Auchterhouse Community

The Archaeological Remains of Auchterhouse Parish


The entire sweep of land comprising the Sidlaw uplands and the lower land of the Angus coastal plain has been settled and farmed for thousands of years and outstanding ancient monuments survive throughout the area to testify to this rich, long heritage.

Auchterhouse parish comprises an area of about 9 square miles, made up in its northern part of the rising slopes of the Sidlaw Hills and to the south more gently undulating land with the Dronley Burn flowing through it.

Significant archaeological remains and evidence survive in the parish. This consists of standing structures and visible humps and bumps in the ground, objects in the local (Dundee) and national (Edinburgh) museum collections, and in the form of cropmarks of destroyed sites that show up on aerial photographs. In the last twenty years in particular, archaeological aerial surveys have revealed exciting evidence of early ritual and settlement sites.

Cumulatively this evidence demonstrates a long history of settlement and farming.

First settlers and farmers - 5500 - 3000 years ago (3500 BC - 1000 BC)

The surviving evidence for the earliest human settlement which began around 5500 years ago is provided by finds of first stone and then bronze tools. These tools were used to perform tasks such as chopping down trees to clear areas of woodland to make fields for the first farms - the first farmers grew cereal crops (wheat and barley), and kept animals - cattle and sheep - and to produce timber for houses and barns.

A decorated sandstone spindle whorl found near Bonnyton (now in Dundee Museum) shows that wool was spun into thread which in turn would be woven into cloth. Unfortunately, no traces survive of any of the earliest domestic structures but the settled way of life enabled people to have the time, energy and desire to build ritual and funerary monuments, evidence for which does survive.

Aerial photography has revealed cropmark evidence of a possible henge monument at Dronley Wood. A henge is a type of site comprising a circular area enclosed by a ditch with outer bank through which there may be either one or two entrances. Within the enclosure there may have been a setting, also circular, of timber or stone uprights. The Dronley example has one entrance like that at Balfarg near Glenrothes, Fife, remains of which can still be seen.

A stone circle recorded at Templelands was destroyed in the 19th century for the construction of the Dundee-Newtyle railway but the stone circle of Balluderon (lying just outside the parish) can still be seen today. Stone circles and henge monuments probably provided focal points for communal ceremonial activities perhaps connected to the burial of the dead, or the seasons of the year.

Although we do not now understand or have knowledge about the reason or purpose behind the cup markings on stones such as those recorded around Sidlaw Hospital they may perhaps also have had something to do with ritual practices. (A good example of a cup and ring marked stone can still be seen at Tealing souterrain site, see below).

The evidence for funerary activity is provided by the survival of a circular burial mound to the south of Dronley House and a stone cairn on the top of Hill of West Mains. The cairn was excavated in 1897 revealing a double stone burial cist (box) containing burnt bones and a bronze dagger blade with bronze rivets and fragments of an ox-horn hilt. (These objects are in the National Museum). This type of short cist burial can contain a crouched inhumation or cremated bones and is typical of the period around 2000 BC Other cists reported to have been discovered in the parish in the 19th century may also date to this period. (A reconstruction of such a burial can be seen in Dundee Museum).

Later settlement - 3000 - 1500 years ago (1000 BC - 500 AD)

The construction of massive hilltop fortifications occurred around 500 BC throughout most of the country and may reflect a trend in society for the accumulation of personal wealth and centralisation of power and control. These hillforts were often defended by timber laced stone ramparts with outer ditches.

Houses may have been built within the defended area but there has been little excavation within hillforts so it is not known if these sites were occupied permanently or simply in times of trouble.
The fort on Auchterhouse Hill is protected by a set of five ramparts and ditches on the east and south east only, because to the south and west the steep sloping ground affords natural defence. The internal area of the fort is covered with trees making it impossible to identify traces of internal structures. (There are similar forts also on Dundee Law, Craighill (near Kellas) and Laws of Monifieth). In recent years, aerial survey has revealed evidence of the great number of scattered settlements dating from about 100 BC to AD 500

The round houses in which people lived were built mainly of timber and traces of these structures survive only to be seen as cropmarks on aerial photographs. There is a partial reconstruction of one such house in Dundee Museum. Many of these settlements were associated with souterrains, elongated underground structures which lay adjacent to or connected to individual house structures. The souterrain walls were built with large boulders and the structure roofed with stone lintels or maybe with wooden beams covered with turf or stone. Their purpose is uncertain, but they are thought to have provided storage space for foodstuffs and for wintering animals. The souterrains at Tealing and at Ardestie and Carlungie (on the Dundee-Arbroath road) can be visited. Two probably souterrains, one near Auchterhouse Tower and the other near Auchterhouse Church were discovered in the 18th century but have since been destroyed.

There is now evidence however, from aerial photographs, for five further souterrain sites in the Auchterhouse area, demonstrating that the parish was well settled and farmed in the period. The sites are at East Adamston, two at Burnhead of Auchterhouse, Bonnyton and Quarry House.
Although there are no known funerary or ritual sites associated with these settlements it is now recognised that a type of burial known as a long cist commonly occurs at this period. The long cist is a slab-lined grave in which was placed a fully extended body. Examples of long cist burials have been recorded from the area of Sidlaw Hospital and Leoch and Templeton farms.

Early historic and medieval settlement (AD 500 - 1600)

Although the whole of Angus was an important area for the Picts some 1500 years ago no pieces of Pictish sculptured stone are recorded as having been found in the Auchterhouse area. This is probably just an accident of history or survival as, for example, Martin's Stone stands just beyond the eastern boundary and there is the name 'Pitpointie' in the parish, pit or pett being Pictish for a part of share. The medieval period from 1100 - 1600 saw the development of villages and towns as places of settlement with churches and castles providing the evidence for spiritual and secular strength and influence respectively.

The village settlement of Auchterhouse was under the jurisdiction of the Earl of Buchan by the end of the 15th century but must have been well established by the thirteenth century when the parish church, dedicated to St Mary, is first mentioned. The present building is largely 18th century but incorporates some earlier stonework dating to the 15th century.

Auchterhouse Castle (for several years the Mansion House Hotel and now a private dwelling) belonged to the Earl of Buchan and was perhaps originally an extended tower-house structure, begun in the 15th century. It may have been built round a courtyard, defended by walls and towers of which the vaulted ground floor of one may survive, now known as the Wallace Tower. A 17th century conical dovecot (a source of fresh meat for the household) still survives.