Excavating the CA Archive: the Lowlands and the Borders

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In the final leg of my tour of Scotland (which you can follow from CA 393) next issue to celebrate the milestone of CA 400, before returning to my geographic theme, moving south into the English borderlands of Cumbria and Northumberland.

Before I proceed, however, a final reminder: these columns on Scotland are dedicated to the memory of Katharine MacDonald (1976-2022), an old friend, outstanding archaeologist, and proud Scotswoman. Kathy tragically left her family, friends, and colleagues far too soon after a sudden illness in late 2022. If you are curious about her life and career, then a obituary that sums up her many strengths can be read online: www.trowelblazers.com/2023/01/31/katharine-macdonald-a-burning-light-in-prehistory.


The Scots borders have it all in terms of archaeological content. Within a discrete area, this column spans the Neolithic through to the post-medieval period, stopping off at all major chronological points in between. An excellent recent starting point is CA 378 (September 2021), which examined thousands of years of history along the route of the A75 bypass near Dunragit in south-west Galloway. Further east along the A75, there is also the superb Neolithic site of Pict’s Knowe, a henge just south of Dumfries. CA 141 and 160 (December 1994 and November 1998) visited fieldwork undertaken there by a team from the University of Southampton.

The most impressive prehistoric find in this part of Scotland, however, featured on the cover of CA 243 (June 2010): that of Howburn Farm near Biggar in South Lanarkshire. There, over the course of 30 years, the local volunteer-led Biggar Archaeology Group uncovered a stunning Upper Palaeolithic site providing evidence of the earliest human habitation in Scotland – alongside a host of other finds from across the ages. For anyone in doubt of the rightful place of volunteers in archaeology, look no further: this was then, and remains today, a groundbreaking project in every sense of the word.

The Upper Palaeolithic site found at Howburn Farm near Biggar in South Lanarkshire by a volunteer-led group featured on the cover of CA 243, while the Iron Age/Roman oppidum at Burnswark made the cover of CA 316.


Moving forward in time while staying in the same place, three fine Iron Age/Roman sites in this area have featured in the pages of Current Archaeology. First up is Trusty’s Hill, an Iron Age hillfort near Gatehouse of Fleet in Dumfries and Galloway that featured in CA 327 (June 2017), when studies were made of the unusual Pictish carvings etched into the rock near its summit, far to the south of where such carvings are usually found. Next comes the Iron Age/Roman oppidum at Burnswark, just to the east of Lockerbie. CA’s first account of the site came in issue 316 (July 2016), examining evidence for the use of Roman artillery there, and CA 389 (August 2022) revisited it as part of a larger survey of indigenous communities’ lives and lifestyles along the frontier. Third and finally, the Roman settlement of Trimontium in modern-day Melrose featured in CA 386 (May 2022). Recent renovation of the museum of the same name there gave archaeologists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-examine what happened to the site’s ‘lost’ fortress.


Moving further forward in time, there is a particular wealth of evidence for monastic settlement in the Scots Borders during the Middle Ages. Travelling from west to east, my first (and perhaps most famous) example is Whithorn in Galloway; then, slightly further east, close on the modern-day border near Gretna Green, is Hoddom; and finally, further south and east, on the A68 south of Melrose, is Jedburgh.

At Whithorn, the first sustained attention from the magazine came in CA 96 (April 1985). While the site and general extent of the monastery (founded by St Ninian in the 5th century, and the site of a bishopric in the 8th century) was known, questions about the extent and phasing of its occupation remained, and the construction of a small housing development in one of the fields adjacent to the burial ground there offered a unique opportunity to find out more. CA 110 (July 1988) followed up on this story: the fieldwork in 1985 had demonstrated the exceptional survival of the site, so the development proposal was withdrawn and the Whithorn Trust established to continue examination of the site. CA 245 (August 2010) then returned after a long hiatus, reporting on the full publication of fieldwork from the 1950s-1960s as well as the 1980s.

Meanwhile, CA 135 (August/September 1993) examined another of Scotland’s ‘lost’ monasteries, that at Hoddom – a site that was founded in the 6th century and functioned as a major ecclesiastical centre in the 8th century, but was almost completely forgotten by the 12th century. Finally, CA 97 (July 1985) visited both Jedburgh Abbey – Scotland’s foremost ecclesiastical ruin of the High Middle Ages, with the main fabric of the church still virtually complete – and also lesser-known Jedburgh Friary, a very late (16th-century) ‘reformed Franciscan’ community of the little-known Observantine Order that lies on the other side of the town. Both these sites were being re-examined and reinterpreted at that time as part of the Border Burghs Archaeology Project, supported by the big provider of project funds prior to the developer-funded era: the Manpower Services Commission (MSC).

CA 110 featured the extensive excavations at Whithorn following the withdrawal of a development proposal, while CA 156 showed the impromptu bar that opened at Glenochar, a bastle (fortified farmhouse) with fermtoun (workers’ dwellings).


Before I head south into the English border zone, I raise a toast to Scotland, in the form of one final cover-story, as a tribute to all the amazing projects and people that I have revisited through the pages of the magazine over the last seven issues. CA 156 (March 1998) featured the impromptu (and chilly looking) bar opened at Glenochar, a bastle (fortified farmhouse) and its fermtoun (workers’ dwellings) that lie just off the A74M between Abington and Moffat. This was the winner, in 1998, of the Pitt Rivers Award (at that time part of the British Archaeological Awards scheme). The site had been examined as part of the larger Clydesdale Bastle Project, examining the nature and extent of these the early 17th-century defended houses. A collaborative project, based around teams living within and loving an environment they care for, shedding light on an under-appreciated aspect of the past, and winning an award for it – this is everything that Current Archaeology has championed since issue 1. Here’s to celebrating 400 examples of such archaeological endeavour in the next issue!

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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