By Tim Porteus

ON SUNDAY, I had the privilege to be on a fascinating guided walk led by Dr Fraser Hunter of National Museums Scotland. He is an archaeologist and is a leading expert on the prehistoric and Roman period in Scotland.

The walk was to mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the treasure of Traprain Law, and he walked us through the prehistory and mythology of the site before ending at the exact spot where the treasure was found.

It was a perfect, sun-drenched day, with a cooling breeze to remind us it was Scotland. As we trudged up the hill, I reflected on how many times I had done this before, scanning the ground for clues of the past, trying to identify remains of walls and structures. But on this day we were led by an archaeologist who could expertly interpret what the hill was telling us.

It was a magical tour that took us back thousands of years. He explained that Neolithic people had left carvings on the rocks on the southern slope (now covered to protect them). The hill is rich in Bronze Age remains, when the summit became a great settlement, and continued to be so into the Iron Age.

But it was the images his talk gave me I remember, more so than all the detailed information he gave us (which will be available in his forthcoming book). One stop was by the remains of a wall on the western slope which he told us was an entrance. I’d always suspected this (yes, honestly!) but was never sure, since there seemed other likely places nearby.

Dr Hunter explained this entrance was wider and more substantial than the others, and this was likely to allow chariots to enter the fort. With this, my imagination was set alight – chariots! I could now see the curving route leading up to this entrance. Chariots came up here! Wow!

The other smaller entrances were possibly of lower status, or more functional for people on foot. There were also specially created terraces here too, not for cultivation or even defence, but more a form of elaborate decoration. In fact, some of the structures here were a bit like a fancy Victorian castle, with battlements added to impress visually, rather than having any real defensive purpose.

But then Dr Hunter said that there seemed to be a change in the pattern of settlement and use in the early Iron Age before the arrival of the Romans. The people, he said, seemed to have drifted from Traprain Law to live in smaller communities in the nearby landscape. Instead of being a large settlement, it seems to have transformed into a ceremonial or community gathering place. While some people did still work and live on the hill during the Roman period, it became a place where most people would visit, rather than permanently live.

My mind was sparkling with images of how the hill may have looked at this time, and why such a transformation may have taken place. Perhaps the discoveries from an earlier period help explain. It all suggests that this iconic hill was seen as a special place by the earliest people who settled or roamed here. I’ve always secretly considered Traprain Law to be East Lothian’s equivalent to Australia’s Ayers Rock, called Uluru by the local people. But listening to Dr Hunter now brought that idea to the fore.

And if you take time to notice, Traprain Law is a special place. It looms from the landscape like a high altar, with a stunning view of the surrounding landscape and beyond. It’s rich in mythology and legend as well as archaeology, and it most certainly has a sacred presence about it, even when viewed from a distance.

So perhaps the symbolic significance of Traprain became more important during the immediate pre-Roman period.

It was heavily occupied again during the Roman period, but there was no need for defence. Even after the Romans retreated behind Hadrian’s Wall, this part of Scotland was within their reach and the people of Traprain were allies of the Romans. This alliance was no doubt based on practical survival, but it must also have created a sense of protection, even privilege: “Ye cannae touch us otherwise we’ll get oor pals the Romans ontae ye, they’re no far away, and ye ken whit they will dae to you!”

It was a two-way deal. Roman interests were protected by the people of Traprain, in return for favours and perhaps even payment by the Empire.

But then the Roman Empire began to crumble. Hadrian’s Wall was finally abandoned by Roman soldiers around 410AD. It will have been a gradual process, but now the people of Traprain must have felt exposed and vulnerable.

It was at this time Dr Hunter told us another change took place.

New defensive walls were built. The people of Traprain had been collaborators of the Roman Empire but the power of Rome was no longer at their back. Perhaps they feared retribution from other tribes, or simply defence became a new urgency in the chaos of Roman retreat from Britain.

The older name for the hill is Dunpender or Dunpelder. This translates as ‘the fort of spear shafts’. This conjures up a powerful image of the fort’s walls: stone-based, built up with turf and bristling with spikes. I got a sense of vulnerability, perhaps even fear, as people felt the need for protection in a time of new uncertainties as the old order disintegrated.

And it was at this time, around AD410-AD450, that the treasure hoard seems to have been buried. The treasure itself is evidence of the uncertainties of the time. It was once table silverware but was deliberately and carefully cut up based on weight so it could be melted and used as bullion. It was perhaps part of a payment or bribe from the Romans.

Dr Hunter stood on the exact spot of discovery at the end of his tour, holding up a large photo of the treasure. Why was it buried, by whom, and why it was ‘forgotten’ is a mystery. But as we stood there amongst the newly sprouting nettles on the western slope of Traprain Law, with the unseen remains of human occupation below our feet and all around us, I felt the power of our land ancestors and wished they could tell us more of their story.

Dr Hunter told us he didn’t believe that the people of Traprain were part of the Votadini and that took me by surprise. It all adds to the fascinating mystery of the hill. And, of course, the story of the treasure’s discovery 100 years ago is an amazing tale in itself.

That story is told in the John Gray Centre in Haddington, where part of the treasure collection is on display, as reported in the Courier last week. It’s a must see if you can.

I wish I’d asked more questions while on the tour but I had two wee monsters clinging to me all the time so it wasn’t so easy! But I’m looking forward to Dr Hunter’s new book, which will answer them for me.

And I will soon be back again onto Traprain Law as, for me and my family, and many others I know, it is a sacred place in more ways than one.