The closing years of the independent Scottish kingdom were turbulent times in the Anglo-Scottish borders. When in 1603, King James VI of Scotland became James I of England, one of his major steps was to impose law and order on the border country and to put down the border reivers who were terrorising the area. This lawlessness led to the construction of bastles, that is small fortified houses – the word is analogous to the French word bastille.
Glenochar was the winner of the 1997 Pitt Rivers Award for amateur Archaeologists. Here we see the long-term excavations of a 17th century settlement in the lowlands of Scotland, meticulously carried out by the local museum trust, under its director, Tam Ward
Recently a bastle and its surrounding fermtoun has been excavated in South-west Scotland by an amateur group led by Tam Ward and the Biggar Museum Trust. This reconstruction drawing by John Borland shows the site in the 17th century from the same position as the photo above. The bastle is the two-storied building at the centre, and it is surrounded by its “fermtoun”, a collection of long-houses of the type well-known in England in the Middle Ages.
When the bastle was first located, all that remained was a lump of masonry projecting through a large mound. Excavations by the volunteers eventually revealed the bastle still standing two floors high.
The end wall still revealed the form of the barrel-vaulted roof: access to the upper floor was by a staircase within the thickness of the wall.
The reconstruction shows the probable layout of the structure: cattle were stalled on the ground floor, below, while the family lived on the floor above.
This was the only stone-built house in the village: although it would not have given protection to a full-scale armed attack, it would no doubt have warded off the casual robber.
Early in the 18th century the vaulting collapsed. The floor was strewn with broken wine bottles and pottery. Although the majority of the pottery is the typical green glazed pottery of the time, there are also some fine Staffordshire cups and some clay tobacco pipes, showing that even in this rural area, the smoking of tobacco and the drinking of tea was beginning to penetrate.
The Fermtoun: What is a long-house?
Surrounding the bastle was the ‘fermtoun’. This consisted mainly of ‘longhouses’ that is long narrow houses where the animals lived at one end, and the humans at the other – a good way of providing ‘central heating’ in the winter.
Even the form of roof can be deduced from the position of the roof crucks – the post holes that held the curving timbers that supported the roof.
The long houses were often in pairs facing each other across a cobbled roadway. It is an arrangement which had been known since Viking times, and may have been a convenient way of driving animals in and out of byres (cow-stalls).
In the corner of the byre on the left, two silver coins were found, a thaaler (dollar) issued in Cologne in 1610, and a Dutch rijksdaaler from Zeeland, sometime after 1606.
A carving on a slate of a Union Jack suggests that the Union of Scotland and England was already beginning to have some meaning.
Glenochar is situated near Abington service station on the M74 motorway.
Go along the A702 to Dumfries, near Elvanfoot. A book describing the excavations can be obtained from:
The Moat Park Heritage Centre, Biggar, ML12 6DT, price £2.50 post free.