Twelfth-century tollbooth building discovered in Scotland

Pioneering low altitude, hi-resolution vertical aerial photography has just been used to record what is believed to be the earliest upstanding architectural fabric of a Scottish municipal building.

Uncovered as part of a Fife Council project to regenerate Market Street in St Andrews, the fragmentary remains reveal the site and layout of Scotland’s first tollbooth.

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

Tollbooths were later to become commonplace throughout the burghs of Scotland, but the archaeological deposits, supported by medieval charter evidence, suggest that the remains uncovered in St Andrews date to the first half of the 12th century – making them the earliest upstanding remains of a council building in Scotland.

Archaeologists were aware of the tollbooth’s existence in this location thanks to evidence from as early as 1144. The original tollbooth was rebuilt in the 16th century after a royal proclamation ruled town houses must also include jails, and this building stood in the centre of Market Street until it was demolished in the 1860s. The remains uncovered in Market Street last week don’t fit the footprint of the 16th century rebuild, however, and so must be part of the original 12th century 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 has been used to photograph the site from the air. Specifically developed for low altitude, high resolution vertical aerial photography the remotely operated drone or micro-kopter has been flown over the site and the pictures taken stitched together to form a composite, fully rectified image map of the site.

Douglas Speirs, Fife Council’s archaeologist overseeing the project, said, “The opportunities offered by micro-Kopter 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 archaeological methods meaning no hold up to the development time-table.

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.

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 tollbooth may yet prove to be some of the earliest evidence of a town in Scotland.”

Archaeological monitoring will continue for the duration of the regeneration project.

Market Street is one of St Andrews’ busiest shopping streets and the site of several historic markings, including The Tron, The Old Townhouse footprint and the Mercat Cross. It is being redesigned to reduce congestion on the road and footpaths and bring the street’s surfaces up to the same high standard as the rest of the town.

The £1.5million project to regenerate the street started last September and is expected to be complete by November. The project includes upgrading the existing footpaths, road surface, street furniture and lighting. New trees and cycle racks are being installed along with discreet pop-up power supplies for use by markets and during events like the Lammas Fair. The materials being used are top quality, in keeping with the original street design, but are more hard-wearing under heavy traffic.

Source: Fife Council

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