A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Hooptedoodle #291 - Traces of Olaf?

More Local History for Those with a Short Attention Span

I recently wrote a post about having finally had a look at the remains of Auldhame Castle (really a fortified house), which is in a wood, near the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, on the farm where I live. It had only taken me some 17 years of living here to realise that it was there and go and visit it. You can't just rush into these things...

Today I was doing a little more reading about the history of my immediate surroundings. On the edge of the modern-day farm at Auldhame, about 200 metres from the ruins of the eponymous castle, there is a large field which is known here as Old Adam. As I think I've mentioned before, there is a tradition that Old Adam may be a corruption of Auldhame, though I personally favour the theory that it is named after Old Adam Otterburn, who lived at the castle around 1500. Here are a couple of links to some articles I was looking at today - yes, all right, it was 3 years ago now, but no-one's been waiting for me to catch up - have a look here and here.

The team from the University set about turning over an entire wheatfield with
tweezers and a toothbrush. Bass Rock in the background.
One day, when I had not lived here very long, the farmer ploughed up some human remains in Old Adam field - this is a major hassle for farmers, since they are legally obliged to notify the authorities, and they have to suspend all work there until they are given official permission to carry on as before. This was in 2005. We had a Portakabin erected, complete with night watchman, and we were challenged - or at least recorded - on our way to and from the public road, every trip, every day, for some months. It wasn't much of an inconvenience to us, in fact, though I used to wonder if the appointed watchman of the day would feel entirely satisfied with the progress of his academic career as an archeologist.

The dig at Old Adam - aerial view from 2005
The team from Edinburgh University unearthed a previously unknown settlement - apparently a monastic community of some sort. There was evidence of various old buildings, including what was probably a timber church, and the human remains were actually in a Christian graveyard. So there was no immediate excitement involving murders or anything - at least, any such implied murders were over a thousand years ago.

Eventually the scentific world moved away, the farmer was allowed to sow wheat on his field, and I mostly forgot about the matter, though I did remember that one of the bodies found was a source of some excitement - he was clearly an outsider, and from his personal goods he appeared to be a Viking - and almost certainly an important or high-born Viking, at that. Why he was there, no-one knew.

Belt buckle buried with the mystery man - identified as Irish-Sea-region Viking style
Well, time has passed, I have a new interest in the history of Auldhame, and today was a rather wet Sunday with nothing pressing in the to-do list. Time to find out what happened to the mystery Viking.

What they dug up - plan from 2005 - traces of stone buildings and 242 graves
It seems that, though I had not been paying attention, the scientists have been earnestly labouring away on this since the dig ended. Apart from research into old archives, they have also been working on carbon-dating and DNA analysis. It seems that the monastic settlement was almost certainly founded by St Balthere (or Baldred, as he is known here), and that the rogue Viking was almost certainly from a raiding party commanded by one Olaf Guthfrithsson. There is good reason to consider that he might actually be Olaf himself.

Nearby there were other remains - this fellow has been killed by a blow to the
head with a sword or similar weapon - he is elderly - not a Viking and too old
to be a soldier. His date of death is pretty close to 941 - he was probably a
monk killed in a Viking raid 
Olaf is a big deal; a surprisingly big deal to have been bothering himself with raids on timber churches on the east coast of Scotland. Olaf was indeed a Viking - at the time of his death he was the king of whatever Viking province had its capital in Dublin, also of Northumbria. As part of an alliance with King Constantine II of Scotland, he was present in action against King Athelstane at the mighty Battle of Brunanburh - generally held to be the largest battle ever on British soil, fought near the modern township of Bromborough, on the Wirral Peninsular (very close to where my Uncle Harold lived when I was a boy, in fact, so you can see I have all sorts of potential family tie-ins with Olaf). He is believed to have died in 941 (that's Olaf, not Uncle Harold), following raids on churches on the East Lothian coast, at Auldhame and Tyninghame. Why was a big shot like Olaf persecuting these churches? Was there, perchance, some vendetta between Olaf and St Baldred's Christians?

No-one knows - interesting stuff though. It is suggested that Olaf (or whoever this bod was) was buried by his mates in the enemy's graveyard, to make some form of posthumous penance for the violence he had done them - maybe they were hedging their bets?

So - though he's not there any more (my bet is that his remains are probably in a drawer somewhere at the university) I shall give Olaf (let us assume it is he) a friendly wave tomorrow when I drive past his former resting place. Makes you think, though - this was a harsh, violent place 1000 years ago. Old Adam is a fine place for a walk - the field margins run around the cliff tops, there are fantastic views over the Bass Rock, across the little bay to Tantallon Castle and over to the coast of Fife. A nice setting for a church, you might think, with plenty of visibility to spot Viking raiders.


  1. I've always been interested in viking history and this has been a very informative read.

    1. Hi Phil - must confess it's something I know very little about - most of what I know about Vikings probably came from a couple of Melvyn Bragg's "In Our Time" podcasts. I'm suddenly a lot more interested, if they're on my front door step!

  2. I feel a C&C variant "Vikings" coming on...

    1. Well the C&C Medieval game is due out sometime this year. I was thinking more of charging around the farm fields with wooden swords. No monks were harmed in the course of this game etc.

  3. The Vikings really didn't like Christians. I reckon if his mates planted Olaf in the cemetery of a monastery (I presume) they'd recently burgled and burned, was it perhaps a last big middle finger to the monks rather than an act of penance? Always a pleasure to read about all the history you live amongst.

    1. That's a very good shout. I'm still puzzled by Big Olaf's interest in what seem like rather trivial churches. Maybe I've got the scale of that wrong - perhaps these places were quite high profile. St Baldred founded his churches almost 200 years before Olaf knocked them down again - if the community at Auldhame had 240+ graves then it might have been a bigger installation than i had assumed. We don't know if they carried on burying people there after 941, of course. I've seen the ruins of Baldred's main church in the grounds of Tyninghame House - that is known to have been destroyed in 941 by a Viking raider named Anulf (aka Olaf - same guy). We always assume that "Viking raiders" means a ship full of rather unpleasant guys who ate a lot of fish, who just dropped in, in search of plunder etc. This particular Viking raider, as King of Northumbria, just down the coast, was potentially less casual and more worrying.

      Wikipedia does a little number on Baldred, with links to places and other relevant bods


      Baldred is reputed to have lived in a very small cave on our beach - eccentric or what?