The Whithorn Trust
Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund case study
The trust was awarded £88,976, for "Questions of Life and Death: Whithorn Archaeological Cold Case" to unlock the potential of bone collections for the understanding of early medieval Scotland.
Julia Muir Watt
About the Project:
The Whithorn Trust was founded in 1988, after the discovery of one of Scotland’s largest mediaeval cemeteries, which was exposed during a development project for social housing. The finds were so important that the housing project was moved elsewhere, and a large campaign to excavate the area followed.
Whithorn had already been the regular subject of archaeological attention from the 1880s due to the mention of Whithorn by Bede in his History of the English Church. The excavations of the 1980s and 1990s were the most extensive, leading to a complex phased interpretation of burials from the Early Christian to the high medieval period. After these excavations, the finds, including skeletal material were placed at Stranraer Museum, where they have remained ever since.
The Cold Case project was launched after researchers at Scottish Universities expressed an interest in re-examining the archaeological excavations from Whithorn. The project has been led by Whithorn Trust, with specialists from Dumfries and Galloway Museum Service, University of Bradford (Archaeology and Forensics), National Museums Scotland and Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre. This enabled the Trust to answer more questions about Whithorn’s origins and development and to engage leading researchers once again with fundamental questions about the site. This research will inform a major redevelopment of the museum and interpretation at Whithorn.
Both Whithorn and Stranraer are areas with regionally significant levels of income and employment deprivation, as well as educational underachievement, which put these communities among the most deprived within Dumfries and Galloway, but also in the whole of Scotland. Cold Case Whithorn included an ambitious project to engage the entire community with their heritage, to raise children’s interest and attainment within STEM subjects, and in short to employ the prestige which Whithorn enjoys in the archaeological world for the benefit of its populations.
To that end, a Collections Manager was employed at Stranraer to begin recataloguing and reboxing 42,000 items, but also to enlist volunteers from the community and hold “beyond Staff Only doors” open days. The lectures by academics about the Cold Case have been free and local; they have been documented by a project film crew, as have other developmental milestones in the project, so that these could be shared on social media and generate wider awareness of the project.
Schools have been involved in palaeopathology and osteology workshops with leading archaeologists, from primary to secondary levels. Science pupils from Stranraer Academy will have the first ever tour of the Scottish Universities laboratories. An imaginative series of local outreach sessions included “horrible histories” at Stranraer’s World Rowing Championships, open lectures held during the national Book Festival at Wigtown and children’s workshops featuring bone quizzes and digs and a horrible smellscape of Whithorn past.
The project has so far stimulated widespread interest, across all communities from schools to faith groups, and has attracted television coverage, which in turn helps keep the Whithorn Trust viable and planning for the future.