Chasing Celtic Art : new work on the Torrs Pony Cap’

A lecture by Dr Fraser Hunter, National Museums Scotland

On Wednesday, 14th March, over 70 members and guests of the Kirkcudbright History Society gathered in Kirkcudbright Parish Hall to hear an illustrated talk by Dr. Fraser Hunter, National Museums Scotland, about the Torrs pony cap. The pony cap, now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, is one of the most important pieces of Iron Age Celtic art ever discovered in Britain: it was found in the former Torrs Loch, near Castle Douglas, in the early 19th century, and dates to around 250 BC. It was a decorative item, placed on the head of a small pony, probably when in harness to pull a lightweight Iron Age chariot, and part of a decorative array of trappings covering both pony and chariot.

Pony cap. © National Museums Scotland

Fraser began his talk by describing the diverse nature of Iron Age Celtic societies, which, in the later first millennium BC, stretched across Northern Europe from Ireland to Romania. Despite their differences, these societies were linked by a common culture, particularly evident in a shared decorative art style found on surviving metalwork, of which the Torrs pony cap is a prime example, with its swirling lines and hidden animal forms. The cap is essentially a bronze sheet with beaten decoration, with engraved decoration on its two attached ‘horns’. In its time, it would have been regarded as a high value object. Evidence for repair work suggests that it was a prized heirloom. Like similar finds in lochs elsewhere in Scotland, it would appear to have been deliberately deposited in the former Torrs Loch as a religious offering, perhaps to give thanks to the gods or as a supplication during difficult times.

It has been suggested that the ‘horns’ were added to the cap sometime after its discovery to increase its antique value, but a recently discovered contemporary account of the find in the ‘Caledonian Mercury’ newspaper of 17 September 1817, confirms that the cap was found with the horns attached. Several bronze rings were also found with the cap, and were almost certainly part of horse harness. The cap and harness would be the trappings of a chariot, the ‘Ferrari’ of Iron Age society, as Fraser described it. At that time the area around Castle Douglas was a network of lochs, with Carlingwark Loch larger than it is today. Here, an Iron Age bronze cauldron full of scrap metal, was fished out of its waters in the mid-19th century; like the Torrs find, it was very probably also a deliberate ritual deposit.

Fraser then went on to describe the archaeological survey and excavation of the nearby Torrs hillfort which he organised in 2016. As the nearest significant Iron Age site, the hillfort may have been associated with the Torrs pony cap. The investigation revealed that the hillfort had two distinct phases of defensive arrangements, but no evidence was found to indicate that people had lived there; it may have built as a refuge or gathering point for the local community. The project also involved environmental sampling through taking peat cores from a nearby loch. Analysis of the type and quantity of pollen found in the peat cores will provide evidence of the trees, plants and grasses growing in the local environment during the Iron Age. It is hoped to continue the project at some point soon with further excavation on the hillfort and further environmental sampling of the surrounding landscape.

This was the last talk in the Society’s current programme; a new programme will begin in October. See the website for further details.