Fortifying the landscape

Emma Trevarthen – former Monuments for the Future Officer
Emma now works for Historic England carrying out aerial surveys of archaeological sites, so she’ll still be keeping an eye on the moors but this time from the skies

Prehistoric hillforts and promontory forts of the North York Moors

Eight prehistoric fortified sites have been recorded within the North York Moors National Park. These monuments command some of the highest points in the Moors and the ramparts of some can still be clearly seen, their defensive nature apparent.

The earthwork ramparts at Round Hill hillfort. Copyright NYMNPA.

The earthwork ramparts at Round Hill hillfort

With the exception of the hillfort at Round Hill at Westerdale (a mutivallate hillfort with two or more lines of earthwork defences), all are described as Promontory Forts and are located for the most part at the western and northern edges of the Cleveland Hills. Their existence, and that of the long linear earthworks they are associated with, suggests a period of consolidation of settlement and social organisation in the Iron Age, roughly 2,500 years ago.

As the names suggest, hill forts and promontory forts utilise natural topographic features to create defended spaces which would have housed people, animals and various industries. They would have been clearly visible to the surrounding countryside suggesting not only a desire to fortify and protect but also to project the high status of the residents. The defences would have consisted of a series of imposing banks and deep ditches with a break for a well-defended gated entrance. Within the fortified area there were likely to be domestic dwellings, shelters for livestock and storage areas for food and weaponry.

Recent archaeological excavation at Boltby Scar suggests that this site may have been in use from the Late Bronze Age, roughly 3,000 years ago. It is likely to be contemporary with Roulston Scar, the largest Iron Age fort in the north of England, which is immediately to its south with Lake Gormire almost equidistant between the two.

Reconstruction drawing of the defensive banks and ditches at Boltby Scar promontory fort. Copyright NYMNPA.

Reconstruction drawing of the defensive banks and ditches at Boltby Scar promontory fort

Although outside the boundary of the National Park, it is worth noting another promontory fort, Eston Nab, which has also been dated to the Late Bronze Age and with Roulston Scar, Boltby Scar and Knolls End, forms a band of forts from the coast around the western high ground of the Cleveland Hills, overlooking the Tees Valley in the north and the Vale of York to the south.

Place names

The word ‘Scar’ is likely to derive from a Norse word, ‘skera’, meaning a cliff or rocky outcrop with a steep face. It is an element that occurs often in place names throughout the North York Moors, often combined with other descriptive terms, such as in Hagg Scar Wood and Whitestone Scar, or joined with a local place name such as at Boltby Scar.

‘Nab’ has a similar meaning, describing a rocky promontory or outcrop. In the North York Moors there are a number of ‘Nab’ place names including Penny Nab, Highcliffe Nab, lots of Nab Ends and even a Nab Scar.

Folklore

Although the Giants of the North York Moors are credited with a number of landscaping events, there does not appear to have been a connection made between them and the creation of any of the Iron Age forts recorded on the Moors. Nor are there any definite links with horses, white or otherwise, even though Boltby Scar lies adjacent to a historic horse racing track, and Roulston Scar overshadows the (Victorian) Kilburn White Horse.  Themes associated with hillforts in other parts of the country such as buried treasure and slumbering dragons are also absent.

However, the Devil does get a name check at Roulston Scar in the form of the Devil’s Parlour, a natural fissure or cave in the cliff face just below the fort site where apparently the Devil appears at midnight. Also the Devil’s Leap is the space jumped by the Devil when he tried to show off by leaping from Roulston Scar to Hood Hill; a rock from the Scar bearing his footprint is said to reside at the foot of the hill.

The Devil’s Leap: from Roulston Scar to Hood Hill. Copyright NYMNPA.

The Devil’s Leap: from Roulston Scar (on the left) to Hood Hill (on the right)

Any other folk tales or curious place names associated with the forts of the North York Moors would be gratefully received. Remnants of cultural history are always worth collecting.

Access

Of the monuments within the National Park, Knoll’s End (Live Moor), Boltby Scar, Horn Ridge (Farndale), Baysdale and Hasty Bank are accessible via public footpaths, bridleways and areas of open access land; the last, Hasty Bank, is part of the Wainstones Walk

Roulston Scar lies within the grounds of the Yorkshire Gliding Club, a public footpath follows its western edge and forms part of the White Horse Walk

A public bridleway traces the circumference of Birk Bank, near Old Byland.
Round Hill is on private land and landowner permission would be needed to visit it.

Eston Nab can be accessed via public footpaths and bridleways.

Further Reading

Boltby Scar: http://www.landscaperesearchcentre.org/html/boltby_scar.html

Roulston Scar: https://research.historicengland.org.uk/Report.aspx?i=15487

1988 Vyner, B The Hill-fort at Eston Nab, Eston, Cleveland Archaeological Journal 145 p60-98