Fort of the Spear Shafts

Dunpelder was the old name, the Cumbric name. Later people call it Traprain Law, Trefpren or Trefbryn, “hill by the farm of the tree” or “hill by the farm of the hill.” The older name means “fort of the spear shafts,” which tells you exactly what held pride of place atop the isolated, flat-topped hill. The hill, situated on a ridge, dominates the valley and land around it. The instant I saw it from the highway, I knew exactly what it had to be. And I became excited.

The hill, like a few others scattered around the edges of the Firth of Forth, is a laccolith, a bubble of magma that didn’t quite become a volcano. The core of the hill is made of phonolite*, a rather unusual-for-Scotland igneous rock. Part of the hill has been quarried away, and although you can, in theory, hike or climb up and down that side of the hill. it’s not smart unless you have a friend or two, ropes, and rock-climbing gear. The magma intruded during the Carboniferous, 358 MYA to 298 MYA, or the start of the Permian. Come the Ice Ages, the lump eroded to a crag-and-tail formation, similar to Edinburgh Castle’s rock and the lump in Sterling now crowned with the Wallace monument. The Law is about 360 feet tall, 720 feet above sea level, so not enormous but quite respectable, with relatively steep sides. Keep that in mind . . .

Because it was so unusual, and has a truly commanding view of the mouth of the Firth as well as inland, it has been used by people for a very, very long time. The most famous layer is an Iron Age (pre-Roman) fort attributed to the Votadini tribe. Apparently they got along with the Romans, and a hoard of 44 pounds(!) of Roman “hack-silver” was found on the Law in 1919. This is silver that was broken up and given away by the pound in order to reward [bribe] tribes to be friends of the Romans. The hill was abandoned in the 500s or so, and there is some thought that the people moved to Dun Eiden, or the Burgh of Eiden. The local people still sometimes call the hill “Dunpelder.” Dun means fort, pelder is related to the Cyrmic (Welsh) word for “spear shaft.”

The hill today is out in the very rural countryside of East Lothian, east of Edinburgh. The weather was mild with good visibility below a broken overcast and a nice westerly wind. Great weather for climbing up a steep, grassy hill. I bounced out of the car, sorted out the gate’s complicated latch and three-step entry process, and strode west along the base of the hill. Everyone else followed at a more dignified pace. The trail starts pretty flat and gentle, winds back and forth up the west end of the Law, and then doubles back. That’s where it starts to get steep. I’d guess a 10-15% grade. If the grass had been damp, it would have been very entertaining for the people watching me. As it was I probably sounded like a small steam-engine, huffing and puffing.

I think I can, I think I can . . .

This is where the story gets odd. As you would expect on a week-day with school still in session, the place was not busy. A family with a 4-5 year old was coming down after a lunch picnic, and I met a very fit lady hiker once I reached the top. Otherwise? Just me, the ravens and other birds, and the wind. The rest of the group looked at the first really steep slope and decided that staying on more level terrain was the better part of valor. Two and a half weeks before, I would have agreed with them, because I was so out of shape it’s embarrassing. On that day? No. I charged up the slope.

Why the rush? Because something was calling me. For lack of a better word, I felt like something wonderful waited for me and wanted me to come up and look around. There was a sort of euphoria that got stronger and stronger as I trotted up the slope and passed the remains of the prehistoric turf wall that formed one of the defenses of the hill-fort proper. Everything was right – the wind, the birds, the land around me. I didn’t get the mild to strong negative sensations I encountered at the Varus battlefield in Germany, or at the neolithic sites in the Kilmartin Glen. No, the Law liked me. Which sounds terribly strange, and doesn’t really get the feelings across, but it’s as close as I can come.

Half-way up or so, looking north. Did I mention that the Law dominates the landscape?

I’m sure some of it was the sheer pleasure of actually being physically able to climb the Law. I didn’t gasp or ache like I had back at Hadrian’s Wall, even though the slope was almost as steep. I literally trotted up the 360 feet or so of vertical elevation. I’d plodded, with multiple stops, up the Sill. The adrenaline was running, and had been since I launched from the car. Which, again, had not happened before.

The wind gusted around the hill, stirring the pony-cropped grasses and making the wild-flowers dance. Ravens glided below me, catching the wind as they launched from nests in the quarry face at the east end of the Law. Unseen songbirds chirped and warbled as well. To the west, I could see the blue-distant hills beyond Edinburgh, a dark, rumpled line separating the lush, grassy landscape around me from the blue and white sky. To the north, another Law stood between Traprain and the Firth, with more uplands lumping in an indigo line just beyond the shimmering, pale blue line of the Firth of Forth. The sky blended into the water as I looked east, the North Sea swallowing the horizon, quiet and mild for the moment. I smelled grass, and “clean,” no dust or smoke or other things. Bird song, raven caws, and the rush of the wind alone filled my ears. I walked above traffic noise, and soon above the ravens as well. My breathing, the birds, and the wind were the only sounds in the world.

Just outside the ghost of the old turf wall.

And so I reached the crest.

For someone expecting to find a reconstruction of a fort or something like that, the top would be a disappointment. I was thrilled. The foundations of the Iron Age fort are just visible through the grass, not far from a “wind cairn.” If you don’t know what you are looking at, it would be easy to mistake the ring of dry-stone wall**, not quite waist high on me, for the ruins. Instead, the lower, grass and woody-shrub covered oval of dirt and white rocks marks the ancient fort. Here, people feasted and planned for war, here chieftains received embassies and raised families, here people fled to for protection in times of danger, perhaps. The semi-wild ponies that crop the grasses and mug visitors for treats remained elsewhere that day, so I roamed unpestered. The wind made the plants and grasses dance, bowing to the east. It felt good, happy, welcoming. As if I belonged there.

The Iron Age fort, looking west toward Edinburgh.
The wind cairn and the North Sea.
The fort, and the Firth of Forth.

When I got ready to hike down, nothing urged me to linger. Whatever I sensed, it didn’t try to lure me or bother me, it didn’t whisper to me to stay. I stayed very happy, content, full of delight and joy . . . And wary of turning an ankle, because I wasn’t wearing proper hiking boots, and did NOT want to misstep on the way down. Down is always more of a challenge than up, at least for me. Gravity has never been my friend.

Of all the places I went, monuments I visited, ancient ruins and remnants I circled, Traprain Law . . . It moved me, touched me in a way I feel a bit sheepish trying to explain. That afternoon . . . was the happiest, most joy-full I felt on the entire trip. I’ve not had that sensation in a very long time. Wonder, excitement, mild awe, all the feelings that blend together into joy, a deep joy that lingered well into the evening. It almost felt . . . Almost as if that hike, and staring around from the top of the hill, was the whole point of the trip. Which makes absolutely no sense at all, but that’s the closest I can come to explaining what went through me as I stood atop that wind-washed hill, staring out at the North Sea as ravens and hooded crows glided below me.

*The name comes from the fact that some forms of it making a ringing sound when tapped with a rock hammer. It’s rare because you need a mantle plume or other hard-core hotspot to create. It has no crystals in it per se because of the lack of silica.

** Wind-cairns are to protect hikers caught in storms and so on. I can well believe that being atop the Law in any sort of rough weather could become dangerous very quickly.

7 thoughts on “Fort of the Spear Shafts

  1. Gravity has never been my friend either! I have the scars and sore tendons to vouch for that. I will take the steep way up a hill rather than take it down (if there’s a choice). Your description of Traprain Law is very evocative.

    I had a similar emotional experience walking Exmoor last weekend. Sometimes a hill just takes you.

  2. Glad you enjoyed our country, it’s often said that up on the moors you can experience four seasons in one day.

    • Indeed. I used to read a blog by a gentleman who lived on the edge of Dartmoor. He always dreaded seeing people going by on the footpath wearing “city clothes” as he called it, and without rain gear, heavier jackets, and other things for bad weather. He’d been called out too often to help find people caught by fast changes in the weather.

      It really is a beautiful place, at least what I’ve seen of it. Scotland and the Borders are an enormous contrast to East Anglia and the tiny bit of London that I’ve wandered through.

  3. I’ve hiked or walked to a few places that had the same type of attraction. Hmm. That’s a great description of a hike and site.

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