The rolling countryside to the East of Edinburgh gives East Lothian its rural idyll and fine quality of life. To those living in its small towns and villages, it seems eternal, as if its peaceful pattern of colourful fields, dotted with copses and pantiled cottages, had always been.
But its raised beaches are testament to a time when sea levels were once quite different and the chain of bronze age hill forts along the edge of Lammermuir imply a time when lower-lying land was uncultivated forest or swamp. Also, Scotland’s coastline is quirky: while our West coast boasts thousands of islands, the East has few and none capable of sustaining significant populations.
But this was not always the case. Raised beaches were formed after the weight of the last ice age vanished and land recovered its shape. Trace the 10m contour that probably corresponded to sea levels in bronze age times and the northern ‘neuk’ of East Lothian becomes an island separated by a shallow sea channel, now the valleys of the East and West Peffer Burns. Being at the intersection of the coastal and Central Belt trade routes, a more strategic bronze age location would be hard to find.
Unlike most Scottish islands (Islay, Tiree and the Orkneys being exceptions), Gogledd Island would boast over 30 sq. km. of rolling, fertile land stretching from Jovey’s Neuk to Gin Head and from Partan Craig to Brownrigg. Cut off by a natural moat but large enough to keep hundreds of people well fed, this would have given a potent defensive advantage to those living there over the contemporary Brythonic tribes who inhabited bronze-age Southern Scotland.
Dominated by a formidable hill fort on Berwick Law that provided a ‘last redoubt’, cists and implements found near Ferrygate and Eildbotle (OE = ‘old settlement’) Wood imply a density of settlement around the peninsula at its NorthWest end, perhaps associated with another, smaller fort on the hill on Yellowcraig hill or one offshore on those parts of Fidra above water. And that a village called ‘Kingston’ sits on the best vantage point in the middle of Gogledd must surely be more than just coincidence.
All of this is speculation. But that a fertile, defensible island much larger than the (then-flooded) Lindisfarne existed at this strategic cross-roads for thousands of years is a fact. This would have given the local tribe a huge advantage in both trading with neighbours and in surviving their predations.
It may even have triggered development into the powerful local people with whom the Romans made peace and called the Votadini. They called themselves Goddodin and survived as such well over 400 years, creating the earliest surviving document in the Welsh language and leaving us tantalising glimpses of a vanished, exotic Celtic culture that once boasted the largest city in Britain, crowning Traprain Law.
Local place names may now more Anglian, Norse and even Pictish than Brythonic. But a thousand years ago, this area was a no-man’s-land among all three for hundreds of years, so an overlay of newer names is understandable. But was Gogledd once a jewel of civilisation set in the sea of brawling mini-tribes that was once bronze age Scotland?