In search of bastles in Northumbria

In search of bastles in Northumbria

This week I joined the CDP’s Historic Environment residential field school in Bellingham, Northumbria, to understand how a particular monument type: medieval bastles (pronounced like castle, with a “b”), or fortified farmhouses, are currently being investigated by Historic England’s Assessment Team.

Bastles emerged during a period of instability in the Border region between England and Scotland in the 16th century, when warring families and clans, known as the Border Reivers, raided surrounding farms and holdings, stealing livestock, goods and kidnapping people for ransom. Massively fortified (with walls of over 1m thick), bastles were used to hastily keep livestock on the ground floor, when an incoming attack was known. The residents would then barricade the ground floor door before climbing up a ladder to the safety of the difficult to reach upper floor, which was used as the occupiers’ living space.

We visited bastles in a variety of different conditions. Some were modified when defence became less of a priority, following the Union of the Crowns, and stairs added to make access to the living quarters easier, like at Black Middens.

More information on Black Middens bastle, which we visited, can be found on English Heritage’s website:

Others lie in ruin in varying levels of preservation and consolidation, whilst others have been adapted into storage buildings, reconstructed, and even turned into B&Bs and modern accommodation. All of these pose interesting challenges to the management, presentation and conservation of these historic sites, and it will be interesting to see how such issues are discussed when Historic England publishes the results of its new study into these intriguing monuments.

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Whilst they’re of a different period to the focus of my research, its interesting that both bastles and brochs have similarities in being fortified homes, built of stone and with very similar door designs. The haar-hung wooden doors of bastles are very similar to descriptions of those found in the entrance ways of brochs, and both feature sockets hollowed out of the stone sides of the walls to insert draw bars, to keep invaders out, so it was great to see a reconstructed version of an original bastle door! More investigation is definitely needed…


Surveying the early medieval structure of the Parish Church of St. Mary, Holy Island

Surveying the early medieval structure of the Parish Church of St. Mary, Holy Island

Last week I travelled to Holy Island to record an early medieval wall within the Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin (cover image). Situated next to Lindisfarne Priory, the  current church is stated to be largely 12th century in date, however Medieval Archaeologist Peter Ryder believes the fabric of the present walls could feature earlier building material. The present church stands on the site of a church built by St Aidan in the 7th century, followed by a small stone church (. By laser scanning the church interior with the help of Peter and Minnie Fraser, of Northumbria University, I will generate orthophotos that will help Peter to analyse the stonework of the church in great detail, so he can investigate this further.

Peter and Minnie with the FARO laser scanner, outside the church.

Many thanks to Peter and Minnie for organising the visit and helping with the survey, and for a very informative stroll around the island, discussing the history of some of its buildings and structures before the tides came back in!


Sunny skies on Lindisfarne.
Cairns built by visitors to the island, at its southern tip, looking out to sea.


Laser scanning Corgarff Castle, Aberdeenshire

Laser scanning Corgarff Castle, Aberdeenshire

Corgarff Castle is the former noble residence of the Forbes clan, and during the Jacobite Rebellion, it was used as an army base by Redcoats. It sits in a dramatically isolated location in rural Aberdeenshire (see cover image for views from its doorway!). It has a distinctive star-shaped perimeter wall, and as part of Historic Environment Scotland’s Rae project, the entirety of the Castle’s interior and exterior was laser scanned over two days.


I helped out on the second day of scanning, working with HES’ team of Mike Jack and Sofia Antonopoulou, to fill in areas where more detail was needed using the Leica HDS 6100 laser scanner.


I also used a Nodal Ninja (right) to take overlapping photographs that can be digitally stitched into a 360⁰ image. The one I used was specially calibrated to be complementary with the Leica 6100 laser scanner, so the high definition imagery can be overlain onto the scans generated in the same position.

I greatly enjoyed taking views of the surrounding countryside, and watching the Castle’s current residents (nesting families of swallows), swoop around while we continued with our survey.


Me and Sofia using the Leica C10 laser scanner to record the perimeter walls


Laser scanning Spynie Palace, Moray

Laser scanning Spynie Palace, Moray

On Wednesday, the dramatic weather in the north of Scotland forced us to delay the start of our fieldwork, as a very loud thunderstorm drifted overhead very soon after we’d set up the tripods! Luckily we heard the rumbles of thunder before it arrived.

The downpours led to me going down into the Palace’s basement to laser scan its interior using a Leica HDS 6100. It was only after I’d finished taking all the scans that the team cared to mention they thought the basement is haunted (though I didn’t see any spooky goings on while there… it was actually refreshingly cool compared to the humidity outside following the lightning)!

One of the spooky basement cells being scanned with the Leica 6100 (the bag wrapped on the tripod is a rain cover)

Luckily the weather improved over the day, so I went on to scan the courtyard area of the Palace, before helping James to complete his traverse around the exterior walls of the site. As the afternoon went on, the weather turned out to be glorious, and we ended the day with a scan taken from the very top of David’s Tower,the largest tower house to survive in Scotland (see image below). It’s on a publically accessible walkway, which gives amazing views  down into the courtyard and surrounding area (cover image). From up there, you can also see the remains of Spynie Loch from the wall tops – once a great lake that went all the way up to the edge of the Palace estate, which has silted up over time.

Leica HDS 6100 scanning around David’s Tower, Spynie Palace

It’s a very impressive site and well worth a visit! More information on the palace can be found here:

Laser scanning Fortrose Cathedral

Laser scanning Fortrose Cathedral

Fortrose Cathedral was originally the seat of the bishops of Ross. The current ruins date back to the 13th century, and only the south aisle and chapel and the older, two-storey north choir aisle currently survive standing to the present day. I travelled to the site from Edinburgh with James Hepher and Sofia Antonopoulou, of HES’ Digital Documentation Team, on Tuesday 19th July.

Interior of the south aisle – elaborate memorials decorate the interior walls

A clock tower, still in use, was a later addition dating to after the Reformation. It was a fun trip to the top (wearing PPE of course!), and James scanned the tower’s spiral staircase with a Faro Focus while me and Sofia took several high resolution scans of the interior of the south aisle using a Leica P40 to make sure all the fine details would be picked up with the scanner. We later helped to take record the cathedral’s windows, as fill in scans to complement the 360⁰ scans taken from a Leica C10 by Mike and Craig, of HES’ Conservation Group.

It was a very hot and sunny day, so it was fortunate we worked in the shade for most of the day, to stay cool!

The P40 in action. We set it to scan in high resolution to ensure all of the details of the carved stonework, like this effigy, were well recorded

For more information on the site, follow this link:

HES exchange visit to York office, Historic England

HES exchange visit to York office, Historic England

The week before last, Historic England welcomed a visit from our Historic Environment Scotland (HES) colleague, Sofia Antonopoulou. We had a packed schedule for her to visit some of the sites that the Geospatial Imaging team has previously surveyed around North Yorkshire, including Clifford’s Tower, Rievaulx Abbey and Mount Grace Priory.

We also photographed artefacts in the care of English Heritage’s North Territory store at Helmsley, for SfM photogrammetry. The object in question is a curious little 19th century wooden box, that had been decorated with wax seals taken from medieval stamps that had originated from Fountains Abbey. I’m in the process of generating the 3D models at the moment, so it’ll be really interesting to see how Photoscan copes in processing all of the slight details in each seal design, which range from the personal seal of an abbot’s signet ring to depictions of the Virgin and Child.

We also returned to Bellman Park in Clitheroe, six months after the team’s first survey of the area, to collect the next epoch of laser scans at this Heritage at Risk site. The grass had really shot up since December, but we managed to scan the entire structure in a day.

We rounded off the week with a trip further south, to the Natural History Museum (NHM) and their science department, to see how their researchers are using scanning electron microscopes to gather imagery of microscopic features for SfM photogrammetry and other visual techniques for research, such as producing CT scans. Overall it’s been a very hectic but enjoyable week!

Do check out Sofia’s blog too:

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Medieval stone crosses in Leek – 3D models complete and published!

Medieval stone crosses in Leek – 3D models complete and published!

This Tuesday I presented the finished 3D models of three scheduled standing crosses in Leek town centre to the West Midlands Historic England office and Staffordshire Historic Environment Record. I’m pleased to say I can share the results on my blog, via Sketchfab, so click on the links  below to open them:

Scheduled stone crosses in Leek

Other interesting historic features on St Edward the Confessor Parish Church, Leek

Please note that these are low-resolution 3D models (200,000 faces). The original versions are of a much higher resolution, and are archived with Historic England.

All images and 3D content copyright: Historic England.