The Guardian invited Coralie to write about a favourite old wood this week, and while there are many amazing old Scottish woods that I know well, there are fewer that have ready visitor access while retaining an atmosphere of intense wildness, and Caerlaverock Castle Wood was the one that sprung to mind immediately. Dendrochronicle is an admirer of this particular wood through having been invited by HES to undertake a detailed study of the wood to inform their understanding of the two castles’ relationship with the treescape, and to inform new visitor interpretation developments.
A walkover historic woodland assessment of Castle Wood at Caerlaverock was undertaken for HES’ Cultural Resources Team in March 2018, complemented by historic map research. Castle Wood encompasses both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ castle remains and most of their surrounding earthworks, and forms a sub-rectangular block about one kilometre wide. A second phase of work was undertaken in autumn 2019, this time for HES’ interpretation team, to inform new visitor information, and allowed us to pursue some aspects of this fascinating treescape’s history and archaeology in more detail. As yet, the only publication of this work is a brief entry in the Discovery & Excavation in Scotland annual round up of archaeological projects which is published by our friends at Archaeology Scotland.
LiDAR survey at Caerlaverock by HES revealed a complex palimpsest of old enclosures and field boundaries beneath the tree canopy, and helped us to sub-divide the wood into compartments for the purposes of the assessment. The objective of the historic woodland investigative work was to enhance the understanding of the Property In Care’s relationship with the surrounding wooded landscape and to unravel the story of the evolution of the trees and woods themselves. The assessment embraced the living biocultural heritage, the landscape archaeology and their relationship with the built heritage.
It is as yet uncertain as to who built the ‘old’ castle around 1220; it was abandoned around 1270 when the ‘new’ castle was built, almost certainly by a Maxwell, first noted as lord of Caerlaverock in 1307. The area is believed to have been wooded when the castles were built, at least locally, based on pollen evidence from the old castle ditch sediments. These construction dates are pretty exact, and distinguishable from each other, because they were provided by dendrochronology – by dating remains of oak timber moat bridges which had survived by waterlogging. That work was undertaken by our friends at the Belfast QUB dendro lab a long time ago, in the 1970s and 1980s, when the excavations were ongoing and before Scotland had its own resident dendrochronologists.
So there is pollen evidence for some local scrubby wood around the castles just after the old castle was built but, crucially, as yet there is no pollen work from sediments which accumulated before the old castle was built so we do not know how wooded the environment was before the castles were built. It is Coralie’s view that it was not continuously wooded until very recent times, that it was probably quite an open landscape in the 13th century, with scrubby wood only along burnsides and in the areas that were too wet for agriculture. The oak timber used to build the castle moat bridges was probably brought in from elsewhere, as oak would have needed drier growing conditions than those naturally occurring around the castle sites.
The first castle is beside an old harbour, thought to be contemporary with it, and showing how the shoreline has gradually shifted several hundred metres further south since then. Coastal change is a big part of the complex story of Caerlaverock’s landscape change – and the changes are visible in the archaeological remains, especially as revealed by the Lidar survey, as well as in the natural landscape features.
It is thought that instability and subsidence of the old castle, on its very wet site, led to the decision to build the new triangular castle, only some 50 years later, which still survives in great shape today and is an iconic building that everyone should visit. This remarkable castle has a long complex history which I won’t go into here but is certainly rewarding to read about. The ‘new’ castle continued to be developed into the early 17th century until a siege of 1640 rendered it a partial ruin.
Based on the Historic Woodland Assessment evidence, our working hypothesis is that small patches of early planted woodland survive at Caerlaverock, often on old boundary features, almost all oak, and it is possible that some trees area as old as the castles themselves. Without any dendrochronological work on the trees however, their age is informed conjecture, based on historic maps and tree form evidence, and many of the oldest candidates survive as rotted stumps only. This medieval wood-bank style landscape is overlain by a much wider patchwork of oak plantings, mostly subsequently coppiced, on an extended rectangular enclosure footprint which first appears on General Roy’s map of c1750. However, we believe that it goes back much earlier, and was probably created in the early 1600s. Dendrochronology of some of the rarer old single stem oaks, including pollards, from this phase would allow us to establish dating more securely and even reconstruct pollarding dates and cycles.
These bank systems, medieval and early post-medieval, studded with old oaks, are interspersed with semi-natural wet woodlands and even some modern forestry plantations within the old enclosures. The historic planting of oak followed the drier upstanding old boundaries while alder-willow dominated wet woodland persisted in the lower wetter areas in between. Medieval ditches and later era drains were always part of the enclosure system, as drainage was crucial to being able to manage this wet landscape. There is plentiful evidence of continued economic investment in this wood after occupation of the new castle ceased in 1640. The majority of oaks were coppiced, the last cut probably being in the early 19th century based on approximate ring counts of a couple of fallen stems.
Despite the still-functioning improvement drainage system, much of the woodland is very wet today, making for a rich biodiverse ecosystem and also likely to promote good organic survival of archaeological remains. While coppiced oak is most common, the rarer pollard and maiden forms of oak on some of the boundaries are likely to be rather older, for example on the bank of the bailey to the east of the old castle. A number of skirted old oaks indicate historic grazing pressure, and 18th century mapping, the earliest to show any detail, shows a wood with a number of open meadow areas within. However, we found no obvious evidence of there being a deer park here. The form of a substantial curved dyke just west of the old castle, on which many oak coppice stools have grown, was more suggestive of a former sea wall than a park dyke. The sequence of landscape development could be teased out more certainly with further targeted dendrochronological, archaeological and documentary research assisted by the LiDAR and historic map evidence.
Much more detailed reports have been provided to HES and will in due course appear distilled into new visitor information provision, and, we hope, as a publication. In the meantime we recommend exploring Castle Wood yourself, as soon as Covid-19 regulations allow. It is an incredibly rewarding place to visit for those who like their natural heritage as much as their cultural heritage. Visitor information can be found on the Historic Environment Scotland web-site.