Category Archives: SCOTLAND

Tartan Recovered From Scottish Bog Dated to the 16th Century

Tartan Recovered From Scottish Bog Dated to the 16th Century

Tartan Recovered From Scottish Bog Dated to the 16th Century
The Glen Affric tartan will be exhibited for the first time at V&A Dundee’s Tartan exhibition from 1 April

A scrap of fabric found in a Highland peat bog 40 years ago is likely to be the oldest tartan ever discovered in Scotland, new tests have established.

The fabric is believed to have been created in about the 16th Century, making it more than 400 years old. It was found in a Glen Affric peat bog, in the Highlands, in the early 1980s.

The Scottish Tartans Authority (STA) commissioned dye analysis and radiocarbon testing of the textile to prove its age. Using high-resolution digital microscopy, four initial colours of green, brown and possibly red and yellow were identified.

The dye analysis confirmed the use of indigo or woad in the green but was inconclusive for the other colours, probably due to the dyestuff having degraded.

No artificial or semi-synthetic dyestuffs were involved in the making of the tartan, leading researchers to believe it predates the 1750s.

Experts have said the tartan was more than likely worn as an “outdoor working garment” and would not have been worn by royalty.

The STA said the textile was created somewhere between 1500 and 1655, but the period of 1500 to 1600 was most probable.

This makes it the oldest known piece of true tartan discovered in Scotland.

Four initial colours of green, brown and possibly red and yellow were identified in the tartan

Peter MacDonald, head of research and collections at the STA, said the testing process took nearly six months but that the organisation was “thrilled with the results”.

“In Scotland, surviving examples of old textiles are rare as the soil is not conducive to their survival,” he added.

“The piece was buried in peat, meaning it had no exposure to air and it was therefore preserved.”

He said that because the tartan contains several colours, with multiple stripes, it corresponds to what would be considered a true tartan.

Mr MacDonald said: “Although we can theorise about the Glen Affric tartan, it’s important that we don’t construct history around it.

“Although Clan Chisholm controlled that area, we cannot attribute the tartan to them as we don’t know who owned it.”

Historical significance

He also said that the potential presence of red, a colour that Gaels consider a status symbol, is interesting because the cloth had a rustic background.

“This piece is not something you would associate with a king or someone of high status, it is more likely to be an outdoor working garment,” he added.

John McLeish, chair of the STA, said the tartan’s “historical significance” likely dates to the reigns of King James V, Mary Queen of Scots or King James VI/I – between 1513 and 1625.

Due to where it was found, the piece of fabric has been named the Glen Affric tartan and measures about 55cm by 43cm (approximately 22 by 17 inches).

It will go on public display at the V&A Dundee design museum from 1 April until 14 January next year.

James Wylie, the curator at V&A Dundee, said: “We knew the Scottish Tartans Authority had a tremendous archive of material and we initially approached them to ask if them if they knew of any examples of ‘proto-tartans’ that could be loaned to the exhibition.

“I’m delighted the exhibition has encouraged further exploration into this plaid portion and very thankful for the Scottish Tartans Authority’s backing and support for uncovering such a historic find.”

He added that it was “immensely important” to be able to exhibit the Glen Affric tartan and said he was sure visitors would appreciate seeing the textile on public display for the first time.

Do the Great Apes Share a Common Language?

Do the Great Apes Share a Common Language?

Humans share elements of a common language with other apes, understanding many of the gestures that wild chimps and bonobos use to communicate.

That is the conclusion of a video-based study in which volunteers translated ape gestures.

It was carried out by researchers at St Andrew’s University.

It suggests the last common ancestor we shared with chimps used similar gestures, and that these may have been a “starting point” for our language.

The findings are published in the scientific journal PLOS Biology.

Lead researcher, Dr Kirsty Graham from St Andrews University explained that this gesture-based way of communicating is shared by other species of great apes, including gorillas and orangutans.

“Human infants use some of these same gestures, too,” she told BBC News.

“So we already had a suspicion that this was a shared gesturing ability that might have been present in our last shared ancestor.

“We’re quite confident now that our ancestors would have started off gesturing, and that this was co-opted into [our] language.”

This study was part of an ongoing scientific mission to understand this language origin story by carefully studying communication in our closest ape cousins.

This team of researchers has spent many years observing wild chimpanzees. They previously discovered that the great apes use a whole “lexicon” of more than 80 gestures, each conveying a message to another member of their group.

Messages like “groom me” are communicated with a long scratching motion; a mouth stroke means “give me that food” and tearing strips from a leaf with teeth is a chimpanzee gesture of flirtation.

Translating apes

Scientists used video playback experiments, because the approach has traditionally been used to test language comprehension in non-human primates. In this study, they turned the approach on its head to assess humans’ abilities to understand the gestures of their closest living ape relatives.

Volunteers watched videos of the chimps and bonobos gesturing, then selected from a multiple choice list of translations.

The participants performed significantly better than expected by chance, correctly interpreting the meaning of chimpanzee and bonobo gestures over 50% of the time.

“We were really surprised by the results,” said Dr Catherine Hobaiter from St Andrews University. “It turns out we can all do it almost instinctively, which is both fascinating from an evolution of communication perspective and really quite annoying as a scientist who spent years training how to do it,” she joked.

The gestures people can innately understand may form part of what Dr Graham described as “an evolutionarily ancient, shared gesture vocabulary across all great ape species including us”.

Neolithic axe grinding site uncovered

Neolithic axe grinding site uncovered

About 4,500 years ago, Neolithic toolmakers used this site like a giant whetstone to polish axes. The large sandstone was discovered by archaeologists and volunteers who examined an area close to Balfron, near Stirling, Scotland.

Neolithic axe grinding site uncovered
A site where Neolithic toolmakers sharpened stone axes has been uncovered near Balfron.

There are many magnificent ancient monuments and sites in Scotland. “The merging of the Neolithic Age into the Bronze Age also sawthe flowering of an extraordinary architectural phenomenon – the erection of stone circles and standing stones.” 1 The sacred Callanish stone complex on the Isle of Lewis and the intriguing Neolithic Skara Brae village are just a few examples one can mention.

“Over 5000 years of human history can be traced across the Kilmartin valley. Kilmartin Glen is considered to have one of the most important concentrations of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in Scotland.

There are at least 350 ancient monuments, of which 150 are prehistoric. Of particular interest are chambered cairns, round cairns, cists, standing stones and rock carvings.

These Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, together with the stone circle at Temple Wood and the standing stones at Ballymeanoch are all part of the ritual landscape of Kilmartin Glen.” 2

“The Neolithic period (or New Stone Age) began approximately 6,100 years ago and ended around 4,500 years ago (4,100 BC to 2,500 BC), which begins with the earliest evidence of a farming way of life and ends when copper tools are first used.

During this time, farmers arrived from what is now mainland Europe – and since people were now staying in one place for longer periods of time (rather than having to roam around for food), they also started building permanent structures such as stone dwellings and tombs.

This means that there are a lot more clues for archaeologists compared to the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods.” 3

Archaeologists have previously found many polished stone tools (axeheads), but now scientists get a better understanding of how these Neolithic tools were kept in working condition.

The site represents Scotland’s largest concentration of Neolithic axe grind points.

The recently unearthed axe grinding site represents Scotland’s largest concentration of Neolithic axe grind points and one of only two known Scottish polissoir sites.

“Experts believe people may have traveled for miles to smooth or sharpen axes at the sites.

Scotland’s Rock Art Project volunteer Nick Parish and Stirling Council archaeologist Dr Murray Cook were among those who stripped turf from the sandstone and recorded the polissoirs at Balfron,” BBC reports.

The finds have been listed among archaeological highlights from this year by the Dig It! project, external.

Neolithic Grinding Stone Found in Scotland

Neolithic Grinding Stone Found in Scotland

A place where people with an axe to grind gathered 4,500 years ago has been uncovered by archaeologists and volunteers.

Neolithic Grinding Stone Found in Scotland
A site where Neolithic toolmakers sharpened stone axes has been uncovered near Balfron
The site represents Scotland’s largest concentration of Neolithic axe grind points

An area of abrasive sandstone close to Balfron, near Stirling, has been found to have been used like a giant whetstone by Neolithic toolmakers to polish stone axes.

Over the summer, 33 U-shaped grooves called polissoirs were recorded.

The location represents Scotland’s largest concentration of Neolithic axe grind points, and one of only two known Scottish polissoir sites.

Experts believe people may have travelled for miles to smooth or sharpen axes at the sites.

Scotland’s Rock Art Project volunteer Nick Parish and Stirling Council archaeologist Dr Murray Cook were among those who stripped turf from the sandstone and recorded the polissoirs at Balfron.

The finds have been listed among archaeological highlights from this year by the Dig It! project, external.

Hoard of Medieval Silver Coins Discovered in Scotland

Hoard of Medieval Silver Coins Discovered in Scotland

Hoard of Medieval Silver Coins Discovered in Scotland
The 8,407 silver coins of the Dunscore Hoard include many medieval silver “Edwardian pennies” like this one found in the English city of Canterbury.

Metal detectorists have unearthed what may be one of the largest hoards of coins ever discovered in Scotland, in a field in the southwest of the country. The hoard is made up of more than 8,400 silver coins that date from the medieval period, mostly from the 13th and 14th centuries.

Ken McNab, a spokesman for the Scottish government, told Live Science that many of the coins are “Edwardian pennies” named after King Edward I, who reigned in England from 1272 to 1307.

Finding any coins in Scotland is rare, and this hoard is especially large. “This is the biggest medieval coin hoard found in Scotland since the 19th century,” McNab told Live Science in an email. 

The metal detectorists unearthed the coins last year in a field near the village of Dunscore, in the Dumfries and Galloway region about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Glasgow, and reported the hoard to the Treasure Trove Unit of National Museums Scotland, which oversees such finds.

McNab said the site was then investigated by archaeologists from National Museums Scotland, and each coin would now be identified, weighed, measured, and photographed — a lengthy process. 

Medieval kingdom

Scotland and England were independent kingdoms in the medieval period and often fought each other for control of their shared border. However, in 1296 Scotland was finally conquered by the armies of Edward I — earning the king the nickname “Hammer of the Scots.”

But the invasion sparked years of insurrectionist warfare, beginning with the famous rebellion led by William Wallace in 1297, and Edward’s descendants were troubled by uprisings until peace was agreed with the Scottish king Robert the Bruce in 1328, under the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton.

During his rule, Edward I reformed the coinage of his realm and introduced distinctive silver pennies with his face on one side and a Christian cross on the other. 

The design influenced English coins for hundreds of years, and today silver pennies from the reigns of Edward I and his son Edward II are much-prized by collectors.

Metal detectorists

Each of the newly discovered medieval coins is likely worth several dollars today, and the entire hoard is thought to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, quite apart from its archaeological value.

According to the Scottish newspaper Daily Record, any artifact of archaeological significance, whether made from precious metals or not, technically belongs to the Scottish government and must be reported to the authorities.

The government doesn’t always act on possible claims, however; and McNab said the decision on how to allocate the coins and any remuneration paid to the finders would be considered by the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel, which advises a government official known as the King’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer (KLTR).

McNab added that 12,263 artifacts were recorded by Scotland’s Treasure Trove Unit in 2022, including the 8,407 silver coins from the Dunscore hoard.

Amateur Metal Detectorists in Scotland Have Unearthed a Stash of 8,400 Medieval Coins

Amateur Metal Detectorists in Scotland Have Unearthed a Stash of 8,400 Medieval Coins

New Abbey and Sweetheart Abbey, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.

Some used pandemic downtime to learn how to crochet or brew a batch of kombucha. In Scotland, many escaped the boredom of lockdown restrictions by taking up metal detecting—so much so the country’s Treasure Trove Unit is struggling to keep up.

Most recently, the government organization responsible for investigating, handling, and archiving the discoveries of amateur detectorists announced the Dunscore Hoard, one of the biggest discoveries in Scottish history.

Last summer, 8,400 medieval silver coins were found in a field close to Dumfries, a southwestern town 25 miles from the Anglo-Scottish border.

Named after the nearby Dumfriesshire village, the Dunscore Hoard is the largest uncovered in Scotland since the 19th century and is primarily comprised of Edward I and II pennies dating from the 13th to 14th century—a period of frequent war between England and Scotland that cast forth characters such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

“The hoard is still being catalogued,” Ken McNab, Senior Communications Officer at Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, told Artnet News. “It’s an ongoing process and we don’t have a timetable at this point.”

This process involves identifying, photographing, measuring, and weighing each coin before museum allocations are decided.

The hoard contains a mix of English, Irish, Scottish, and mainland European coins. Although a value is yet to be determined, the size, breadth, and rareness of the hoard means it is likely worth several hundred thousand dollars.

In May 2020, the Treasure Trove Unit concluded a multiyear survey of Scotland’s hobbyist metal detecting scene and estimated the number of active hobbyists at 520.

Their number seems to have ballooned since the beginning of the pandemic, with the Treasure Trove Unit reporting 12,263 artefacts found so far in 2022, compared to around 1,500 in 2019.

“The team has had to take on more staff to help process items found post-Covid,” McNab said.

Fortunately, the survey showed the hobbyists have a high awareness of the country’s heritage legislation and are keen to work more closely with the heritage sector in the coming years. Expect more finds like the Dunscore Hoard.

Rare medieval script discovered on stone carved by Scotland’s ‘Painted People’

Rare medieval script discovered on stone carved by Scotland’s ‘Painted People’

Rare medieval script discovered on stone carved by Scotland's 'Painted People'
This image shows a close-up of an ogham alphabet inscription on a Pictish cross slab.

Archaeologists and volunteers have discovered a stone bearing a mysterious inscription and carved birds that the Picts of Scotland crafted more than a millennium ago. The cross slab, found in a small cemetery last month, dates to between A.D. 500 and 700, and sheds new light on the historic interaction between heritage and faith in the northern U.K.

The Picts, or “Painted People,” were so-named by Roman historians because of their supposed war paint and tattoos (“picti,” is the Latin word for “paint”). They lived in northern and eastern Scotland in the early medieval period. Likely descended from Celtic tribes, the Picts are famous for successfully resisting Roman conquest. While the Romans painted the Picts as barbarous and backward, they were largely subsistence farmers, growing grain and herding domesticated animals.

After the Roman Empire withdrew from the British Isles in the fifth century A.D., Pictish society grew to form a permanent but unstable monarchy intent on protecting its territorial boundaries. Early missionaries from Ireland converted many kings of Pictland to Christianity in the mid-sixth century A.D. Then, at the Battle of Dun Nechtain in A.D. 685, the Picts pushed the Britons out of Scotland and created a mini-empire that would last until around A.D. 900 and the arrival of the Vikings.

But the newly uncovered cross slab, found in the Old Kilmadock cemetery near Doune, Scotland, a region that was historically a buffer zone between the Picts and the Romans, and later the Britons, complicates that tidy history. “The cross slab is the first one in this region, and may mean that the residents started to think of themselves as Picts,” Stirling Council archaeologist Murray Cook, who led the recent excavation, told Live Science in an email.

Carved stones from early medieval Scotland are relatively common, but the newly discovered one from the Old Kilmadock cemetery, which has yet to be fully excavated, has three intriguing features: a rounded top, animal figural decorations and an inscription written in a medieval alphabet called ogham.

At 47 inches (119 centimeters) high and 32 inches (82 cm) wide, the Old Kilmadock stone is similar in size and shape to a large grave marker. Experts, however, think that they may have served multiple functions. 

Kelly Kilpatrick, a historian and Celticist at the University of Glasgow, told Live Science in an email that cross slabs “could be grave markers, and used to communicate Christian messages to a lay audience through imagery. Sometimes you find iconography from native Pictish religion intermixed with Christian iconography on these types of monuments.” But its rounded top and circular, knotted cross make the Old Kilmadock stone a rare type of Pictish cross slab.

“The tips of the scrolls end with bird heads; they might be pelicans, as there is a tradition of the pelican biting its own flesh to feed to its young, echoing Christ and the Last Supper, which becomes the Eucharist,” Cook explained. Below that, there is a Pictish style carved four-legged animal that looks like a bull. “The bull might be a symbol of a family, a region, or a god,” Cook said.

A look at the Ogham alphabet, which was formed by creating parallel strokes and slashes along a central line.

An ogham inscription running around the side of the stone has astounded researchers. Ogham was used to write an early version of the Irish language, and it was formed by making parallel strokes and slashes along a central line. About 400 of these inscriptions have survived to the present day, mostly in Ireland, but the one from Old Kilmadock is the first to be found in central Scotland. 

Kelly Kilpatrick, who will be translating the inscription, said that “it is not possible to read the ogham inscription until the stone is lifted, because ogham is written on the edge of the stone and the letters can extend to either side of this.” Ogham inscriptions in general tend to spell out names of wealthy or powerful people, however.

“The cross from Old Kilmadock is a huge new find,” Adrián Maldonado, a research fellow at National Museums Scotland who was not involved in the discovery, told Live Science. “The most important part of the discovery is the ogham inscription; when it is fully revealed, it can tell us more about the language spoken by those in power in this area, and potentially add a new, unrecorded name in a time with very few historical sources.”

Cook suggests that the cross slab was originally used as “a public statue erected by a wealthy patron to celebrate both their Pictish heritage and their Christian faith. The ogham reflects the influence of Irish Christians.” Findings in other parts of the Old Kilmadock cemetery support that interpretation: Three additional inscribed stones have been found in two different alphabets. “I think this means they were a literate and intelligent religious community,” Cook said; there was “probably a monastery.”

The Pictish cross slab likely survived because it was reused in much later times as a grave covering in the Old Kilmadock cemetery. Cook and Kilpatrick plan to further study the cross slab once it is fully excavated and its pieces put back together. In collaboration with the local Rescuers of Old Kilmadock group, they are currently raising funds for this analysis, which will cost thousands of dollars. 

“This discovery shows the value of archaeological investigation of early church sites in Scotland,” Maldonado concluded, “too few of which have been excavated. It is a huge win for community-led research, providing value both for local heritage and internationally.”

Rare golden sword pommel acquired by a Scottish museum

Rare golden sword pommel acquired by a Scottish museum

Rare golden sword pommel acquired by a Scottish museum
A pommel is a decorative piece attached to the bottom of a sword sometimes used as a counter-weight

An “exceptionally rare” gold sword pommel discovered by a metal detectorist near Stirling has been acquired by National Museums Scotland. The pommel, which is about 1,300 years old, was found in 2019 and was declared to the Scottish Treasure Trove unit.

The gold decoration which would have sat at the top of a sword handle measures 5.5cm wide, weighs 25g and was valued at about £30,000.

The find has been described as “hugely significant”.

Dr Alice Blackwell, senior curator of medieval archaeology and history at National Museums Scotland (NMS), said goldwork from this period was “virtually unknown” anywhere in the UK.

She said it showed the spectacular skill and craftsmanship of the early medieval period.

The pommel is thought to date from about 700 AD.

The solid gold object is encrusted with garnets and intricate goldwork which features religious motifs and fantastical creatures.

The discovery was made at Blair Drummond towards the end of 2019 but NMS said that due to restrictions during the pandemic decisions about its acquisition were delayed.

It was allocated to them on the recommendation of the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel.

Dr Blackwell said its archaeological value was due to what it told us about important cultural, political and artistic interactions in northern Britain at this time.

She said its decoration combined elements from both Anglo-Saxon England and the kingdoms of Early Medieval Scotland.

“Early medieval Scotland is a really interesting period,” Dr Blackwell said.

“You have a number of culturally distinct kingdoms and the pommel’s design has taken from the different cultures and melded them together “

That melding of different cultural styles is known as the “insular art” style, which was made famous by illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Dr Blackwell said this fusion of styles had made it hard to determine where exactly it was made and to whom it may have belonged.

However, she said it potentially could have belonged to royalty due to the higher standard of goldwork the pommel had compared with other goldware found in this period.

“In a way, this is the start of the artefact’s journey,” Dr Blackwell said.

“A lot of research and work is still to be done to uncover what stories it can tell us about the political and cultural landscape of Northern Britain at this time.”