Cas­tle re­veals se­crets - at last

An ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig of 12th-cen­tury Mote of Urr cas­tle was meant to shed light on its early his­tory. How­ever, as SAN­DRA DICK dis­cov­ers, a ‘slug­gish’ ap­proach de­layed it for 65 years

The Herald - - NEWS -

was an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig that picked over cen­turies of his­tory, delv­ing into the foun­da­tions of a 12th-cen­tury Nor­man cas­tle, while search­ing for tiny relics to help un­ravel its story.

The ex­plo­ration of Mote of Urr in Dum­fries and Gal­loway spanned three years and dug into 800 years of Scot­tish his­tory. Per­haps given such a vast timescale, there was no ur­gent need to share the find­ings.

In­deed, it’s only now, 65 years af­ter the metic­u­lous ex­ca­va­tion took place and pos­si­bly hin­dered by the lead ar­chae­ol­o­gist’s well-known slug­gish ap­proach to putting his re­search into print, that the fine de­tails of ex­ca­va­tions have fi­nally been pub­lished.

The dig at the 12th-cen­tury Nor­man motte and bai­ley cas­tle site at Mote of Urr, near Dal­beat­tie – said to be one of the most ex­ten­sive sites of its kind in Scot­land – were un­der­taken in 1951 and 1953, and led by Brian Hope-taylor, one of the UK’S most revered ar­chae­ol­o­gists and a fa­mil­iar face on 1960s tele­vi­sion his­tory pro­grammes.

The in­ten­tion was to un­cover relics that could point to the daily life of the wooden cas­tle and the iden­ti­ties of the oc­cu­pants of the two-hectare site over hun­dreds of years which, de­spite its scale and promi­nence on the land­scape, were largely lost in time.

But if his­to­ri­ans and lo­cals were ea­gerly await­ing news of the se­crets lurk­ing at the cu­ri­ous bulging mound re­mains at Mote of Urr, they would be sadly dis­ap­pointed.

And it would take the ex­haus­tive piec­ing to­gether of Hopetay­lor’s notes and 18 years af­ter his death be­fore the work could fi­nally be shared.

“Brian Hope-taylor was a charis­matic and per­spi­ca­cious scholar,” says Pro­fes­sor Bar­bara Craw­ford of the Univer­sity of St An­drews and Univer­sity of the High­lands and Is­lands, in the newly pub­lished re­port. “Like some other ar­chae­ol­o­gists Hope-taylor did not find it easy to write up the re­sults of his ex­ca­va­tions for fi­nal pub­li­ca­tion.”

Famed for his work on An­glo-saxon and early me­dieval sites in Scot­land and Eng­land, he un­der­took ex­ca­va­tions at Bam­burgh, Lind­is­farne and York Min­ster, one of his key in­ter­ests was in motte-and-bai­ley cas­tles, wooden struc­tures built on top of a raised earth­work such as at Mote of Urr.

But ar­chae­ol­ogy fees paid lit­tle – per­haps a rea­son for his slug­gish ap­proach to re­port writ­ing – and Hopetay­lor, who had also re­ceived a “se­vere dress­ing down” from su­pe­ri­ors over delays in re­port­ing find­ings from a ma­jor ex­ca­va­tion of an An­glo Saxon site at Yeaver­ing in Northum­ber­land, is thought to have shelved cer­tain projects ei­ther be­cause they failed to pro­duce ob­vi­ous re­sults or be­cause he sought oth­ers which may have been more lu­cra­tive.

His death in 2001 led to scores of pa­pers re­lat­ing to sev­eral ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions be­ing re­trieved from his house and garage, with many re­lat­ing to Scot­tish ex­ca­va­tions be­ing de­liv­ered to the Royal Com­mis­sion on the An­cient and His­tor­i­cal Mon­u­ments of Scot­land – now His­toric En­vi­ron­ment Scot­land.

Fund­ing from His­toric Scot­land (now His­toric En­vi­ron­ment Scot­land) and English Her­itage, meant they could be fi­nally as­sessed, sorted, con­served and, at last in the case of Mote of Urr, pub­lished. The work, which has been sup­ple­mented by an ex­haus­tive his­tor­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion by Pro­fes­sor Richard Oram of Stir­ling Univer­sity, sheds fresh light on the own­er­ship of the site down the cen­turies even though it re­veals Hope-taylor found a sur­pris­ing lack of ma­te­rial to sup­port ex­ist­ing un­der­stand­ing of its ori­gins.

For al­though records point to the cas­tle be­ing un­der the possession of Walter de Berke­ley, the 12th-cen­tury Great Cham­ber­lain of Wil­liam 1, Hopetay­lor’s team of ar­chae­ol­o­gists could not find any pot­tery linked to that era.

“Hope-taylor dated the con­struc­tion and ear­li­est oc­cu­pa­tion at Mote of Urr to the late 12th cen­tury, with con­tin­ued oc­cu­pa­tion into the 14th cen­tury,” says David Perry of Alder Ar­chae­ol­ogy, who worked on the re­port.

Catherine Smith, who worked on analysing bone frag­ments found by Hope-taylor’s team, said he may have de­lib­er­ately de­layed writ­ing his re­port of the ex­ca­va­tion with the in­ten­tion of re­turn­ing in the fu­ture. She said: “Hopetay­lor was a very em­i­nent ar­chae­ol­o­gist and it’s pos­si­ble that he was say­ing to him­self that he’d just fin­ish one pro­ject and go back to Mote of Urr, but never did.

“We don’t know why he didn’t fin­ish it. It’s pos­si­ble that he didn’t dis­cover enough about it at the time and he knew it would re­quire more work.”

While Hope-taylor’s records of the ex­ca­va­tion are said to be “an im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the study of mottes in Scot­land”, Mr Perry said they raise more ques­tions than an­swers.

“Fol­low­ing his in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the motte in 1951 and 1953 Hope-taylor had orig­i­nally planned to re­turn to Mote of Urr in or­der to ex­ca­vate its sur­round­ing bai­ley. Had he been able to do so, some of the ques­tions re­gard­ing the pe­riod dur­ing which the whole site was oc­cu­pied and how the motte re­lated to oth­ers in Scot­land and the north of Eng­land might have been an­swered.

“Or, as is so of­ten the case in ar­chae­ol­ogy, yet more ques­tions might have been raised.”

We don’t know why he didn’t fin­ish it. It’s pos­si­ble that he didn’t dis­cover enough about it at the time and he knew it would re­quire more work

Pic­tures: His­toric En­vi­ron­ment Scot­land

„ Brian Hope-taylor (back row, sec­ond from the left) with the rest of the Mote of Urr ex­ca­va­tion team in 1951. Left, an aerial pho­to­graph of the 12th-cen­tury Nor­man cas­tle in Dum­fries and Gal­loway.

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