case studies

Case Study: Bassendean: re-forming a medieval parish

As part of the Reformation, an increased effort was made to deal with the problems posed by a parochial system that had remained largely unchanged since the thirteenth century and which reflected not only the medieval ‘Catholic’ landscape but also, in some regions, an even older religious tradition associated with the Celtic saints.  Evidence of these attempts to re-organise the landscape can be found in the 60 acts passed between 1592 and 1649, of which 26 were enacted in the 1640s, over 80 years after the Reformation Parliament of 1560 (Spicer 2011).

Micro-historical analysis of one particular case – Bassendean– provides the opportunity to look more closely at the practical consequences of this Reformation-era re-drawing of the landscape and at the problems caused for communities as the geography of worship was rationalised.

The plain rectangular church of St Mary’s, lying to the south of Bassendean village, was founded in the late twelfth century.  Parts of the building as it stands today may date to that early period in its life, but the church has been altered and re-worked more than once during its history, not least during the period of the Reformation.  In 1618 the Commission for the Valuation of Teinds and the Plantation of Kirks decided that the church should be abandoned and the parish united with the neighbouring parish of Gordon which lay to the south.  Some thirty years later, though, the Scottish Parliament passed the ‘Act anent the transplantation of the kirk of Bassendean’, which sought to address the problems faced by this remote part of the border county of Berwickshire.  It had been resolved that the union of Bassendean and Gordon parishes should be dissolved and a new church built for the former parish, but at Westruther in the centre of the old parish, not at Bassendean itself, which lay on the southernmost edge of the parish.  The presbytery undertook a perambulation of the parish and produced a map illustrating the distribution of farmsteads and indicating the population of each, in order to demonstrate that Westruther was the most convenient place for the erection of the new church.  The ‘exact topographie of the paroche of Bassendean’, depicts the simple rectangular medieval church which was to be replaced by a T-plan building at Westruther more in accord with the needs of Reformed worship.  The church erected at Westruther was altered in 1752 and abandoned during the mid-nineteenth century for a new site across the road.  Meanwhile, in 1649, the old church at Bassendean had become a burial ground for the Homes of Bassendean and it continued in that role until 1860. 

This case indicates the value of a contextualised and material approach to the history of the Reformation process.  When studied in context and in terms of its material practice, we see the Reformation as more than a change in theology and liturgy: it was, as much as that, about the re-working of place and landscape and it entailed significant changes to people’s routines and movements.  At Bassendean, it is possible to see the abandonment of the medieval parish church and its replacement some distance away by a new, purpose-built structure more appropriate to the new ways of worship.  But the continued life of the old church as it takes on a new role as a burial ground can also be seen.  Beyond the church, the conscious re-planning of the religious landscape and its almost scientific re-formation using technologies like the map and the census is noted.  And the tangible impacts these changes must have had on people’s lives as traditional places of worship were uprooted can be inferred; patterns of movement through the landscape were re-worked and new practices and traditions were set in train. 

Bassendean St Mary’s Church © A. Spicer


 Return to Section 2.2 Reformations

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Case Study: Kintore, Aberdeenshire: shining light into a black hole

The later prehistoric and early medieval settlement record of Aberdeenshire has until recently been poorly understood. The Aberdeenshire Iron Age has been described as a black hole (Haselgrove et al 2001, 25) and portrayed as a blank (Cunliffe 2005, 599; Bradley 2007, 287); the Early Medieval Period dismissed as lacking in centralized authority (Alcock 2000, 8; RCAHMS 2007, 116; Fraser 2009, 66). In large this part is connected with an absence of any tradition of excavation (Ralston et al 1983, 149). The settlement record was usually characterized as unenclosed (Macinnes 1982), despite the presence of a discrete cluster of hillforts mapped since the late 19th century (Christison 1898, pull out map; Feachem 1966; Harding 1976, 361-2; Ralston et al 1983; Armit & Ralston (2003, 181. It was put into a six-fold classification by RCAHMS (2007, 100-1); none of the hillforts had been excavated, and they were routinely considered to be Iron Age (Armit & Ralston 2003, 172).

This situation dramatically changed between 1996 and 2006 when a series of mitigation excavations covering 50ha were undertaken around Kintore (Rees 1996; Glendinning 1998; Alexander 2000; Cook & Dunbar 2008; Cook et al forthcoming). These excavations identified an unenclosed settlement sequence running from 1800 BC to AD 1000, including 47 unenclosed roundhouses. Further rescue work in Kintore's immediate environs identified a further nineteen roundhouses (Johnson 2004; Murray & Murray 2006; Roy 2006; White & Richardson 2010; Cook et al 2011; Cook et al forthcoming), bringing the total to 64. This is the largest discrete assemblage of roundhouses ever excavated in Scotland (Pope 2003).

In order to integrate the unenclosed sequence with that of the hillforts the author proposed to excavate one example from each of the RCAHMS scheme; this took place between 2005 and 2010 (Cook 2010a; Cook 2010b; Cook 2011; Cook in press a; Cook in press b). This exercise indicated that of the roughly twenty hillforts in Donside, seven dated to the Middle Iron Age and nine to the early medieval period, with the balance dating to either the Late Bronze Age or the Early Iron Age. A summary of the integrated settlement sequence (Cook forthcoming) is as follows:

Middle Bronze Age (1800-1300 BC): no hillforts. Isolated roundhouses with a variety of entrance orientations, all with pits and ring-ditches in their interiors. The ring-ditch was located within the post-ring in the northern half of the site. At the end of a structure's use, there is evidence for both ritual enrichment and destruction by fire.

Late Bronze Age (1300-800 BC): large scale enclosures with slight defences (Hill of New Leslie, Tap o'Noth outer enclosure). Isolated unenclosed roundhouses with entrances tending to be focused on the south; more pits dug within the structure than in the MBA. Ring-ditches are still located within the ring-ditch in the northern half of the structure. There is still evidence for ritual enrichment and destruction by fire.

Early Iron Age (800-400 BC): hillforts with multiple entrances (Hill of Barra and Barmekin of Echt outer enclosures). Roundhouses are still isolated, entrances tend to focus on the south. Fewer pits dug in the interior; ring-ditch now located outside the post-ring in the northern half. There is no evidence of ritual enrichment, although there is still destruction by fire.

Middle Iron Age (400-50 BC): a variety of hillforts and enclosures (Hill of Barra, Barmekin of Echt outer enclosures; Bruce's Camp, Tillymuick, Dunnideer outer enclosure; Dunnideer and Tap o'Noth inner enclosures, Wester Fintray and Suttie cropmark enclosures), some with multiple entrances, some with none; some appear to contain nucleated settlement. This suggests an active role in warfare, conspicuous consumption and social competition. No hillforts are constructed de novo after c 250-200 BC. Roundhouses become clustered, with ring-ditches outside the post-ring; few pits dug within the interior and no ritual enrichment, although destruction by fire still occurs. There is also an increase in pits dug outside roundhouses, coinciding with a wider trend for the deposition of high status metalwork in pits (Hunter 1997; 2001; 2010)

Late Iron Age a (50 BC to AD 250): no hillforts or enclosures. Roundhouses are isolated, and while souterains are known none at present are associated with roundhouses in Donside. Few pits are dug in roundhouses; ring-ditches still in the north of houses, which are still destroyed by fire.

Late Iron Age b (AD 250 to AD 400): potential evidence for hillforts (Hill of Barra refortification) from the end of this period but no evidence for unenclosed settlement, merely a series of pits and ovens. This break in settlement appears to coincide with a drop in Roman imports in the North-East (Hunter 2007, 49).

Early Medieval a (AD 400-650): no evidence for unenclosed structures in this period, but a series of forts suggest an active role in warfare, conspicuous consumption and social competition (Hill of Barra refortification, Maiden Castle and Cairnmore).

Early Medieval b (AD 650-1000): no de novo hillforts are constructed. Unenclosed settlement returns and is associated with underground storage and corn-drying kilns.


Return to Section 6.8: Regionality

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