Archaeological Survey of Dunbeath Strath


DESCRIPTION: Chapel Hill, Ballachly

GRID REF: ND 1188 3295



Until recently our knowledge of the early Church in Dunbeath was limited to a few antiquarian notes, echoes of an oral tradition and the remnants of some huge dry-stone walls. However, since the discovery of the 7th-century Ballachly Stone along with other dressed stones and fragments of a second, later Pictish cross-slab, we have been able to begin piecing together a fuller picture of the strath in the early medieval period.

The nature of these carvings, together with the monumental scale of the remains at Chapel Hill, point to the development of a significant monastic institution in Dunbeath. Such an establishment should be seen both in the context of the Christianisation of the north of Scotland and in the context of power struggles between the dominant Pictish clans or families in the area (and later between these groups and the Norse invaders).

It is likely that Dunbeath was the seat of a particularly powerful group. Research elsewhere has demonstrated that, as an expression of status, local elites often gifted lands to monastic institutions, and it is possible that this occurred in Dunbeath – the ‘sacred’ power base represented by the Church being installed adjacent to the ‘secular’ power base represented by the broch which gives its name to the area.

With the coming of the Vikings in the 9th century, it is intriguing to note that Dunbeath retained its Celtic name while the majority of places along the coast were given Norse names. This suggests that Dunbeath, with its well-established Church, had continued to prosper and was sufficiently powerful to either repel or form alliances with the invaders.

Some of the most striking features at Chapel Hill are the massive walls which radiate from its central knoll, dividing the surrounding enclosure into three distinct areas. We can only speculate about the significance of these walls, but, because of their size and orientation, it is likely that they had a symbolic rather than purely functional purpose, perhaps delineating more and less sacred spaces.

Retaining an aura of mystery and sanctity, the ‘House of Peace’ is still considered by many as a place set apart.


The Ballachly Stone (left) was discovered in 1996 during the demolition of a 19th century farm building less than 200m from Chapel Hill. It represents an early tradition (c.7th century) of Christian stone-carving in northern Scotland, distinct from the better-known Pictish symbol stones and cross slabs of the area and perhaps showing the influence of Iona and Ireland. It was probably an upright pillar which may have marked a focus for worship or the boundary of a sacred area. So far only the upper part of the stone has been found, showing a cross with expanded arms which probably had a long shaft.

The manner in which the vertical shaft overlies the cross-arm may reflect the early use of wooden crosses. The spirals at the corners of the arms are found on carvings on Iona and Ireland. The spokes that they contain perhaps represent stars, with the large one and the curved hook on the upper arm being the sun and moon. This hook may also stand for the P-shaped Greek letter Rho which was often combined with the cross to form Chi-Rho, the first letters of Christ’s name in Greek. Another early symbol of Christ was the fish, and the salmon facing the centre of the cross-head probably has this meaning.

Three adjoining fragments of a second carved cross (right) have also been found in the same vicinity. The style of the carving is later (c.8th century) and is of high quality. These fragments point to the development of a high-status ecclesiastical establishment at Chapel Hill from the early medieval period.