The 2000 Season

The July/August 2000 period of fieldwork was the sixth season of excavation at Fetternear, Aberdeenshire (NJ 723170). Our team investigated further a medieval residential range of the Bishop's Palace running grid north-south.

Its most southerly undercroft had been tentatively identified as the bishop's 'pit' or prison in 1998. This year we excavated a second undercroft, immediately to the north of the first one. It contained deposits rich in glazed medieval roof tiles, and a remnant of a wooden pad instead of the cobbled floor, which is still in situ in the 'pit'. A wall 1.80m wide consisting of at least two phases runs grid north-south below the second undercroft; up to four courses have survived and it latterly served to divide the space within the undercroft.

Coat of arms of Alexander de Kininmund I. 
Window in St John's Church, Fetternear.
Photograph: SEPP

Coat of arms of Alexander de Kininmund I. Window in St John's Church, Fetternear.
Photograph: © SEPP

The undercrofts form part of the residential quarters of the medieval Bishop's Palace to judge from the presence of two latrine shafts. Both the east and west walls of the range consist of more than phase, being originally more slight in construction and then being widened, presumably to support at least one extra storey. In their final form, these walls measure up to 2.6m in width.

In a new trench (Trench H) opened immediately to the west of the main excavation area, the continuation of a ghost wall running at right angles to the residential block was excavated. It was found to have been reused for the installation of a nineteenth century ceramic drain pipe. South of the ghost wall a section of wall and an internal medieval cobbled floor were uncovered. Deposits rich in medieval finds were also encountered north of the ghost wall, below the level of the 1690s cobbling in front of the ruined mansion, which was developed by incorporating parts of the Bishop's Palace and the towerhouse that had been erected in the sixteenth century to complement already existing medieval structures.

Documentary evidence in the form of a nineteenth century plan of the mansion indicated that a 'ditch or moat' had been uncovered when the Regency and Victorian extensions to the mansion were constructed (National Library of Scotland BCL.C60). We began to excavate Trench J immediately behind the sixteenth century towerhouse. In it we encountered the uppermost part of a ditch cut into the natural, running at an angle that would take it underneath the tower that once lay at the northern end of the medieval block with the undercrofts. We intend to explore this ditch in future seasons as it appears to predate the thirteenth-fourteenth century phases of the Bishop's Palace and it may belong to an earlier ringwork (cf Bishop's Palace, Glasgow).

The Bishop's Palace was constructed on gently sloping terrain that apparently lacks defensive characteristics. However we have discovered that the palace was equipped with certain features that were probably of a defensive nature. We date the thickening of the walls and the development of the palace into a courtyard plan to the 1330s, when Bishop Alexander de Kininmund I was reported as rebuilding the palace. As a clerk in the employment of the Bishop of St Andrews, he had been one of a select group of men who took the Declaration of Arbroath to Pope John XXII in Avignon in 1320.

He spent several periods in Avignon at a time when the Pope was converting the former Bishop's Palace there into a papal palace around an irregularly shaped courtyard. Fetternear had a much more regular plan and this may be due to the alignments of the already existing structures on the site, as witnessed by the wall that we encountered at the bottom of the second undercroft this year. In Scotland there was already a tradition for building courtyard castles with corner towers at Old Caerlaverock. The earliest phases at Fyvie were ranged round a courtyard.

It should be remembered that Bishop Kininmund rebuilt his palace at Fetternear during the Second War of Independence with England, hence the need for massively thick walls that were defensive in character. As an experienced diplomat, he also was surely concerned to construct for himself and his household a magnificent building that also catered for growing perceptions concerning status.

At first the 19th-century plan of the ditch suggested to us that its alignment would have provided further defence for Kininmund's palace. Now that we have begun to excavate the ditch, it would seem that it belongs to an earlier ringwork. This would imply that the site already had a defensive character when Kininmund redeveloped the palace.

Finally, the survival of two externally splayed gun loops, of a type that was current in Scotland for a century from the 1520s, suggests that the palace was equipped with defensive features in the sixteenth century, before the estate passed to the Leslies of Balquhain and the building of the towerhouse. These gun loops have survived because they were reused in two upper storey windows at the rear of the towerhouse. They were presumably placed there in an attempt to protect the building from attack when the Covenanters besieged it in the 1640s.

Our team has also been extending previous resistivity surveys in an attempt to define the outermost limits of the site. A series of anomalies were detected in the field immediately north of the mansion. During this year's season two trenches (L and M) were opened up in this field. The rounded end of a structure 4m wide was uncovered in Trench L. If this was the remains of a house, the walls were of a turf construction, to judge from the size of the stones. A long linear feature that has the character of a field boundary seems to form the southern wall of the structure.

In the initial stages of excavation, it seemed to have a superficial resemblance to the footings of a Pitcarmick-type house (a term derived from Pitcarmick in Perthshire). To date we have uncovered the uppermost part of the structure rather than excavate it, and there is as yet no evidence for dating. It is possible that it was one of a series of structures occupying the high ground above the Marshes Burn.

We have been exploring the hypothesis that there may have been already in existence some buildings occupying this high ground when the antecedents of the Bishop's palace were built. This would help explain why it was built on the sloping terrain closer to the burn, apparently on less suitable ground for such a large building than on the higher ground with bedrock close to the surface as evidenced by the opening of Trench L.

A series of pits cut into natural rock were encountered in Trench M. At present they are best interpreted as the result of quarrying.

With the participation of a Dutch group of volunteers (the Werkgroep Archeologie "Philips van Horne"), local volunteers and archaeology students we were able to accomplish considerably more than the normal scope of our season's work. We are very grateful for the excellent team spirit of all who contributed to the work and for helping to make our 2000 season such a resounding success, despite (or perhaps because of) the challenges in interpretation that the site of Fetternear continues to offer us.

The project directors wish to thank Mrs C Whittall, Mr J Whittall, Mrs C Fyffe, Mr R Fyffe and Mr D Fyffe for their support and for allowing access to the site.


Aberdeenshire Council, British Academy, BP Amoco Exploration, Deeside Field Club, The Hunter Archaeological Trust, Miller Plant Hire, Royal Archaeological Institute, The Russell Trust, Werkgroep Archeologie "Philips van Horne", Cannich Archaeological Services and the Scottish Castle Survey.