This week the National Museums Scotland installed exhibits at the Whithorn Trust from some important Iron Age sites in the Machars.
Most importantly, a spectacular Roman patera, or bronze saucepan, recovered from the drained Dowalton Loch, is on show. The discovery was made in the 1860’s, when Sir Herbert Maxwell’s father decided to drain the loch near Sorbie to create more fertile farmland on his estate. Dowalton Loch had always had a cairn visible in the middle of its waters, known as Miller’s Cairn, which had been used as a marker by local farmers to judge when the loch was approaching flood height. When the loch was drained, the cairn proved to be the top of an Iron Age loch dwelling, or crannog, and was one of several revealed by the drainage works. The drainage was observed by a young Herbert Maxwell, and by Lord Lovaine, who recognised the artificial islands as similar to lake dwellings discovered at the time in Switzerland.
As it turned out, the crannogs were a form of loch dwelling unique to Scotland (and Ireland) and the discovery sparked an interest in crannogs which led to the discovery of many more in the South West of Scotland and to finds which are now national treasures at the National Museum of Scotland. The Whithorn Trust now hopes, as the community partner for the archaeologists, to play a similar role in furthering our understanding of the Iron Age in Scotland.
A spokesman for the Trust said: “Interest in the Iron Age in the Machars is once again intensifying, while the Trust has always been rightly focussed on the Early Medieval period associated with the first Christians in Whithorn and then the great period of pilgrimage in the later Middle Ages, there is now growing recognition that Whithorn and the Machars may have been more Roman than we previously thought prior to the arrival of Christianity. The intense scatter of Roman finds at settlements in the South Machars, including Whithorn, may lead us to different conclusions about the Iron Age communities and what the first Christians were like at Whithorn. This summer, we are bringing together the various strands : we have an excavation of the lochside settlement near Monreith, and we have Roman finds coming to us from the National Museums - from Iron Age sites at Sorbie and Monreith - as well as our own permanent display of Roman finds from the 1980’s excavations at Whithorn. Recently, Dr Maldonado speculated about the earliest known resident of Whithorn, with his obviously Latinised name, Latinus, and whether we have, at Whithorn, a high status, Romanised and possibly royal community, which then converts to Christianity. There’s a growing feeling that more research is urgently needed at Whithorn and in Galloway to re-tell the story of the Romans, the Iron Age and earliest Christians. We shall be announcing shortly how local people and schools can become involved hands-on in the exciting story of Whithorn’s and the South Machars earliest residents.”