Military History

Allan Kilpatrick (RCAHMS) – East Ayrshire

 

East Ayrshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

East Ayrshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

We’re Dooned, we’re all Dooned!

In the age of austerity that surrounds us today, government worry about wasting money on ventures which swallow vast sums of cash. Often we look back when things seems more straight forward, where everything was built without the problems that modern projects seem to encounter. But was that really the case?

During the First World War the conflict in the air was changing fast and Britain was having real problems. There was a requirement to teach pilots and aircrew the art of aerial gunnery. Colonel Sefton Branker convinced the government to establish a gunnery school, based on a site in France. What was required was an inland body of water with steep hills surrounding it for target ranges.  Loch Doon in East Ayrshire was selected for the new school.

The location was remote, lying on the border of East Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway. Construction started in September 1916 with a railway being built to supply the material. The level of Loch Doon had to be raised by 6ft to provide a suitable area for seaplanes to land and take off and to provide hydro power to the site. 15000 construction workers and 500 servicemen had to be transported and accommodated as well as the illegal use of 1300 German PoWs. They all required buildings, power, heating, water, food, entertainment and of course toilets with requirement for sewage works.

View of part of the extensive camp site with trackways or possible tramways, building foundations and sewage plant (bottom left by the Lochside). Copyright RCAHMS (SC1004880)

View of part of the extensive camp site with trackways or possible tramways, building foundations and sewage plant (bottom left by the Lochside). Copyright RCAHMS (SC1004880)

A piers and dock for boats can be seen at the water line near the top of the photo. Foundations of at least three buildings are visible, the largest of which may be the camp cinema. Licensed to: RCAHMS for PGA, through Next Perspectives ™

A piers and dock for boats can be seen at the water line near the top of the photo. Foundations of at least three buildings are visible, the largest of which may be the camp cinema. Licensed to: RCAHMS for PGA, through Next Perspectives ™

On the east side of the loch, a flat area of boggy ground was chosen as the airfield. A seaplane hangar was built to the north of the main airfield site.

Target ranges were to be built on the remote west site of the loch with piers and jetties constructed, before the ranges could even built. But this massive project started to go wrong, very wrong indeed.

At the airfield, the hangars and associated buildings were built whilst attempting to drain the bog. But after 56 miles of drainage pipes and tonnes of soil, the bog refused to be drained.

The concrete base of the former seaplane hangar. The slipway leading into the water can just be seen below the water. Licensed to: RCAHMS for PGA, through Next Perspectives ™

The concrete base of the former seaplane hangar. The slipway leading into the water can just be seen below the water. Licensed to: RCAHMS for PGA, through Next Perspectives ™

The airfield was abandoned after 6 months work, the hangars dismantled and a new airfield built almost 8km to the north by Dalmellington. The problems mounted up; the site was too remote, the new airfield too far away, the weather and topography limited the amount of flying time.  Additional work was required at the new airfield to divert the River Doon in a new channel lined by tiles, to allow the level of Bogton Loch to be reduced.  With improvements to aircraft, the techniques to be taught at Loch Doon were no longer valued. Finally, the need for the railway to be extended to Loch Doon by means of a tunnel was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The government called a halt to any more work and as quickly as it came it was dismantled and abandoned. The costs were never revealed in total but between £350,000 and £3 million was spent, which is between £16 million to £137 million at today’s prices.

 

The site of the abandoned airfield on the shores of Loch Doon. The concrete bases for two groups of hangars can be seen at the top of the photo. The network of parallel lines are the drainage for the airfield. Licensed to: RCAHMS for PGA, through Next Perspectives ™

The site of the abandoned airfield on the shores of Loch Doon. The concrete bases for two groups of hangars can be seen at the top of the photo. The network of parallel lines are the drainage for the airfield. Licensed to: RCAHMS for PGA, through Next Perspectives ™

Much of the site was lost when the Loch was raised some 10m in a 1936 hydro scheme. But recent aerial images taken when the water was extremely low, down to 1916 levels, revealed much of the site. In particular the hangars for the airfield and for the seaplane have been revealed. Detailed examination of these images have allowed us to record the true scale of this site and identify key parts of the site which have been submerged for decades. The Commission in partnership with Historic Scotland have recorded this site in more detail as part of The First World War Audit Project to record the surviving remains of the great war.

This massive construction project was a complete and utter failure, ill-conceived and over budget. What it does leave us with is the physical remains of a very ambitious scheme and a unique perspective of the remains of an extensive complex of sites for civilians, military personnel and prisoners of war.

This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.

 

 

Musketballs, Mortars and Matchlocks

What do you think of when you think of archaeology? For the majority of people the answer is simple- ‘musketballs’. If that wasn’t the first thing in your head, there’s no need to fret; ‘fragmented portion of a 17th century grenade’ is also a perfectly acceptable answer. Ok, none of the above is true. But for me it is objects such as these that make up my Day of Archaeology.

I work as Operations Manager for a commercial company, Headland Archaeology (Ireland) Ltd. The majority of my work involves overseeing all the projects we undertake and making sure they run smoothly, are carried out to a high standard and progress as efficiently as possible.  However, I also specialise in ‘Conflict Archaeology’, a field of study which explores evidence for the forms and effects of conflict on past populations. Today is a ‘Conflict Archaeology’ day.

The material I work with the most relates to conflict in 16th and 17th century Ireland. This was an exceptionally bloody period in Irish history. The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland took place in the second half of the 16th century, while the 1640s witnessed eleven years of war, culminating in the Cromwellian intervention on the island. Later still the War of the Two Kings was fought between William III and James II’s forces. The conflict artefacts and conflict architecture left behind on sites from this period can tell us much about the personal experience of individuals during these troubled times. What was it like to be a soldier in one of these armies? How did they operate? What affect did the wars have on the civilian populace?

Today I am working on an assemblage of military artefacts from a Castle site which was besieged in 1653, when Parliamentarian forces bombarded the site and forced the Irish defenders’ surrender. Although there are some historical accounts of the siege, many details of the engagement remain unknown. This is where the artefacts come in. It becomes quickly apparent to me as I trawl through nearly 200 iron ball fragments that the castle was extremely heavily bombarded. The sheer number of fragments is unusual in Irish archaeology- it is the highest concentration of artillery projectiles from a conflict site I have yet come across in the country.

What can they tell us? They are all heavily damaged, with only one complete spherical ball surviving. This suggests that the projectiles shattered as they struck masonry, or split into deadly shrapnel as they exploded. Their form tells us that the Parliamentarians used at least two main types of projectile; solid iron balls and mortars. The solid shot was intended to break down the walls of the castle, while the mortars (hollow iron spheres filled with powder) would explode and fragment as they rained down on the defenders.

I am currently analysing the size of the fragments to try and tell what type of artillery piece fired them. Although most iron balls are today usually called ‘cannonballs’, in the 17th century a ‘Cannon’ was a specific type of gun which fired a particular size of ball. Many other types existed, with names like ‘Culverins’ ‘Sakers’ and ‘Falcons’. These fired different sizes of ball over varying distances. Identifying the type of gun can help us identify how far away the besiegers may have been from the castle, and also tell us how difficult it was to get them into position. For example, some of these guns required dozens of oxen to haul them around the countryside.

'17th century grenade and lead shot'

And what of the defenders? The majority survived this siege and were able to surrender, but the castle was destroyed in the bombardment. Among the military artefacts that relate to them are lead musketballs (also called lead shot) and weapon fragments recovered from the rubble. The size, shape and weight of the musketballs can tell us what types of gun they were used in, provide information about how they were manufactured and also suggest if they have been fired or not. The examples from this site appear unfired, so they may have been dropped or lost by the defenders. This site is unusual in that it has also produced part of the firing mechanisms from some of the defender’s weapons, most likely destroyed during the bombardment. These fragments are from matchlock muskets, a type of gun that used a lit piece of cord to fire the musketball.

When I have finished the technical analysis of the material (a process which will take a few days) it will be possible to build a picture of the siege. I will be addressing what types of artillery the Parliamentarians brought with them, how this was used and transported and where it might have been fired from. From the defenders viewpoint it should be possible to suggest how the bombardment was experienced by the men within the castle, as well as talk about how they were prepared to meet the onslaught. This is all in the future, however, and for now I am immersed in the technical analysis of each of the artefacts.

So, this is how I am spending my Day of Archaeology, 29th July 2011! Every object I am handling was deposited over a handful of days 358 years ago, in what must have been an extremely dramatic and traumatic event in the lives of all those who were present. For some these objects represent their final moments.  It is an honour and privilege to deal with these artefacts, as by doing so you are literally ‘touching history’; the results of the analysis itself helps bring this history to life. It is certainly one of the most fascinating ways to spend a day that I can think of!