case study

Case Study: Perth boat timbers

What appears to have been a well-preserved boat was found at Perth in the 1830s, though it was not recorded or preserved. But the excavation of waterlogged medieval levels in Perth during the 1970s revealed several wooden boat components, some re-used in timber buildings of 12th century date. All belong to the clinker or overlapping-plank tradition. They include plank fragments edge-joined with distinctive iron rivet and rove fastenings, together with unused roves in strips with chisel-cuts defining each square washer, so they could be broken off as required like pieces of chocolate. These unused roves suggest that boats were being built or repaired in the locality.

Other timbers include frames notched for overlapped planking and tholes, to which oars were attached with rope grommets. These denote vessels low enough to allow oars to be placed directly atop the gunwale. That larger ships were also present is suggested by what appears to be an oar-port shutter, similar to those found on the Gokstad Viking ship of c. 850AD. These sealed ports cut for the oars when the vessel was under sail, as seen on the representation of a galley at Rodel in Harris dated 1528.

The Perth finds suggest that other urban deposits in riverine or maritime locations, especially where good organic preservation obtains, may contain boat-related material. Recent discoveries in Dublin illustrate the richness of what may be preserved.

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Case Study: MacArthur’s Store, Dunbar

Figure 18: Re-used ship timbers from MacArthur's store in Dunbar. The deck beams from a likely 18th century coastal trader offer rare insights into ship timber assemblages in the Scottish vernacular context and the possibilities that abound to study the tangible remains of the Scottish merchant marine, ©Headland Archaeology.

The re-use of ship timber in terrestrial buildings is a practice for which there are still relatively few authenticated examples in the archaeological record in the UK, and even fewer in Scotland. To date, isolated discoveries are confined to both domestic and industrial buildings located in areas such as the coastal towns of the East Neuk of Fife and city dwellings such as Gladstone’s Land on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

The fascinating discovery an assemblage of re-cycled ship timbers at McArthur’s Store in Dunbar offers rare archaeological evidence of such practices in Scottish contexts from the age of sail. The assemblage comprises the largest corpus of re-used ship timbers from a vernacular context found to date in Scotland, a point of considerable historic significance. This assemblage like those discovered elsewhere are almost certainly derived from vernacular craft, such as fishing vessels and coastal traders, probably built, operated and broken up in the numerous coastal communities around the Scottish coast. The timbers as a whole appear to be far removed from the more standardized, higher quality ship timber components derived from naval vessels, such as those discovered at Chatham Historic Dockyard, the former Dockyard at Deptford and the Chesapeake Mill in Hampshire (Atkinson 2001; Prescott and Atkinson, 2003; Atkinson, 2007). The significance of discoveries such as those at Mac Arthur’s Store lie in the relative rarity of these finds – and ultimately the information that can be gained from such discoveries.

What is clear is the very apparent un-tapped resource for research into aspects of boat and ship timber re-use in Scotland. The story is potentially extensive, both geographically and temporally, and a well structured research strategy could add considerably to the known maritime cultural heritage resource and evidence for ship-breaking and the recycling of timber in terrestrial vernacular and industrial contexts.