Last week I was in Stirling, specifically the site (or at least the supposed site) of the Battle of Bannockburn, Scotland’s most famous and iconic battle. It was the weekend of the 699th anniversary, which means that 2014 is the 700th and – as I’m sure Nationalists knew – the same year as the independence referendum.
The National Trust for Scotland, in conjunction with the BBC, called for volunteers to dig 1m sq test pits on various sites in the area in an effort to try and pinpoint the actual place of the battle itself. Whilst the general layout can be supposed from various accounts, the actual fields where the fighting took place across the two days in June 1314 are still largely a mystery.
The historian Neil Oliver and the Battlefield archaeologist Dr Tony Pollard (who had done a TV programme on the subject several years ago) were there filming a special to be shown next year and were wandering around with cameras filming us at the dig – yours truly had a camera just inches from my face as I panned and sieved the soil!
On the first day we were given a talk by Oliver and Pollard about what we could expect and once we had collected our buckets, sieves, spades etc, we selected a patch of ground that had had the turf removed and set to work.
After several hours of scraping, sieving and digging, I had a fairly smooth 1m sq hole dug to about 30cm, with one corner dug a further 10cm or so and a fairly large pile of sieved soil and stones.
Unfortunately I found very little other than some Victorian pottery and the end of a clay smoking pipe probably dropped by some 19th century farmer.
There were people digging trenches all around and in the neighbouring trench, two strapping lads had dug down about 60-70 cm, and had found what the experts reckoned was a Bronze age pottery shard (2000 – 2500 years ago) and this caused much excitement. But of the battle and any surviving remnants, nothing was found.
That night I was completely knackered and my forearms and knees ached from the exercise but I nonetheless turned up for the next day. This time during the briefing I was talking to one of the strapping lads – named Stewart – from the next trench and he said I could team up with him if the the other guy didn’t turn up – they had met for the first time the day before. Gregor, the other chap, turned up but we agreed to work together to cover more ground.
This time we selected a patch near the Pelstream Burn and we hoped that this relatively undisturbed ground might be more fruitful. Another trench found a medieval belt buckle but that was our limit and at lunchtime the three of us were asked to go up to the grounds of Bannockburn High School on the ridge above the flat carse, where the Scots army may have lined up, to try our hand up there.
The soil here was much easier to dig but despite digging two further pits, little was found.
Speaking to my two companions, it transpired that Gregor was a published author and had recently had a book – Charlie, Meg & Me – published by Luath books. He conveniently had a stock in his car and I agreed to buy one off of him – signed of course – to take home.
In the book he walks the course that Bonnie Prince Charlie took after the Battle of Culloden; Gregor follows the trail around the wilds of the Highlands and Islands without a break, accompanied by his dog Meg. I’m around half way through the book and must admit I don’t regret buying it.
Getting back to the dig, I can heartily recommend it if it comes around again anywhere else. The sense of history down and dirty you get even when finding a piece of clay pipe is tangible. I’m also looking forward to the programme as I understand that our dig was a small part of the show and that some objects may have been found in other professional digs in the area.