St Andrews’ 12th century tolbooth unearthed

Archaeologists at work on the St Andrews excavation.
Archaeologists at work on the St Andrews excavation.

The remains of the oldest town council building in Scotland have been uncovered in St Andrews town centre.

Dating from the first half of the 12th century, the significant discovery of what is believed to be the earliest phase of the structure serving as a centre of local burgh administration, justice and ceremony - the tolbooth - has been found in Market Street during the current £1.5 million upgrading programme.

Archaeologist Douglas Speirs said that the remains are the earliest upstanding municipal or civic architectural fabric in Scotland.

Because of the historic significance and sensitivity of St Andrews, planning consent for the roadworks carried a condition requiring all work to be archaeologically monitored. A number of interesting finds and observations have been made as part of the monitoring but, most important, has been the unearthing of the site of the burgh’s former tolbooth.

Pioneering low altitude, high-resolution vertical aerial photography was used to record the fragmentary remains showing the site and layout of the country’s first tolbooth.

Built around 1140 as the headquarters of the town council, the tolbooth or praetorium was the office from which the provost and baillies organised the running of the newly-created burgh.

Tolbooths were later to become commonplace throughout Scotland, but the archaeological deposits, supported by medieval charter evidence, suggest that the remains uncovered in St Andrews date to the 12th century.

Mr Speirs, who is Fife Council’s archaeologist and is overseeing the project, said that experts were aware of the tolbooth’s existence thanks to evidence from as early as 1144. The original tolbooth was rebuilt in the 16th century after a royal proclamation ruled townhouses must also include jails, and this building stood in the centre of Market Street until it was demolished in 1862.

The remains uncovered don’t fit the footprint of the 16th century rebuild, however, and so must be part of the original building.

Detailed interpretation of the site has proven difficult, but with the services of local company, Edward Martin Photography, new technology has been used to overcome the problems caused by modern disturbance to the site.

For the first time in Scottish urban archaeology, a small GPS-guided drone was used to photograph the site from the air, a process which drew large crowds of onlookers. Specifically developed for low altitude aerial photography the remotely operated micro-kopter was flown over the site and the pictures taken stitched together to form a composite, fully rectified image map of the site.

Mr Speirs said: ”The opportunities offered by this technology represent a truly radical leap forward in archaeological surveying. Not only does it reveal detail near impossible to identify on the ground, but the nature and speed of the operation makes it ideal for work on development sites where access is difficult and time constraints are paramount.

“This technique will undoubtedly revolutionise the practice of commercial archaeology and I expect that surveying drones hovering over urban building sites will become a common sight in the years to come.”

Using the aerial surveying technique has enabled the archaeology on the site to be identified, recorded and excavated significantly faster than traditional methods meaning no hold up to the development timetable.

Excavations are continuing on site and it is hoped that radiocarbon dates from the samples so far taken may add even greater interest to the site, shedding new light on the earliest origins and evolution of St Andrews and inform a debate that has run for years.

Mr Speirs added: “It’s hard to be sure before we get the carbon dates back, but it’s entirely possible that the deposits underlying the tolbooth may yet prove to be some of the earliest evidence of a town in Scotland.”

Market Street is the site of several historic markings, including The Tron, The Old Townhouse footprint and the Mercat Cross.