What is a Promontory?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A promontory is a chunk of land which is significantly higher than neighboring land or water. This geographical feature can be found in large and small forms all over the world, and promontories have long been features of note for humans, since they provide an excellent view of the surrounding area. On the ocean, a promontory may be known as a headland, while on land a promontory could sometimes be confused with a steep hill. In either case, the process of formation is the same.

Medieval castles were usually built on promontories, as elevated heights give defenders advantages against assaults.
Medieval castles were usually built on promontories, as elevated heights give defenders advantages against assaults.

Erosion is the driving force behind the formation of promontories. Wind, rain, and gravity eat away at the surface of the Earth over thousands of years to shape features like promontories and valleys, among many others. Typically, the rock in a promontory is much harder than surrounding rock and sediment, which are worn away more quickly to leave a hard spine or ridge which becomes a promontory. Differences in rock composition can be caused by an assortment of geologic factors.

Typically, the sides of a promontory are steep, making it seem more clifflike. The sides may also be deeply ridged, where veins of softer rock have been eaten away to leave the harder stone behind. Over time, the top of a promontory tends to become flat, and deposition creates a layer of soil which may support rugged plants, trees, and grasses. Since a promontory is higher than the surrounding land, it may be extremely windy, which can be rough on flora and fauna.

Many historic fortresses and castles have been built on promontories, since they provide a sweeping view of neighboring lands. Historic promontory forts are widely distributed across Britain and Ireland, since the landscape and weather conditions there promote the formation of promontories. You may also have noticed that the cores of some cities are located on promontories, although urban sprawl may have obscured the shape of the promontory.

On the ocean, a promontory is usually distinguished from features like headlands and peninsulas by its shape. Promontories on the sea are long and narrow, like fingers of land, rather than more broad, like headlands. They are not large enough to be considered true peninsulas, although they share steep cliffs with all of these geologic features. Over time, the link between a promontory and the land will be eaten away, creating an island. This process will also ultimately make islands out of headlands and peninsulas as well, although it will take significantly more time.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I have adventurous grandparents, and they have been begging me to go with them to Wilsons Promontory in Australia, where they live. They keep telling me how much fun it is, but I am afraid to get on a plane and go there.

The promontory is part of a national park there, and there are plenty of trails and opportunities to explore wildlife. My grandparents love one certain trail that is supposed to be good for the elderly and children, because it doesn't involve any extreme climbing.

They have sent me pictures from the promontory of strange animals they have seen there. Eucalyptus forest is all around the area, and so are creatures I have never heard of before.

Since I don't like heights, I know this would not be fun for me. I can see why they enjoy it, though, and if it all were at ground level, I would, too.


I once hiked across part of a promontory. It was a thrill for me, because I got to experience the ocean and a sort of mountain at once.

The most treacherous thing about the promontory I climbed was the deep ridges. It had so many of these steep miniature valleys that I had to be careful at times to place my feet so that they wouldn't fall into the crevices. Mostly, I could see when one was coming up, but a few were close together.

It was quite a workout. When I got to the top, I laid down and rested for about half an hour. The wind was very calming and cooling, and I felt like I had accomplished something.


@Perdido – I stayed at a beach house on a promontory for a month, and I would not want to live there. True, the view was very nice, but the breeze was so powerful that at times, it was hard to stand up straight.

Because of this, I had to wear a sweater every time I went outside, even in the summer. Down on the beach below, people were in swimsuits, but I stayed chilly up there.

Also, I couldn't leave my beach towels out on the balcony to dry, because the wind would blow them off the promontory. I wouldn't mind living down at sea level, but promontory life is not for me.


I think that castles located on promontories have an added mystique to them. The strong sea breeze and the dramatic height make it even more magical and fairytale-like.

I have a calendar full of pictures of castles, and many of them are on promontories. I can see that light vegetation does grow there, but I generally don't see a lot of trees, because their roots must go deep.

I wonder what it would be like to live on a promontory. I can't imagine waking up every morning to such a spectacular view!

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