The 2004 Season

The tenth excavation season took place at Fetternear in July 2004 and it was reported in The Guardian newspaper, whose reporter observed that we hit ‘a rich vein of medieval history’. Our team continued to make good progress in establishing the phasing of this very complex site. This work has caused us to modify some of the interpretations proposed in the reports on previous seasons’ fieldwork.

Figure 1 The substantial north-south trending wall built against an early medieval wall, viewed from the east.  

Figure 1 The substantial north-south trending wall built against an early medieval wall, viewed from the east. We established that the extension to the north(on the right of the picture) is late medieval, but the extension to the south (with the dark grey stones) dates from the 19th century. Photograph: © SEPP

A study of archive material and work conducted in previous excavation seasons provided evidence for sections of a ditch or moat which formerly surrounded the medieval bishop’s palace.This evidence related to the rear of the mansion and it was based on a 19th-century sketch plan which has survived in the National Library, Edinburgh. The plan was annotated, indicating that the moat was 18 feet wide and 9 feet deep.

Limited excavation in the 2000 season in an area immediately behind the towerhouse confirmed its presence, its east-west alignment and that it turned southwards at its eastern end. Further exploration in 2004 of the main excavation area to the south of the mansion in the presumed continuation of this ditch was located aligned approximately north-south. It is now clear that this major feature existed in one form or another from the later 14th to the 18th century. Much of it was filled with building rubble, probably in the 18th and 19th centuries, when parts of the mansion were demolished.

This fill also contained 17th-century pottery, including sherds from a North Italian marbled lion head costrel. A costrel is a flask with handles which enabled the wearer to suspend it from his or her belt. This example was the first to be identified from a Scottish context by the pottery specialist George Haggarty. Because costrels were associated with travellers or pilgrims, it is likely that it was collected by one of the members of the Leslie family, William Aloysius Leslie (1641-1704), whose career with the Society of Jesus took him to northern Italy and Rome. He seems to have encouraged his brother, Count Patrick Leslie, and his sister-in-law, Mary Irvine of Drum (, to purchase items with a particular Roman Catholic significance for Fetternear when it served as a centre of Catholic recusancy from the late 17th to the early 18th century.

Furthermore, we have evidence that the moat was not entirely backfilled in the eighteenth century, for there was also a groat of Robert III in the fill, which was probably deposited in the first quarter of the 15th century (identified by Donal Bateson), showing that this part of the ditch had been filled in the medieval period.

It has also been proved that the succession of ditch cuts, which were more or less on the one alignment, trending approximately north-south, predated and also were contemporary with a substantial wall immediately to the west.

This feature was built against an earlier medieval wall and it is likely to have been constructed in the later 14th century on the basis of pottery contained in the underlying deposit. It may represent a perimeter wall or the eastern wall of the east range of the bishop’s palace.

In the report on the 1998 season we suggested that there were two ‘undercrofts’ forming part of this range of the medieval bishop’s palace and a latrine shaft, which was blocked and another inserted when the southern end of the north-south trending wall was widened. However, we have now established that the walling and the latrine shaft includes extensive 19th-century reconstruction because late nineteenth century drains run underneath this feature.

Figure 2 The North-Italian marbled lion-headed costrel.  Photograph: SEPP 

Figure 2 The North-Italian marbled lion-headed costrel.  Photograph: © SEPP

The Leslies of Balquhain constructed a towerhouse, probably in the 1570s, after their acquisition of the estate. The later 14th-century wall was cut down to support a less substantial replacement. This new structure formed a wing containing at least two rooms running north-south from the towerhouse. It is of a similar width to the chamber above the gatehouse at Tolquhon Castle. This year further walling became evident beneath the cobbled area immediately in front of the mansion. Finds included pig and fish bones and, on the basis of the parts present, we suggest this area is likely to have contained the servants’ quarters.

We 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, The Russell Trust, Fetternear Trust, University of Liverpool, R.B. Farquhar, Clan Irwin Association, private donors.