Digging deep for the days of yore

A bold heritage project is striking a blow for learning more about the 'Dark Ages'. Henry Hepburn reports

I am starting to doubt whether Robin Crichton exists. I have been coaxed down to Traquair House in the Borders - billed "the oldest continually inhabited house in Scotland" - to meet him and attend the launch of an exciting educational project that will throw new light upon the Dark Ages.

An intriguing press release had caught my eye. "The 4th-7th centuries AD are often under-represented in Scottish history books," it read. "Yet they represent a dramatic and dynamic period when the Scottish nation was beginning to be formed."

Now, an ambitious heritage programme - "Hidden History of the Scottish Borders in the Time of King Arthur" - backed by #163;80,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and #163;4,000 from the local authority, aims to give schoolchildren greater knowledge of the period and some down-to-earth experience on digs with archaeological experts.

Primary schools will carry out "mini-digs" at their own schools, supervised by archaeologists from the consultancy AOC Archaeology - a particularly exciting prospect for Innerleithen Primary, which is on the site of an old country house demolished decades ago.

Secondary students will learn how to identify archaeological sites, conduct geophysical surveys and study aerial photography. They will also have the chance, in August, to take part in the nearby Manor Valley excavation, where it is hoped that some remarkable discoveries will be made - the area is rich with artefacts, largely because it is not suitable for modern, intensive forms of farming. There is the added spice of learning about the period when the legendary King Arthur seemingly made a foray into Scotland.

But to discover more, I must find Mr Crichton, a seventysomething author, film-maker and historian, now working with the Arthur Trail Association. I have been told he lives on the castle estate.

I get lost in a maze of allotments, hidden gardens and stone walls sprouting dandelions, before stumbling upon some sort of living history event, with women in smocks arranging cast-iron weaponry and period kitchen utensils.

Finally, I come to a little road where a dapper, grey-haired gent sitting on a wall says: "I'll take you to Robin." Two minutes later we are at the bottom of a grassy hill, on the brow of which are poised four horses. They appear to be mounted by cloaked, helmeted warriors brandishing swords and lances. There are about 20 people milling about at the foot of the hill, waiting to see what is coming up next. "Are we in the safe zone?" asks an elderly lady, as one horse rears high on its hind legs.

"Action!" shouts a bearded man through a megaphone. It is Mr Crichton - though I still can't speak to him. Any questions would be drowned out by the four horses suddenly thundering down the hill in my direction.

When we finally speak, it becomes clear that he is something of a freewheeling polymath. In the 1960s, he founded Scotland's first independent film studio, and he has produced and directed several films and television programmes - featuring luminaries such as Judi Dench and Miriam Margolyes. He has also written a book on King Arthur and established a Charles Rennie Mackintosh trail in France.

Today, however, he is driven by the raw excitement he believes it is essential to incorporate into the scheme as a way of enthusing young people about history and archaeology.

"History can be a pretty boring subject," he says. "Usually you go and look at a fort, and it's just a series of bumps on a hillside. But children will be able to come on to this dig and as soon as they find a bone, they'll be really into it."

But Mr Crichton is already looking further into the future. "If we can get more funding, the next stage will be to recreate part of a farming settlement at Traquair with live animals and crops as a museum of 6th-century rural life - a working farm, an experimental archaeological park," he says.

"The plan is to open it with a 'King Arthur's Games' - the forerunners of a number of modern-day athletics events - to run in parallel with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in August 2014."

Mr Crichton hopes that this will be followed by similar living Dark Ages centres that he is planning in other parts of Scotland - perhaps including a fort in Perthshire and a Christian mission station in Ayrshire. If he pulls everything off, he believes there will be no other project like it in Europe.

He adds: "From an educational point of view, the level of involvement with the schools and the local community in the project will be exceptional."

Before he can expand, our chat is interrupted by a long-haired horseman bearing down on a vaguely humanoid figure mounted on a pole, with a watermelon as its head; his sword slices the top off the fleshy fruit and sends it spinning into the grass. Mr Crichton dashes off to capture it all on camera.

Charlotte Douglas, an archaeologist with AOC Archaeology, takes up the story. She will work with Peebles High and all its cluster primaries, as well as two Edinburgh independent schools: George Heriot's and George Watson's.

"This is a unique opportunity for students to do something really hands-on - the kids love digging," she says. "It's not easy for schools to arrange that themselves. We're providing it all for them."

Fearsome displays of horsemanship and weaponry such as I am seeing today are not a guaranteed part of the project - though organisers say the scheme can be adapted to the needs of the school.

Behind it all is the free-spirited energy brought to the project by Mr Crichton, with whom Ms Douglas and her colleagues are working for the first time.

"It's brought something different," she says, with a smile. "We've never had a press launch with horsemen chopping the heads of pretend people before."

For more information go to www.aocarchaeology.comhiddenhistory.

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