THE possibility that Rosneath has been a permanent settlement since the mediaeval period has long been a subject of discussion in the archaeological world.

But, because it is still very much a living community, and has been largely developed, there has been little opportunity to test the theory.

However, plans to build two new houses in the grounds of the old manse at Easter Garth created such an opportunity, and Rhu archaeologist Fiona Baker of First Archaeological Services was on hand as diggers moved in to clear the building site.

Easter Garth is the much loved home of Helena and Richard Fryer who have lived there for some six years.

They are building two new houses in their grounds and plan to use one as a home for Richard's elderly parents and part of their planning permission involved an undertaking to have an archaeologist on site when the top soil was removed for the foundations and the new access drive.

Fiona prepared a written plan for the investigation.

The plan explained that Easter Garth is a C listed former manse and that the development site is to the south of the house.

Easter Garth and its extensive grounds are between the existing St Modan's Church and the ruin of the old St Modan's Church which is also known as the Old Parish Church of Rosneath.

In her report prior to the dig starting, Fiona wrote that "the old parish church is an 18th century structure but the earliest reference to a church at Rosneath is at the end of the 12th century." And she continues: "However, the cross slab now kept in the modern (1854) parish church, known as St Modan's Stone, is somewhat earlier, perhaps 10th century and indicates an even earlier church on the site.

"Two other early cross stones, one of which has had a later 16th century sword carved onto it, also suggests an early mediaeval date." She adds that the oval shape of the old churchyard is also an indicator of an Early Christian foundation." The report says that the site of St Modan's Well on the west bank of the Clachan Burn is reputed to be a holy well but that little is known of St Modan and that the Celtic saint of the 6th century is often confused with an 8th century abbot or bishop of the same name.

St Modan is reputed to have spent his final years at Rosneath.

Other indicators that there is more history to Rosneath than meets the eye comes from the local place names.

Tom a'Mhoid, for instance, means Court Hill and although it is a street named in the recent past, it relates to the area known as Court Hill and which indicates a mediaeval central meeting place for council and justice sometimes known as a Moot Hill.

And, as is the case with Rosneath, there was often a Gallows Hill nearby.

The Court Hill at Rosneath is described on record as 30m x 25m and up to 3m high and is thought to have been an artificial mound but which is now too mutilated to be certain.

Fiona's report says: "Moot hills are known in close proximity with early religious centres such as at Govan but they are also known from more secular political mediaeval contexts such as one which was found at Shandon." It is not known if the Court Hill in Rosneath is an early Christian moot hill that continued in use as a court hill into the later mediaeval period or if it is a later medieval secular foundation.

The report continues: "A further indication that Rosneath was a permanent settlement from the mediaeval period is the hill to the west of the village Tom na h-Airidh or hill of the shielings.

"Clachan itself means stone house or place of stones or more specifically a hermit's cell or church, churchyard, burial ground or hamlet with a church.

"The place name meaning for Rosneath is not so clear, 'ros' means point or promontory but 'neath' is interpreted differently by Gaelic scholars.

"Either as a Brythonic Gaelic water or river name from an ancient root that means shining or alternatively from the Scottish Gaelic 'neimhidh' which means 'of the holy place'.

"The Scottish Gaelic 'neimhidh' is thought to be derived from the Gaulish Celtic word 'nemeton' which means a place of ritual meetings and which was adopted into Christianity as meaning 'land belonging to the church'. "Despite the presence of an early mediaeval or probably even earlier 6th-7th century religious site and the Court Hill very little other archaeological evidence has been found at Rosneath during several recent archaeological interventions. However, very little archaeological excavation has taken place and it is likely that archaeological evidence has been destroyed during 20th century developments that were not subjected to archaeological monitoring. Topographically, Rosneath is a very attractive location for settlement of all periods due to its sheltered bay.

"Indeed the intensive World War II use of the boatyard demonstrates that in more recent times." The report says that some prehistoric finds, such as a polished stone axe and a bronze axe, from rather imprecise locations are known from the vicinity and that the hill Clach Mckenny is probably a prehistoric burial cairn.

"The lack of archaeological evidence from Rosneath and environs is more likely due to a lack of archaeological investigations in the area rather than an absence," it adds.

The reason that it was made part of the planning conditions that an archaeologist be on site during all the excavations was "to recover and record any features and finds of archaeological interest that may be disturbed by the excavations for the new houses and associated driveways and services and ensure that these are preserved either by record or in situ".

And to "produce a report detailing the results of the archaeological mitigation work undertaken during the development work".

This was because the "presence of St Modan's Old Church, an Early Christian religious site, in close proximity to the development site is the primary reason for archaeological interest in this development site.

"However, the presence of a Court Hill, which indicates a central place of significance, and stray prehistoric finds in the vicinity indicate a long history of settlement at Rosneath. The development has the potential to disturb archaeological remains of any period." However, the week's excavation only turned up a few pieces of post-medieval pottery which all came from amongst the top soil and evidence of some very old ploughed furrows.

All of which may not have been much but at least confirmed that Rosneath has been a settlement for a very long time.

And Fiona commented: "Rosneath is clearly an early settlement with strong Celtic Christian associations but over the years much of the evidence has been disturbed, destroyed or covered up by later development."