'...a torchlit procession of limbo- dancing archaeologists...':
a report on the Fife Excursion 2001
Around thirty members drawn from Peebles Archaeological Society and Biggar Museums Trust set out on Saturday, 30th June for our Annual Field Trip, which this year took in the archaeology of Fife. Douglas Speirs of Fife Council Archaeological Service was our guide for the day.
We were met by Douglas at Lochore Meadows Country Park and treated to refreshments and a cornucopia of literature on the archaeology of the Kingdom. Douglas briefed us on the day's itinerary and explained his role in terms of the conservation of Fife's archaeological heritage and some of the practical, environmental and fiscal constraints, which impinge on that role.
Our first point of archaeological interest was only 200m from the Park Centre which was fortunate, since no archaeological trip is complete without a deluge and for 10 minutes Fife treated us to one of its finest examples. Lochore Meadows Country Park is itself the result of seven years of reclamation work on an area disfigured by coal workings. The Park stands on the site of the Mary Colliery which operated from 1902 to 1966 but no trace of that activity now remains except for the massive reinforced concrete Mary Pit Winding Gear Head Frame installed in 1923. This monument has been designated as one of the "youngest" sites of national archaeological importance, being one of the first of its type and also one of the few remaining visible relics of Fife's coal mining heritage. By coincidence it turned out that a member of our party, Jim McAuslin, had actually worked on the installation of the plant as a young engineer! Jim very kindly treated us to some impromptu recollections of the Mary Pit in its heyday.
As we left Lochore the sun came out and the rest of the day was glorious. We made our way to Chancefield, near Falkland to look at the ‘Hollow-Ways’. These are a series of five enigmatic ditch-like earthworks, up to 250 yards long and 20ft deep, lying within a coniferous plantation on the estate of the medieval hunting lodge and palace of Falkland. Their exact date, nature or function all remain unclear. Suggestions include ancient trackways, practice earthworks perhaps for military training, or the remains of some sort of extractive industrial activity. The jury remains out but our most favoured explanation seemed to be a "drive-site" associated with medieval hunting.
From there a short drive and a short but exhilarating walk took us to the 424m summit of East Lomond Hill where a large fort commands impressive views across to the Firths of Forth and Tay. The ramparts and ditches surrounding the hill are still quite clear today. Evidence suggests that the hill would originally have been occupied by an Iron Age community but there is also evidence of later Pictish occupation ( 6th-9th C AD) and a burial cairn in the middle of the fort indicates an episode of use other than defensive or occupational. It must also be said it was an excellent spot to enjoy the camaraderie of a picnic lunch.
Next on the itinerary was the Balfarg henge monument. Now paradoxically surrounded by a modern housing estate, this henge was constructed c2900BC and remained in use for around 1500 years. The site has been partially reconstructed giving a flavour of the original, which consisted of a ditch and earthen bank surrounding a 60m-diameter platform. Within the interior a circle of sixteen massive posts stood upright, succeeded later by two rings of standing stones. Finally a burial pit containing the remains of a young adult were set in the centre of the circle and covered with a two-ton slab.
A short distance away we came to Balbirnie Stone Circle, or at least a reconstruction of same, 150m away from the original site, excavated in 1970 in advance of a road-widening scheme. The original circle of ten standing stones was built in the Neolithic and later re-used as a Bronze Age burial site, with at least sixteen cremation burials being housed beneath a cairn of stones.
A short drive took us to Kennoway Motte, a tree covered hillock on which once stood a very important medieval fortification. Mottes were a Norman invention, introduced to Scotland in the early 12th century. They comprised earthwork mounds with some form of palisade-enclosed residence on top defended by ditches and earthen ramparts. Three of the outer ditches and ramparts still remain at Kennoway.
Our final destination was the Wemyss Caves where a torchlit procession of limbo-dancing archaeologists viewed the caves, at least some of which were used as hermitages by Pictish monks and visited as places of pilgrimage prior to the Reformation. We visited the Doo Cave, with its pigeon-holes carved out of the rock, the Well Caves beneath McDuff Castle and Jonathan's Cave with its Pictish symbols carved out on both walls.
We returned to Peebles having seen many of Fife's archaeological jewels, and at the same time having developed a greater awareness of the problems of conservation that beset the region’s archaeologist - the natural erosion of the concrete structure of the Mary Colliery Winding Gear - the effects of commercial forestry on the Falkland Holloways - the erosion of East Lomond Hill Fort by walkers (and archaeologists!) - the demands for housing and road widening projects which impact on Balfarg and Balbirnie - the natural erosion and ingress of the sea that threaten the Wemyss Caves - and finally a budget that has a finite limit and requires difficult decisions and prioritisation.
Our thanks go to Douglas Speirs and Fife Archaeological Service for a superbly structured day and also to Andrew, our coach driver who took us to places where no coach has ever been before - although the Wemyss Caves were a little tight for headroom!