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An Older ‘Old Melrose’.
The documentary history of St Cuthbert’s Chapel and site of Old Melrose can be found in the Inventory of Roxburghshire No 592, p 303/4. This is good to know but tells little of what archaeology is on the ground, the only example being a ditch-and-bank earthwork, No 620 which extended across the narrowest portion of the headland. This was taken to be the vallum which separated the Early Christian monastery from the profane outside world.
In the field east of the ditch, the Royal Commission’s 1983 air photographs show a number of faint circular markings which, when walked over with divining rods, revealed concentric rings of postholes. These structures varied in diameter from 9m to 24m. Outside this were rings of graves pointing inwards to the centre. Some of the rings appear on recent Lidar productions – so they must be right.
Rings of concentric postholes are recognised as wood-henges in many parts of Britain but when I first touted my rough plans of these structures in 1999, I got no takers and only one reply.
Rough Sketch plans of the Old Melrose Circles. 1999.
However I went over the site recently, found the same pattern of postholes and graves and noted that the circles did not cross the vallum ditch. So now I suggest that the Old Melrose headland has been a Neolithic/Bronze/Iron Age holy place with the ditch-and-bank earthwork replacing the usual circular ditch also dating from that period.
Although this is a departure from my early views, as new facts emerge, I am quite willing to change my mind – what else can one do?
The Old Melrose Site.
It is known that incoming Christians frequently planted their first kil or church on the site of pagan burial grounds and holy places. So it is not unexpected that one of the first major Christian establishments in the Borders was at Old Melrose. The site fitted in with the original ‘diseart’ idea of an isolated place for prayer and contemplation with the added bonus of having the Roman/Dark Age road Dere Street nearby for the convenience of passing pilgrims.
There is likely to have been an earlier Christian presence at Old Melrose but it is first documented that a monastery was founded there in 636 AD by Oswald king of Northumbria.
Walter Elliot. 7 July 2016.
To navigate to the site you can download a gpx file below, for instructions see the Visiting Sites page.