Tayside and Angus have many ancient fortified sites. Many of those are to be found on hilltops and other places such as coastal promontories, where natural obstacles added greatly to the security of the stronghold. It is believed that they testify to a troubled period when communities found it necessary to fortify their settlements against attack by their neighbours or others.
Among some of the Hill Forts in Angus Dundee Law Hill. West Mains of Ethie , Inverkeillor. Red Head, Inverkeillor. Pitscandly Hill, Rescobie. Turin Hill, Aberlemno. White Caterthun, Menmuir. Brown Caterthun, Menmuir. Finavon, Oathlaw. Laws Fort, Kingennie.
Our place of interest today is of course Laws Fort & Broch at Kingennie. It is of interest to note that the name Laws occurs in other locations. Law:- Old Norse, Log, `Law` which means a hill of the meeting place or rock, where the Old Norse custom of reading out laws took place. Laws Hill, Kingennie is in the Parish of Monifieth rises to an elevation of 400 feet above sea level On the summit are the remains of what had once been a large fortification. The site occupies an area of about two acres, having an almost eliptical boundary about 370 yards in circumference. The length from east to west is approximately 170 yards. The greatest width is 70yards. It`s position is one of the highest elevations in the district.
As a defensive position it was the strongest possible. There was a good water supply from springs and the walls of which vestiges remain, in the shape of enormous masses of stonework, point to an almost impregnable fortification, according to the warfare conditions of early times. The fort belongs to the class called vitrified—– the stone being bound together by glaze, that can be produced by fire so hot and so long applied, as to fuse the stones until they become as though they were connected by a cement resembling melted ore. The written records of historic interest were the work of the Romans and the Irish.
The Roman occupation of Britain, which lasted approximately 350 years, is thought to have involved the Strathmore area on three or four occasions. These periods of incursion lasted on each occasion for no more than a few years. Roman Legionnaires in this area were under the command of Julius Agricola when they were marching north to defeat the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Grapius, somewhere further north. This was in the year 84 AD. It has never been proved where this conflict took place. Many historians have their own ideas and conclusions. One of the most probable places high on the list of possible sites being Capo, at Stracathro, close by the river North Esk, which is also the site of an enormous well preserved early Neolithic long barrow. (Circa 4000 BC) By AD 87 Roman control of Strathmore was abandoned. From the first mention of Picts, raiding was their primary occupation, which the Romans seemed powerless to stop. In 343 AD Emperor Septimus Severus himself came to Britain to deal with the `barbarians`. (Some believe that the Picts were merely descendents of the Caledonian Britons, or the remnants of pre Celtic aboriginals. Radio carbon dating of a plank of wood from Finavon Hill Fort dates it as having been built sometime in the 7th or 6th century BC. This suggests that the hillforts in Angus were in use much earlier than previously supposed, with direct connections by the builders as having originated from the Continent migrating to the area in advance of iron technology) The Antonine and Hadrians Walls were other Roman planned deterrents . Severus did not try to bring the Caledonians to battle, but aimed to wipe them out by systematic devastation of the landscape, hanging native chiefs, burning crops, killing livestock and destroying the `hill forts` by setting the timber laced walls on fire, melting or vitrifying the stone. Severus`s policy in other words was a form of ethnic cleansing and appears to have been successful.
There was a century of peace, when Scotland was once more ruled by the Picts. Unfortunately we do not have a picture taken from the air of Laws Fort, however one of Brown Catherun gives some indication of the vast defence systems and extensive area covered by a `hill fort`.
The difficulty at arriving at a true conception of what the fort was like has been increased by the fact that it formed a convenient quarry for all building purposes in the neighbourhood. How long it was so utilized is unknown, but it is written by a land steward who informed a late proprietor of `The Laws`, that the stones were there when required for dykes, drains or other purposes on the estate. It was the practice to discover a wall and then to work it out so far as the stones were suitable, leaving the larger stones lower down: during these workings crude graves, lined and covered up with flagstones were found, containing human skeletons. It is stated that in four years from 1818 to 1822, 9600 cartloads of stones were removed for drainage purposes, and that his informant remembered seeing one cist enclosed with slabs and containing human bones. Many pieces of `tobacco` pipes made of clay, not differing much from the modern shape but clumsier and thicker, were also found. This raises the question were they used to smoke tobacco or some other substance? From the amount of stones carried away in the four years alluded to, some idea of the magnitude of the buildings may be formed. Two cartloads would build more than a cubic yard of wall, so that 9600 cart loads would account for over 4800 yards of masonry. That amount would build a solid tower 50 feet square and 52 feet high, or a wall a mile long, 6 feet high and over 4 feet thick. This can only represent a mere fraction of the original quantity of stones with which the outer ramparts, towers, buildings and dividing walls had been constructed. It is a daunting thought that the materials for building all the stonework would require to be man handled to the hill top and manoeuvred into position. What size of labour force would be necessary to complete this task?
In 1834, when Mr Colville bought the property, the summit of the hill was broken up by hollows and masses of rubbish that had been thrown up, when the stones were removed, and soon after this period the surface was leveled, portions of the walls thrown over near the east end, and the whole planted with trees. The formation of a garden in 1836, at the south base of the hill revealed a large quantity of bones, both human and lower animals, and among those remains were several spearheads of iron. Dr Jamieson has recorded a description of the fort as he found it in 1747. Two walls of vitrified matter surround the hill. The inner was a distance of several paces from the outer and had served as a back wall to several houses, the foundations which were seen.
Buildings of a small size seemed at parts to have existed between between the two surrounding walls. Running nearly through the middle of the fort, from north to south a wall was found, which probably had been designed to form a separation between the defenders and their cattle. The main entrance was a the north east side, but there appeared to be another on the west side. Mr Neish in his excavations in 1859, found all over the summit of the hill, bones of animals such as the ox, the horse, the boar and the deer, the greatest of which were found at the bottom of walls. To prehistoric people crops and animals were vital for survival and so it is thought those communities had a range of beliefs relating to the fertility of crops and stock. Archaeological excavations of many prehistoric sites have revealed items such as the remains of a horse and animal bones. Quern stones for grinding corn have also been placed in certain places for religious reasons. Roman writers recorded how the `people of northern Europe revered water and trees as places to communicate with their Gods
The `Roundhouse or Bonehouse` was built around the Victorian period and served as a display area for the `finds`. It is debatable as to whether or not it was originally for this purpose. Human bones and articles including a stone cup, a sword, querns and iron implements were also found. In 1854 a stone lamp or censor was discovered by Mr Jervise, now in the Antiquarian Museum , Edinburgh. It is a cup shaped vessel, (the cavity of which has a burnt appearance) nearly five inches in diameter, with a groove encircling it and others at right angles where cords or twigs suspending it has been drawn. Much of what Mr Neish excavated is covered with vegetation. The researches of these antiquaries have shed a little light upon the unwritten history of this spot, but it`s mystery remains and probably will remain. It is almost impossible with any certainty to pick up any traces remaining and to reconstruct, with any certainty the plan and arrangement of the fort. Originally no doubt a small stronghold had been built on the hill as a defence against the intermittent warfare, the walls of the defence would be continually extended and strengthened, until the whole hill-top had been covered by huge ramparts of stone surrounding central buildings with space sufficient for the accommodation of cattle, when attack was threatened by a superior force. The buildings on the Laws must have taken many hundreds of years to construct. Brochs were a type of circular dry stone built fort, mainly with an inner courtyard of about 32 feet in diameter, containing a central well. The 12 feet thick walls had internal stairs and chambers and the may have housed wooden floors and balconies on the upper levels. They were covered by a hide or thatched roof. Brochs are sometimes compared to medieval castles.
Laws Broch has a sixteen-foot thick wall and is thirty-five feet in diameter in the interior. Brochs can usually be dated at around the first century AD, about the time of the withdrawal of the Romans. The nearby constructions of prehistoric settlements and souterrains at Ardownie, Ardestie and Carlungie , were according to learned historians occupied by a people who were farmers and fishermen. In times of danger from other peoples was the fort a place of safety for families with their animals? According to the Roman historians the Picts had neither forts or cities. In the sixth century forts undoubtedly existed, as Columba on his visit to Brude found “the gates of the castle was shut against him“. North Grange Farm would give some indication of Roman occupation in the area with two of the fields named North Roman and Mid Roman also an area known as Roman Hill.
In his book the “Monikie Story“ , the Rev. Douglas Chisolm, tells a story of `women with children, slowly making their way up the hill, the struggling group eventually going through the opening to safety in the walled ditches of the fort. The men already there, on guard watching for the approaching enemy.
Nothing can be certain , however, little is known of the origin of this or any of the hill forts in Scotland and the process by which vitrification of the stones was accomplished has never yet been satisfactorily accounted for. Towards the close of the eighteenth century, two workmen, who had been employed in some operation about the hill, came upon the foundations of a building where they found a considerable treasure of gold coins. They went to London where they sold them for bullion and the incident only came to light, when upon the division of the spoils, one of the finders, being dis-satisfied with his share, accused his comrade of defrauding him of fifty pounds. (New Statistical Account)
The earliest owners of the Laws are unknown. Its commanding situation and the vestiges which remain of the vitrified fort show that it has been a place of great importance in prehistoric times. The first proprietor of Laws, of whom we know anything was the sixth Earl of Angus, who having married the widow of James 1V and secured the young King in prison ward, was named a rebel and in 1528 forfeited all his possessions among which were Laws, Omachie and one third of Monifieth. In 1537 Master Thomas Erskine, King James`s Secretary received these estates along with others from his Royal Master, but his speedy transfer of Laws to Henry Ramsay, suggests that cash was more important to the purpose of the secretary than landed property. Three years later in 1540 Henry granted to his son John, the sunny side of Laws and the shady side of Baldovie. A few years later the Ramsays have disappeared from the Laws their place being taken by William Durham of Grange and his family. Successive generations of the Durham family remained in the possession of Laws until about the end of the seventeenth century, when the estate passed into the hands of that speculator George Dempster, Merchant & Reformer, son of the Minister of Monifieth. In 1771 the lands were again on the market when Sir Alexander Ramsay Irvine of Balmain, was the purchaser of the estate, along with Omachie Shank, part of Drumsturdy Muir and the Templelands of Law, called Muirheads. These estates which Sir Alexander Ramsay Irvine purchased and entailed, passed in 1806 to the ownership of Sir Alexander Ramsay, formerly A Burnet, Esq. Advocate. He reduced the entail in 1807, and 1818 sold the whole to David Millar of Ballumbie. Two years later the estates were sold a small part of Templelands of Muirhead of Drumsturdy, by Patrick Anderson, the son of the tenant of Balmossie. In 1834 Laws was purchased by Mr Thomas Colville who had large interests in India.
Mr Colville built the mansion house. The estate was purchased from the trustees of Mr William Colville on 16th August 1850 by Mr James Neish, merchant. After a lifetime in the production of fabrics, in 1857 Mr Neish retired. The estate passed on to Mr William Neish Barrister –at – Law in 1882. The Mansion House was demolished and all that remains is the `kitchen wing` which has since served as a `tooth factory, a grain dryer and store. The Laws is now owned by the Reid family , who also farm the adjoining Balmossie. Permission must be requested and granted by the owners before visiting one of Scotland`s Prehistoric Settlements. This perhaps ensures the existence of Laws fort for future generations. With no archaeological survey or investigations the age of the construction remains a mystery. It is certainly thousands of years old, possibly predating Egypt`s Pyramids.
NOTE – access to the fort can only be gained by the permission of the Reid family of Laws farm..
by Mhairi Pyott
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