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The Scots; A Genetic Journey, episode 1

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Alan Braidwood Alan Braidwood | 17:57 UK time, Tuesday, 15 February 2011

One day last year I met with the producer of The Scots: A Genetic Journey, Amanda Hargreaves. Cheekily, I asked what the chances were of asking the programme presenter Alistair Moffat and guests to write us a few words for this blog. I'm pleased to write that this is the first of such posts and this one is to accompany episode 1.

Alistair Moffat: written Thursday 21st October 2010
Off to Cramond to talk to Val Dean about the very early finds she and her archaeological colleagues made at the Roman fort. She showed us huge stands of a shrub called Saracen's Woundwort which is native to the Mediterranean and may have been buried for 2,000 years under the fort. It was disturbed and the seeds brought to the surface - maybe. A good day. And great to be on location again. I've made a lot of telly as a presenter but never done location radio before. Very different - and very good to be in the locations to talk about them. Still, I didn't fret about the weather as much as I used to. And it's wonderful having such a good producer - and not having to do that as well as presenting!

Alistair Moffat and Jim Wilson at work in Jim's office

Alistair Moffat and Jim Wilson at work in Jim's office

Val Dean
It was a pleasure to be telling Alastair Moffat what I know of the people of very early Cramond when going up a narrow path between groves of eight-foot high vegetation - but while doing so and watching the sound man being carefully guided backwards, I managed to trip on a root and fall flat on my face! No damage done, luckily.

I was saying how, instead of the remains of the expected Roman occupation, the discovery of an intact deposit of tiny flint microliths and carbonised hazelnut shells lying directly below the remains of a 17th-century village made me realise that some 10,000 years of archaeology had been completely wiped out by these later residents of Cramond. They, like the Mesolithic people, the Romans and many others since, knew a good place to live in.

Magic moments - the time in 1975, when as a complete novice, I was allowed to join the archaeologists in excavating the Roman bathhouse; a Roman's ring, found in the bathhouse nearly 2000 years after its loss, fitting my finger; cleaning the mud off the paws of the Roman lioness statue found in the River Almond.


Alistair Moffat: written 1st November 2010
Was a first in at least one way. We had a great morning recording in Jim Wilson's office at the Old Medical Quad at Edinburgh University. Ancient terms like 'Physic' were carved above the doorways and despite the traffic noise outside, it felt like old fashioned Academe. Jim's office is an eyrie at the top of the building, and even though he is a scientist, it is not a laboratory. No white coats and test tubes. Instead very posh computers and the biggest laptop I've seen. Amazing Jim can carry it. Statistics, maps, distribution charts and access to the world wide database of DNA is what matters and Jim can find information at the click of a mouse. Mice were much on our mind as we talked about the Viking mice of Orkney and Caithness, the wee beasties that hid on the longships and colonised Orkney. Genetically they resemble Norwegian mice and not the wee, cowering, timorous beasties of Scotland.

Then a real first. Off to Haddington to meet the archaeologist, David Connolly. We drove out to East Barns near Dunbar to look at the site of Scotland's first house, dating to 8,000BC. Except it had gone. The cement works next to it had dug a big hole, mining for limestone, and obliterated it. Quite legally, the archaeology had been done and recorded, but it is the first time I have ever gone to a location that had disappeared.

Barn's Ness with David Connolly and Alistair Moffat

David Connolly: written 1st November 2010
Meeting in Haddington at the Maitlandfield Hotel, we sip coffee and discuss the past in the comfortable lounge bar, filled full of 21st century travellers, seeking warmth on a darkening cold autumn day. Our own destination is a short car drive to the east, at East Barns, where some 10,000 years ago, a group of travellers also sought a warmth and security in what is now known as Scotland earliest house.

The house had been found in 2002 when archaeologists surveyed the area to become a new limestone quarry for the nearby cement works. Although perhaps to our modern eyes, the circle of postholes may have been underwhelming, this gives us the evidence for Mesolithic hunter-gatherers building semi-permanent structures showing evidence of serious construction methods.

From this house that overlooked the shore they would roam the beaches and countryside in search of food.

We arrive in the fading light at the site, only to see the quarry has somewhat altered the landscape where the house once sat, as a squat tepee half dug into the ground. Now we look over the fence into a 30m deep hole with machines eating away at the limestone beneath. The raised beach platform on which we stand was the shoreline during the Mesolithic, where the sea was 9m higher in the area (or to perhaps be ore accurate, the land was lower.) The massive ice sheets to the north would have been visible on the skyline at this time, and to the south and east, low rolling hills and forests would be where now the North Sea lies. Doggerland, the lost land from where our family group would have come, following the coastline around to East Barns.

The light fades, and the lighthouse becomes the only sign of our times, as the sea washes against the rocks and the cold begins to bite into us as we huddle around the microphone. WE all stop for a moment, and there just out the corner of my eye, I can see it, the light from a house, the warmth that awaits the searchers on the rocky foreshore. A welcome light to a house, that I wish now was there still, but is now a memory preserved in archaeological records. It feels strange to stand where they would have stood, to see what they would have seen, as I use my minds eye to travel back 10,000 years. Am I a trespasser - or would they welcome me in, as a fellow traveller and listen to the tales I may tell of the future.

The Scots: A Genetic Journey is broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland on Wednesdays, 1530-1600

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