Over the last three months, staff from Rathmell Archaeology Ltd have been undertaking a programme of archaeological work designed to look for evidence of the medieval origins of Newton Mearns. This is being carried out on behalf of the Council, in relation to a proposal to construction two new primary schools on the southern side of Waterfoot Road. The ground on which the new schools would be constructed lies around 230m to the south of Mearns Castle. The present 15th century tower-house was built by Lord Maxwell, and was converted for church use in the late 1960s, with a new church being constructed newst to it in the early 1970s. It occupies the site of an earlier castle, constructed by Roland de Mearns. In his book 'Old days and ways in Newton Mearns', Scott recorded that in the latter part of the 13th century, this castle and its associated village were refereed to as 'Aldton', i.e. the Auld Town, which was later replaced by the 'New Town of Mearns', or Newton Mearns.
Scott recorded that the location of this village was definitely known, and that it stood to the east of the present castle. However, comparison with the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map of the mid 19th century also showed the presence of a farmstead named Alton, located within the area that would be affected by construction of the new schools. Although the buildings shown on the 1st edition were largely removed during the course of the 20th century, the fragmentary remains of the buildings remained visible. These were previously surveyed by members of the Association of Certificated Field Archaeologists in 2001. Although this indicated that the modern road re-alignement had encroached on the north-west corner of the site, the visible remains of several of the structures shown on the 1st edition were still discernable, while the similarity of the place-name suggested that there was the potential for material relating to the medieval village to survive below the current ground level.
When details of the current proposal were sent to the West of Scotland Archaeology Service by the planning department of East renfrewshire Council, we therefore advised them to appoint an archaeological contractor to undertake a programme of work to explore the possibility that material associated with medieval occupation could be present within the site. This began with an initial survey of the upstanding remains, followed by monitoring of engineering trial pits and boreholes, both within the confines of the former steading and across the wider area. There was then a specific programme of archaeological evaluation trenching - again, some of the trenches were placed in the vicinity of the visible remains, to explore the extent to which these survived, while others were placed in adjacent fields that would also be affected by construction of the proposed new school, to investigate whether there was evidence for previous occupation beyond the visible remains. Although this confirmed the survival of several of the structures shown on the 1st edition map, it did not identify any material that suggested the site had been occupied during the medieval period.
Given the potential significance of a medieval village, it was nevertheless felt that there was still some potential for the site to produce important archaeological material, so the evaluation was followed by a phase of open-area excavation. This involved the removal of topsoil from the ground surrounding the former settlement, a process that revealed that three of the buildings shown on the 1st edition survived to several courses in height, with traces of some of the others that are known from cartographic sources to have been present. Of the buildings that do survive, two contain what appear to be blocked-up fireplaces, which would suggest that they were occupied by people rather than animals or having been used for storage, but beyond this it was not really possible to ascribe specific functions to individual rooms. For two of the buildings, the floor levels have largely gone, with only fragments of a flagstone surface remaining in places, while in the third building, the floors are composed of a mix of flagstones and concrete.
In terms of the artefacts recovered from the site, this will be catalogued in detail in the resultant report, but in general terms, the assemblage displays a peak in material of mid to late 19th century or early 20th century date, which is perhaps not unexpected given that cartographic sources indicate that the farm was occupied during this period. A few fragments of late 18th century pottery have also been recovered, along with a couple of pieces of post-medieval reduced ware, a type of fabric that remained in use until the early 1800s. No medieval pottery has been found, and indeed the pottery appears to have generally come from a mixed deposit apparently resulting from the demolition of the building. It includes fragments from a range of vessels, including plates, teacups and creaming dishes, as well as a fragment of a 19th-century ceramic marmalade jar - basically, it appears to represent the type of material that you'd expect to find in a 19th century domestic building that had been demolished in place, with the demolition material then being spread across the site.
Both the structures and artefacts recovered from the site appear to represent the remains of an improvement-period steading of apparently late 18th or early 19th century date. There has been no evidence of earlier structural remains on the site, potentially suggesting that the medieval settlement of Aldton was located elsewhere. Although the place-name of the farm shown on the 1st edition would suggest that it represented the core of the medieval village associated with the Castle, the results of the fieldwork suggest that it was not located in the area that would be affected by construction of the proposed new schools. This is perhaps supported with reference to Roy's Military Survey of Scotland, conducted in the mid 18th century, which did not show the presence of a farmstead on the southern side of what would later become Waterfoot Road. It is possible, for example that the improvement-period farmstead may have been constructed on lands formerly associated with the medieval settlement of Aldton, and took its name from these lands.
Although the results of the archaeological fieldwork to date indicate that the buildings within the development area appear to represent an improvement-period steading, with no evidence that they overlie an earlier medieval settlement, Rathmell have carried out a detailed programme to record them for posterity