Tongland Abbey and Tongland Fish House – a Tale of Two Ruins

Ice house exterior entrance
Ice house exterior entrance

Kirkcudbright History Society demonstrated its strength on the wintry evening of 11th January when close to a hundred members and visitors met for the society’s first meeting of 2017. The speaker was David Devereux, the retired curator of the Stewartry Museum and his subject was ‘Tongland Abbey and Tongland Fish House – a Tale of Two Ruins’. David’s original profession was that of an archaeologist, and his retirement three years ago has given him the time and opportunity to apply his skills and his passion for history to an impressive number of site investigations in the Stewartry.

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The kingdom of Rheged is probably the most elusive of all the sixth century kingdoms of Dark Age Britain. Despite contributing a rich source of some of the earliest medieval poetry to be composed in Britain – the poetry of Taliesin who extolled the prowess of its king, Urien of Rheged – and fragments of early medieval historical records of Urien’s dominance in southern Scotland and northern England, the actual location of Rheged has long been shrouded in mystery.

While many historians have assumed it was centred around Carlisle and Cumbria, no evidence has ever been found to back this up. However, new archaeological evidence from the excavation of Trusty’s Hill Fort at Gatehouse of Fleet in Dumfries and Galloway now challenges this assumption.

‘What drew us to Trusty’s Hill were Pictish symbols carved on to bedrock here, which are unique in this region and far to the south of where Pictish carvings are normally found,’ said Ronan Toolis, who led the excavation, which involved the participation of over 60 local volunteers. ‘The Galloway Picts Project was launched in 2012 to recover evidence for the archaeological context of these carvings but far from validating the existence of ‘Galloway Picts’, the archaeological context revealed by our excavation instead suggests the carvings relate to a royal stronghold and place of inauguration for the local Britons of Galloway around AD 600. Examined in the context of contemporary sites across Scotland and northern England, the archaeological evidence suggests that Galloway may have been the heart of the lost Dark Age kingdom of Rheged, a kingdom that was in the late sixth century pre-eminent amongst the kingdoms of the north.’

The excavation revealed in the decades around AD 600, the summit of the hill was fortified with a timber-laced stone rampart. Anyone approaching the entrance to the fort on Trusty’s Hill passed between a rock-cut basin on one flank and an outcrop on which two Pictish symbols were carved on the other. This formed a symbolic entranceway, a literal rite of passage, where rituals of royal inauguration were conducted. On entering the summit citadel one may have been greeted with the sight of the king’s hall at the highest part of the hill on the west side, where feasting took place, and the workshop of his master smith occupying a slightly lower area on the eastern side, where gold, silver bronze and iron were worked. The layout of this fort was complex, each element deliberately formed to exhibit the power and status of its household.

‘The people living on Trusty’s Hill were not engaged in agriculture themselves,’ said excavation co-director Dr Christopher Bowles. ‘Instead, this household’s wealth relied on their control of farming, animal husbandry and the management of local natural resources – minerals and timber – from an estate probably spanning the wider landscape of the Fleet valley and estuary. Control was maintained by bonding the people of this land and the districts beyond to the royal household, by gifts, promises of protection and the bounties of raiding and warfare.’

It is in this context that the Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill can now be viewed. The new analysis of the symbols here leave no doubt that the symbols are genuine early medieval carvings, likely created by a local Briton, melding innovation, contacts with the wider world and deep seated traditions.

‘The literal meaning of the symbols at Trusty’s Hill, will probably never be known. There is no Pictish Rosetta Stone,’ said Ronan Toolis. ‘But these symbols and the material culture we recovered provide significant evidence for the initial cross cultural exchanges that forged the notion of kingship in early medieval Scotland.’

‘The new archaeological evidence from Trusty’s Hill enhances our perception of power, politics, economy and culture at a time when the foundations for the kingdoms of Scotland, England and Wales were being laid,’ said Dr Bowles. ‘The 2012 excavations show that Trusty’s Hill was likely the royal seat of Rheged, a kingdom that had Galloway as its heartland. This was a place of religious, cultural and political innovation whose contribution to culture in Scotland has perhaps not been given due recognition. Yet the influence of Rheged, with Trusty’s Hill at its secular heart, Whithorn as its religious centre, Taliesin its poetic master and Urien its most famous king, has nevertheless rippled through the history and literature of Scotland and beyond.’

The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged by Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles is published by Oxbow Books.

For more information about the Galloway Picts Project, visit:

The Galloway Picts Project was supported by the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, GUARD Archaeology Ltd, the Mouswald Trust, the Hunter Archaeological & Historical Trust, the Strathmartine Trust, the Gatehouse Development Initiative, the John Younger Trust, the Galloway Preservation Society and Historic Environment Scotland.


Further information

  • In addition to the summit citadel enclosure, a number of supplementary defences and enclosures were added to Trusty’s Hill’s lower-lying slopes transforming it into a nucleated fort; a type of fort in Scotland that has been recognised by archaeologists as high status settlements of the early medieval period.
  • The excavation found the remains of a workshop that was producing high status metalwork of gold, silver, bronze and iron. The royal household here was also part of a trade network that linked western Britain with Ireland and Continental Europe. In fact, research now shows that over the late sixth and early seventh centuries AD Gaulish merchants were making a beeline for the Galloway coast, ignoring Cumbria entirely. The excavation revealed that one of the reasons for this may have been to acquire materials like copper and lead. Isotope analysis of a lead ingot found during the excavation of Trusty’s Hill was found to have originated in the Leadhills of south-west Scotland, demonstrating that this mineral source was being mined and used to make leaded bronze objects at this time.
  • Other activities apparent at Trusty’s Hill included the spinning of wool, preparation of leather and feasting. The diet of this early medieval household, with the predominant consumption of cattle over sheep and pigs, and oats and barley rather than wheat, was largely indistinguishable from their Iron Age ancestors.
  • The location of the symbols at the entranceway to the summit of Trusty’s Hill and opposite a rock-cut basin, mirrors the context of the inauguration stone at Dunadd, the royal centre for the kings of Dalriada, the early Scots kingdom that once covered what is now Argyll and Bute. The imported goods and production of fine metalwork at Trusty’s Hill is comparable in quality to Dunadd, showing that these two royal households were of equal status. Dunadd’s Pictish boar, footprint, ogham and rock-cut basin at the entrance to the summit enclosure are best viewed as a set of royal regalia where the rituals of inauguration took place. The only other Pictish carvings located outside Pictland were found near Edinburgh Castle Rock; another site attested by archaeological and historical evidence to be a royal stronghold of the sixth to early seventh centuries AD. Close comparisons can also now be drawn with the early sixth century royal site at Rhynie in the heart of what was once Pictland.
  • A cluster of contemporary Dark Age sites, such as Whithorn, Kirkmadrine and the Mote of Mark, is now known in Galloway. Trusty’s Hill is the only one of these where there is evidence of royal inauguration and suggests that this site was at the apex of a local social hierarchy. The new evidence from Trusty’s Hill now provides a political context to the wealth and complexity of Galloway during the sixth century, the attraction of the region to continental merchants, and Galloway’s claim as the cradle of Christianity in Scotland. The archaeological record for the establishment of Christianity in southern Scotland suggests that its elite communities were literate and well connected internationally. This could not have occurred without a powerful secular presence providing land and resources. With the corroboration of the literary, historical and archaeological evidence, we begin to see the tantalising clues to a vibrant and dynamic culture that is entirely consistent with Rheged, a kingdom that was pre-eminent in northern Britain in the later sixth century but which faded into obscurity through the course of the seventh century.
  • The deliberate and spectacular destruction of Trusty’s Hill and the nearby contemporary fort at the Mote of Mark in the seventh century AD, which can also be surmised for a number of similar forts in Galloway, is a visceral reminder that the demise of this kingdom came with sword and flame.


William Nicholson – Life Story – a piece of research by Mike Duguid



William Nicholson was born in 1783 at Tannymas in the parish of Borgue, the youngest of eight children. His father was a carrier, then a farmer and finally a publican in Ringford, or Red Lion as it was known then. William went to school there but he was a very reluctant pupil. He suffered a defect of vision which, when reading, obliged him to hold the book almost to his nose which led to mocking by other pupils. The consequence was, that after simply learning to read indifferently, and gaining a very slight knowledge of the commonest rules of arithmetic, a subject which he hated, he bade farewell to school altogether, never to return. By the age of fourteen, Nicholson had taken up the trade of packman which involved him in selling his wares from town to town and farm to farm. Apparently he was extremely handsome as we can perhaps gauge from the painting by the Gatehouse of Fleet artist John Faed RSA and, at 5ft 10in, he was tall for the period. (Image reproduced courtesy of the Stewartry Museum)nicholson-by-faed

His story-telling ability and affable personality probably helped him persuade customers to purchase his goods. Trade was very much affected by the price of muslin which fluctuated greatly.


In much the same way as in the case of Robert Burns, Nicholson’s mother used to tell him stories and he credits her with being his poetic inspiration. He absorbed ballads, songs, and penny histories in fact every kind of mental food, in short, which came within reach was eagerly seized upon. Long before he was attracted to poetry he contacted a great fondness for music and was in the habit of enlivening the families who hosted him on his travels with his wood notes wild. His ear was excellent and his voice passingly melodic and strong, and he purchased a set of bagpipes when he was 20. This enable him to give additional zest to his minstrelsy. His talent for wit and observation made him a favourite. It was said he could have journeyed 100 miles at a stretch without being at a loss for a meal or a lodging or putting himself to almost a farthing of expense.


However, he was always busy composing tunes so he did not give full attention to his packman duties. Alex Trotter in an article on Nicholson in his East Galloway Sketches records the occasion when a Mr Johnstone from Kirkcudbright found Oor Wull piping away in a quarry with half a dozen colts “capering about like mad to the sound of the bagpipes throwing their heels and snorting out their applause at the performance.”


However, in his late twenties he was encouraged by the Rev Henry Duncan of Ruthwell (famous for starting the world’s first savings bank) to publish some of his poetry which he did in 1814 at the age of 31. One of his poems The Brownie of Bladnoch was the inspiration for a painting by the Kirkcudbright artist Edward Atkinson Hornel now in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow (reproduced courtesy of Glasgow Museums).brownie-002


He was also greatly helped and encouraged by James Hogg, the eminent Scottish poet known as the Ettick Shepherd when they met whilst William stayed in the capital. He encouraged him to construct a narrative poem and the result was one of his best, A Country Lass. A long poem in eight parts it tells the story of the wooing of a country lass by various men about the parish all based on well-known local folk.   Donsie Davie, a farmer’s eldest son, he was beef without and blank within so he was dispatched; the Kirkless priest who had too strong carnal desire and overstepped the mark; then Sandy the shepherd who looked the most likely but he was being edged out in favour of the wylie merchant who had a big hoose and plenty money and was charming Betty’s mother but then Betty discovers he has an illegitimate child by a young beggar woman who had been tricked by him. So she eventually returns to the arms of Sandy the shepherd. The poem provides a fascinating commentary on life at the beginning of the nineteenth century – religion, mercantile trade and agriculture.


He had managed to raise an incredible 1500 subscribers for the work. So the same pack that had been filled with bobbins and needles cotton and threads was now filled with a different kind of ware and after supplying Edinburgh and Glasgow he wended his way homeward through Ayrshire and Galloway “delivering copies and hauling in the siller.” The collection of poems raised a very welcome £100. He promptly lost it all when the price of muslin nosedived.


However, his fame spread as his poems gained critical acclaim. Perhaps not surprisingly, when we reflect on his topsy-turvy life to this point, this success played on his weaknesses and drinking became a major problem. He began seeing demons and obtained from them the answers to the world’s problems. So what does our Wull do? Armed with these earth-shaking revelations entitled ‘Universal Redemption’, and his poetry, he traveled to London to inform the King of what needed to be done to save the world. He failed in his request to meet the King but left a copy of his writings on the subject for the King to read later.


His time in London was not a happy one and he was mugged on several occasions and got lost even more frequently. Fortunately a group of Gallovidians, including another Borgue boy John Mactaggart secured a passage to Leith from whence he returned home. A second edition of his poems appeared in 1828. Little is recorded about what happened to him after this except that he is supposed to have led a quiet, contemplative life accepting the charity of his loyal Gallovidian friends and accepting poor relief until he died at Kildarroch, Borgue, on 24th May 1849 at the age of 65.

His gravestone can be seen in the graveyard at Kirkandrews. The inscription set on it by his brother John reads, ‘No future age shall see his name expire’ so we can consider ourselves as helping to prevent his name from expiring.gravestones

In 1900, some 51 years after his death, a plaque was erected outside Borgue Academy as it was known then. Still prominent on the wall around what is now the Borgue Primary School, the bronze plaque was sculpted by Mr. Shannon of Glasgow and is based on the portrait by John Faed.

The plaque at Borgue
The plaque at Borgue