For years and years I wondered the exact meaning of the word serendipity – it seemed such an odd word and as is so often the case, quite a lot of folk, including myself, tended to use it without really understanding what it was all about.
Then I looked it up on the box and came up with the news it just means a pleasant surprise or happy accident. Armed with that wee gem of knowledge, I stored my new word away, ready for the day when I could trot it out and appear a bit brighter than I actually am. Fat chance of that.
But here we go then, at last an instance of serendipity that fits exactly. Just when we thought there was no other news than the seemingly-eternal saga of fraudulent horsemeat, along came something to break the cycle – a pleasant surprise or what?
Yep, we learnt this week that Selkirk, or at least a fringe part of it, has a hidden medieval village neatly tucked under the grass of a meadow. And by a feat of textbook serendipity it happens to be perfectly placed adjacent to some existing touristy bits. As yet there is little information about this settlement – it was only uncovered a couple of months ago, so investigations will be at an early stage.
Those of us familiar with the visual Mogadon of endless Time Team repeats might be conned into believing all archaeology can be accomplished in three days with a couple of diggers, several pretty girls and a collection of experts who can instantly tell you if the fragment of earthenware in your hand is a part of a Iron Age chanty or the last remains of an ashtray from the Cross Keys. Of one thing I am sure, your chances of finding buried treasure at this Philiphaugh site are on a par with being bitten by a daffodil.
It might be the case the whole discovery was maintained as a well-kept secret until the archaeologists had finished their investigation – a wise move given the numbers of people who own metal detectors these days. Not all detectorists are blessed with a sense of fair play and a few of them are a bit iffy when it comes to declaring their finds.
In any case finds of the kind we are discussing are not likely to produce any goodies other than knowledge, so going the secret route is not too promising. But it does pose some really interesting questions.
For various reasons not all previous areas of human settlement have survived to this day, and indeed there are a few that have quite literally vanished. During olden times when plague stalked the land, some places were quite literally abandoned as the survivors attempted, not always successfully, to leave the bugs behind by flitting away a distance thought to be safe.
In the aftermath of the Black Death there was an acute shortage of people to work the land – such people had previously been more or less the property of the landowner and obliged to literally pay for their existence by free manual labour.
Those who survived the plague soon realised their labour was worth something more than the privilege to exist and if decent wages were not forthcoming, they would vote with their feet to places where a better living could be had – perchance swelling the population of Selkirk itself.
You have to look hard to find a better example of market forces at work. It pays to keep in mind there were not many of them in the first place. Life expectancy was short and infant mortality such as to make producing a yearly bairn essential if enough were to survive to keep Ma and Pa in the brief twilight of their latter years.
The village itself seems to have been located in a sensible place, given the living standards of medieval Scotland. There’s a sporting chance the run of the Yarrow Water would have been close enough to operate a mill, catch the odd fish and, of course, offer a constant water supply.
Some things never change, so the river would also serve as a rubbish disposal system, so, all in all, it was as nice place to live as anywhere else. A nice flat alluvial flood plain would offer the best agriculturally, and for miles around, but with drawbacks, as we shall see.
But none of that offers much information as to why the village vanished. The fact that it was found under a layer of soil suggests the real explanation might have been constant flooding caused by climate change of some kind.
If you want a long shot, it might be a change in feudal overlordship brought about by the eviction of one faction in favour of another who declined to take over the existing housing/workforce stock.
It will be interesting to discover the true facts of the village at some stage, maybe starting with the name of the place. From the dawn of time every place gets a name and it seems unlikely this village missed out on the naming trick, and before you ask it was probably not Bannerfield.
I am blessed with clever pals, one of them sent me links to a site containing some very interesting aerial photographs of the Philiphaugh area. The crop marks shown in the pictures indicate a thriving population on that site in long-ago times and worthy of a good old dig, sometimes to see just exactly what is there.
However, before phoning Tony Robinson and his lot, it might pay to keep in mind the small detail that around here there are not many places where massive amounts of history are not just under the surface of the ground – and the biggest problem might not be knowing where to dig, but how much digging is practicable as a matter of scale. At a time when the big talk is about fracking and exploiting the riches of the Earth for gain, it might well be a good idea to spare a little time to consider our true wealth, which is our past.
I am nobody’s idea of an archaeologist at any level, my reason for writing about the Philiphaugh village find is not a matter of study or intellectual preening – I am just incurably nosy about the past.
Given time and a little bit of money, there is a strong chance a fascinating extension of known Selkirk history can be obtained that will tell us more about the factors which played a big part in making this town what it is today.
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Weather for Selkirk
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: South west
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west