Dr Bill Lonie

Bill Lonie Obit.
Bill Lonie Obit.

BILL Lonie, of Newstead, who died recently at the age of 85 after a short illness, may not have trained as a professional archaeologist, but he was anything but amateurish when it came to his hobby.

As a retired maths and science lecturer at Heriot-Watt University in Galashiels, this native of Ormiston in East Lothian backed up his passion for archaeology with a keen scientific mind and made some notable finds, including the first Roman amphitheatre to be discovered in Scotland.

As an amateur archaeologist – a man with “an eye to the ground” – he was able to spot and prove a Roman road terrace and differentiate it from a natural feature or a medieval one, a railway road or a prehistoric track.

A trustee of the Trimontium Trust, he kept a day-book for years and recorded his finds, thoughts, his reading, people he had met and so on. This should be a source-book for historians of the future.

Educated at North Berwick High School and Edinburgh University, Bill annually made a submission of his latest find to Excavation and Discovery, the yearly report of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

For years he walked Roman Dere Street and completely revised its line from south of St Boswells across the Tweed and up past Lauder – and he published the results in a Trimontium Trust booklet, illustrated with his own sketches, with his own plans drawn to scale, the vertical being sometimes drawn on a different scale to the horizontal, to emphasise the height.

Other stretches of road were given the same treatment over many years of walking, often with his wife, Win – who died in 2008 – and always asking permission from landowners.

In 1995, when the Trimontium Walk on Thursday afternoons was first mooted, he was given the task of devising the circuit round the site and liaised with the regional archaeologist and a local artist to produce the first annotated handout.

For about 10 seasons, Bill enjoyed sharing the guiding for seven months of the year to and from Melrose, while Win was part of the team serving tea to the walkers at the Newstead Village Hall.

Bill hated being denied access to the fields along the Tweed during the foot-and-mouth outbreak and was glad when it was over.

Visitors would often write a letter of thanks to him after a walk and he was delighted when a walker found a spindle whorl with decoration on it. Years later, Bill reported he had seen a similar whorl during a visit to the Black Sea.

His dig across the Dere Street mound and side surfaces near Broomhill was an example of his keen eye for the ground, his attention to detail, and his patience in making sense of what, to the uninitiated, might seem just a rickle o’ stanes.

On a famous occasion, the top of a foot-high moulded stone emerged from the ground in the fort, thanks to frost action, and was rescued and taken off for the National Museums on a Lonie-designed two-man stretcher.

His last article, on Roman crossings of the Tweed, is to be published at the end of this year by the National Museums of Scotland, with many other contributions, in a book celebrating the centenary of James Curle’s magisterial 450-page A Roman Frontier Post and its People: the Fort of Newstead in the Parish of Melrose, published in 1911.

Bill and his great friend, the late Frank Newall of Dunoon, discovered, among many other features, the small Outerwards fort above Greenock, and published several reports of their archaeological ventures.

Bill’s most significant Borders find in 1991 was the Trimontium amphitheatre, which was dug in 1993 by Bradford University.

He had spotted traces from the Leaderfoot Viaduct and announced nonchalantly to the editor of the Trimontium Trumpet newsletter, that he would write a note about the amphitheatre – to which he received the reply: “What amphitheatre?”

It was to be the first Roman amphitheatre discovered in Scotland and the most northerly (so far) in the Roman Empire. (There may be others at Inveresk and Inchtuthil in Perthshire).

Bill and Win, a Lancashire lass, whom he met down south, were great supporters of the Newstead village hall and both were on the board of the Trimontium Trust and the Trimontium Museum Trust, he representing the Melrose Historical Association (of which he was president for many years) and she the hall.

Bill’s Melrose historical interests, recorded in the newsletters he composed, ranged beyond the Roman to the Melrose Abbey medieval inscriptions and what they meant, and the “funny stones” – and their stories, linked to Old Melrose, the Abbey and the fort – in the street walls of the stonemasons’ village of Newstead.

He served on the Melrose and District Community Council and had a spell as chairman, which must have been tricky because he liked to prick the bubble of administrative pomposity, as he saw it – and there he was, poacher turned gamekeeper.

Bill loved driving his car and had been a motorcyclist in his early married life, driving Win to investigate sites in the Lake District, when they lived within striking distance in textile country. He was also a keen sailor and horserider.

Bill is survived by a younger brother, three daughters and a granddaughter.