The village of Burghead stands on a narrow promontory of land projecting north west into the outer Moray Firth a little over seven miles north west of Elgin. The tip of the promontory remains largely undeveloped, and it is here that you can still see some traces of a fortress that was occupied for around five hundred years and was quite possibly one of the most important centres of power in what later became Scotland.
The fortress, more properly called a promontory fort, at Burghead was large, covering an area of three hectares or 7.5 acres. This made it three times the size of any other centre of power in Early Historic Scotland. The fort seems to have been occupied from the late 300s and continued as a major centre until the late 800s. In 884 Torridun, as it was known at the time, was captured by Sigurd the Powerful, the Norse Earl of Orkney. The indications are that Sigurd rebuilt the fortress and it then became a centre of Norse power in Moray until their defeat by the Scots in 1010. Under the Norse the fortress became known by the Danish name Burghe, which much later became Burghe-head.
The spectacular earthworks that continued to stand on the promontory until 1805 caused considerable interest among our more recent ancestors, who tended to attribute them either to the Norse or to the Romans, who almost certainly penetrated this far into Caledonia.
The truth seems to be rather different. It is now generally agreed that Moray was the heartland of the Pictish Kingdom of Fortriu. This was peopled by the tribe referred to by the Romans as the Verturiones, whose descendents are sometimes known as Waerteras, but much more commonly just referred to as the northern Picts: to distinguish them from the southern Picts who lived in what is now Perthshire and Angus.
A kingdom as important and long lasting as Fortriu must have had a capital, and there is no other site which seems to fit the role nearly as convincingly as the Burghead Promontory Fort. Archaeological excavations suggest that the highest point of the headland had been fortified in the early Iron Age, and that settlement here dates back even further, to the Bronze Age. But it seems to have been during the 300s that the Verturiones became sufficiently significant to need the sort of fortress that evolved over the following centuries at Burghead.
What did evolve was a 3 hectare fortress that occupied a large part of the headland, extending well beyond the current open area to encompass parts of what later became the village of Burghead. The fortress had two distinct areas. The smaller, higher, area occupying the south west side of the promontory has been variously described as the upper ward or the citadel, while the larger area on the north east side of the promontory tends to be called either the lower ward or the annex. It seems the citadel provided the high status accommodation of the king and his retainers plus a hall and other "public" buildings, while the annex accommodated the support services and more of the lower status members of Fortriu society.
The fortress was surrounded by a massive rampart up to 25ft or 8m thick and nearly 20ft or 6m high, with a similar rampart dividing the citadel from the annex. The landward side of the fortress was additionally defended by three further chevron shaped ramparts on the landward side. A significant harbour was built on the north west side of the promontory, outside the annex but within the protection afforded by the triple outer ramparts. This would have served the commercial needs of the fortress, but may also have been a base for warships intended to support the military ambitions of the Pictish King of Fortriu.
At the start of the 1800s, the Pictish fortress, as destroyed and rebuilt by the Norse and later lived in during the medieval period, was still a remarkably impressive monument. This all changed in the years between 1805 and 1809. The old settlement of Burghead, which had grown along the south west side of the promontory clear of the area of the fort, was rebuilt virtually from scratch as a planned town intended to provide a living for Highlanders dispossessed by the clearances, and a healthy income for the laird. To make way for the new village the triple outer ramparts were levelled, while the stone in the encircling ramparts was largely reused in the construction of a large new harbour immediately to the south of the citadel.
During this process some thirty Pictish stones carrying carvings of bulls were recovered, a symbol found nowhere else in Scotland. The whereabouts of only six are now known, divided between museums in Edinburgh, London, Elgin and Burghead itself. The rest were presumably built into the structure of the harbour.
Today the best place to begin an exploration of the promontory fort is the Burghead Visitor Centre, which occupies a white circular structure built on the headland as a coastguard lookout. This provides an excellent idea of just how impressive the fortress once was. Here, too, you can see one of the bull stones recovered during the destruction of the fortress in the early 1800s and a number of other Pictish stones. From the lookout on top of the visitor centre it is possible to appreciate the shape of parts of the citadel and annex, and especially the differences in level between them. On the far side of the road that crosses the headland is Doorie Hill. This once formed part of the rampart and is another excellent viewpoint over the area of the fortress, as well as over the built up areas of Burghead. Today Doorie Hill is home on 11 January each year to the conclusion of "the Burning of the Clavie", a fire festival with strong Norse overtones in which a burning barrel is carried around the town.
Two other locations associated with the fortress are worth looking at. Tourist signs lead to Burghead Well, a mysterious structure now reached through a gate in an alley in the village, but once located within the annex or lower ward of the fortress. Not far away is a graveyard which was once the site of an early Christian chapel dedicated to St Aethan that seems to have stood between two of the outer defensive ramparts of the fortress.