AN archaeological dig has concluded at a historic Scottish abbey where the first recorded mention of whisky was made – and the finds are looking “very positive”.

Lindores Abbey, in Fife, has been the focus of the dig from a team led by Perth-based archaeologist Derek Hall, alongside academics from St Andrews University and Brandeis University in Boston.

Now largely a ruin, the abbey played host to royalty including William Wallace and King Edward I of England from its founding in 1191 until its sacking in 1559, amid the Scottish Reformation.

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In 2018, the abbey hit the headlines after the discovery of what is believed to be the world’s oldest whisky still, with a structure resembling a kiln still found to contain traces of charcoal, barley, oats, wheat, and pottery dating back to mediaeval times.

Project lead Hall told the Sunday National: “The first reference to what is thought to be the manufacture of whisky – it was called aqua vitae – is in 1494 by Brother John Cor at Lindores Abbey.”

However, Hall said it would be extremely difficult to find further evidence of historic whisky distilling at Lindores because “it's very hard to know what you're looking for”.

The team ahead of excavations at Lindores Abbey, with the distillery centre in the backgroundThe team ahead of excavations at Lindores Abbey, with the distillery centre in the background (Image: Provided)

“There's been work done on later illicit distilling of the 18th and 19th centuries, but not on anything that early,” he said.

“We do know it was taking place, so it is quite an interesting thing to try and find some archaeological evidence for, but as I say, we don't really know what you're looking for.”

The abbey’s historic links to distilling have seen it dubbed the “spiritual home of Scotch whisky”, and it has recently begun producing again after the Lindores Abbey Distillery launched in 2017.

Helen and Drew McKenzie Smith opened Lindores Abbey Distillery in 2017 (Image: archive)

Drew McKenzie Smith, who opened the distillery with his partner Helen, said his great-grandfather had bought the land on which the abbey sits in 1913 in order to farm it.

Growing up, McKenzie Smith said he did not realise the historical value it held, as he and his brother would ride motorbikes over it. In fact, he didn't realise its significance until they broke ground for the distillery in 2015.

“We were sitting there pretty confident that there was going to be nothing – and then straight away we started finding all these really nicely carved stones and things like that,” McKenzie Smith told the Sunday National.

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“The abbey was just part of the farm. It was just like a field with some nice ruins in it.

“I look back on it now, I used to climb on top of what's called the slype - that's where you’d go for a sly fag and things like that. Now I wouldn't be able to do that in a million years.

“It's still standing – the rest of the abbey is very pretty, but it's a ruin – and that's the same slype that William Wallace … the history books talk about after the Battle of Black Earnside, he and his men entered Lindores Abbey through that slype.

“We've always felt – I mean, I didn't when I was riding motorbikes but now I’m a bit more grown-up – we should spend a lot of time and effort looking after it.”

The slype at Lindores Abbey still stands with a part of its roof intact (Image: Bubobubo2)

The abbey itself is a protected monument, and Historic Environment Scotland has granted permission for digs in future years next to the standing ruins.

This year, Hall said, trenches in the dig were focused on the more peripheral parts of the abbey with a view to understanding how the larger structure flowed.

Two trenches were dug on the north of the aptly named Abbey Road, east of Newburgh, and two more on the south.

“There are standing remains here, but it did cover a much bigger area,” Hall said.

“We're getting potential evidence in at least two of the trenches for demolished stone buildings. There's animal bone and mediaeval pottery coming out associated with that.

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“One of the trenches across the road has certainly got evidence of demolition, but it looks more like there's probably some sort of open courtyard area across there.”

Hall said two particularly interesting finds in the dig had been some German stoneware from around the 14th or 15th century, and a ceramic bird whistle which dated much later.

“I'm a pottery specialist, so I'm going to be very biased, but I'll tell you we've got German stoneware which is sort of 14th, 15th-century."

Overall, he said there had been “very, very positive signs for future excavations”, which will focus on how monks used water in the abbey – which again could yield information about historic whisky distilling.

“Where they're getting their drinking water from and how they're getting rid of their waste, those are quite interesting questions to try and understand,” Hall said.

“It looks at Lindores as if there was a separate drinking water supply and that they're using a burn next door to flush out the main drain.

“That's quite an interesting example of mechanics and the way these people are thinking about what they're doing and why they're building where they are.

“People haven't really looked at that in Scotland so far. There's been a lot of work on that in England and Wales, so we thought it would be quite nice to start waving the flag for Scotland.”