Excavation, survey, historical research
Research by local historian John Reid first highlighted the archaeological and historical interest of Higgins Neuk on the south bank of the Forth. Placename evidence, documents and old maps pointed to this being the location of a dockyard built by James 4th of Scotland in the early 16th century. The Scottish king was developing a navy and needed a base which was secure from attack from the sea but had access to deep water for the huge ships he was building. The mouth of the Airth Burn, now known as the Pow Burn, at Higgins Neuk on the inner Forth estuary offered all of this and more.
We joined forces with the Inner Forth Landscape Initiative, John, the Falkirk Community Trust and volunteers from the local community and further afield. The aim was to test John’s hypothesis that this was James’ dockyard, where the famous ship the Great Michael was fitted out and provisioned.
We investigated the landscape using a range of techniques including drone survey, topographic modelling, geophysical surveys, metal detecting, coring and excavation. It’s hard to imagine now that big ships could ever have docked here, expanses of mud and intertidal saltmarsh stretch from the riverbank to the channel.
However, our work showed that all of this mud had accumulated in the past couple of hundred years. When James was searching for a site to secure the ships that were his pride and joy, this stretch of river looked very different. Even today, during a high tide, it’s easier to imagine great warships sailing here up the Forth.
Although we couldn’t find any definitive evidence that the dockyard was here, we did uncover evidence of a complex maritime and agricultural landscape. Buried beneath the saltmarsh are several piers for a historic crossing over the Forth. There was a ferry here from at least the 14th century which was a key link in the network of drove roads across Scotland.
Using these ancient routes, cattle were walked from across the north of Scotland to the Falkirk Tryst, which grew to be the largest cattle fair in Scotland. Nearby were a series of mills which were powered by the water of the Pow Burn and also harnessed the tidal water from the River Forth.
- Read our part 1 blog for more on the history and our first season of investigation
- Read part 2 of the blog to see the results of our excavation
- Read the Higgins Neuk fieldwork report
- Click the Gigapan below to see the landscape of Higgins Neuk, created by Edward Martin
- Explore the excavation at the end of our first season on this Gigapan