25 October, 2013
During the past month, Historic Scotland’s Cultural Resources Team has been busy at Tantallon Castle at the mouth of the Firth of Forth in East Lothian. Working with Kirkdale Archaeology, my colleagues dug a number of trenches at the castle, targeting a range of buried features identified during a geophysical survey undertaken a few months ago.
The team was greatly helped by a group of local volunteers, including some from Friends of North Berwick Museum and Edinburgh Archaeological Field Society. And the investigation yielded a range of fascinating results.
The dig discovered a substantial wall bisecting the castle’s inner court and evidence of an original cobbled courtyard. Another was a clay surface up against the curtain wall. This is thought to represent the floor of a building that once stood there. The team also examined evidence suggesting the movement of guns around in the outer court, including two previously unknown buildings.
The results have still to be analysed, but the archaeologists are excited by the findings. Adrian Cox, one of our Cultural Resources Advisors, said the discoveries shed fresh light on adaptations made at the castle. Some of these were prompted by the increasing threat from gunpowdered artillery in the early 16th century. A nice find included a lead musket ball from the castles outer close
The excavation has provided fresh information on the wide range of structures within the castle. This will help inform our interpretation of the site, and will feed into its future management.
The work at the castle wrapped up on 11 October, and therefore did not disrupt an important phase in the life-cycle of the local avian population. In early autumn, young gannets start to fledge.
These fat young birds have been fed ardently be their parents throughout the summer. Now, they will be hurling themselves from the their rocky nesting sites on the cliffs below Tantallon, and on the nearby Bass Rock, in an effort to fly.
In the Middle Ages, these young birds – known as guga – were considered a source of nutritious food. They have yet to fly so their meat is tender, though perhaps its fishy flavour is an acquired taste. They were collected from their nests, killed and salted for use over the long, cold winter.
The annual guga hunt is still a feature of life in the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. It is carried out by the men of Ness, the most northerly point of Lewis, on a small neighbouring island called Sulasgeir.
Each man is equipped with a long pole with a spring-loaded jaw on top. The unfortunate guga is snatched from its nest and passed straight on to another man, who strikes it dead with a single blow. The baby bird is then skinned and salted in brine to provide a delicious savoury snack.
This is obviously a dangerous activity. It involves climbing sheer cliffs in the face of angry, dive-bombing parent birds. It demands a good deal of courage and is seen as a rite of passage and a sign of manhood.
The guga hunt may now be a unique phenomenon, but in the past similar pursuits will have been practised close to many other Historic Scotland sites. Arnol Blackhouse, also on Lewis, would have seen its fair share. Further afield, similar trapping of fledgling seabirds would certainly have been carried out at or near the settlements of Skara Brae on Orkney and Jarlsholf on Shetland.