7 October 2016
Liam Murray — Joseph Thomson, the African Explorer from Penpont
At the Annual General Meeting of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society the retiring President, Liam Murray, gave a talk on the Penpont-born African Explorer Joseph Thomson.
Thomson was born on 14 February 1858, the youngest of five sons of a quarry owner. Joseph went to school in Thornhill and that his father owned a quarry gave him an opportunity to gather specimens of fossils and this, allied to a keenness to take long walks to study the geology of the area, enabled him to write a paper for the DGNHS Transactions.
He took an Honours Degree in Geology and Botany at Edinburgh University and having learnt that an expedition under Keith Johnston was going to East Africa he applied to join it. He was taken on by the Geologist and Naturalist for the expedition which was going to explore the land between Dar es Salaam and Lakes Nyassa and Tanganyika. The expedition, consisting of 154 men, 78 of whom carried guns, set off on 19 May 1884, but a few weeks after they left, Johnson died from a fever and dysentery. Thomson decided, though he was only 21, that he should carry on and after traveling over hitherto unexplored land on the 3 November, reached Lake Nyassa. After exploring the land around the lakes he returned to Bagamoya on the East Coast arriving there on 10 July having led an expedition of 150 Africans over 3000 miles, over half of which lay in regions unknown to geographers. He returned to London and after giving a report to the Royal Society returned to Thornhill where he was greeted with a Triumphal Arch.
In subsequent years he made further expeditions, to Kilimanjaro, through Masai territory, climbing Mount Kenya and reaching Lake Victoria and in subsequent years to the Niger where, having traveled up the river he made agreements with the chiefs by which Nigeria in effect became part of the British Empire.
In 1889 he was invited by Cecil Rhodes to explore the lands north of South Africa and traveling over 1250 miles obtained trading agreements over an area of 40,000 square miles, territories which were subsequently to become Zimbabwe and Zambia.
He made one final trip to Southern Africa, but was by now in very poor health and, having returned to Scotland, he died on 2 August 1895 and was buried in Morton Cemetery. In an appeciation of him the writer asked how great a man was Thomson and said:
With him dies the only traveler of our time who, as regards his pluck, his persistence and his methods, is worthy to rank with Livingstone.
21 October 2016
Alistair Maxwell-Irving — Tower-Houses of the Scottish Borders
The second bi-fortnightly lecture on 21 October, attended by 72 members and guests, was given by Alistair Maxwell-Irving on The Tower-Houses of the Scottish Borders. The speaker, a noted authority and author of two definitive books on the subject, gave a comprehensive overview of these formidable buildings.
Their origins can be traced back perhaps 3000 years in European and Middle Eastern history, but the speaker began with comparison of the towers of medieval southern Europe, particualrly northern Italy. Tower building there was largely undertaken by powerful families living in cities. Florence, for instance, still has 100 surviving towers, and a 1551 ilustration of Siena shows it full of towers. The speaker used San Gimignano, a small hill town in Tuscany (and a Unesco world heritage site), to dramatically illustrate this almost mania for tower-building by the nobility and rich merchant classes of mediaeval Italy. One interesting point of contrast with Scottish Borders tower-houses was the massive foundations present at San Gimignano (a reflection perhaps of the tectonic instability of that region of Italy?)
The oldest tower-house in Scotland is Cubbie's Roos Castle, built in 1150 on Wyre, Orkney. Its name is a corruption of Holbein Hruga, thought to have been the original builder, and the tower is mentioned in both the Orkneyinga Saga and King Haakon's Saga. In northern Europe, the Normans built our more familiar castles but, even there, there was generally a massive keep at the heart of each Norman castle, although they evolved over time to more elaborate structures where the keep might become less obvious. Scottish Tower-Houses also showed evolution over time, the speaker using twelth-century Mote of Urr, thirteenth-century Caerlaverock and Deeside's fourteenth-century Drum Castle (with its 12-foot thick walls), fifteenth-century Cardoness and sixteenth-century Comlongon Castle to illustrate his point. The last example had some many extra rooms honeycombed into its massive walls that it required supports to keep it from collapsing.
Despite their generally simpler form than Norman castles, tower-houses were not isolated structures, but generally constituted the heart (and last refuge for the family that owned them) of a complex of ancillary buildings such as kitchens, stables, accommodation for the garrison and other retainers, and buildings for storage. Rather than functioning solely as refuge in times of war, these tower-houses were the living quarters of the family owning them and, as such, were often made as comfortable and elaborate as possible within, as well as displaying their power and wealth. The speaker chose to illustrate this point with examples of armorial crests, ogee-arched carved recesses or aumbries called 'buffets' (for displaying important family possessions rather than the modern usage) as well as the more functional garderobes, the term originally meaning wardrobes or lockable stores for valuables, but latterly coming to mean a latrine or privy. (Balvaird Tower-house or Castle in Perthshire even had a flushing garderobe!) Tower-houses and castles (such as Edinburgh Castle) also oftened had Laird's Lugs, listening devices such as hidden openings in walls, allowing the lord to eavesdrop on conversations in the Great Hall.
Physical defence was not neglected, however, and tower-houses were usually protected by parapets, murder holes, arrow-slits and later gunloops once firearms were invented, the speaker showing illustrations of several early guns as examples. Another common form of defence was the machicolation, a projecting battlement with holes through which stones or boiling oil could be dropped on attackers below. The archetypal Scottish protective device on tower-houses, predating its adoption in England, was the yett or strong iron-grid gate, a peculiar feature of Scottish yetts being the nature of the joint between intersecting metal bars. Rather that the pattern everywhere else in Europe of using bolts through drilled holes, joints were securely held in place by sandwiching one cross-piece within the contrary one. Tower-houses often also had prisons but, as a consequence of the disaster to the Scottish Monarchy, Nobility and People that had been the Battle of Flodden (The Floo'ers o' the Forest are a' wede away), no tower-houses built after 1514 had a prison.
The speaker touched on Bastle houses (farmhouses fortfied by commoners against reiver raids), ruinous and modern-day restored towers and associated features such as deer parks, but concluded with a humorous account of disputed inheritance and the military strength of sixteenth-century Stapleton Tower, near Annan. Judged to have been wrongly seized in 1626 by the sons of the original builder, Edward Irving, it was beseiged three times, falling only on the third attempt and taking, it was said, 4 earls, 2 lords, 3 knights, 9 lairds and all their forces to expel the occupying brothers and return it to its rightful owner.
4 November 2016
Dr Larry Griffin (Principal Research Officer, WWT Caerlaverock Wetland Centre) —
The Dumfriesshire Rook Census and Tracking the Greenland White-fronted Goose
About 40 members and guests attended this meeting to hear a lecture by Dr Larry Griffin, Principal Research Officer at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Caerlaverock reserve. Dr Griffin's lecture was entitled The Dumfriesshire Rook Census and Tracking the Greenland White-fronted Goose.
The first part of the lecture was devoted to ongoing research on the white-fronted geese, whose global population has fallen from 35,500 in 1999 to only 18,000 in 2015. Small numbers winter in our area on the Ken-Dee marshes and near Stranraer, but this population has also fallen from 1100 to 400 over a similar period. Shooting is not thought to be the problem as this is now banned throughout their range except in England and Wales. Low breeding productivity seems to be a major issue, as only about 20% of pairs normally produce any young. Various possible explanations are being investigated, using satellite-tracking tags to locate the geese in their remote west Greenland breeding areas. These tags can also detect whether a goose is flying, walking or stationary, which in turn can give information on whether it is actually nesting.
One possible cause for the decline in numbers was thought to be competition for nest sites with Canada Geese, which have recently colonised west Greenland, but this is has been discounted as the two species of geese use different areas. Current theories now favour an unfavourable climate cycle. Snowfall in west Greenland follows a fifty-year cycle, and at present it is in a high-snowfall phase which leaves the birds insufficient snow-free time to breed. It is hoped that as the cycle becomes more favourable, goose numbers may increase.
The second part of Dr Griffin's lecture was devoted to the survey of nesting rooks in Dumfriesshire. The first census of breeding rooks was carried out as long ago as 1908, making the Dumfriesshire survey the longest-running of any county in Britain. Rooks can be distinguished from crows by their whitish face and bill, and the shaggy feather 'trousers' on their legs. They breed colonially in trees — 'rookeries', usually deciduous although they will also use Scots pines.
The latest census, in 2015, recorded 13,135 nests in 350 rookeries, a slight increase over the previous census in 2010. However, prior to that numbers had shown a sharp decline, from about 25,000 in 1993 to about 10,000 in 2010, whereas numbers had increased up to 1993. Possible causes for the recent decline include shooting, poisoning, and changes in land use, including increased housing development. Predation of young rooks by ravens or birds of prey may also be a factor. The results of the next census are awaited with interest to see if the recent increase in numbers is maintained.
18 November 2016
Fiona J. Houston — Cottage Life in Eighteenth-Century Scotland
Some people talk nostalgically about the 'good old days' but Fiona J. Houston went one step further and spent a year in the '18th century'. Her talk to a packed meeting of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society explained just what she did.
The idea developed from Fiona voicing the opinion that food, for many people, was better in the late 18th century than it is today. A vague challenge to her to prove her theory and 'put some meat on the bones' of her argument was met by her with a determination to put these ideas to the test in the most direct manner possible.
Fiona had possession of a cow byre which had, at one time, been a single-room artisan-type cottage. A good clean-out and installation of a wooden floor was the starting point. Fiona then began the task of making all aspects of her new situation as authentic as she could, to enable her to reconstruct life for a year as a Dominie's wife circa 1890.
The very limited amount of furniture needed was sourced or constructed. Wooden plate racks and even a box-bed was made from aged wood and all the crockery used was wooden (apart from a pewter plate for 'best'). She even made her own mattress and stuffed it with wool, which turned out to be slightly problematical and drew attention to the importance of ventilation — an aspect often forgotten today. Her clothing was hand-made and based upon contemporary prints, although she did admit to choosing the rather more dashing mop cap, so fashionable and practical in the 1890s and thus she rejected the more common older head-dress look — so 1870s!
Her daily tasks illustrated just how hard the women of that period had to work. Her busy days were spent collecting and chopping wood, fetching water, tending to the vegetable gardens, and general repair and maintenance. She even made and used a broom for brushing. This perhaps led to the nickname coined for her by her son. Thereafter she became affectionately known as 'The Hag in the Hovel'.
The evenings posed different challenges as the lighting was often from rush lights and home-made candles. Even the use of matches was foresworn and Fiona became a dab hand with the tinder box. She spent much of her evening writing up her adventures using goose quills and home-made ink (from elderberries and later from oak apple).
Food was simple, yet nutritious. It was primarily a vegetarian diet based upon staples such as porridge, barley bannocks and tatties, and supplemented by wild foods and home-grown vegetables. At least she could occasionally treat herself to a chunk of her own hard cheese.
She brought an excellent evening to a close with a Q-and-A session and an examination of some of her artefacts used during her 18th-century year. The success of a talk can sometimes be gauged by the number of questions posed and if this is a true reflection of interest Fiona Houston's talk certainly caught the imagination of the large and appreciative audience.
2 December 2016, James Williams Lecture
John Reid — The Roman Assault on Burnswark Hill: A Conflict Rehabilitated
Over 70 members and guests attended the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society's annual James Williams Memorial lecture on 2 December 2016 to hear Dr John Reid of the Trimontium Trust speak on The Roman Assault on Burnswark Hill: A Conflict Rehabilitated.
Dr Reid described the Iron Age hillfort at Burnswark near Ecclefechan, sandwiched between two Roman camps on the north and south sides. The South Camp had significantly stronger defences on its north side facing the hillfort, and three large gateways, fronted by three mounds — the so-called Three Brethren. The North Camp was distinctly and unusually elongated and was twice the distance from the hillfort rampart on the north side than the South Camp was from the south side of the hillfort.
The earliest archaeological reports of the site concluded that a siege had taken place, taking account of finds of sling-bullets, arrow heads and a Roman sword from the site. That view prevailed until 1964, when an alternative interpretation was put forward that the hillfort had been used as a practice range by the Roman Army. This theory was subsequently generally adopted and presented in popular publications on the Roman Army in Scotland.
However, more recently archaeologists and historians have challenged this theory, pointing out that no other 'practice camps' have been found in the Roman Empire. They have also queried why the two Burnswark camps are so irregularly shaped? Why are their two? Why were the Romans practising in enemy territory? Why did they need to practise at all? The issue remained unresolved and the Burnswark question has been identified as one of the key research topics in the future study of Roman Scotland.
Dr Reid went on to describe the current research project directed by himself and Andy Nicholson, Dumfries and Galloway Council's Archaeologist. In 2013 the hillfort was surveyed using sophisticated metal-detectors, in the same way that they have been used over battlefield sites such as Culloden. The detectors used can differentiate between metals and have been be employed to identify the spread of Roman Army lead sling-bullets over the site, without having to dig them up. The survey recorded large quantities of lead signals which were identified as probable sling-bullets. In the exploratory excavations undertaken in 2015, two trenches were placed over concentrations of lead signals and of the 18 lead targets detected, 17 proved to be Roman lead sling bullets. Two types of bullet were found — a 'lemon'-shaped bullet and an 'acorn'-shaped bullet, unique to Roman sites at the west end of Hadrian's Wall and both weighing about 60 gm. Subsequently a third type was recognised, having a 4 mm diameter hole drilled to 5 mm depth. When slung these make a whistling noise and were intended to induce fear amongst those being targeted — an early example of psychological warfare. The excavations also found several stone 'ballista' balls and a possible iron point, fired up at the rampart along with the sling bullets. Overall 670 lead sling bullets have been detected over the whole site, with concentrated distributions along the south rampart of the hillfort and behind the north rampart of the South Camp where they had been dropped.
Further excavations were carried out in August 2016. Two trenches were opened in the South Camp, both behind the north rampart facing the hillfort, and one trench in in the North Camp. All three were placed over concentrations of metal-detected lead and other metal signals. One of the main objectives of the work was to establish whether or not the two camps were in use at the same time. In the South Camp, in one trench, one sling bullet was found — the rest of the signals were modern bullets — but in the other trench, a large cluster of Roman bullets was found. In the North Camp, an even larger cluster was found with a total weight of 15 kg — the largest collection of sling bullets from any site in the Roman Empire. Dr Reid pointed out that abandoned munitions were often seen in the aftermath of modern-day conflicts. Sling-bullets from the North and South Camps appear to be identical and are currently undergoing lead isotope analysis in the Goethe University in Frankfurt. Analysis of previous samples from the site and from other sites in Northern England and Scotland appear to indicate that the lead used comes from a common source near Mainz in Germany, particularly the lead used in the making of the 'acorn'-shaped bullets.
The current research project suggests that the irregularly shaped camps were a pragmatic and tactical response to the local terrain and the potential enemy threat, and occupied at the same time. It indicates that the hillfort's south rampart was subjected to a barrage of missiles along a 500m-wide front. Such a barrage must have provided suppressive fire to allow a direct assault on the ramparts by the Roman Army, and indicates a high degree of force directed against the hillfort's defenders, perhaps in an exemplary way. When did this happen? Three 'acorn' bullets from the nearby Roman fort at Birrens are dated, by association with other finds, to the late Hadrianic–early Antonine period (about 130–145). The Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius's invasion of Scotland was conducted by his general Lollius Urbicus, a veteran of the Third Jewish War, 132–136 AD. He went on to serve as Governor in Southern Germany in 137–138, with the VIII and XXII legions. From 138–142 he was Governor of Britain and brought with him detachments or vexillations of the VIII and XXII legions. Inscriptions from Birrens show that these units were based there. The Burnswark research project is now beginning to suggest that the assault on the hillfort marked the opening of the Roman invasion of Scotland ordered by Antoninus Pius. The Roman Army then moved north through the western Lowlands to build the Antonine Wall across central Scotland in 142, thereby marking the new northern limit of the Roman Empire. Recent research on fragments of an inscription found at Birrens fort, suggests that the largest 'Victory' monument found in Roman Britain was erected there to record this achievement.
13 January 2017
Vyv Wood-Gee — European Drove Roads
Cumberland Street Centre was packed for the first DGNHAS meeting of 2017. The speaker, Viv Wood-Gee from Hoddom, enthralled members with her 2015 talk on the Drove Roads of Britain when she travelled in stages from Skye to Smithfield Market, London, on horseback. This time her subject was European Drove Roads for which a Churchhill Fellowship enabled her to research the situation on the Continent.
In Spain 1% of the surface area of the country is devoted to droving, past and present, and covers 125,000 km, while the railway system measures only 15,000 km, proof positive of the value of 'Vias Pecuarias' to the nation, which on a map are categorised in seven different colours, according to width.
Never allowing anything to stand in her way, Viv signed up for a well-attended Drove Roads Conference in Spain in 2010, despite being unable to speak the language. Development of the roads goes back to Neolithic times when hunter-gatherers followed a network in their quest for deer and wild oxen. Roman roads were incorporated into the scheme. Annually between the 11th and 17th centuries five million sheep, mainly merino, were herded along them and such was their importance that in the 13th century they acquired legal status. 'Ganaderos', who raised the livestock, traditional black cattle as well as sheep, were charged for using the paths and crossing the bridges, thus defraying the cost of upkeep.
Droving led to the establishment of settlements for servicing the drovers with food, water from wells and churches. Transhumance was practised whereby livestock were taken to cooler upper regions in summer and brought down to lower meadows for warmth in winter. Men involved were away from home and living in primitive rush shelters in summer until October. Their return home affected the birth rate! In more recent times the lifestyle was rejected and lorries were used because heavy traffic on roads roused fears that livestock might be killed.
To preserve the historical merits of droving, in 1995 legislation placed an obligation on local government to employ two or three staff to check on drove roads and compile documentation to ensure that drove roads are protected. Small pillars with appropriate signing and other statuary remind road-users that cattle have priority and are important in the nation's heritage. On one day in the year cattle can be herded through Madrid to maintain the legal right. When lack of funding made law enforcement difficult Spain turned to the EU for assistance as drove roads were being lost.
EU funding has effected changes: the rush huts have been replaced by new bothies for drovers, who have been given money for mobile telephones to maintain contact with their families. The virtues of traditional droving outweigh 20th-century developments. For instance, livestock movement is a natural means of seed transfer: what has been eaten en route causes droppings further down the line; seed is picked up by birds; and sheep grazing overnight keeps land in trim. A whole agricultural system — habitats, landscape and livelihood — will be lost and biodiversity will suffer if the drove roads are neglected.
Spain convinced the EU of their case by emphasising that transhumance on the hoof uses less energy and 70% less water than road transport of livestock and 75% less carbon.
In Denmark drove routes were in use from the 13th century and 50,000 cattle per annum were moved along tracks on high ground. Again it was the small hardy black cattle that could cope with the exigencies of the drive and they suited the market.
Farmers were paid to set up hostels for the drovers but no food was provided. The 'Driverweg' or 'Okswegen' came from all parts of the country and converged on their way south to Schleswig-Holstein in Germany for shipping to England in the middle of November.
Nowadays two standing ox horns whose points meet in the air signify a drove road, which might also at stages have sculptures along the way. Users of the track, such as pilgrims heading for Jerusalem, are guided by signage on the side of small granite markers. EU funding has been claimed to restore an 11th-century bridge once used by drovers, but Denmark's climate defeats these attempts at promoting popular tourism.
Italy's drove roads, which follow the Via Francigena, the old pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome, are still in operation. Their history goes back to the 3rd century BC. The Romans established transhumance. They are similar to those in Spain and have legal status, but in covering only 3,100 km they are not as widespread. The country has latched on to the benefits of tying them in with eco-tourism.
France represents another country like Spain and Italy in maintaining the traditions of droving although the roads are not protected in law.
Viv seized upon the opportunity to use sturdy French horses, like her own, to explore the routes. Transhumance is again the guiding principle. Other groups can join in and accompany the drovers. The boss mare carries a bell round her neck. In various places beer, wine and music enhance the revelry, slightly reminiscent of Riding the Marches in Scotland, before the drovers set off to the summer quarters in the Pyrenees. The horses are driven but sheep and the usual black cattle wander free for four months. A shepherd is paid by breeders to stay in the isolated places for four months. Descent to the eastern Camargue in December provides an excuse for another party. In Nice as part of a big festival cattle and sheep are driven through the town to remind people of tradition.
In concluding, a note of envy crept into the intrepid Viv's fast-moving commentary, as she compared the southern European countries' inspirational moves to promote 21st-century droving with that of Britain, where legislation and rules prevent its re-establishment. EU money is there for the asking if a convincing case can be made by a member state, with Spain being the front-runner.
Warm appreciation of Viv's performance and excellent photography was expressed in the vote of thanks for this "knowledgeable enthusiast".
27 January 2017
Mark Pollitt (D&G Environmental Resources Centre Manager) — Wildlife
Recording — Past, Present and Future
In a fact-filled and often entertaining talk Mark took the audience through the history of wildlife recording, from its 17th-century beginnings to the digital future.
The 'father' of wildlife recording is thought to be parson-naturalist John Ray (1627–1705). Many early recorders were clergymen, who were well educated, had a reasonable amount of spare time, and usually remained in one district for many years. In 1798 the Reverend Dugald Williams of Tongland recorded numerous glow-worms in his parish, a species now almost unknown in Dumfries and Galloway. William Jardine and George Scott Elliot, early presidents of the DGNHAS, were also notable wildlife recorders. Early naturalists had to contend with a lack of guide books (and the few that existed were very poor by today's standard), and confused taxonomy, the latter problem being solved by the introduction of the binomial Latin classification of living organisms by the celebrated Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in the mid-18th century.
By the mid-19th century naturalist societies were beginning to be formed, the first in Scotland being in Berwickshire in 1831. However, it was soon realised that the variable size of administrative counties made them unsuitable as units for wildlife recording and in 1852 the so-called Watsonian vice-counties were created by dividing large counties and amalgamating small ones — a system that is still used today.
The Victorian era saw an increased interest in wildlife, which mainly manifested itself by an enthusiasm for collecting specimens. Although many of these collections have now found useful homes in museums, the depredations of collectors was sufficient to almost wipe out some species.
Today the DGERC collates records of all forms of wildlife, mostly provided by amateur wildlife enthusiasts (or 'citizen scientists' as they are now called), for which Britain is particularly renowned. This information is vital for finding out about population trends, identifying species at risk, and helping organisations such as Dumfries and Galloway Council manage areas of wildlife importance. The largest number of records received is of moths, closely followed by birds, and a surprising number of records are received of more obscure groups such as beetles. This data has helped chart the spread in Dumfries and Galloway of newly-arrived species such as the Nuthatch and the Tree Bumblebee, and also keep track of harmful alien species such as the Himalayan Balsam and the Harlequin Ladybird.
The potential of modern technology to alter the way wildlife is recorded is truly amazing. It is now possible to photograph something with a smartphone, which will identify the location through its GPS technology, send it to an expert for identification and then forward it to a wildlife recording centre. It is now also possible to detect the presence of Great Crested Newts, an endangered amphibian found in Dumfries and Galloway, by performing DNA analysis on the pondwater.
Mark finished his talk by urging members of the audience to send in wildlife records, and to take part in the forthcoming RSPB Garden Birdwatch — Britain's biggest wildlife recording event.
10 February 2017
Graeme Cavers (AOC Archaeology Group) — Black Loch of Myrton: an Early Iron Age Loch Village in Wigtownshire
Over 80 members and guests attended the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society's meeting on 10 February to hear Dr Graeme Cavers of the AOC Archaeology Group speak on the recent archaeological excavation of the early Iron Age loch village at Black Loch of Myrton near Monreith, Wigtownshire.
The project has been funded by Historic Environment Scotland as part of The Scottish Wetlands Archaeology Project. Loch settlement in Scotland, especially in crannogs, can be traced from prehistoric to medieval times, most of which are found in south-west Scotland, Argyll and western Scotland generally. Many were built from around 500 BC to the Roman period, and fewer in the early medieval period. Their place in Iron Age society is not yet clear, but their occupants may have had higher social status.
An earlier project at Cults Loch near Castle Kennedy revealed two crannogs in the loch. The loch was surrounded by cropmarks, indicative of agricultural activity probably related to the occupation of the crannogs. Excavation revealed a very good state of wood preservation, although the two structures were initially difficult to identify. Each building had central hearth mounds, but these were not so well preserved. A number of artefacts appeared to have been deliberately buried below the floors; these included a carved wooden box and a wooden ard or early plough share. Dendrochronological analysis of the structural timber indicated the buildings were occupied in the mid-fifth century BC.
The site at Black Loch was rediscovered while work at Cults Loch was finishing. Sir Herbert Maxwell had previously discovered and excavated part of the site finding evidence of metalworking and charcoal. Knowledge of the site was lost in a tree-covered bog with little to see at ground level. Then some large worked timbers were recovered in 2010 when a large agricultural drainage ditch was cut through the site. The farmer reported the find to Stranraer Museum, and the site was investigated. Black Loch is little more than a shallow wetland during winter; nearby White Loch is a substantial body of water with one know crannog.
Firstly, a topographic survey was undertaken, which revealed several raised mounds, now known to be the central hearths of timber round houses. Hearths never survive in round houses excavated on land, but in the boggy conditions at Black Loch they were found to be 2–2.5m in diameter with stone bases. Excavations began in 2014. In the first building investigated, the hearth was rebuilt four times, each one on top of its predecessor. The associated floor surfaces were found in varying states of survival.
Excavation in 2015 investigated a second round-house and revealed another series of rebuilt hearths, necessitated by each hearth gradually sinking into the underlying peat. In this building the lower parts of the main structural post ring, the outer double, wattled stake line in a ring groove and floor were preserved by the wet conditions. The flooring was made up of a matting of woven hazel, alder and willow. Also found were vertically slotted sill beams which would have served to partition the interior of the round house. There was evidence of the use of grasses and reeds repeatedly laid down as a flooring material. Within this was evidence of insects — such as house flies. Some insects were indicative of the presence of animal stock kept in particular parts of the house. One important find was that of a type of grain beetle, previously thought to have been introduced in the Roman period in Britain. Another feature noted were caches of white quartz pebbles under the flooring, the significance of which is unknown.
The entrance to building 2 was particularly well-preserved. Here the outer double stake and wattle ring was replaced with a double line of large oak plans set vertically. This would have created an impressive façade. The trackway to the entrance could be traced — a unique survival in a round-house. It was also clear that a trackway of laid timbers also ran between buildings 1 and 2, suggesting that they were in occupation at the same time.
Excavations continued in 2016, when a trench was excavated from the centre of the site to the periphery. A wooden palisade marked the limit of the site, and a further building was found adjacent to it. Within this was another hearth, but with evidence of a clay domed oven built on a framework of wicker. A sequence of clay domes indicated that the oven had been rebuilt several times. This is the first Iron Age clay domed oven to have been found in Britain.
Few artefacts have been found in the excavations so far, suggesting that the site was abandoned in a tidy fashion. Pottery seems to have been little used in Iron Age Wigtownshire in contrast to sites of the same period in Northern Scotland. Finds include hammer stones, and cobble stones, probably used for leather working. One spindle whorl has been found so far and a small crude ‘thumb’ pot.
The worked timbers from the site provide evidence of the types of woodworking tools in use. It is clear that different types of axes were used on different types and sizes of wood. A considerable amount of environmental material has been recovered for further examination.
Given the difficulties of providing reasonably precise dates from carbon-14 dating in the period 800–400 BC, dendrochronological analysis of the structural oak in the façade of building 2 has provided a provisional felling date of 437 BC, suggesting the Black Loch settlement and the Cults Loch crannog were occupied at the same time.
Black Loch is a wetland settlement, not in a loch, but on wet, boggy peat. It is a wetland enclosure, similar to the palisaded enclosures known from aerial photography throughout south-west Scotland, but more precisely dated. The fourth and fifth centuries BC saw an upsurge in the building of crannogs and wetland settlements, perhaps a defensive response to an increasing external threat.
24 February 2017, Members' Night
David Devereux — Excavations at Tongland Abbey
On a very wet February night, members and their guests attended the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society's annual Members’ Night meeting. This is the evening when members can present their own research to the assembled group. This year, Dr David Devereux, one of the Society's Past Presidents outlined the research and excavation work being undertaken at Tongland, near Kirkcudbright, in search of Tongland Abbey.
He began by thanking the Society for the grant the project had received, which had enabled his small group of volunteers to put together the tools and equipment they needed in order to undertake their excavation work last summer.
The idea of looking for structural evidence for the Premonstratensian Abbey at Tongland came about in 2015 when the Tongland and Ringford Community Council decided to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. We wondered what that had to do with the Stewartry, but David went on to explain that Alan, Lord of Galloway who was the Founder of Tongland Abbey in 1218, was the only Scot named in the Magna Carta of 1215.
The site of Tongland Abbey has seen much activity, being in a prominent position between two rivers, on a "tongue" of land. The waters themselves provided for a fishery going back centuries on a stretch of water known as the Doachs of Tongland. This was the source of a commercial salmon trade into the 20th century and might have attracted the monks who came to Tongland.
The Abbey was replaced with a parish church in 1633 and again in 1813. All now ruinous. There is a 19th-century manse on the site and a graveyard still in use. This means that the area available for excavation is limited. However, with the permission of the owners of the old manse, an area between the former parish churches and the manse building could be investigated.
In 2015, the Magna Carta project fund enabled a geophysical survey to be carried out across the manse garden. Whilst this did not provide conclusive results, it aided David's group the following year to focus their attention on some potential key features under the surface.
David outlined the research that had been undertaken and the sources of information that had led them to decide where to dig in order to determine the exact site for the Abbey and its environs. These included historic accounts, old maps and drawings, and the current layout of buildings and roads, as well as the 2015 survey results.
Descriptions of the Abbey suggest it was built on an impressive scale, comparable with that of Dundrennan Abbey, and having a steeple that was the tallest in Galloway. Substantial quantities of its walls are described as still standing in 1684, but by 1824, almost all had vanished. An examination of some local buildings showed evidence of the recycling of stonework that must have taken place.
The 2016 excavators chose five promising locations to open their trenches, in the hope of revealing the Abbey structure. Some provided a glimpse of previous activity on the site, without delivering the answers they sought. A section of wall probably relating to the 1633 church was uncovered, as well as examples of more recent activity such as a substantial deposit of motor car parts. An interesting linear feature on the geophysical survey was investigated in Trench 5 and proved to be a section of the abandoned eighteenth-century road running north through the site from the Old Tongland Bridge. Below it, however, evidence of medieval occupation was found comprising areas of charcoal and burning, with quantities of broken animal bone, and a later medieval stone games counter.Perhaps disappointingly, the precise siting of Tongland Abbey remains a mystery. But it is hoped that further trial excavations can be undertaken in 2017. Perhaps then, Tongland Abbey will at last reveal itself — and just in time for its 800th anniversary in 2018.