Meeting Report: Excavations at Tongland Abbey

24 February 2017
Members' Night
David Devereux

On a very wet February night, members and their guests attended the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society's annual Members’ Night meeting. This is the evening when members can present their own research to the assembled group. This year, Dr David Devereux, one of the Society's Past Presidents outlined the research and excavation work being undertaken at Tongland, near Kirkcudbright, in search of Tongland Abbey.

He began by thanking the Society for the grant the project had received, which had enabled his small group of volunteers to put together the tools and equipment they needed in order to undertake their excavation work last summer.

The idea of looking for structural evidence for the Premonstratensian Abbey at Tongland came about in 2015 when the Tongland and Ringford Community Council decided to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. We wondered what that had to do with the Stewartry, but David went on to explain that Alan, Lord of Galloway who was the Founder of Tongland Abbey in 1218, was the only Scot named in the Magna Carta of 1215.

The site of Tongland Abbey has seen much activity, being in a prominent position between two rivers, on a "tongue" of land. The waters themselves provided for a fishery going back centuries on a stretch of water known as the Doachs of Tongland. This was the source of a commercial salmon trade into the 20th century and might have attracted the monks who came to Tongland.

The Abbey was replaced with a parish church in 1633 and again in 1813. All now ruinous. There is a 19th-century manse on the site and a graveyard still in use. This means that the area available for excavation is limited. However, with the permission of the owners of the old manse, an area between the former parish churches and the manse building could be investigated.

In 2015, the Magna Carta project fund enabled a geophysical survey to be carried out across the manse garden. Whilst this did not provide conclusive results, it aided David's group the following year to focus their attention on some potential key features under the surface.

David outlined the research that had been undertaken and the sources of information that had led them to decide where to dig in order to determine the exact site for the Abbey and its environs. These included historic accounts, old maps and drawings, and the current layout of buildings and roads, as well as the 2015 survey results.

Descriptions of the Abbey suggest it was built on an impressive scale, comparable with that of Dundrennan Abbey, and having a steeple that was the tallest in Galloway. Substantial quantities of its walls are described as still standing in 1684, but by 1824, almost all had vanished. An examination of some local buildings showed evidence of the recycling of stonework that must have taken place.

The 2016 excavators chose five promising locations to open their trenches, in the hope of revealing the Abbey structure. Some provided a glimpse of previous activity on the site, without delivering the answers they sought. A section of wall probably relating to the 1633 church was uncovered, as well as examples of more recent activity such as a substantial deposit of motor car parts. An interesting linear feature on the geophysical survey was investigated in Trench 5 and proved to be a section of the abandoned eighteenth-century road running north through the site from the Old Tongland Bridge. Below it, however, evidence of medieval occupation was found comprising areas of charcoal and burning, with quantities of broken animal bone, and a later medieval stone games counter.

Perhaps disappointingly, the precise siting of Tongland Abbey remains a mystery. But it is hoped that further trial excavations can be undertaken in 2017. Perhaps then, Tongland Abbey will at last reveal itself — and just in time for its 800th anniversary in 2018.