Early historic settlements: the example of Castle Park, Dunbar

After the Roman period, the peoples of Scotland shrink back into the mists of what used to be called the Dark Ages. Early historic Scotland was an amalgam of peoples – Picts, Scots, Gaels, Angles and Britons – all competing for territory against a backdrop of shifting allegiances. In Lothian, the Gododdin emerge as the post-Roman descendants of the Votadini, immortalised in a heroic poem which tells of their unsuccessful war against the advancing Angles of Northumbria. The Angles inflicted a devastating defeat on the Gododdin in AD 638, sacking their fortified capital at Din Eidyn (Edinburgh’s Castle Rock). By the later seventh century, the Anglian kings of Northumbria controlled most of southeast Scotland, including East Lothian. The Anglian kingdom lasted until 973 AD when the by-then Scottish kings regained control of Northumbrian Lothian.

Few early historic settlements have been discovered in Lothian, either Anglian or native, and we do not yet adequately understand what impact the Anglian incursions had on the seventh to tenth century culture of the native inhabitants. Some clues come from East Lothian. At Doon Hill, near Dunbar, for example, we have evidence for a sixth-century rectangular timber hall, within a timber palisade, which was replaced by a seventh-century aisled hall of Northumbrian type. These rectangular halls for the first time break the 1500-year old tradition of circular prehistoric houses on the rich Lothian plain.

The best evidence for the Angles comes from Castle Park, Dunbar, where major excavations took place in advance of the construction of the new swimming pool. As so often in fertile East Lothian, this site was used over many centuries. It began life as an enclosed promontory fort in the Roman period, controlling access to the natural harbour of Lamerhaven, and may have functioned as a trading port for the hillfort on Traprain Law. By the seventh century, though, it was a centre for the invading Northumbrians who built a series of rectangular timber buildings, set around cobbled open spaces or courtyards. Nearby was an interesting sunken-floored building (of a type known as a Grubenhaus), used as a weaving shed or workshop. Dug down into the ground, the damp conditions probably made weaving easier, particularly the working of flax into linen. This building would have once held several large upright looms; some 20 loomweights were left where they fell when the building burnt down.

Part of a beautiful gold and garnet cross-pendant was found nearby, which would have been worn round the neck of a high-ranking churchman. An early eighth-century account reports the imprisonment of Bishop Wilfrid at ‘Dynbaer’ in about AD 680, one of the most powerful ecclesiastical rulers at the time, although it might be taking speculation too far to wonder whether this cross was Wilfrid’s.

Probably in the eighth century, the first timber buildings were replaced by more timber structures with stone footings and a rampart was erected around the refurbished settlement. The most remarkable building of this phase was a mortared stone-built hall, at least 15 metres long, interpreted as a royal hall. To cap it all, a unique mortar-mixer, probably used in the construction of the hall, was also discovered, and is final confirmation of the high status of this large Anglian settlement.

The finds assemblage from Northumbrian Dunbar is rich and varied, including bone pins and needles, two coins and even two Viking combs. The vast quantity of animal bone reflects Dunbar’s status as an urbs regis, being the debris of food renders consumed by the king and his large retinue on their visits. There is plenty of evidence for crafts and industries too, not only weaving, but also metalworking in lead and copper alloy, possibly even gold leaf manufacture, bone and antler working, and tanning or retting flax.

The end of the Northumbrian period came in about the mid-ninth century when the site was semi-abandoned, perhaps as the aggressive Scottish ruler Kenneth MacAlpin turned his attentions to the south. But this is not the end of the story of Castle Park. It became the site of a tenth or eleventh-century cemetery; part of the precinct of Dunbar Castle in the medieval period; the site of a French fort in about 1560; dwellings or workshops and a possible herring-drying kiln in the eighteenth century; and was occupied by the army from late Victorian times.