Black Bull Close and the Backlands

The Director of The Ridge, Kate Darrah, writes about SUP's work at Black Bull Close and the Backlands

Submitted by SarahManavis on 29-01-2018 12:01:28

In October 2017, the Ridge Foundations CIC began employing a small team of trainee masons, all of whom had previously worked as volunteers as part of the Historic Environment Scotland-funded works to restore boundary walls at the Backlands Garden, Dunbar. As part of their training, they are learning to explore, decipher and appreciate aspects of the sorts of historic sites they will be working on.

This garden is one of the series of riggs or burgage plots, which run at right angles off Dunbar High Street. They form part of the herringbone pattern of the Conservation Area’s medieval Scottish Burgh townscape.

At the head of the Backlands Garden (which the Ridge has transformed from a wasteground into a beautiful, productive community garden) stand the ruined buildings of the Black Bull Close. Following on from a very inspiring feasibility study, the Ridge plans to continue on from the wall restoration work, to save and repurpose these fascinating ruins, to revive the integral link between buildings and the adjacent rigg land, and invite both the local community and visitors to explore part of Dunbar’s history which is otherwise hidden from view.

There is remarkably little written or surviving oral historical evidence as to the lives of past inhabitants of the Black Bull Close, so we are largely dependent on any clues we can unearth as part of the process of clearing the site. In this, we have been hugely fortunate to have the support of Scotland’s Urban Past’s team, who have already given us some basic training in surveying techniques, to help us record the physical fabric of the site, and in decoding some of what this close observation can tell us about the history of the buildings and of the people who lived in/used them. 


A team of 6 hardy volunteers braved the worst of the winter weather to don hard hats and steelies, and recorded the buildings’ frontages. Armed with implausibly long tape measures and all sorts of impressively fancy gadgets, we pushed the boundaries of our technical, (hypo)thermal and artistic capacities to create some surprisingly lovely drawings – now available on Canmore.

More recently, we have been working to rebuild a wall which was bowing out dangerously into a neighbouring close.  Masonry trainees have had their professional horizons expanded and understanding deepened by the opportunity to work with Danny and Fi in uncovering layers of local history as they dug through the enormous rubble heap amassed against this wall. It turned out that, as we expected, the rubble heap was comprised in part of collapsed building. There was also a significant collection of rubbish: bottles (some local, including from the still operating chemist on Dunbar’s High Street), broken crockery, tiles, and a number of interesting metal items. It was interesting to note that this Victorian midden showed a distinct local taste for gin. Some things haven’t changed….. though the boys were disappointed not to find old Buckie bottles.


Excavations undertaken to access the exterior wall also unearthed unexpected residual bases of subdividing walls, giving further clues to the scale and usages of the collapsed building. Trainees were particularly intrigued by trying to work out the layout, learning to look at clues given by the treatment of stone, to decipher the sequence of building phases, and the significance (or not) of gaps in the stonework (has something been lost over time or was this an entrance, a drain?).

It feels like we have lifted the corner of a heavy old cloth covering this hidden gem of local history, and taken a first peek into our town’s past. We’re all really excited about what we will find and learn as we progress further, and we’re looking forward to sharing that with the local community, with the intention of beginning a community archaeology project later this Spring. Because there is so little knowledge about this site, it is a genuinely exciting journey into the unknown.


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