Early Christianity and the long-cist cemeteries of East Lothian

The early historic period saw the gradual introduction of Christianity to Scotland, with the kingdoms of southern Scotland converted as early as the fifth and sixth centuries, a short time after Ninian began his mission to Whithorn. The most convincing evidence for the spread of Christianity in Lothian and Fife is the introduction of a new burial rite – inhumation of a single body, lying full length on its back within a long stone-lined cist. These early Christian long-cist cemeteries seem to have flourished between the late fifth and mid seventh century AD; some of them contain as many as 200 graves. In the Christian tradition, they are normally aligned east to west and have no grave goods, and some had marker stones with inscriptions in Latin, the language of the church. Many of the earliest Christian sites may have been established on earlier sacred or ritual sites. At the very least, these large cemeteries show the widespread settlement of an extensive population.

In 1989, part of a long cist cemetery was excavated in someone’s back garden at Four Winds, Longniddry, where, within the foundation trench for a house extension alone, there were 25 unaccompanied graves in long cists. Overall, this cemetery may have contained up to 200 graves and it remained in use for about 170 years, from around AD 480-650 on radiocarbon evidence. This is just one example of many: there is a real concentration of long-cist cemeteries in southeast Scotland. Interestingly, as more are excavated and dated, we are seeing a general trend from a regular to a more irregular layout, as the cemeteries become congested. Some of the long-cist cemetery sites may have developed into open-air shrine or church sites.

The abandonment of many of the cemetery sites at around the same time as the Northumbrian take-over suggests that the arrival of the Angles signalled a move away from places of local burial, and possibly marks the beginnings of what would become the parish system. The place-names suggest that the incomers established a network of unenclosed villages, many of which remain in the same locations today. It is not at all impossible that early historic settlements survive beneath today’s historic villages.

Medieval East Lothian

In medieval times, the landscape would have been dotted with small settlements of tenant farmers and their families in groups of buildings, surrounded by open fields (the infield), cultivated for oats and barley in long strips on the run-rig system. Beyond lay the outfield, used for the common grazing of animals. Many historic sites now probably lie buried under modern farms. Here and there traces of rig and furrow can be seen in low raking sunshine, or when light snow accumulates in the furrows, usually in upland areas; and the remains of some of the medieval and later farms abandoned over the centuries can still be seen in the hills. One of the most exciting recent discoveries was the ‘lost’ medieval village of Eldbotle, found during archaeological evaluation on the Archerfield Estate, Dirleton, in advance of development, well preserved under the sand. Another was the rare discovery of medieval pottery kilns at Colstoun, the remains of Scotland’s earliest native pottery industry, producing white gritty wares.

The story of Scotland’s medieval towns lies buried beneath their streets and buildings and is written in their historic townscapes. In North Berwick, for example, established as a ferry point in early historic times to service pilgrims on their way to St Andrews, the ancient kirk and graveyard on Anchor Green are the oldest tangible beginnings of this royal burgh. Excavations in connection with landscaping for the Scottish Seabird Centre revealed layer upon layer of graves of men, women and children, at least five centuries worth of burials cut into a metre or more of sand. Often the shapes of the wooden coffins were also preserved, sometimes with the nails still in place, and occasionally bronze shroud pins.

The townscape developed through medieval times as the settlement enlarged and shifted its focus: Quality Street and the High Street were established, and successive St Andrews kirks were built around the town through the centuries. A surprising amount of archaeological work has been done in North Berwick, and there have been some surprising discoveries. In 1993, for example, a massive, well-preserved, late medieval malting kiln was found in Forth Street, still standing 2.4 metres high – but all of it beneath the modern ground surface. As the town developed, buildings in the historic core would have been built directly over the remains of earlier buildings, in a sequence going back to the medieval period and continuing up to the present day. Archaeological evidence has been found beneath the buildings along the High Street and in the backlands. These often contain valuable information: careful excavation of middens, rubbish pits, cess pits, vegetable plots, craft workshops, kilns and boundaries can document the activities and conditions of life in the medieval town.