Vitrified Fort at the Torr, Shielfoot

A vitrified fort stands above the estuary of the River Shiel on a high vantage point. It probably predates Castle Tioram on the opposite shore by a thousand years.

The notes below were produced for visitors conducted over the site during Highland Archaeology week in October 2002.

Before about 5,000 BC, the sea level was much higher than it is today and The Torr would have been a tidal island, and no doubt used from time to time by Moidart people.

A number of bog oak have been dug up during the peat cutting over the years indicating forest cover beneath the moss during the climatic optimum about 4,000 BC. The Torr has probably had a tree cover on it since about 5,500BC.

Cowley's map of 1734 shows it to be densely wooded, and possibly even planted.

The two summits of The Torr have been fenced separately by stone and turf dykes which have been designed to keep animals out, and not in, indicating that they were wood dykes. Cowley names The Torr as "Toragaltroman", an early name which has fallen out of use, and which cannot be translated.

The woodland is dominated by oak, but there is also birch, rowan, hazel, alder and holly. One or two oak have been pollarded, and there are a lot of very ancient coppice stools. The woodland here was an important resource in times gone by. There is a local tradition of gathering and storing birch twigs for winter fodder, and cutting fresh holly for winter feed.

The 19th Century cottage was demolished quite recently. Drill holes in some of the stones indicate quarrying using "feather and plug". The byre against the hill has a clearly defined "grip" or dung channel.

A recessed platform on the east side of the fort has been used for charcoal burning, but may have been the foundation of a roundhouse a thousand years or so ago. Another two have been recorded on the east side of the south summit, and there may be others.

The field between the two summits has probably been used since prehistoric times, and is normally approached by a hollow way on the east side. A spring under the wall has probably been used since prehistoric times, and has been enclosed to form a well, which would have had a cover in the past, to keep it clean.

The vitrified fort(s) are Iron Age in date, but could have been built at any time between about 500 BC and 600 AD. Access was by way of a gently sloping terrace from the SSW. This was improved by the removal of debris which was used in the walls of the fort. The entrance to the lower fort is through a clearly defined gateway, with a small sub-rectangular platform just inside. To the NE is a platform measuring 7.5x2.5m, which could be a house or a workshop. There is a spectacular view from the SE corner of the lower fort.

There is no obvious entrance to the heavily vitrified fort, and access may have been by ladder. An oval platform in the SE corner may have been for a look-out post. The circular hollow in the bottom may have been a roundhouse site, 9m in diameter, with a 5m square working platform alongside. The vitrified wall here is still 2.7m high and 4.5m thick. How was it built? There must have been a breastwork and a wall-walk/fighting platform. There is a constriction in the wall to the NNW; was this the limit of the original fort, and the long narrow section added later?

The long narrow section of the fort was rarely more than 4m wide. It could have been roofed over to form a covered access, or perhaps a store or souterrain. The Royal Commission described the vitrified structure on the end as a dun, built on top of the wall of the earlier fort.

I think it was contemporary with the fort, and that we are now seeing the remains of a timber laced round-house foundation. As at the vitrified fort at Rahoy, there is no entrance. This must have been at first floor level, and approached by a catwalk from the "tunnel", with the ground floor acting as a cellar.

Attempts to produce vitrified walls experimentally have failed, and more work is required here. We need to know at what temperature the stone becomes molten, and whether these temperatures can be achieved by dried oak, fired with a backing wind. We also need to know how the walls were constructed - with gabions holding the stones, and sections bonded together with oak poles? How was the breastwork and the wall-walk fixed, and how did you get onto it? The twin forts on Goat Island could be interpreted as fortified settlements, and The Torr may also be twin but conjoined fortified settlements, and not a single fort and annex with a later vitrified dun.

In the field below, the "improved" house was probably constructed in the first half of the 19th century. It is built into the bank without a drainage channel. The corners are rounded, the roof would have been thatched, with the hearth in the middle of the floor. Behind is a small (?) barn, and across the field is a byre with a central dung channel. On the edge of the field is another spring and well. In the wood below is a pit, which could have been used for charcoal burning, or for burning twigs to produce potash.

The dyke which encloses the woodland here, runs through the edge of the moss, and probably had a deep ditch in the front. Further to the south is a small enclosure, with lazy beds. There may be other structures here, as it is a favourable area. The summit of the hill above is covered in birch, with oak the dominant species on the sides. There are two recessed platforms on the eastern side, and some interesting coppiced oak.


See also1 Argyll 3 R.C.A.H.M.S (1980) No 160. Fort and Dun (probable), The Torr, Shielfoot.
2 A Map of the Improved Moss, and Improveable Bay of Kintra
drawn from a Plan of the Survey of Ardnamorchan by I Cowley, London 1734