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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, March 06, 2017

Fighting for a Viking Hoard


"To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess." W. Shakespeare

In August last year, Dr Fraser Hunter, Principal Curator of Iron Age and Roman collections at the National Museums of Scotland, took a small team of archaeologists to Torrs farm near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway. The objective of the dig was to find out more about where the Torrs Pony Cap came from and why it was placed on the edge of a loch over 2000 years ago.

Torrs Pony Cap- National Museum of Scotland 

 Dr Hunter explained the background to the dig in a blog post-

Our blockbuster Celts exhibition is full of amazing objects. As you walk from case to case, your eyes are caught by one magnificent object after another, from Ireland, France, Germany, Bulgaria. One that keeps catching my own eye is the curious bronze pony cap from Torrs, near Castle Douglas in Galloway, in south west Scotland. It’s one of the star pieces in our own collections…The Castle Douglas area is rich in such finds – visitors to the exhibition, or to our Early People galleries, can marvel at the massive bronze cauldron from Carlingwark with its hoard of iron and bronze objects, or the hoard from Balmaclellan or the wonderful enamelled horse harness fitting from Auchendolly.

 http://blog.nms.ac.uk/2016/08/27/chasing-celtic-art-on-the-trail-of-a-pony-cap/   and

The Pony Cap was discovered in 1812  Local antiquarian Joseph Train then acquired it and passed it on to Sir Walter Scott who put it on display in his house at  Abbotsford before the Pony Cap found a final resting place in the National Museum in Edinburgh. The Carlingwark Cauldron was found in Carlingwark Loch in 1868 and the Balmaclellan Mirror in 1861. The Auchendolly harness fitting was found in 1885.

Carlingwark Cauldron- National Museum of Scotland

Auchendolly harness fitting -National Museum of Scotland

Balmacllellan Mirror- National Musuem of Scotland 

Described as an Iron Age centre of ‘paramount power and wealth’,
when the Romans invaded southern Scotland 2000 years ago, they built a total of three forts and six marching camps near Castle Douglas to control the Galloway Glens district. However, the Roman remains have only been investigated once, for two weeks in the 1950s. Only Threave Castle a mile down river from the Roman forts and  built by Archibald the Grim to overawe the ‘wild men’ of Galloway in 1370 has been the subject of  thorough archaeolical investigation.

Dr Hunter’s expedition to Galloway is  therefore first time that an archaeological assessment of the  Iron Age in the area has been carried out in an attempt to place the ‘Celtic’ treasures in their context of people and place.

While many hundreds of thousands of visitors have marvelled at the objects on display in Edinburgh, their experience has been primarily aesthetic. These are beautiful objects. They are powerful displays of skilful artistry. They are also objects which have floated free from their physical relationship with a particular time and place. They have become abstractions, no longer rooted in the historical reality of Galloway 2000 years ago.

Two hundred and two years after the Torrs Pony Cap was discovered, an even more impressive set of objects were discovered in Galloway, a hoard of artefacts from the Viking period 1100 years ago. Will these too be assimilated into the National Museums’ collection? In a process - as the soil of a muddy field in Galloway is carefully removed- which will divorce them from their earthy/ concrete context?

Uncovering the Galloway Hoard- BBC image

The National Museums of Scotland have said
We have submitted an application to Treasure Trove to acquire the hoard for the benefit of the nation. The hoard is of considerable national and international significance and acquisition by National Museums Scotland would save it for the nation in the long term and ensure that the hoard is seen by people from Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, the rest of the UK and internationally.

[Note- in response to a campaign to keep the hoard in Galloway, the NMS position appears to have softened. To keep the pressure please sign this petition https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-the-viking-hoard-for-galloway ]

The alternative is for the hoard to find a home in a £3.1 million art Gallery currently under construction in Kirkcudbright, a few miles from where the hoard was found. In Kirkcudbright  it will also be a benefit for the nation and be saved for the nation. Galloway and Kirkcudbright are no less part of the nation than Edinburgh and the Lothians.

Visitors to a national museum in a capital city expect to see a range of significant and important objects on display- like the Torrs Pony Cap and the Carlingwark Cauldron. But the massing together of so many important objects has the effect of diminishing their individual and particular impact on visitors. Nor does the National Museum need the help of the Hoard to boost its visitor numbers…

The National Museum of Scotland overtook Edinburgh Castle to become the most popular visitor attraction in Scotland last year.
Figures from the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions (ASVA) have shown that, in total, 1.81 million people visited the Edinburgh museum - a 15.5% rise on the previous year. Six of the top ten Scottish visitor attractions are in Edinburgh.

In contrast, the impact of encountering the Galloway Viking Hoard in Kirkcudbright will be much greater. There will be no distractions to diminish their powerful presence. The unexpected presence of such a nationally and internationally important display of  wealth and power in such a seemingly insignificant location will provoke the question ‘Why here?’

The need to answer this question will provide a unique opportunity to explore the impact of the Vikings on the people they encountered and the places they raided and settled.

There is a real challenge here. Much work has been done to conserve and analyse  the contents of the hoard, but very little on its context.

In 902, the Irish managed to drive the Vikings out of Dublin, but fifteen years later the Vikings returned.  It is possible that the Galloway Hoard belonged to one of the more powerful of the Dublin Vikings who fled across the Irish Sea to Galloway, buried his prize possessions but then died or was killed elsewhere and so never returned to retrieve them.

The exact location of where the hoard was found remains an official secret. Only the immediate vicinity of the hoard was excavated in 2014. A geophysics survey of the surrounding area was carried out. The results showed that there was a larger settlement, but without a larger scale and expensive archaeological excavation, the relationship between the buildings and other features the geophysics survey showed and the hoard is unclear.

Was there an existing, possibly Christian religious, site there which was then occupied by Vikings? Another key questions how long did the Viking occupation last?

The Galloway Hoard itself cannot answer such questions. It will take several seasons of expensive archaeological excavation of the find site to provide the answers. The results will then have to be connected with the history of the Irish Sea Vikings as well as the history of Galloway.

For now, I will return to the treasures of Iron Age. Dr Hunter’s dig on the Torrs hill fort threw up a puzzle. The walls of the hill fort had been built and rebuilt, but there were no signs of occupation, of people actually living in it. But, which Dr Fraser does not mention, two miles west across the marshes and Carlingwark Loch from the Torrs fort, aerial photography and  a geo-physics survey have shown that there was a large Iron Age roundhouse on Meikle Wood Hill.

Google maps- Castle Douglas area

I was there recently with Gavin, an archaeologist and Jacquie, a landscape architect, from Northlight Heritage. A small group of us were exploring the landscape and its heritage around the still imposing remains of Threave castle on its island in the Galloway Dee. Jacquie pointed out a cluster of very tall trees in the distance across the river and said they were indications of a big house and its planned gardens. From the direction I realised Jacquie was pointing towards Balmaghie House. I was impressed!

As we walked upstream to the Osprey viewing platform I could see Greenlaw House, built in the 1760s and which looks across the fields to Threave Castle. Even closer, on the other side of the river the early nineteenth century Threave Mains farmhouse stood out as a more imposing building than the early eighteenth century Kelton Mains farmhouse.

All of these imposing and not so imposing buildings are low-lying but although it is only 68 metres high, Meikle Wood Hill rises above the marshes and floodplain on a drumlin. A large roundhouse on its summit would have been a prominent, even dominant, feature of the surrounding landscape, a veritable  Iron Age panopiticon.

Reflecting on the Torrs Pony Cap, the Carlingwark Cauldron,  the Auchendolly harness fitting and the Balmacellan mirror, one historian has described the Castle Douglas area 2000 years ago as  ‘a centre of paramount wealth and power’. Could the roundhouse on Meikle Wood Hill have been the centre of this centre?

If so then it would have matched the still visible presence of Threave Castle and the now invisible Roman forts and marching camps at Glenlochar to the north- and which themselves have been built in response to the power and wealth of the Castle Douglas area. The ultimate source of all these signs of wealth and power being the produce of the land and rivers combined with human labour. The original, but hardly primitive, accumulation of capital.

If you can imagine all these Iron Age Galloway treasures gathered together and buried in a field they would become a Hoard of ‘paramount wealth and power‘, awaiting re-discovery.  In a sense they are a hoard awaiting re-discovery. They are waiting to be reconceptualised, for the complex concentration of meanings and understandings they conserve to be reconnected to their source and origin in a particular and specific cultural landscape.

Alienated and disconnected from their place of origin, the Torrs pony cap, the Carlingwark cauldron and their comrades have become fetishised commodities, glittering star attractions within the vaults of the Chambers street museum, adding a ‘Celtic’ lustre to the attractions of Edinburgh, to the city’s capital.

The National Museum of Scotland already has a Galloway Hoard. Looking at what they have done with it, how it has been ’curated’, the efforts they have made to use the resources of the Museum to develop an understanding of the dynamics of the Iron Age in south-west Scotland, to work with the Museums Service  and Education Department of Dumfries and Galloway will give an insight into the future of the Viking hoard if it ends up in Edinburgh.

If raw gold and silver and copper had been found in a field in Galloway, a mine would have been sunk and the wealth extracted. But once the vein was exhausted, the flow of wealth would cease. In contrast, once cooked, once transformed by the skill of labour into attractive artefacts, the gold and silver and copper become an ever renewable resource. Their aesthetic appeal acting as a magnetic attraction, drawing observers and their gaze to the objects again and again without in anyway diminishing the power of their appearance.

New Kirkcudbright art gallery and potential hoard home- now under construction.

The presence of the Viking Hoard in the new Kirkcudbright art gallery will attract an ever recurring inward flow of visitors. The Hoard will also itself become the source of an outward flow of information, knowledge and power. The undivided concentration of paramount wealth and power in such an unassuming locality will act as a disruptive anomaly, silently questioning and confounding taken for granted assumptions about the past, the present and the future. About the  history of the Irish Sea Vikings and Galloway, about the current political relationship between core and periphery in Scotland and the longer term social and economic processes which, unless reversed hold out a bleak future for the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright.

The Stewartry of Kirkcudbright had a population of 29 211 in 1801. In 1851 the population had risen to 43 121, its highest ever level. The population then began to fall until today there are only  24,000 people in Stewartry. Currently 1 in 4 people are over 65 years old. There are more people over 65 years and fewer under 25 than anywhere else in Dumfries and Galloway.

It is a demographic time bomb. Along with 1 in 10 people in the Stewartry district where I live I am a carer. I also rely on Sandy Rogerson and his fellow workers to help me care for my adult son Callum . Most carers and care workers are looking after older people. Many of the older people have come here to retire because it is such beautiful 'unspoilt' rural area. At the same time many younger people are leaving -as I did when I was 19- for the same reasons. Over the next 20 years our working age population will drop by 22% while the number of older people will increase- by 161% among the oldest group. It is an impossible future. There will not be enough carers to go round unless everyone becomes a care worker.

Our main industries are farming, forestry and tourism. Our dairy farms are the most intensively worked in the UK. [The average UK dairy herd is about 350 cattle. Around Castle Douglas we have several 1000 strong dairy herds.]  About a third of the area is blanketed in sitka spruce. We are maxed out on farming and forestry. The only industry apart from caring which has the potential to grow is tourism. Which is why we need a dead Viking's hoard to bring some life back to the region.


For more on the history and background of the Vikings in Galloway see



The location of the hoard  is NOT shown on this map.


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