case study

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

Case Study: Cremation Technology and Burial

Detailed study of cremation technology and cremation burial has been undertaken in Orkney (under the auspices of the Orkney Barrows Project funded by Historic Scotland) at a range of barrow cemeteries, in particular Linga Fiold, using an approach aimed at investigating the spatial and temporal aspects of funerary rites rather than focussing simply on burial (Downes 2005; forthcoming). Cremation technology was found to be efficient; using predominantly boggy turves as fuel excessively high temperatures were achieved. Cremation pyres, identified through geophysical survey in advance of excavation, were set close to the edge of barrows, or on the side of existing barrows. Several examples of more than one person being burnt on the pyre at once were found. Very few burials contained a quantity of burnt bone that matched what would be expected in weight for a whole body, but instead it was found that other elements of the pyre remains were being buried – that is charred wood and ash, cramp (fuel ash slag), burnt turf and scorched earth ‐ and that there was a careful order to how the burials were constructed. In the case of primary burials that were central to a barrow, it could be seen that cremated bone would be interrred first, followed by cramp, followed by burnt turf and charcoal, followed by scorched earth. This order reversed the order that the remains appeared on the pyre upon completion of burning. This order could not be interpreted as being interred simply in the manner the pyre might have been dismantled, for elements were carefully sorted and cleaned before being placed in the burial cist or pit. Soil micromorphology was emplyed to investigate the barrows structure: the barrows were then constucted in the reverse order of the natural stratigraphy, with turves on the lowest layer, loose topsoil next, followed by clay subsoil, and sometimes capped with stone. Thus the burial and barrow comprise an unbroken inverted sequence in which the human remains comprise the lowest part, and in which the whole of the natural order is inverted. This careful and purposeful re‐ordering of the world is seen as indicative of a cosmology or world view – detailed by Kristiansen and Larsson (2005), and expressed in the Nebra disc ‐ in which the world is ranked vertically in three tiers – the lower domain or underworld, a middle domain which humans and the living occupy, and an upper world of the sacred of gods and ancestors (Downes 2009; Downes and Thomas in press).

In the many instances of cremation burials added subsequently around the barrows, some of these replicated the same vertical ordering of the cist or pit content, whereas in others the various types of pyre debris were spread between two or three cists or pits – sometimes with cleaned human bone in one feature, cramp in another and charcoal and burnt turf, or even burnt soil in another. What is striking about these findings is that parts (or ‘tokens’) representative of the whole pyre, not just the individual person or people, are being interred. What was apparent also was that some cremated bone was left on the pyre – the amount selected for burial being a deliberate choice, and a rapid series of actions taken immediately after quenching the pyre, and not a factor of leaving the pyre to cool for some days and having the remains disperse through eg wind and rain before collection. The methodological implication of this work are clear: using geophysical survey over a wide area is key to putting a burial monument in its context – for example locating pyre sites, mortuary structures, paths and approaches to burial sites; use of soil micromorphology in combination with pollen and charred plant analysis was important in determining methods of pyre technology, and burial and monument construction. The excavation and analysis of the contents of a whole range of features, irrespective of whether they contained human remains or not, provides lessons for future approaches to the recording and analysis of burial sites.


Return to Section 5.5 Funerary and Burial evidence