A report has been received outlining the results of archaeological monitoring conducted by staff from rathmell Archaeology Ltd during the development of four new houses at Castlehill, New Cumnock. These houses were erected on the site of the former Arthur Memorial United Reform Church, which was constructed between 1912 and 1913 over the demolished remains of a previous Free Church building built between 1843 and 1845. However, the trigger for the archaeological work was that these churches occupied the site of New Cumnock Castle, and according to local tradition, the ruinous 17th century church and graveyard on the opposite side of the road had been constructed using stone taken from the castle.
New Cumnock Castle was first mentioned at the start of the 14th century, when it was the seat of the Earls of Dunbar, though its origins are likely to be earlier. The castle is mentioned several times in Blind Harry's "Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace" and the castle was briefly home to Edward II in 1307 when he brought his army to Scotland in pursuit of Robert the Bruce. The original castle is thought to have been a motte and bailey construction, though it is possible that there had been a settlement on the site before any castle was built. It is probable that the original structure would have been made of wood and situated on the summit of a knoll. The site of the castle is significant in the wider geography of the area. It was situated on an isolated piece of raised ground approximate to the confluence of the River Nith and the Afton Water and to the west; there are extensive areas of marshy ground. The situation of the castle would have been naturally defensive while lying across the natural north to south communication route formed through the Southern Uplands by the River Nith. It is probable that subsequent structures on the site were of stone construction, as by 1580 the castle was described as being ruinous. There may have been a rebuild or repair about 1650, and there were still considerable upstanding remains at the end of the 18th century.
Although there are no original upstanding remains at New Cumnock Castle today, the partially landscaped remains of the moat are still visible in the garden of the old manse to the immediate northwest of the development area. Both the 1st and 2nd edition Ordnance Survey maps for New Cumnock show the moat surviving on the western, northern and eastern sides of the church building, and it is likely that Castlehill itself may run along the southern side of the moat circuit. The 1st edition Ordnance Survey map showed the the moat still extant to the south-east side of the Free Church during the mid 19th century, but by the second edition map, the moat on this side of the church appears to have been filled in.
As a first phase, an archaeological evaluation was carried out in February and March 2015. This comprised the excavation of seven intrusive trenches, situated within the footprint and grounds of the Arthur Memorial United Reform Church. The investigation revealed a linear concentration of stone and clay within the footprint of the church, which was thought to be the possible remains of a foundation wall for the castle. A large ditch was also identified within the grounds of the church; this corresponded to the historical map evidence for the castle's moat.
As the initial evaluation had demonstrated the survival of significant archaeological deposits within the development area, a second phase of archaeological work was required, involving monitoring during ground-reduction within the four plots. This indicated that the concentration of stone and clay identified during the initial evaluation were in fact associated with the 19th century church that is known to have occupied the site, rather than being in situ structural remains of the castle; however, the substantial size of some of the boulders suggests that they could have represented the demolished stonework of the castle ruins, re-used as a platform prior to the construction of the Free Church. The evidence seems to suggest that any structural remains of the castle may have been demolished to make way for the construction of the Free Church between 1843 and 1845
However, monitoring confirmed the presence of the moat in the area to the east of the former church; this survived in the form of a band of grey/blue clay. These deposits appeared to be the upper fill of the moat, which had been sealed prior to further construction works in the area. Evidence of the moat within the areas to the north-east and north is still extant, as the topography is still visible within surrounding gardens of houses, having not yet been fully filled in and landscaped. In order to ensure the continued survival of this feature, the foundations of the houses were redesigned to minimise the amount of ground disturbance required for their construction.