Excavating the CA Archive: Scotland

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In my explorations of Current Archaeology’s history, I have now visited two-thirds of England and Wales. My plan is to tour the entire length and breadth of the United Kingdom, and now Scotland’s time has come. Comprising a ‘mini-series’, over the next few columns I will visit everywhere from the Lowlands to the Highlands and in-between, including off into the Islands. The sites examined range in date from deep prehistory to the 1970s and, as ever, comprise some well-known locations alongside hidden gems that deserve your attention.

These columns on Scotland are dedicated to the memory of Katharine MacDonald (1976-2022). Kathy was an old friend, an outstanding archaeologist, and a proud Scotswoman. She left us far too soon, and she is deeply missed.

Standing stones and breezy weather

In subsequent columns, I will explore Scotland in depth, moving anti-clockwise from the centre. But it seemed helpful, by way of an introduction, to begin by exploring those national reviews that have previously been undertaken, alongside the examination of a unique ‘site’ that does not fit easily into modern-day geopolitical boundaries: the Antonine Wall. Various partial and full-length ‘special issues’ have cropped up over the years: CA 3 (July 1967) examined early Christian sites in both Scotland and the wider north of Britain, and CA 5 (November 1967) undertook a brief but noteworthy review of active fieldwork under way in the country at this time. It took until CA 34 (September 1972) for a proper, full-length visit by the magazine north of the border, devoted solely to a survey of chambered tombs in Scotland, and timed to coincide with the publication of Audrey Henshall’s magnum opus of the same name.

ABOVE: CA 127 and CA 131 both covered the latest archaeological finds and research coming out of Scotland at the time. Sueno’s Stone, the largest surviving Pictish-style cross-slab in Scotland, featured on the cover of CA 127, while the Viking boat burial at Scar, Orkney, made the cover of CA 131.

CA 127 (December 1991) was the first genuinely multi-period survey of Scotland, celebrated with Sueno’s Stone near Forres in Morayshire featuring proudly on the cover. This issue travels widely, from the Neolithic (Loch Olabhat in the Outer Hebrides) to the 18th century (Earl’s Bu in Orkney). Hot on that issue’s heels then came CA 131 (October 1992), with another stunning cover story – that of the Viking boat burial at Scar, Orkney. Again, there is great diversity to enjoy here, from Bronze Age Lairg in Sutherland to medieval Edinburgh. CA 258 (September 2011) was up next, timed to coincide with Scottish Archaeology Month, and the most recent special edition was CA 335 (February 2018), part of a year-long celebration of Scotland’s history and archaeology.

Beyond issue-length reviews, there have also been some notable focused studies of Scottish sites and finds down the years. In chronological order, these include studies of its early historic fortifications (CA 79, October 1981); its National Museum (CA 149, September 1996); the Royal Commission (CA 228, March 2009); its prehistoric henges (CA 270, September 2012); its Iron Age drinking rituals (CA 299, February 2015); and, most recently, its prehistoric origins (CA 385, April 2022).

Life along the maritime superhighway

A different thematic route can be pursued if you consider the maritime and underwater archaeology of Scotland. I will touch on some splendid Viking Age sites in later issues, and the Viking boat burial at Scar, Orkney (mentioned above), would be a rare site anywhere in the British Isles – although see the finds made at Adnamurchan in the Highlands as well (CA 280, July 2013). There are also two excellent surveys of Scotland’s maritime and coastal archaeology, including their Viking connections, in CA 258 (September 2011) and CA 259 (October 2011). It is in this area too, specifically the Sound of Mull near Duart Castle, that a remarkable mid-17th-century shipwreck lies. It is linked to Cromwell’s attempts to suppress the area’s Royalist sympathisers (see CA 197, May 2005, and CA 329, August 2017). See also CA 347 (February 2019) on the 15th- to 16th-century royal dockyard of James IV at Higgins Neuk near Falkirk for another post-medieval maritime community. Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention work inland, under fresh, not salt, water, at crannogs over the years, including at Buiston in Ayrshire (see CA 127, December 1991) and Loch Tay in Perth and Kinross (see CA 90, January 1984, and CA 362, May 2020). The latter is home to the wonderful Scottish Crannog Centre (https://crannog.co.uk), which I urge everyone to visit.

ABOVE: Water-related Scottish sites have frequently appeared in CA: the shipwreck of the Swan – linked to Oliver Cromwell’s attempts to supress Royalist sympathisers at Duart Castle – made the cover of CA 329, while musical instruments found at the Loch Tay crannogs featured in CA 362.

All about Antonine

Last of all, I turn to a site better described as a series of interconnected sites some 37 miles long, running from Old Kilpatrick in the west to Carriden near Bo’ness in the east: the Antonine Wall, constructed from around AD 142 onwards under the orders of Antoninus Pius (AD 86-161, emperor  AD 138-161). The wall – comprising a rampart, ditch, outer mound, service road and, crucially, 17 forts, plus additional ‘fortlets’ – has an excellent online guide (also available as a downloadable app, see www.antoninewall.org). Current Archaeology has visited many of these sites and structures over the years, including your best starting point: CA 215 (February 2008), when Andrew Selkirk examined the case for it to become a World Heritage Site, something that duly occurred in 2008, albeit as part of the larger ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’ WHS, alongside Hadrian’s Wall and the German Limes. CA 18 (January 1970), however, ought to receive a special mention, for it is the first proper examination of the Antonine Wall, following a year (1969) in which two significant new finds were made there: a distance slab from Hutcheson Hill (about four miles from the western end of the Wall), and an altar from Old Kilpatrick, the terminal fort at the west end of the Wall.

ABOVE: CA 18 was the first issue to properly examine the Antonine Wall after the discovery of significant new finds, including a distance slab from Hutcheson Hill and an altar from Old Kilpatrick; then CA 42 was the first to pay a visit to Bearsden after a superb bathhouse was uncovered during excavations there.

Moving geographically west to east, we then come to Bearsden on the north-west outskirts of Glasgow. This site is, if not the most excavated of Antonine sites, then certainly that most visited by Current Archaeology, thanks in large part to the involvement of David Breeze, Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland) between 1989 and 2005 (see an interview with him in CA 127, December 1991). CA 42 (January 1974) made its first visit to Bearsden, at which time a superb bathhouse had been discovered during excavations there; CA 55 (March 1976) visited again in brief; and CA 82 (May 1982) provided an in-depth account, by which point fieldwork had concluded, enabling David Breeze to give an overview of the site (see also a review of his book in CA 318, September 2016).

Moving eastwards, Bar Hill near Twechar was up next in CA 320 (November 2016), the highest of all the Wall forts, with an excellent surviving headquarters building and bathhouse. A double-header of Croy Hill, near Kilsyth, and Seabegs Wood had been featured in CA 62 (June 1978) – one a fort, the other a ‘fortlet’. Further east again comes Rough Castle, just to the west of modern-day Falkirk, visited by CA 289 (April 2014), which boasts the most complete earthworks to survive along the Wall. Finally, furthest east – in terms of Current Archaeology’s coverage at least – comes Camelon in Falkirk itself, which features in CA 368 (November 2020).

Joe Flatman

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and – most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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