Trial excavations at Tongland Abbey

Meeting date

David Devereux

Member's lecture
Meeting report

David Devereux, former DGNHAS president and curator of the Stewarty Museum, presented an update on the archaeological dig at Tongland Abbey at a well attended meeting in the Baptist Church Centre, Dumfries.

David,who has an archaeological background, has been involved with the excavation of Tongland Abbey since 2015. The prime reason for the dig was to locate the site of the abbey and get an idea of the layout and extent of the structures. It was generally thought that the abbey was located in the region of the old 16th and 19th century Tongland Churches, but no surviving maps or documents give an exact location or extent of the site.

Tongland Abbey was founded in 1218 by Alan, Lord of Galloway for the White Canons of the Premonstratensian Order. This became an important abbey in Scotland with a similar standing to Dryburgh Abbey until the 16th century when it seems to have fallen into disrepair. In 1684 the steeple was still standing but by 1824 the whole structure was in ruins. Later the exact location for the abbey was then lost.

The present dig has centred in the garden of the Manse. The old church also shows clues to the abbey’s location. Inside the church is a plinthed wall which is usually an external feature. The doorway has also been dated to the 13th century. In 2015 a Geophysical Survey was completed in the Manse gardens with indistinct results. Digging started in 2016 which discovered that the site had been infilled with waste from the building of the Tongland Power Station. This was to create a platform for a tennis court, obscuring the geophysical investigations. The trial trenches discovered a substantial north–south aligned wall crossed by a water channel. Further work has uncovered signs of buildings towards the south of the substantial wall. A modest structure was discovered attached to the west side of the wall. These findings suggest that the substantial wall is the west wall of the cloisters with auxiliary buildings to the south, which may well have been the kitchens. The curious structure attached to the west of the wall is thought to be a gatehouse for the cloisters similar to one found at Glen Luce Abbey. There appears to be no west range which coincides with the structure of Dryburgh Abbey. This then suggests the surviving wall in the old church is a surviving fragment of the south wall of the abbey church. From these results it has been surmised that the abbey was a substantial building in the plan and size of Dryburgh Abbey.

Finds have included medieval pottery, a Nuremburg Jeton counter, a 15th-century ecclesiastical penny and possibly, most intriguingly, a fragment of 15th-century sculptured stone recognised as part of a monumental effigy of a knight, possibly a Douglas.

This has been a most interesting and enlightening lecture on such an enigmatic site and we look forward to the results of the next season's dig.