silhouette of Stirling Castle rock. None had been lit to celebrate the solstice. On either side of the Bannock Burn, as it slid through the carse toward the Forth, a vast army was attempting to make camp. Perhaps the echoes of thousands of voices, the shouts of sergeants, the creak and squeal of cartwheels and the shrieking neigh of horses carried as far as the dark heads of the hills.

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