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.

1828 map which shows two buildings, two old piers and a watercourse, named 'Higgins Neuk'

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.

A group of people in hi-vis clothing standing on grass looking across an expanse of intertidal saltmarsh towards a distant river channel, with a rainbow on the opposite bank

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.

An aerial view of an archaeological trench on a grassy riverbank at high tide with water up to a stone sea wall

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.

An aerial view of an archaeological trench showing a cobbled surface leading to a well-built stone surface in a waterlogged marshy area with either side labelled edges of Old Stone Pier

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.

A pen and ink drawing of a ship loaded with cattle docking against a sea wall with a mill with a waterwheel and other buildings on the riverbank


  • Explore the excavation at the end of our first season on this Gigapan

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