Excavations at Higgings Neuk

The current excavations at New Mills on Higgins Neuk are the latest aspect of a program of works designed to find the hidden royal dockyard of James IV which was used to fit out the main ships of the Scottish navy in the early 16th century.  In order to do so it is necessary to explore the surrounding landscape, which should include a tidal mill, laird’s house, harbour and saltpans.

For many years local historian John Reid has been researching the records for traces of the Dockyard.  Exchequer accounts show a large amount of expenditure here, including a large stable block.  His early work is now published in the local history journal called Calatria.  In 2016 a metal detector sweep found a large amount of ironwork in the surrounding fields – including the bases of rockets used to place the electric cables over the huge pylons nearby – the explosive pads were disposed of by a team from the Royal Logistics Explosive Ordnance Disposal Corps – who said that archaeology was dull!

Analysis of sedimentation patterns along the coast using manually sunk augers allows us to see where potential channels may have allowed ships into the current shoreline.  The cores contain silt, peat and clay deposits.  Some of the peat was dated by radiocarbon analysis and found to be Iron Age.  Richard Bates of the University of St Andrews carried out geophysical work over a large area using electromagnetic conductivity.   This showed several potential features, including the old coastline.  A resistivity survey by the Edinburgh Archaeological Field Society revealed a linear feature made up of a number of cells that promises to be of great interest.  It may have been something like a rope walk used in the manufacture of rope for rigging.

The excavation is now concentrated on the late 16th century tidal mill.  The substantial sea wall here extends at least 2.3m below the level of the present saltings and would have been a very costly undertaking – so expensive that it is likely to have been commissioned by the Treasury.  Through it a cobbled slipway reaches a stone pier whose surface is made of large square blocks of pitched stone.  This extends for at least 30m into the Forth.  On the landward side it is surrounded by flood banks – and  a high tide last Saturday showed why these were needed.  Adjacent to the slipway is a cobbled court leading to the mill building.  The mill was also substantial, having mortared stone walls and a pantile roof.  The mill race is at the other end (east) of the building and its stone lining is just being revealed.  The channel was filled with demolition material from the mill and by domestic rubbish.  This latter included late 19th century tobacco pipes, leather shoes, crockery and bottles – and so may have been imported from the town of Airth.  Burnt areas on the east side of the mill race, along with perforated tiles, suggest the presence of a malting kiln here.  Again there are short stretches of walls and cobbling.  Further work will clarify the situation here.

The project is being run by SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion) as part of the IFLI (Inner Forth Landscape Initiative) scheme to increase awareness of the landscape around the inner Forth.  Stirling University and the Falkirk Community Trust are providing support.  This is a community project and volunteers are welcome, as are visitors.

Published on Wednesday, 11th October 2017

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