Exploring Medieval Elgin with Dr John Barrett

Sunday 21st and 28th January, and Sunday,4th February

This walk proved exceptionally popular, so much that we had to organise three walks rather than one. The Field Club is extremely grateful to Dr John Barrett and his colleague Christine Clerk, for devoting three Sunday afternoons in a row to leading us around Elgin and identifying the clues to the town’s medieval past. Altogether about 50 people enjoyed these walks, undeterred by the weather. Responding to an announcement in Spotlight magazine, we were accompanied by several non-members, some of whom subsequently decided to join, so it was very good publicity for the Club. In the event we were lucky with the weather – it was windy at times, but never very wet or icy.

The walks began at the top of Ladyhill, where John explained the background history to the foundation of the medieval burghs of Moray, by King David 1, the key date being 1150. Prior to this there were no towns in the area. Ladyhill is the site of Elgin Castle, although the stone ruins we see today date from a later period. The original castle would have been built of wood on a man-made motte, surmounting the natural hill. The bailey lay to the south covering the area occupied by the post office buildings today. The town lay beyond the precincts of the castle, which was a centre of administration.

The walk continued down the path to Hill Street and the river, noting the site on the opposite bank of Blackfriars monastery, of which no physical trace remains. The monks would have blessed travellers entering and leaving the burgh in return for a fee. After crossing the A96 we assembled near the Wolf of Badenoch statue, where John explained how the Burgh was carefully planned on either side of the High Street, with 96 plots in total, 48 on each side, all exactly the same width and length. If you look closely you can still see traces of this plan,although Elgin has been rebuilt and remodelled many times since the 12th century. The dwelling all faced east with doors opening onto their own close, with the blank rear wall of the neighbour’s property facing them. At the back of each property was a nine inch strip to collect the rainwater from the roof. The plots were probably measured out by plough, which would account for the curve towards the end of each plt as the ploughman prepared to turn his ox team. We explored several of these closes which stretch back as far as the main road to the north and to South St on the other side. Beyond south St was arable land for th plot holders to grow crops, mainly barley and peas. The High Street was the market place, and all trading took place in the street during this period – there were no shops. The town boundary began at the West Port, at the western end of today’s High St, and ended at today’s Commerce St and the East Port. Beyond the East Port was another monastery – Greyfriars, which still exists today.The town expanded eastwards during the 13th century and the reign of Alexander II.

Our final stop was at the east end of St Giles’s Church, which stands on the site of a medieval church, and probably a much older chapel. The surrounding Plainstones cover the site of a medieval graveyard. John’s theory is that after Duncan, King of Scots, was slain by Macbeth, his remains were buried on this site, rather than being taken to Iona.
Any mistakes in this report are mine, not John’s !

Sara Marsh, 5/02/24

Posted in Outdoor Event.