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Let's go fly a camera kite

Updated: Jan 13, 2019

Kite flying has timeless appeal ...but how many people realise that flying a kite can be used to discover what lies underground?


Researching an article on Bathgate Castle, I came across aerial photographs of the site taken with a camera attached to a kite. I contacted the photographer Jim Knowles, who is Trust Archaeologist and Secretary of West Lothian Archaeology Group, to find out more and see what else he could tell me about Bathgate Castle and other historical sites in West Lothian.


Jim is one of several members of the group who specialise in Kite Aerial Photography (KAP). The technique dates to around 100 years ago when we have the first known use of a “kite camera” to photograph an archaeological site in Sudan. Aircraft soon took over, but kites have seen a resurgence in popularity since the availability of digital cameras in the 1990s. However, according to Jim, “they are still used very little by archaeologists and still seen as a novelty or simply not known about despite the obvious benefits.”


Kite aerial photography is for all ages. Photo courtesy Jim Knowles

Kites are used to photograph things from a lower height than aircraft to therefore obtain more detail. I ask Jim the obvious question about using drones instead of kites. “Drones definitely have their place, such as when there is no wind to fly a kite or close to structures,” he explains. “Kites are cheap, generally stress free when flying them, they can remain in the sky for hours, are very environmentally friendly using no fuel and creating little noise. They are extremely portable, there are no running costs, require a low skill level to operate, can lift heavy loads and are relatively safe. Drones, on the other hand, can be dangerous due to their high spinning propellers, have a short flying time and should be flown by an experienced pilot with another on standby in case of failure. Drones will get better and cameras will get lighter, but kite flying places you in the landscape and lets you feel the sky. Today I use all of my technology, from quadcopters to radio controlled kite rigs, but I still prefer the simplicity of just flying a kite”.


West Lothian has a rich pre-historic and medieval heritage, and we have really only just scratched the surface in terms of archaeological investigations. West Lothian Archaeology Group aims to investigate, record and publicise archaeological and heritage sites of West Lothian and beyond. They have investigated many sites across West Lothian - you can see photographs and interpretive details at www.westlothianarchaeology.org.uk. They select sites based on personal interest, by invitation or recommendations from members of the community – perhaps someone has information on a site that has existed in the past but has since disappeared. The most tantalising, says Jim, are those where there is very little written history - they are marked on old maps but nothing remains. Bathgate Castle is one such site, as is Ogilface Castle in Armadale.


“Ogilface is basically a series of humps and bumps in a field” says Jim. “The West Lothian Archaeological Trust, working with the Edinburgh Archaeological Field Society, carried out a number of field investigations to try and understand what these grassy lumps represent. After carrying out numerous surveys, including magnetic and earth resistance geophysical surveys, we began to understand more of the layout of the structure. We followed up with numerous kite aerial photographic surveys using specialist cameras from the visible to the near infra-red end of the electromagnetic spectrum to try and tease out extra information that cannot be seen under normal circumstances. Our combined findings suggest that there was indeed a fortification here, possibly from the medieval period or even earlier.”


Anyone can learn to fly a kite for KAP, and West Lothian Archaeology Trust is keen to encourage people to photograph sites in their own area using kites. It has launched a scheme to introduce KAP into local schools. The Trust also runs the Scottish National Aerial Photography Scheme, providing KAP kits to children, students and their mentors in Scotland.


Not quite “up to the highest height” (the Civil Aviation Authority impose a restriction of 60 metres) ... but even a child can use this coupling of ancient technology with the latest digital camera to find buried treasure.


See more pictures and information on the photographic techniques at www.westlothianarchaeology.org.uk


KAP picture of Bathgate Castle using near infra red camera. This technique is useful for increasing contrast and identifying features by different moisture content or the condition of the overlying flora. Castle mound is a rounded oblong with ditches visible curving round the left hand side.

Bathgate Castle and tragic Marjorie


Marjorie, the eldest daughter of Robert the Bruce, led a short and tragic life. Her 19 year old mother died giving birth to her. Her childhood was overshadowed by the struggles of Scottish independence (Edward I invaded Scotland the year she was born). Her father was crowned king of Scotland in 1306, and the 9 year old princess had to flee, along with her step mother and aunts, as Edward I and her father did battle. But the women were captured by the English and the princess Marjorie was held hostage in solitary confinement in a nunnery in England, until her father's victory at Bannockburn in 1314 led to her release. She was just 17, having spent half her life as a prisoner. The following year she married Walter Stewart, hero of Bannockburn, and the barony of Bathgate and its castle was part of her vast dowry that Robert the Bruce gave to Walter (along with Kilbride and other baronies). It was to have been their family home. But tragedy struck a year later; a heavily pregnant Marjorie fell from her horse whilst riding near Paisley and went into premature labour. Her baby, the future King Robert II, was delivered by c-section (the earliest authentic record of such an operation since Julius Ceasar) and the 19 year old Marjorie died a few hours later.


Walter Stewart lived at Bathgate Castle until his death there in 1327, after which it was left to fall into ruin.


So where is Bathgate Castle? The site lies in the grounds of Bathgate Golf Club. Not much is known about it – at least not readily available historical documentation. West Lothian Archaeology investigation revealed a low mound with three moated ditches curving along one side and evidence of a square building at an entrance causeway. They intend to carry out further investigation one day. I got permission from Club to walk the site and take a few photos from ground level.


Ground level view of castle mound and ditches. This area of Bathgate Golf Course, at the 10th hole, is protected by Historic Scotland.

Published in Konect March 2014

Author: Helen-Jane Shearer


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