Site Report: The Caterthuns

What is it that people value about the Caterthuns and what makes them a focus for particular types of activity? Is it the presence of the ancient monuments, or their location in the landscape, or that the route up each hill to the fort makes for a good walk?

The pair of Iron Age hill forts take their names from the hills they are located on. However, the word ‘Caterthun’ is thought to derive from ‘cathair’, a circular stone fort (Canmore record 34969); providing an early indication that the forts and the landscape they are situated in are intimately connected.

Stone rampart and ditch formation on the White Caterthun, view to the South East [photo credit: Elizabeth Robson]

The first sizable hills as you approach the Grampian Mountains from the coast, the Caterthuns offer wide views of, and can be seen from, the surrounding landscape. An information board in the car park helps visitors to interpret the ridges and ditches that form the visible traces of the forts, the collapsed stone wall ringing the summit of the White Caterthun providing the clearest indication of the scale of these ancient structures. A scramble through the heather and bilberry bushes that fill the hillside of the White Caterthun, brings you to evidence of earlier human activity in the area: a large cup-marked stone (see image below). This is one of several places on the White Caterthun that shows signs of visitor activity, in this case a faded wreath of commemorative flowers.

Cup-marked stone on West side of the White Caterthun, remains of a wreath above [photo credit: Elizabeth Robson]

My assessment of the social values associated with the Caterthuns was a rapid study, which included a short, 3-day visit to the site over a bank holiday weekend in August 2019. The research found that people visit the site for a variety of reasons, individually and with family or friends. Lots of them do walk, but this common activity spanned a range of different communities for whom the site is of significance and a variety of inter-connected values. Visiting was a regular practice for some people, but connections were also maintained from a distance.

Key findings:

  • The opportunity for solitude was explicit in how people valued the site.
  • The history of the site as an ancient human settlement, its location in the landscape, people’s personal memories and experiential aspects combine to create a presence or sense of place.
  • For many people the hills are a place of peace and contemplation, which may be partly why the site is attracting memorial practices.
  • The experience, atmosphere and activities at the site are influenced by natural phenomena – changing seasons, time of day, and weather – and this was described in multi-sensory terms.
  • Knowledge of the site is an expression of belonging and connection to place.
  • The site provides a connection to the wider landscape, of which it forms a part.

Left: Bilberries on the White Caterthun, picking the berries was one of the seasonal activities mentioned in interviews and observed during site visits. Right: View from the White Caterthun across to the Brown Caterthun [photo credits: Elizabeth Robson]

Different aspects of the site come to the fore depending on circumstances. So it is not the landscape, or the opportunity to walk, or the presence of the monuments, but all of these multiple aspects of place, combined with personal memories and associations with other people, that inform how the Caterthuns are valued.

The site report concludes with some of the implications of the findings. Key points:

  • Memorialising activity is likely to be more widespread and significant in how the site is valued than previously thought, involving a community of interest that is not necessarily based on location.
  • Changes within the wider landscape – in particular those affecting the sightlines to or from the site and the ‘natural’ setting – may impact the values associated with the site.

It is recognised that the limitations of this study (time and access) mean that there are communities whose views were not represented. Further research is recommended to address identified gaps in participation and scope.

My sincere thanks go to everyone who participated in the research.

The full site report is available here: Site Report: Caterthuns (Author retains copyright. Proper attribution of authorship and correct citation details should be given).

Cover image: View to the White Caterthun from the Brown Caterthun, taken during transect walk with research participants [photo credit: Elizabeth Robson]