ECR Case Study: The Archaeological, Landscape and Historical Context of the Galloway Hoard

Orla Craig, University of Glasgow

Research Overview

The chance discovery in 2014 of a Viking Age gold and silver hoard in a field neighbouring Balmaghie Parish Church, an unassuming location on the banks of Loch Ken, has prompted fresh research into this period in Galloway’s history. The Galloway Hoard is the second largest Viking Age hoard ever found in Scotland. The artefacts within it have origins in early medieval England, Ireland and as far as Central Asia (Goldberg and Davis 2021). It has been dated to around the year 900 CE, placing it in the middle of a gap in the historical record coming out of Galloway. Between the years of around 836 and 1124, there are no contemporary sources for Galloway. By the time Galloway reappears in the historical record, it has coalesced into a single political unit under Fergus of Galloway (Oram 2000, 1). My PhD project, The Archaeological, Landscape and Historical Context of the Galloway Hoard seeks to understand what is happening in Galloway over the years 800–1100, and why the Galloway Hoard was deposited in this place at this time.

Figure 1: Balmaghie Parish Church. The Galloway Hoard was found in a neighbouring field, land belonging to the Church of Scotland © Orla Craig

Over the 9th–11th centuries the landscape of Galloway was home to several sociopolitical groups. At the beginning of the study period much of the coast and southern areas of the region appear to have been under Northumbrian control, with Britons from the kingdom of Strathclyde controlling territories in the north. Over the following centuries we see activity from incoming Scandinavian settlers as well as the emergence of the Gall-Gaidhíl or ‘foreign gaels’, the origin of the name Galloway. While we know these groups were active over the same time period, it is not clear how they related to each other or how they interacted. There are some difficulties with studying this period in Galloway’s history. One, mentioned above, is the lack of historical record between the 9th and 11th centuries. Another is the fact that very few archaeological sites here have been excavated. Aside from the significant excavations at Whithorn, few early medieval sites have been subject to modern excavations. This makes the dating of sites very difficult, as well as impeding our ability to identify the activity of these different socio-political groups. In order to work around these challenges, I am using a landscape approach to early medieval Galloway, bringing together the archaeological, place name and mapping evidence in order to identify what patterns can be seen when considering these differing types of evidence alongside one another.

Figure 2: Chapel Finian. One of the three early medieval church sites which have been excavated, this site has been dated to the 10th century © Orla Craig

One aspect my research has focussed on so far is the impact of the church on the landscape and what this can tell us about early medieval Galloway. The evidence I have drawn from to research the ecclesiastical landscape of Galloway in the 9th–11th centuries comes from stone sculpture, place names, excavation evidence (comprising Whithorn and three early church sites) and other possible early church sites, which have not been excavated. The 8th–12th century stone sculpture in Galloway has been identified by Derek Craig as containing four distinct decorative styles, including the 10th–11th century Whithorn School (Craig 1992). Their distribution appears to denote areas under the control of different ecclesiastical (or possibly secular) centres (see Figure 3). This gives us an insight into how the pre-parochial landscape was divided. The alignment of the Whithorn School area with the medieval deanery of Fairnes suggests that these later divisions were based on established patterns, so can provide clues of what earlier landholding patterns looked like.

A number of features in the landscape around the Galloway Hoard suggest that something unusual is happening with the early medieval church in this area. The Galloway Hoard’s findspot in Balmaghie is positioned in the middle of a distinct gap in the pre-12th century stone sculptural evidence. Positioned as it is between the Northumbrian sculptural style of the west and the Whithorn and Ardwall Island sculptural styles to the east, this may represent a frontier zone between different traditions. Instability in the church in this area perhaps led to a lack of stone sculpture. The presence of the hoard would appear to argue against this being caused by a lack of wealth. The church of Balmaghie is part of a parcel of four churches which are known to have belonged to Iona prior to around1170. When and how Iona acquired these churches is not apparent but may point to a difference in the ownership of this area of Galloway.

Figure 3: Map showing areas of different sculptural schools, churches which were owned by Iona in the 12th century, and cluster of -earrann place names © Orla Craig

Also adjacent to Balmaghie is a cluster of names containing -earrann which Gilbert Márkus has identified as relating to an unknown church (2020). These lands later belonged to Lincluden Collegiate Church, near Dumfries. However, as this is 24km away, it is likely these originally belonged to a since-lost church. One of these names is Blackerne, the site of the only Viking burial in Galloway not associated with a known ecclesiastical site. Could it be that church land was chosen for this burial as well?

Future research

The ecclesiastical landscape is just one aspect of my research into the landscape of the Galloway Hoard. My project will also consider the evidence for routeways through the landscape, the lordship of Galloway and how its creation and division may reveal earlier land patterns, and how the things happening in Galloway over this period fit in to the wider trends in the Irish Sea Region. What is becoming clear is that the makeup of the Galloway Hoard is somewhat reflective of the landscape into which it was deposited: varied influences and cultures intermingled, with clear interaction and negotiation between different groups over these centuries. I hope that, as my project progresses, I will be able to say more about the Galloway Hoard’s place within Balmaghie, within Galloway, and within the Irish Sea.

Figure 4: Threave Castle. Located south of Balmaghie on the River Dee, this site may have been settled from the 7th century on © Orla Craig


My sincere thanks goes out to ScARF for supporting my attendance at the 19th Viking Congress in June 2022. This gave me the opportunity to disseminate my research to an international audience and highlight ongoing research into the Viking Age in southwest Scotland. I look forward to having more opportunities to share the outcomes of my research as I reach the end of my project.


Craig, D. 1992 The distribution of pre-Norman sculpture in South-West Scotland: provenance, ornament and regional groups. PhD thesis, University of Durham.

Goldberg, M. and Davis, M. 2021 The Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure. Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland.

Márkus, G. 2020 Why do earrann-names form clusters? [online]. Place-Names of the Galloway Glens Project Blog. Available from: [Accessed 17 May 2022].

Oram, R.D. 2000 The Lordship of Galloway. Edinburgh: John Donald.