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Digging Up the Past

Archaeological digs of old tartan mills in Scotland

What’s the first image that pops into your head when someone mentions an excavation site?

Personally, I would imagine a group of dusty archaeologists uncovering an ancient Egyptian tomb deep inside the pyramids. Or perhaps a team discovering historical artefacts from the days of gladiators inside the Colosseum. Well, a little closer to home, an hour and a half drive away, archaeologist Murray Cook and his team have excavated a site believed to be the origin of Scotland’s modern tartan industry.

Tucked away in a forest south of Stirling, Bannockburn Wilson Mills’ was founded by businessman and weaver, Wilson Mills, in the late 1780s. It quickly developed into an industrial powerhouse, churning dyes and fabrics to create tartan prints and uniforms. At peak production in the 1850s, it transformed into a miniature industrial village employing hundreds of workers and families. The factory’s success continued despite the Act of Proscription in 1746 which banned the wearing of Highland dress in Scotland. The factory represents a rich history and powerful cultural legacy associated with Highland tradition. Stirling City Council aims to centrally feature it for its 900th-anniversary royal borough celebration next year.

At its most basic level, archaeology involves studying the lives of human pasts, civilisations, and traditions. The excavation process involves what you might typically remember from movies like The Dig or The Mummy — hours of careful scraping and digging in sometimes sweltering heat and cramped spaces. Dr Murray and his team faced similar working conditions, minus the sweltering heat. Using tools such as sieves and trowels, the team started by excavating small chunks of land near the Chartershall Bridge that overlooks the Bannockburn stream. Using these coordinates, they could plot a visual outline of the mill's location in relation to the surrounding village. They noted the surrounding demolished workers' homes, smaller mills, and the stream that flowed bright red and pink from the dyes. Through this detailed process, Murray and his team painted a historical picture of life in Bannockburn nearly 200 years ago.

However, the digging and scraping is just half of it. The rest of the job takes place in the brightly lit and sterile rooms of a laboratory. It’s where Peter MacDonald, Head of Research at the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA), uncovered the truth behind the oldest tartan found in Scotland. Located in the quaint Highland village of Glen Affric, archaeologists located a tartan believed to have been produced between 1550 and 1665. Using advanced radiocarbon technology, scientists detected specific colours on the tartan's surface including red, green, brown, and yellow. The high-resolution digital microscope identified a lack of artificial dyes used in the tartan, leading MacDonald to believe it was made before the 1750s.

This tartan, however, has huge historical significance. The presence of red, a symbolic colour associated with high status during this time, clashes with the tartan’s rustic fabric pattern. MacDonald concludes that the tartan was likely an ‘“outdoor working garment” rather than a garment for royalty. It provides a powerful case for radiocarbon technology bridging the gap between historians and archaeologists.

At its core, archaeology is essential to better understand human beings and the lives they led. The excavation of the Bannockburn Mills and the discovery of tartan dating lays the foundation for future archaeological research in the Highlands. It unlocks the rich heritage associated with Highland culture and the wearing of tartan as a daily tradition. Alongside growing scientific development, archaeology bridges together academics, from scientists to historians. Bringing in these different perspectives can provide a balanced and in-depth analysis of Highland history that students and researchers here in St Andrews continue to study.

Image from WikiCommons

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