The Heart of Galloway: recent archaeological work on NTS properties at Threave and Rockcliffe

Meeting date

Derek Alexander (Head of Archaeological Services, National Trust for Scotland)

Castle Douglas Meeting
Meeting report

Derek began with a general view of archaeology on the NTS estate. The NTS is the third largest landowner in Scotland, with 76,000 hectares. NTS has care for about 300 listed buildings and some 100 other scheduled sites. The small permanent archaeological team is supplemented by archaeological contractors assigned to specific sites. Volunteers are widely used, and 'Thistle Camps' of 12 to 14 people have the dual purpose of learning about different methods, and at the same time helping with specific excavations.

Conservation is the prime reason for excavations. Many sites are threatened by development works, erosion, weather, uncontrolled growth of natural species, and burrowing of animals. Developments may threaten historic and prehistoric buildings and sites, but at the same time may open the way to survey, excavation and discovery, often of great significance. This is important in the essential objective of management of change.

From the first survey and excavation of sites by the NTS in 1993, the full range of survey and excavation techniques has been used, including dendrochronology, and radiocarbon dating in the scientific examination of artefacts.

Derek went on to present recent work at sites in our region. Broughton House in Kirkcudbright has been in the care of the NTS since the mid-1990s. A prominent feature is the way the building is set back from the street line today. This is a feature of rebuilding of the house around 1730. Prior to this, the house projected directly onto the street. The cellars of the present house occupy the space beneath the present entrance court. Later phases of the building’s extension were identified from survey plans.

The garden extends from the house to the river. Work in that area has brought to light numerous examples of medieval pottery dating from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, showing much earlier habitation on the site than might be surmised from the house as seen today, As a side issue, it was mentioned that the prominent artist, E.A. Hornel, who lived in the house, was an enthusiastic collector of antiquities, including some brought from Dundrennan.

Mr Alexander next expounded on the changing face of Threave estate. Maps displayed showed the extent of the 607 acre estate in the nineteenth century and onwards. The Gordon family built the Threave House in the baronial style in 1871–3. The design owed something to Castle Fraser, including the prominent observation tower. By this time, the coming of the railway had divided the estate, with the new house on the south and the ancient castle on the north.

The old castle, as seen today on an island in the river Dee, was built in the 1370s by Archibald the Grim, third Earl of Douglas and Lord of Galloway. The castle was besieged twice, the first time by the forces of James II, and then in the seventeenth century when the Maxwell owners surrendered to a Covenanting army.

The 14th-century tower is defended on two sides by a perimeter wall, with the river providing defence on the other sides, with a small harbour for access.

The name Threave is identified with 'tref', a possibly 6th-century but more likely 9th-century Brittonic or Old Welsh place-name, indicating the site was occupied long before the present tower and fortifications. Excavations in in the 1970s uncovered large earlier buildings underlying the present outer wall and extending beyond it. These were identified as a hall and perhaps kitchens and stables.

A copy of McCartney's splendid map of 1771 was projected. This showed in great detail fields, plough lands and other features before the changes of the nineteenth century. The house — Kelton House or Kelton Mains — built by Robert Johnston, one-time Provost of Dumfries, in 1720 is shown, which can still be seen today in its more developed form. Its dating seems to correspond with that of the Bridge of Dee bridge — possibly the same architect was responsible for both.

Overlooking the crossing between river bank and castle is Meiklewood Hill. Excavation of crop marks on top of the hill revealed an enclosure of Roman–Iron Age date. Similar excavations of a 'D' shaped enclosure on Little Wood Hill nearby produced charcoal samples dating to the period 44BC to AD85. Crop marks on Lodge Island have also been investigated and may indicate Dark Age or Medieval occupation there.

The Mote of Mark at Rockcliffe looks over the water to Rough Island. It was subject to excavation around 1913 and again in the 1970s. Knowledge of the site was increased by more recent excavation, with the benefit of improved techniques. Examination of the vitrified ramparts gave an impressive view of their extent and construction. Other sections were opened to investigate internal features and ditches. Artefacts were dated as being from the 6th to 7th centuries, with the possibility of some being imports from France. The site was seen as offering potential for further excavation in the future.

Mr Alexander was thanked for his very informative talk on the work of the NTS and on local sites in particular, with appropriate visual aids to illustrate his subject.