Castlelaw, Edinburgh

A large hill

Castlelaw is a hill that rises steeply from the valley to the northern tops of the Pentland Hills in Midlothian, Scotland. It is best known for the Iron Age hill fort on its slopes. When it was occupied the site consisted of three earthwork ramparts, ditches and timber palisades. The fort also contained a Souterrain for the storage of agricultural produce. 

The fort commands views over the Forth and Lothian. Traprain Law and Berwick Law, both significant centres of power in the Iron Age, are also visible from the site. 

Mounds, of the Fort in the distance

The fort is maintained by Historic Environment Scotland as a scheduled monument.

The military training area comprises Castlelaw Ranges and Dreghorn Dry Training Area. It borders Edinburgh and lies within the Pentland Hills Regional Park, a total of 775 hectares. Castlelaw Ranges are situated on the south side of Castlelaw Hill. Dreghorn Dry Training Area extends from the Edinburgh City By-Pass at Dreghorn Mains to Flotterstone and from Bonaly Reservoir to Fulford. The area is dominated by three peaks, Allermuir, Capelaw and Castlelaw which rise to heights of 493m, 454m and 488m respectively. 

The highpoints of the training area give stunning views across the city, the Firth of Forth and on a clear day the Highlands beyond. The area is home to some rare habitats and wildlife including small numbers of black grouse.

Take a step back in time…

Surveys commissioned by the MOD have recorded numerous heritage sites on the training area, with perhaps the most impressive being the spectacular Castlelaw Iron Age Hill Fort on the southwestern edge of the Range. 

Castlelaw Fort is a multi-ramparted Hill Fort that was probably built around the middle of the first millennium BC and continued in use for several hundred years. Two archaeological excavations, in 1931/2 and 1948, have shown that the initial fort was defended by a single palisade trench and a single rampart, and that the external ramparts and ditches were added later, producing a multi-ramparted fort in its final phase. The fort itself measures about 150m long and 100m wide overall, with an interior some 90m long by 37m wide. Breaks in the ramparts suggest that there were three entrances, one at each end and one in the middle of the south side.

Landscape view of a cold and clear grassy area

Castlelaw Fort in late Autumn (Image: Alex Sotheran, 2019)

When the fort was largely abandoned, perhaps in the 2nd century AD, a stone-lined souterrain, or underground passage, was built into the ditch near the east entrance. The souterrain at Castlelaw is one of relatively few souterrains south of the River Forth. The main curved gallery is 21m long with a small stone chamber on its west side, reached by a short passage. The souterrain was probably roofed with timber and earth and may have been associated with structures on the ground surface above. The purpose of the souterrain is uncertain but it has been suggested that they were used for storing grain or perhaps served as a refuge in times of threat. Finds from the feature were all of Roman origin and of 2nd century AD date. They included an enamelled bronze brooch, glass bottle fragments and Samian pottery. 

A view underground, in a stone walled shelter

Inside the souterrain chamber (Image: Alex Sotheran, 2019)

On a prominent knoll only 100m northeast of the Castlelaw Fort, there are the faint remains of a prehistoric palisaded enclosure called Castle Knowe. Oval on plan, the enclosure measures at least 73m by 34m within two palisade trenches set roughly 6m apart. These narrow and very shallow trenches can be traced around the southwest end of the knoll, although most of the northeast end has been obliterated by later cultivation. Most of the interior, however, appears to be relatively undisturbed and a row of three circular timber buildings is visible, cut into the southeast side of the summit. Without excavation it is impossible to precisely date the palisaded enclosure, but it is probably later Bronze Age, dating roughly to the early part of the 1st millennium BC.

Interestingly, a system of practice trenches immediately northwest of Castle Knowe probably dates from around the time of the First World War. Enclosing a roughly square area up to 120m across, the trenches are now visible as hollows little more than 1m in breadth and 0.2m in depth. The trenches forming the northeast and southwest sides of the area form a traverse pattern which may be interpreted as practice front-line and support trenches. The trenches forming the northwest and southeast sides of the square, together with a third which runs across the middle of the area, are zig-zag on plan with short branches springing off them. These are practice communication trenches. 

Aerial view of zigzag lines in the land

The characteristic zig-zag shape of First World war practice trenches at Castle Knowe (Crown Copyright, MOD 2019 / The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland)

A particularly prominent type of earthwork called rig and furrow is characteristic of early agricultural ploughing. Extensive remains of upstanding rig and furrow are visible within the training area and are particularly obvious and well-preserved on the south-facing slopes of Castlelaw Hill, Castle Knowe and Woodhouselee Hill.

Rig and furrow earthworks are clear visual evidence of agricultural ploughing, dating from the medieval period through to the 19th, century. Two main types of rig have been identified within the training area; high-backed curvilinear, mainly reverse-S plan, which can date from the medieval period up to the end of the 18th century and straight rig, mainly defined by shallow furrows, which is generally dated from late 18th century or early 19th century. 

Aerial view of earthworks

Rig and furrow earthworks at Castlelaw Hill (Crown Copyright, MOD 2019 / The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland)

The older method of ploughing, using heavy wooden ploughs, relied on long teams of oxen and/or horses, sometimes up to twelve strong, and the reverse-S plan of the rigs allowed the team to turn off onto the narrow headlands at the ends of the field while still ploughing the rig. The introduction of the much lighter ‘swing plough’ in the second half of the 18th century meant that rigs could be cultivated using no more than a pair of beasts and that fields could be ploughed up to the edges of the headland in straight rigs.  

The walks

Route 1 – Castlelaw Hill Circular: A 4.7km (2.9 mile) walk that takes in the Castlelaw Hill Fort and Subterrain before skirting all the way around Castlelaw, and returning to the car park at Castlelaw.

Route 2 – Castlelaw & Capelaw Circular: A 9.4km (5.8 mile) route that again passes by Castlelaw Hill Fort and Subterrain before heading north towards Edinburgh, dropping down to the Dreghorn side of the Training Area before returning via the side of Capelaw. This route also skirts Castlelaw to return to the starting point at Castlelaw Car Park.

Route 3 – Castlelaw Dreghorn Circular: A 13.2km (8.2 mile) loop from Castlelaw Car Park heading north to Dreghorn via Chuckie Knowe, returning via Capelaw and Harbour Hill. The route heads off the MOD estate into the wider Pentland Hills Regional Park towards Maidens Cleuch and joins the quiet public road that runs alongside Glencorse reservoir. The route then follows a path back onto MOD land that returns you to the Castlelaw Car Park.

Be aware and take care

  • Castlelaw is a military training area. Please check the calendar of live firing times before visiting the area.
  • Unscheduled firing may take place without warning, and firing may be cancelled without notice. Please ring the 24/7 Regional Ops Room - 0131 310 3426 for more information.
  • Red flags (red lights by night) will be displayed whenever the range is active.
  • The Scottish Outdoor Access Code provides detailed guidance on access to land in Scotland.
  • Don’t touch or pick up any military debris. No matter how small or insignificant it looks it could explode! If you find something take a photo and show it to the nearest warden or call the Police on 101.
  • If you’re out and about with your dog, please pick up after it and take particular care where cattle and young livestock are grazing. Read the MOD dog walking guide for more information.
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