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We’re very pleased to be able to bring you, in serialised form, a paper courtesy of Dr Euan MacKie regarding the Sheep Hill hillfort and associated rock carvings, which are currently under a long-running threat of destruction. After a brief Introduction, part two discussed the Greenland rock carvings. We then considered the Sheep Hill forts. In this final part, we now look at the evidence for a link between the two sites, and what the future may hold.

Were the two sites linked?

The construction of the timber-framed dun is such an obvious explanation for the prehistoric damage suffered by the cup-and ring rock that it may reasonably be adopted as a working hypothesis, albeit one that has to be tested (below). One clear implication of it is that the great double disc symbol on a flat surface exposed by the ancient quarrying had to date to the 10th or 9th centuries BC at the earliest and this is extremely surprising if the majority of such rock carving took place in Neolithic times (Burgess 1990). Yet it is not impossible; such skills could have been handed down for many centuries by families of specialist carvers who could have practised their skills occasionally on existing carved rocks; it would probably be quite hard to detect such additions under normal circumstances. Also there is no doubt that the double disc symbol was known in the Late Bronze Age as it occurs on a few socketed bronze axes in Scotland and NE England (MacKie 1991, 147, pl. 10); these are known as the Sompting type (Schmidt & Burgess, 1981, 243-44).

However the most exciting aspect of this hypothesis is surely the social one. It is hard not to infer that the damaged and re-carved rock means that there were two distinct social groups in the area in the Late Bronze Age – namely the timber-framed fort builders and the descendants of the Neolithic peoples who had venerated the rock carvings for centuries and who retained some of their carving skills. The fort builders could have been a new elite – either local or immigrant but armed with new bronze weapons and evidently with little respect for the local traditions. The re-carving of the rock with a fine double disc after it had been badly damaged suggests a defiance of the new order but in a relatively harmless manner. A parallel with invading Normans and defeated Saxons might be appropriate. The phenomenon of Sheep Hill and the Greenland rock carvings is to my knowledge unique in the British Isles and the sites should surely be preserved for that alone.

Testing the hypothesis

Fortunately the hypothesis can be tested and clear proof of it could be forthcoming. If it is correct there should be on Sheep Hill many fragments of the heated sandstone of which the carved rock is formed, a few perhaps with cup-and-ring carvings on them. A thorough rescue excavation before Sheep Hill is quarried away should find this evidence. However I hope it will never come to that; it might be awkward for archaeologists to find such evidence who had been hired by Thompsons of Dumbarton, especially when there is a suspicion that it was such a group which in 2013 wrote (anonymously) and circulated an attempted refutation of my views on the two sites. In fact it would be easy to find the evidence without disturbing the interiors of the forts. There is just under the turf a vast pile of stone debris at the foot of the cliff-like northern side of the summit the lower part of which should be the debris of the timber-framed wall; it could be explored quite easily. It is already known that rocks were imported on to the site to build the timber-framed wall. Its boulder foundation was exposed during the original excavations and two of the boulders were identified as imports, one of quartzite and the other of sandstone (MacKie 1991, 146 & pl. 9).

Illus. 7. Map of the area westwards from Old Kilpatrick, West Dunbartonshire, showing how the proposed heritage trail might be laid out. [1] is the Roman fort, [2] the length of Antonine Wall on relatively low, flat and open ground where a section might be excavated add the barrier reconstructed, [3] is the proposed footpath connecting the Roman remains to Sheep Hill fort [4] and the cup-and-ring carved rock [5].

Illus. 7. Map of the area westwards from Old Kilpatrick, West Dunbartonshire, showing how the proposed heritage trail might be laid out. [1] is the Roman fort, [2] the length of Antonine Wall on relatively low, flat and open ground where a section might be excavated add the barrier reconstructed, [3] is the proposed footpath connecting the Roman remains to Sheep Hill fort [4] and the cup-and-ring carved rock [5].

A possible archaeological heritage trail at Old Kilpatrick?

If Sheep Hill can be preserved from being quarried, the cup-and-ring rock – now stored in the National Museums in Edinburgh – could eventually be re-assembled in its original position and this unique pair of sites could be brought together again. Alternatively a replica could be built there. The quarry’s licence apparently expires in the early 2030s so their future should be safe after that. The existence only 2.5 km to the east of the western end of the Antonine Roman wall – now a World Heritage Site – suggests that the West Dumbartonshire Council could then organise what would surely be one of the most interesting archaeological trails in the country. Illus. 7 shows how it might be laid out; the numbered points on the map are identified below.

The fort at the western end of the Wall [1] is in Old Kilpatrick and, though excavated, is largely inaccessible under a housing estate. However a visitor centre could surely be set up nearby with a car park and could house some of the finds from the site and replicas of the Roman inscribed stones which were found there. A footbridge over, or a tunnel under, the dual carriageway immediately to the north (the A82) could be constructed to lead to the open ground there where the Antonine Wall and its ditch curve round to the east [2]; about 100m of it there might be excavated and reconstructed, thus providing (so far) an unique insight into what the northernmost frontier of the Empire looked like when it was intact. A footpath [3] could then run for 2.5 km westwards along the lower slopes of the Kilpatrick Hills up to Sheep Hill [4] with a short extension northwards to the Greenland 1 rock carvings [5]. Needless to say signposts and explanatory notice boards would be essential.

One intriguing aspect of such a tourist trail is that it could be presented as a step-by-step journey into the past. The Antonine Wall was built during the second Roman invasion of Scotland, from about AD 140 onwards, and was the northernmost formal frontier of the Empire in Europe. The fort at Old Kilpatrick defended the western end of the Wall where it ran down to the river Clyde and this may well have been the time at which the second fort on nearby Sheep Hill was abandoned – either out of caution or because it was attacked and destroyed by the Roman Army. Any future excavations could look for signs of that. Thus Sheep Hill 2 is a vivid example of a later native stronghold of the pre-Roman Iron Age. The primary timber-framed fort takes us back to the Late Bronze Age – perhaps in the 9th century BC – with all the various possibilities of the arrival of newcomers armed with bronze swords. We now know that cup-and-ring carving skills were very probably still present in the area at the time and were exercised then, possibly in defiance of the newcomers after the carved rock had been damaged by them. The original carved surface takes us right back to Neolithic times.

The present situation concerning quarrying.

Sheep Hill was scheduled as an ancient monument by the then Dept. of the Environment in 1970, after brief accounts of my excavations were published. I do not know when the cup-and ring rocks were scheduled but they were de-scheduled by Historic Scotland at the quarry firm’s request, probably soon after 1984 when I was asked to record them. In 1994 the carvings were sawn off and taken to the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. Sheep Hill was de-scheduled in about 2005, again at the quarry company’s request. At a meeting with Historic Scotland in Edinburgh Thompson’s representative apparently argued that there were no signs of human activity on Sheep Hill. My verbal assurances that there were, and the preliminary account of the excavations I published in 1976, were evidently not enough and a member of Historic Scotland was sent to the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow University to examine the finds and the records. Descheduling went ahead anyway, but the quarry failed to take advantage of this and the hillfort automatically became a scheduled monument again five years later. Now Thompson’s have to re-apply for de-scheduling prior to quarrying and there does not seem to be any doubt this will be granted again; if it is not granted the quarry firm will demand full compensation and it seems that no-one is willing to pay this. One understands that Historic Scotland is expected to accede to what the Scottish Government wants and the Minister for Local Government and Planning – Derek Mackay – has made it quite clear that no compensation will be forthcoming from that quarter. The only obstacle now is that West Dunbartonshire Council now have legal powers to issue a ROMP (Review of Mineral Permission) in which it could set new conditions that the quarry firm would have to abide by – for example to limit the environmental damage in some way. The only realistic hope now is that the archaeological uniqueness of the sites becomes more widely known and appreciated, and that consequent protests from the public will cause the Minister to think again. In the year of the referendum for an independent Scotland it would be sad if the present Scottish government allowed the destruction of such a unique pair of Scottish sites.

Our foremost chronicler of prehistoric rock carvings in Scotland, Ronald Morris, wrote of the Greenland carvings, “This is one of the finest examples of these carved rock surfaces in Scotland.” (1981, 103). It is surely nothing short of a national scandal that this priceless treasure was broken up and removed to make way for heaps of quarried rubble and I fully accept that I should have objected much more strongly about it at the time. The whole episode is an interesting example of how even professional archaeologists can simply assume that the public bodies that are supposed to protect our heritage are always able to do so. I have learnt the lesson and – being retired and less vulnerable – do not propose to let Sheep Hill go without vehement objections.


  • Bruce, J 1896 ‘Notice of remarkable groups of archaic sculpturings in Dumbartonshire and Stirlingshire’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 30 (1895-1896), 205-209.
  • Burgess, C 1990 The chronology of cup-and-ring marks in Atlantic Europe. Revue Archaeol Ouest, suppl. no. 2, 157-71.
  • Cowie, T (forth) Ceramic material associated with metalworking from Sheep Hill, Dumbarton. In MacKie forthcoming.
  • Davidson, J M 1935 A Bronze Age cemetery at Knappers, Kilbowie, Dunbartonshire. Proc. Soc. Antiq Scot 69 (1935-36), 352-82.
  • Davis, A 1991 Part 2: the metrology of the carvings. Pp. 150-55 in MacKie 1991.
  • MacKie, E W 1976 The vitrified forts of Scotland, in D.W. Harding (ed) Hillforts: later prehistoric earthworks in Britain and Ireland. Academic Press: London. 205-35.
    –– 1991 New light on Neolithic rock carving: the petroglyphs at Greenland (Auchentorlie), Dumbartonshire. Glasgow Archaeol Journ 15 (1988-89), 125-56 (with A Davis).
    –– 2008 The broch cultures of Atlantic Scotland: origins, high noon and decline. Part 1: Early Iron Age beginnings c. 700 – 200 BC. Oxford Journ Archaeol 27(3) (2008), 261-79.
    –– forth. Trial excavations on Sheep Hill, West Dunbartonshire,in 1966-70; a possible timber palisade, a late Bronze Age timber-framed dun and a small Iron Age hillfort. Scott. Arch. Journ.
  • Morris, R W B 1981 The prehistoric rock art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway). Oxford.
  • Schmidt, P K & Burgess, C B 1981 The axes of Scotland and northern England. Prahistorische Bronzefunde, ab IX, band 7. Munich.

We are indebted to Dr MacKie for permission to help build awareness of this remarkable site.


April 2015

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