The Iron Age Hill Fort at Kaimes Hill

Article in Konect Calders and Balerno August 2012

By James Thomson

Kaimes Hill, a dramatic rock outcrop between Kirknewton and Dalmahoy, sits apart from modern population development. Here a series of archaeological excavations since 1893 reveals that for several hundred years in pre-history this was prime real estate, a bustling fortified community, in effect an enhanced symbol of wealth, power and defence. 

The name Kaimes comes from either 'comb', as the peaks resemble a cock's comb, or from 'kaim' meaning camps or fortifications. Radiocarbon dating has shown that habitation was established by the early Iron Age around 1000 BC but, as up until the Roman occupation of Britain in 43 AD no written records exist, to fully understand this community and their leaders we can only rely on a series of assumptions.

Defences up at Kaimes had started out with a modest single earthern rampart but improvements led to multiple walls being built until a series of three or four had been established. “Barracks” came in the form of an impressive total of thirty four hut circles, in itself a sizeable community for this period. Kaimes now ranked as a 'multivallate' or multiple rampart hill fort and in addition the Kaimes hill fort builders had deployed extra lines of defence in the form of a series of closely set upright stones. Known today as “chevaux de frise”, these were sharp projecting stones used as defense against attack from below.

Unlike Classical Greece or Ancient Egypt, Iron Age Scotland was a world of simple rural settlement, one that at this time had no economic, political or religious need to build major tombs or ceremonial sites. So what drove this significant development at Kaimes? Possibly the threat of Roman invasion (its Empire was steadily expanding across Europe) may have spurred the Kaimes people to stay in place and maintain or even update defences, especially once Julius Caesar started expeditions into the south of England. Carbon dating shows some roundhouses significantly pre-date the ramparts so it might be that a barely defended hill top community added the reassurance of some protection as the Romans marched towards Britain. The Lothians had many other hill forts, the most significnant being on Traprain Law (Haddington), which was probably the centre of tribal power, with various smaller satellite sites on hills and outcrops including Dun Eidyn (Edinburgh Castle). Kaimes was certainly the major site near the ancient paths through the Pentlands connecting with the Iron Age hill forts at Braidwood and Castlelaw close to modern day Penicuik.

Kaimes may well have moved between use as a permanent settlement and a seasonal meeting place but would help project prestige for whoever wanted to influence the immediate locality. Another theory is that such hilltop enclosures were originally new agricultural communities aimed at achieving social cohesion; there had been a long term downturn in climate from warmer, drier conditions around 2000 BC and agricultural land had been lost as low lying marsh areas proliferated. This may have increased the practice of moving to higher ground and the assumption that, at least to begin with, they were not chiefly military installations. A not dissimilar proposition combines agricultural changes with military use as competition between neighbouring groups for control of the remaining productive land lead to warfare, and that this then led to the conception of hillforts.

Feasting was also likely to have been on the agenda during the period of the settlement at Kaimes, as dispensing prodigious quantities of alcoholic drink to followers was an important part of the political career of a prehistoric leader during this time. The ability to give feasts awash with alcoholic liquor was seen as a key part of a leader's claim to rule. The only alcoholic drinks were mead (made from fermented honey) or beer; beer, however, was in those times a pretty weak concoction.

Once the Romans arrived everything is likely to have changed, but not necessarily for the worse. Over a period of one hundred and fifty years Roman policies to the north of Britain became variable to say the least. They had first pushed beyond the Firth of Forth and established a significant frontier system of forts and watch towers, known as the Gask Ridge, around 70 AD which was the earliest Roman land frontier in Britain. They then retired their frontier south in 122 AD to Hadrian's Wall, which has been considered by some as the most heavily fortified border in the Roman Empire. They then moved north again and spent 12 years from 142 AD building the Antonine Wall, which stretched west from Bo'ness, before again abandoning their gains and consigning the Lothians to a kind of friendly buffer zone working strategically with the local tribes, perhaps with regular bribes of jewelry and wine. Nine miles south west is the Roman Fortlet of Castle Greg (Harburn), purportedly used during the Roman advance; four miles due north their later supply routes to the west ran through Newbridge; five miles to the south, a Roman Road ran along the far side of the Pentlands - so Kaimes was very close to all this activity.

North across the Forth the Picts were also in the ascendant. With sporadic Roman manoeuvres and neighbourly aggression as the Picts tried to push the Romans south, it was no time to forget the benefits of a well defended hill fort. In fact the Firth of Forth itself had become Scotland's main de facto maritime "military demarcation line" against the Picts and in the event of this tribe invading the Lothians the hill forts were an ideal second line of defence. As the first Roman advance would have been a far more organised military campaign than anything seen before, so the continuing diplomatic contact between Romans and buffer zone tribes could well have been seen as advantageous to any community or leaders who could show they had control of their respective hill fort.

Today a walk up Kaimes Hill will reward you with fantastic views, the obvious remains of grassy ramparts on the eastern side, and you see the ample supply of stone that would have been used during the heyday of this populated hill fort. What exactly caused it's development may never be known in any detail but the fact that the fort's main defences had been constructed in time for the arrival of the Imperial Army of Rome must hold a clue. 

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