Great Hetha (NT886274), at 343m above sea level, has one of the most impressive outlooks in the north Cheviot hills. It is not the highest hill on the western side of the College Valley but the views around it are some of the best in the area. The photograph above looks north from Great Hetha.
The year 2000 survey, carried out by Amy Lax and Trevor Pearson of English Heritage, is the latest and most thorough investigation of the site so far, identifying in some detail for the first time the structures within the hillfort and suggesting development of the hillfort in three phases. As with most of the hillforts in the region there have been no recorded excavations on Great Hetha, though it is fairly reasonable to say that this hillfort is, in the main part, late Iron Age. Excavations on similar sites in the Breamish Valley and at Hownam Rings in Roxburghshire, Scotland, have yielded a date of around 600BC for these forts, though some do have features that appear to be much earlier.
The diagram shows some of the main features on the ground. This is a varied hillfort in terms of the visibility of archaeology. Whereas the ramparts themselves are impressive and fairly well preserved some of the internal features are hard to pick out, as are the lines of the early enclosure. Again a trip up the hill during the latter part of the day will allow the low sun to help you identify these more easily.
The earliest phase of the hillfort appears to be an oval-shaped enclosure (light blue on the diagram) which pre-dates the other features on the site as they clearly overlie it and so it only appears as a shallow scarp on the northeast and southwest extremities of the site.
You can just see these about 4-5m outside of the line of the outer enclosure as a subtle, grass-covered hump. Assuming this original enclosure followed the contour of the hill it must have been around 140m on its long axis by 95m on its narrow therefore enclosing an area of roughly 1.0ha (2.5 acres).
This enclosure so closely agrees with the course of the outer enclosure it is likely that it, too, is late Iron Age in construction, with the development of the hillfort progressing steadily onward from it.
However Great Hetha overlooks a Neolithic stone circle in the College Valley (NT893278) and it is not impossible that the origins of this original enclosure could be linked to an earlier date.
The next phase in the evolution of the site was the construction of the outer enclosure. On the ground, you can see it as a mostly grass-covered stony bank. Slightly shorter on the longer axis than the earlier enclosure by around 10m it encloses an area of 0.8ha (1.8 acres). A walk around the outer enclosure reveals several places where facing stones can be seen exposed. On the southwest, where the outer and inner enclosures are closest, the outer enclosure is at its most prominent in places up to 2m high. The width of the wall at its base was around 3-4m, determined by the distance between in-situ outer and inner facing stones. Outside the enclosure, at this point, you can find several obvious quarry sites, which would have been used to provide building material and increase the visual impact of the hillfort.
The slope of the hill on the southwest has been cut back to make the hillfort look more impressive and it is this side of the hill, where access is easiest, that defences would need to be more important.
The outer enclosure on the northeast side, a steeper approach to the hill, was never of very substantial construction and the absence of any facing stones on the outer enclosure here suggests it may not have even been a stone wall at all but a stone and earth bank, possibly with a wooden palisade fence or a hedge.
The outer enclosure wall would probably have stood around 2m high but, as the walls stood on the scarp to the southwest, the outer appearance would have been a height of 3-3.5m. You can find an entrance on the northeast and a more imposing one facing towards the northwest.
The inner rampart is the third phase of the development of the hillfort. It runs parallel to the outer enclosure quite closely except in the northeast where the outer enclosure is weakest. Here there is a distance of around 30m between the two.
Instead of following the outer enclosure, the inner rampart follows another natural scarp further to the south. If the construction of the inner rampart was to increase the defensive capability of the hillfort this course is quite a logical move to redress any weakness to the northeast.
The inner rampart would have been a dry stone wall. The rubble is very dense and the wall must have been from 2.5m high in the northeast and up to 4m high to the south and west. There are many places where you can see stretches of in-situ facing stones and flatter slabs used for foundation stones. In some places, more than a single course of stonework can be seen.
The inner rampart has several cairns heaped along its course. These are, as is the cairn on the very peak of the hill, very modern additions to the site. You can see in the photograph above that, when split, the stones are a striking pink colour. Like the other hilltop settlements in the area, the walls of Great Hetha must have been quite a sight when newly constructed.
Inside the hillfort, English Heritage has identified the possibility of at least nine Iron Age huts. The bases for the huts would have been dug or ‘scooped’ into the hillside forming a level base for the dwelling. These would have been timber constructions, which sometimes leave characteristic ‘ring groove’ marks on the ground.
Only one hut, near the centre of the hillfort, shows evidence of a ring groove but the scooped hut platforms are typical of Iron Age dwellings in the area, like those on Yeavering Bell for example. There seems to be no evidence of any Romano-British era or later occupation of the site apart from a small shelter of unidentified age which can be seen between the hillfort walls on the northeast. This could even be as recent as mediaeval and certainly had no connection with the hillfort in the iron age. A few earth banks, which may be contemporary with this shelter and used to pen livestock within the bounds of the old hillfort, are just visible too. One appears as a stony hump in the ground possibly blocking off the north-western entrance to the site.
There is little evidence of stone robbing. Little Hetha, a much smaller settlement very close to Great Hetha but on a lower hill and much more vulnerable, has been extensively robbed of stone, yet the wealth of material on Great Hetha remains, largely, untouched.
Some hillforts were not forts at all. The term ‘fort’ is misleading. Some would be better described as ‘defended settlements’ accommodating, perhaps, a single extended family in one or two huts. Some, like Humbleton Hill, seem to be true forts, with the evolution of the site and the stonework in line with the strategic advantage of the location.
Great Hetha comes somewhere in between. Nine huts are accommodation for several families and great care and planning were used here to use the location to maximise the effectiveness and visual impact of the defences.