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A Day in the Life of a Trimontium Trust Volunteer

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A Day in the Life of a Trimontium Trust Volunteer
Oct 12th 2020 | Rob Longworth

By Erica Reid.

Trimontium, the Museum of the Roman Iron Age in Melrose, is currently relocated in Abbey House, just across the road from the grandeur of Melrose Abbey. The main museum is undergoing a radical transformation and will be open by the middle of next year in the centre of Melrose.

Today is a calm autumn day and I’m sitting outside Abbey House, with the low sun warming my face. A gentle breeze rustles in the nearby trees as their drying leaves prepare to fall. Looking up from my seat I can see Eildon Hill North, the location of the largest Iron Age fort in the Borders. Thousands of people lived on the Eildons since the Bronze Age and it is thought they were the Selgovae tribe, who gave their name to Selkirk.

Abbey House, the temporary location of the museum, is a beautiful, whitewashed, 17th Century House. Since it was built, it will have seen plagues and pestilence, and its residents will, I’m sure, have witnessed the devastating effects of these rampant diseases. It was built as a fortified house, and it has been modified in recent years, firstly to become a family home, then to host the Tourist Information service, and now reinvented as our temporary museum.

A museum that has to manage being open through our own plague and pandemic. As it is a 17th century house we have to limit the numbers inside to one volunteer and a group, no larger than four people, all from one household. We also have a bowl of water outside to welcome any dogs that just happen to have an interest in the Roman iron age, and there are indeed a few who do visit.  We have two volunteers present when the museum is open, one inside and another outside, to manage the numbers of people coming into the building and offer those willing to wait a seat in our gazebo.

That’s my job today. Who knew that in the autumn of 2020 we would be spending so much of our time outside in the fresh air? It is World Mental Health Day today and they say that being outside is good for your mental health. They also say that volunteering is also good for your wellbeing. So volunteering with Trimontium gives a double benefit of being outside while helping others understand more of our local history.

Our visitors reflect the number of people walking around Melrose, and today is a quiet day. During the day we have had eight visitors, compared with sixty-two we hosted a few short weeks ago. They are all invited to wash their hands before entry with hand-gel, and wear masks. Once inside, another volunteer, today it is John, Chair of the Trimontium Trust, greets them and gives them an overview of the where Trimontium Fort was located and its relationship with the Selgovae on the hill.

Some visitors want to quietly go around and read the information on the panels, look at the exhibits and watch the film without interruption. Others prefer to be escorted round and hear the stories of life in the fort. A few bring their children who are studying the Romans at school and today they get the ‘Horrible Histories’ version from John, of life in the time of the Roman invasion.

Our exhibition in Abbey House gives a taster of what we will be displaying in the renovated museum, and it holds a variety of exhibits. The full size Ballista, which fired lethal arrows capture younger imaginations. Some adult visitors are captivated by the water pipes that were the conduit from a spring on the Eildon to the Roman Baths, located to the west of the fort by the Tweed. Others by a replica of the bronze mask that cavalry may have worn to battle or for parades. The original is held by the National Museum of Scotland. The mask represents a female face yet was worn by male soldier and it does not look comfortable to wear. There are only two others on public display in Britain, one in Tulley House, Carlisle and the other in the British Museum.

Volunteering with Trimontium gives me the opportunity to become familiar with the exhibits and their own tales of discovery. I know more of our local history than I did before volunteering. And an unintended consequence is that in these times of COVID restrictions it is one of the few activities I do where I get to meet other people (at a safe social distance of course) and hear their own stories about what has brought them to Melrose and the museum. Always an enjoyable day.

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