Sound Foundations: Archaeology in Scotland's Towns and Cities and the Role of the Scottish Burgh Survey

By Owen, Olwyn | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Sound Foundations: Archaeology in Scotland's Towns and Cities and the Role of the Scottish Burgh Survey


Owen, Olwyn, Antiquity


We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.

T.S. ELIOT

Introduction

Think of Scotland. The chances are that what springs to mind is a picture of mountains, lochs, glens and coasts--an outstanding natural heritage which uplifts the spirit and overflows the pages of the tourist brochures. Paradoxically, though, modern Scotland has an urban heart, with its people, the lifeblood of its economy and its cultural centres all concentrated in the towns and cities. Scotland is fortunate in the quantity and quality of its historic towns, with a preponderance of small and medium-sized towns, many of which escaped the insensitive 1960s and 1970s redevelopment so eloquently lamented elsewhere. Even Scotland's cities are small by English standards; the population of Glasgow, our largest city, was about 650,000 in the 1991 census, and Dundee, the smallest (before Inverness's elevation), only about 165,000. Today some 80% of the total population of around 5,000,000 live and work in towns and cities. This fact alone signals the importance of towns in engaging the interest of the public in the historic environment. For the trend to urbanization may have accelerated massively in the last 200 years, but it is not a recent phenomenon: almost all of Scotland's towns and cities are, literally and metaphorically, built on the past.

Scotland's towns generally have a shorter history than those in England. Here, urbanism--that fundamental shift in the nature of human settlement--began to emerge only in early medieval times, flourished from the reign of King David I (1124-53), multiplied through the succeeding centuries, and came to dominate after the Industrial Revolution. A total of 482 Scottish burghs is recorded before 1846 (Pryde 1965), of which at least 145 are medieval foundations, 81 of them Royal Burghs.

At the root of Scotland's towns was a simple impetus: the age-old human preoccupation with security and economic betterment, from which could flow power, wealth and innovation. Today the words may be different--viability and vitality, renewal and regeneration, community empowerment and inclusion, sustainability--but the motors of change are not so dissimilar. Sustainability is the zeitgeist, stressing the need to use resources wisely, so that we can pass on enough to succeeding generations to satisfy their needs. Given the multiple demands of modern urban life and governance, the urban historic environment has sometimes struggled for attention in the wider environmental agenda; but sustaining the heritage of towns and cities is also about using resources wisely. At heart, it is about the careful recycling of urban land and buildings; it is about managing change to enhance, rather than diminish, the character of towns.

Towns have always had to change and adapt to remain vital and viable, and past changes and adaptations are written into our townscapes and lie beneath the streets and within the fabric of the buildings which host our daily business. This is why a town's visual and historic qualities can satisfy part of society's need for cultural and physical roots. Understanding and appreciating the urban historic environment, therefore, is not only of passing interest, but also about the present character and shape of towns, their intrinsic qualities and the differences between them. It is also about the future, for the decisions made today will be our legacy to succeeding generations of town-dwellers.

The prerequisite of good decision-making is a sound information base--a message driven home recently in Scotland's National Planning Policy Guideline (NPPG) 18 on Planning and the Historic Environment (Scottish Office 1999), NPPG 5 on Archaeology and Planning (Scottish Office 1994a) (Scotland's version of the English PPG 16) and its accompanying Planning Advice Note (PAN) 42 (Scottish Office 1994b).

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