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
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
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.