Nestled in a bend in the Ale Water lies an enigmatic site. Long suspected to be the location of a residence belonging to one of the Medieval Bishops of Glasgow, and used by Alexander II for the signing of important documents, the Mantle Walls has captivated the interest of local residents for decades.
Read our Daily Diary from our Mantle Walls Dig 23
It all started back in the late 1980s to early 1990s, when a chance conversation between Alistair Munro and John Rogerson a local historian turned to divining (or dowsing as it is often referred to). John was saying about how dowsing was used for archaeological purposes. Alistair was surprised by this as he had previously used them as a means to detect water and was unaware that they could be used for other things.
The two of them set off to a nearby field, locally known as Mantle or Malton Walls. There they started to dowse along the outline of the supposed walls of a medieval Bishops of Glasgow’s Palace. At that time, these were recorded as a small square shape sitting on the top of the hill at the east side of the field. They spent quite a few hours dowsing, as well as looking at the ground for fragments of stone, pottery tile or anything which could possibly link it to the site of a Bishop’s Palace. Alistair was most intrigued by the site and went back a few days later and this time he decided, out of curiosity, to divine the whole field. When the dowsing rods indicated that the original building continued beyond that which had been recorded, he became more and more puzzled and questioned his ability with the dowsing rods and the accuracy of the council records. After going over the field he went back and spoke to John who was very excited by Alistair’s finds. They both went back again with their dowsing rods and walked, one behind the other, to double check. Neither could quite believe the size of the site indicated and were understandably excited by what they had discovered.
The next weekend they walked the site again and this time Alistair’s wife, Sheila, walked again one behind them marking out the shape of the suspected building on graph paper. Sheila was accused of marking the lines out wrong as the building did not appear to be square until, after further reading on medieval palaces, Alistair realised that they were actually more like a parallelogram shape. This was consistent with the shape Sheila had marked. In the weeks and months that followed Alistair spent a lot of time walking the field and trying to find evidence documented about the site. After the plough had been in stones were visible and larger ones were removed by the farmer before planting took place. He got in touch with as many people as possible, both at the council and beyond, but most were either uninterested or didn’t have the finances to do anything about the destruction. Looking back Alistair suspects they didn’t really believe him either as divining can be viewed with scepticism. As no progress was made, Alistair put the site to the back of his mind but never quite forgot about it. Every harvest he would walk over the field after the plough had been in to check what had been brought up. Often there were oyster shells, fragments of pottery and burnt lead. This continued each year with bigger and more prominently dressed stone arriving at the surface.
Finally out of frustration and anger at the lack of interest, Alistair went to see the councils local Archaeology Officer Dr Chris Bowles in early 2010. When Chris came down and went over the field with Alistair he was shocked, as well as excited, about the number of finds he was collecting as they went. Chris knew then this was a very significant site and he felt he had to do something. He contacted Historic Scotland (as it was called back then) and spoke to Rod McCullagh who visited the site and was shown just what was coming to the surface by both Chris and Alistair. There followed a lot of talks between Chris and Rod McCullagh over that spring and summer with Chris finally securing funding in the spring of 2011 for a geophysical survey which was carried out from the 4th to the 7th of November that same year.
The survey was overseen by Dr Adrian Maldonado from Glasgow university. The dramatic findings of this report then allowed Dr Bowles to push forward for more funding for a trial excavation of the geophysical anomalies detected in the survey. In the October of 2012, three trial trenches were opened up. The results of this excavation along with the sensitivity and dangers from cultivation lead Dr Bowles to push Historic Scotland to make the Mantle Walls a scheduled site. This happened in August 2013. Since then there have been a few battles regarding regulations and the damage of artefacts on the site. These battles eventually lead to the formation of the Ancrum and District Heritage Society (ADHS) in 2016. The Society was formed because of the Mantle Walls but it also aims to promote and study the history of Ancrum, as well as advance the conservation and understanding of the archaeology and heritage of the village and its surroundings. The Society also aims to communicate this knowledge to the wider community. ADHS were granted permission to field walk the site in 2016 since then the Society have collected a large selection of finds and have saved the large dressed stones which can now can be seen along the east side of the ridge in the field. Members of ADHS have always dreamt that another dig would be possible as so many questions remained unanswered, but no one really believed it would happen despite the hard work put in by the Society, and particularly by Richard Strathie, the chairman of the ADHS. However, in 2019 ADHS, supported by funders, led a new community heritage dig, focused on the site of the Mantle Walls.