Volunteer archaeologists in southern Scotland have discovered the remains of a 650-year-old bridge that once spanned the River Teviot. As Victoria Brenan reports for the Herald, experts describe the Old Ancrum Bridge as “one of the most important structures in medieval Scotland.”
Members of the local Ancrum and District Heritage Society (ADHS) have spent the past two years working with professional researchers to learn more about the site. According to the group’s website, the project began when an ADHS member found a mention of the bridge in a local government document dated to 1674. The text referred to the bridge as the only one in the area that offered passage to and from Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh.
ADHS volunteers used drone photography to locate a submerged stone platform, as well as the remains of a wooden structure, in the middle of the river. They also found references to the importance of the bridge in documents—some of which had to be translated from Old Scots—dated to as early as 1549.
Government agency Historic Environment Scotland (HES) supported the research. ADHS also collaborated with Wessex Archaeology, a nonprofit research group, and Dendrochronicle, a consultancy specializing in studying historical wood structures, among other organizations.
“HES are delighted to have played a part in funding one of the most exciting and significant archaeological discoveries in Scotland in recent years,” says Kevin Grant, archaeology manager at HES, in a statement. “This project shows that discoveries of immense importance remain to be found by local heritage groups–and what can be achieved by bringing archaeological science and expertise together with local knowledge.”
Coralie Mills of Dendrochronicle found that the samples of timbers retrieved from the riverbed were native oak, a wood rarely found at Scottish sites that postdate 1450. Radiocarbon dating helped place the construction of the bridge in the mid-1300s.
“The timber structure discovered by ADHS in the River Teviot near Ancrum is a rare survival of part of an early bridge in a hugely strategic historical location,” says Mills in the statement. “The oak timbers are in remarkably good condition and provide really important local material for tree-ring analysis in a region where few medieval buildings survived the ravages of war.”
The team’s research identified the structure as the oldest surviving bridge found in its original location in Scotland. The Old Ancrum Bridge was built during the reigns of David II of Scotland (1329–1371) and Edward III of England (1327–1377), though the Herald reports that researchers aren’t sure whether the English or Scottish were behind its construction.
Regardless of its origins, the bridge proved crucial for travel, commerce and war in the region. Per the National’s Martin Hannan, the Old Ancrum Bridge was part of the Via Regia, or King’s Way, which people used to travel from Edinburgh to Jedburgh and the Scottish Borders. Royal figures including James V and Mary, Queen of Scots, used the bridge during the 16th century.
The bridge also played a role in the 1545 Battle of Ancrum Moor, in which Scottish warriors defeated a larger English army. The attack was part of Henry VIII’s “Rough Wooing,” a failed attempt to force Scotland to agree to the marriage of Mary and his son, Edward.
ADHS found that the bridge was important in connecting abbeys and castles in the region, facilitating the wool trade and the collection of taxes. By 1698, however, the structure was reportedly so damaged that it “was no longer serviceable,” according to documents cited by the society. Though locals sought funds for repairs, their requests went unheeded, and the bridge suffered further flood damage and deterioration. Today, a toll bridge constructed in 1784 and another one built in 1939 stretch across the area where the medieval structure once stood.
“[W]e of the Ancrum and District Heritage Society have always believed that Ancrum was a small village with a big history,” writes ADHS member Geoff Parkhouse in a separate article for the National.
He adds, “There is much more to learn from this bridge. We want to be able to tell its full story—from beginning to end.”