Linlithgow’s mediaeval past revealed - almost half a century later!

Local volunteers who supported the dig.
Local volunteers who supported the dig.

Almost half a century ago a team of archaeologists – including local volunteers – descended on Linlithgow.

But only now have the full results of their findings been published – thanks to Historic Scotland.

The dig was carried out between 1966 and 1977 at separate sites on the High Street, near the current health centre, by the Scottish Urban Archaeological Trust.

Alder Archaeology Ltd. has reviewed the findings and published them in the online journal ARO.

The report was compiled by Catherine Smith who said: “Linlithgow underwent an extensive programme of redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s affecting large and relatively undisturbed sites in highly significant locations.

“There was very little provision for urban archaeology in Scotland at that time but the obvious importance of the sites prompted a series of responses from those working in the field, in some cases improvised with little or no resources.

“The three excavations in this publication recovered an important record of a large part of Linlithgow’s archaeology.

“While there have been several subsequent excavations in Linlithgow, those reported here were the first to examine significant areas in the heart of the mediaeval burgh.”

The excavations in Linlithgow High Street between 1966 and 1977 found evidence of an intensive 15th and 16th Century tanning industry and a large volume of worked antler waste.

The wealth of the burgh was derived from the processing of the raw materials into manufactured goods for sale in the market.

Leatherworking became Linlithgow’s principal industry and by the end of the 18th century there were 17 tanners processing 20,000 skins and hides a year, 13 tawers (who made hides and skins into leather by steeping in a solution of alum and salt) processing up to 60,000 skins and hides a year, 18 curriers (who dressed and coloured tanned leather) as well as 100 shoemakers producing 24,000 pairs of shoes a year.

The addition of the largest assemblage of antler waste ever found in a Scottish burgh from 326-332 High Street (the 1973 excavation) confirms the concentration of animal product industries and compares well with the excavated evidence of intensive and repeated construction of tan pits and related structures. The antler assemblage includes evidence of craft working on a larger scale than previously found in mediaeval urban sites.

The excavations on Linlithgow High Street provided an opportunity to examine a variety of evidence ranging in date from the 12th or 13th Centuries to recent times. The mediaeval artefacts occurred mainly as isolated finds.

Nevertheless, some examples, like the Romanesque buckle and the padlock casing extend the range of known types from this part of Scotland.

Among the post-mediaeval material, a small group of iron objects from a pit includes an interesting concentration of knives and lock components.

These sites demonstrate the quality of surviving evidence in the burgh and the potential for further investigations.