The Countryside is Wasteland

By Alistair Livingston

The Countryside is Wasteland [from a song by The Mob]


Beoch No. 4 Drift Mine under construction 1936 – at height of 1100 feet in Southern Uplands near Dalmellington. Over 1 million tons of coal came from this upland mine before it closed in 1968.

The starting point for this is a post by Fraser MacDonald on Bella Caledonia criticising the idea that ‘remote’ areas of rural Scotland can be described as ‘wilderness’ areas – since these are often areas where people lived until the Highland Clearances. [Which is a very crude summary.] I have now written up the history of one small (from a Scottish perspective) patch of ‘wild land’ in Galloway. Having dug a bit deeper into the background of Fraser MacDonald’s article, I now need to discuss the changes in national planning policy which inspired it- which can be summarised by this headline from the Herald in June 2013 ‘Three out of four Scots want the country’s wild land protected from wind farms, according to a new poll for the John Muir Trust ..’ Or, from July 2013, this Herald article ‘New planning policies could block wind power developments in most of the country, a leading green energy group has claimed. Changes proposed by Scottish Government ministers could jeopardise progress towards green energy and climate change targets, and threaten £2 billion-worth of future investment, according to Scottish Renewables which represents the industry.’

Rather than throw away the text I have just written, I will post it here as follow on from ‘Deconstructing the Countryside’ and (taking a deep breathe) start writing a new post on  ‘Wild Land and Wind Farms’.

There are areas of Dumfries and Galloway which are remote and rugged enough to be described as ’wilderness’ or at least ’wild land’. Some of these form the core areas of the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere Reserve – the Rhins of Kells and Merrick hills plus Cairnsmore of Fleet. These areas contain peaks over 2000 feet high and Merrick is the highest peak in southern Scotland at 2766 feet.


Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere Reserve -core areas in red.

But did anyone ever live within these core areas? Within the Merrick Kells Site of Special Scientific Interest, which forms one of the core areas, the answer is yes- at the following locations-

Willie’s Sheil (Minnigaff) NX 442 885 at 1078 feet, 328 metres
Low Cornarroch (Minnigaff) NX 469 811 at 839 feet, 256 metres
High Cornarroch (Minnigaff) NX 471 826 at 834 feet, 254 metres
Trostan (Minnigaff) NX 441 790 at 739 feet, 238 metres


High Cornarroch

These had all already been deserted by 1929 when James McBain wrote ‘Merrick and the Neighbouring Hills’, with only a patch of greener vegetation to show where High and Low Cornarroch once stood. Trostan was probably deserted by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The only record of its occupation is from the seventeenth century. There are no written records for the other locations, now marked by tumbled stones.

High Cornarroch lies in the valley which runs between Loch Doon to the north and Loch Dee to the south. About 8000 years ago Mesolithic gatherers and hunters left scatters of flint blade fragments in this area and (from charcoal fragments) used fire to create clearings in the huge forest which covered Galloway. Deer were attracted to the grass growing in these clearings , making it easier for hunters to kill them. The subsequent shift to farming in the Neolithic period 2000 years later was focused along the coast and lower river valleys. Apart from an Iron Age roundhouse found near Clatteringshaws Loch (a hydro-electric reservoir built in the 1930s), there are few traces of human occupation in the Galloway Highlands until just over 1000 years ago.

What happened then was the movement into Galloway of the Gall-Ghàidheil , the ‘foreign Gaels’. These were the descendants of a group of Vikings who had (probably) settled in Argyll in the ninth century and become Gaelic speakers. An analogy is with the Vikings who settled in France who became the French speaking Normans -but on a smaller scale. The Gall-Ghàidheil then moved east and south so that by the end of the eleventh century they controlled most of south-west Scotland from Renfrewshire south into Ayrshire and east into Nithsdale. Their territory was called ‘Galloway’. They may even have crossed over the Solway into Cumberland and north-west England. Confusingly, this ‘greater Galloway’ may not have originally included Wigtownshire in present day Galloway which, until the death of Echmacarch mac Ragnail in 1065 who was variously king of Dublin, the Isle of Man and Wigtownshire, was controlled by Dublin based Vikings (who were also bi-lingual Norse/Gaelic speakers by this time).


Map of Greater Galloway circa 1100.

Skipping over this confusion, research by Michael Ansell into the Gaelic place names of Galloway and Carrick shows the distribution of different types of trees and woodlands across the region. Michael’s research can be found here.

Doire darrach map


Coille map

Michael’s work also reveals an extensive deer-hunting territory in the Galloway Highlands (plus some of the lowlands). This is shown by eileirig (deer trap) place names, which became Eldrick (sometime Elrig) place names as the language of Galloway changed from Gaelic to Scots in the fifteenth century.

Minnigaff at NX 422 828 and Craig Neldricken NX 445 844,
Carsphairn at NX 503 960
Kells at NX 519 804
Dalry at NX 676 951
South Ayrshire (Carrick) at NX 365 929 and NX 373 975


Eileirig map.

A typical location is Loch Neldricken.


Photo of Loch Neldricken and Craig Neldricken- in core area of Biosphere Reserve.

The eileirig type of deer hunting involved several hundred beaters spread out over the hills who drove the deer towards the trap , which was usually a natural feature enhanced by temporary brushwood fences. Once the deer were concentrated, they were shot by archers.


Deer hunting picture

Recently Michael’s son Callum asked me a very useful question- Were there enough people living in Galloway to provide enough beaters for this type of hunting? The answer is ‘Yes, but…’ The big problem is that the Galloway Highlands have never been able to support a large population due to the combination of altitude and climate making farming very difficult. There are no written records of settlement/ farm locations in the Galloway Highlands before 1455, but in that year the Abbot of Dundrennan Abbey made list of all the lands owned by the Douglas lordship of Galloway for James II. James has seized all the Douglas lands from James Douglas, the 9th earl of Douglas. From this list, recorded in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland , farms with Gaelic names -which means they existed before Scots -speaking Archibald the Grim became lord of Galloway in 1369- are distributed down the east side of the Rhinns of Kells, across to Glentrool and then up the west side of the Merrick Range. There are none within the core of the deer hunting region, which is also the Merrick/ Kells SSSI core of the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere Reserve.


Map of  Medieval Farms in Galloway Highlands

On the Kells side, there are a few farms which contain the Gaelic place name element ‘airigh’ e.g. Clenrie (clon airigh – sloping pasture) and Garrary (garbh airigh – rough pasture). Airigh is a Gaelic word which now equates with sheiling or summer pasture land. Here again the Vikings have caused confusion. In north-west England, as ‘erg’ or ‘ark’ farm names, it is associated with areas settled by Dublin originating Vikings. As ‘airie’ it is a commonish farm in Wigtownshire, overlapping with the territory controlled by Echmacarch mac Ragnaill, but the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright was not part of his territory so here airigh farms would have been (probably, to add an academic disclaimer) Gall-Ghàidheil farms.

The occupants of these farms would have been available to act as beaters for large scale deer hunts, but there would not have been enough of them to provide 100 let alone 500 plus beaters. It is more likely that their knowledge of the hills was used to guide larger parties of beaters drawn from lowland areas. The logistics of organising large scale deer hunting in the Galloway Highlands are similar to the logistics required to mobilise and support a small army. Only a major chieftain or king controlling a large territory could do this. In the sixth and seventh centuries, recent archaeology at Trusty’s Hill near Gatehouse of Fleet has revealed that it was a high status/ royal site – but although bones of cattle and sheep were found, there were no deer bones. This implies that the rulers of Trusty’s Hill were not exploiting the resources of the Galloway Highlands.

To get to my main point, it seems likely that the Gall-Ghàidheil were the first people to settle in and exploit the resources of the Galloway Highlands from the tenth (or more likely eleventh) century onwards. Until their arrival, settlement and the exploitation of resources in Galloway was confined to the region’s coastal fringe and lower river valleys . By opening up the resources of the interior, the Gall-Ghàidheil were able to become the dominant group in Galloway, giving their name to the region. This had a series of consequences which ultimately had a significant impact on Scotland’s national history.

The first consequence was the emergence of ‘lesser Galloway’ as a kingdom ruled by Fergus of Galloway circa 1120. This kingdom embraced the fertile (arable) lands of the Rhinns and Machars of Wigtownshire, similar lands near Kirkcudbright and the lower Dee valley plus (probably) Carrick in Ayrshire. It also included the Galloway Highlands.

Today, having recovered from a population of around 50 in 1950, there are (1991 figures) about 4000 red deer in the Galloway Highlands/ Galloway Forest Park. The recovery has been die to the end of sheep farming and the planting of forests in the area. In the eleventh century, there was very little sheep or cattle farming and (based on Michael Ansell’s place names research) extensive tracts of woodland, so that there could have been a population of 10 000 + red deer in the Galloway Highlands. The organisation of large scale deer-hunting in a pre-feudal ‘Gift’ economy when added to the resources of the lowland economy (exploited previously by the rulers of Trusty’s Hill, Whithorn and the More of Mark and then the kingdom of Northumbria) potentially lies behind the ability of Fergus to become a ‘king’.

The failure of Fergus’ kingdom to expand to embrace ‘greater Galloway’ can be explained by the actions of successive Scottish kings, beginning with David I who blocked eastward expansion by giving (or confirming an existing land grant) Annandale to the Bruce family in 1124.. Similar feudal grants of territory to the Douglas and Stewart families in the later twelfth century confined the territory ruled by Fergus descendants to ‘lesser Galloway’. Fergus’ great-grandson Alan was described as ‘king of the Gall-Ghàidheil’ in the Annals of Ulster on his death in 1234. Despite a rebellion by the Gaelic clans of Galloway, Alexander II imposed feudalism on Galloway by refusing to let Alan’s illegitimate son Thomas inherit, declaring the husbands of Alan’s three legitimate daughters’ his legal heirs. Until 1234, Galloway, although technical part of Scotland since the death of Fergus in 1161, had not been subject to Scottish feudal law.

Carrick/ south Ayrshire had been split off from ‘lesser Galloway’ after the death of Gille-Brigte (Fergus’ son) in 1185, passing to the Bruce family through marriage in 1271. Alan’s youngest daughter Devorgilla had married John Balliol in 1223 and after the death of her sisters and their husbands, John Balliol became the effective ‘lord of Galloway’. Through marriages into the Scottish royal family, both the Bruce and Balliol families had a claim to the Scottish throne when Alexander III dies in 1286. Edward I of England was asked to adjudicate between the rival claims and (following correct feudal procedure) Devorgilla’s son John became king of Scots from 1292 to 1296…

The rest is a major part of Scottish history, but it is less well known that after Robert I died in 1228 leaving his infant son David as heir, in 1332 king John Baliol’s son Edward seized the Scottish Crown. Edward Balliol only gave up his claim (to Edward III of England) in 1356, by which time only the leading Gaelic clans of Galloway (the McCullochs, McDowalls and McClellans plus the non-Gaelic Maxwells) still supported him as their ‘special lord’ – as the great-great-great-grandson of Fergus of Galloway.

Edward Balliol died in 1365, but even then David II had little control over a Galloway which was still dominated by the heads (kenkynnol) of its Gaelic clans. David considered gifting Galloway to Edward III’s son John of Gaunt as part of a peace settlement with England. However, what then happened was that Archibald ‘the Grim’ Douglas (an illegitimate son of Robert I’s close friend James Douglas) used his position as Warden of the West March of the Border to cut a deal with Galloway’s clan chiefs. With their support Archibald declared himself the new ‘Lord of Galloway’ in 1369, confirming his power buying Wigtownshire for £500 in 1372. [Robert II, the first Stewart king of Scotland reluctantly approved the purchase, but the official record but significantly the charter does not describe Archibald as ’Lord of Galloway’. In 1388 Archibald (after a lengthy legal dispute) became the 3rd earl of Douglas, thus acquiring most of southern Scotland. This set in motion the struggle between Stewart kings and the Doiuglas family which led to the conflict with James II in 1455 (when both Caerlaverock and Threave Castles were besieged by James) and the final end of Galloway as a separate Lordship.

Over the next 100 years, the Scottish Crown sold off the Douglas lands in Galloway, including their farms in the Galloway Highlands. [Under David II some of these lands had briefly been made a Royal (deer hunting) Forest before Archibald the Grim took control of Galloway]. By 1500, a cluster of farms -Barskeoch, Knocksheen, Largvey, Drumbuie and Clenrie- between the river Ken and the Rhinns of Kells had been acquired by the Gordon family. By the 1660s, the Newall family owned the farms. There are two tacks (leases) of Drumbuie from this period.

No. 1052 TACK (15 July 1686) by Adam Newal of Barskeoch, heritable proprietor of the lands under-written, to William and Andrew McClamrochs, lawful Sons to John McClamroch of Craginbay, of the 4 merkland of Drumbuy, with the pertinents, presently possessed by William Calwel and Andrew Irland, for 9 years from Whitsunday 1679, (with the option to both parties of ending this Tack after 5 years) for the payment of £120, the usual teind, prebendar and feu duties, public burdens, work and casualties for the first year, and after Whitsunday 1680 they are to pay 200 merks yearly with the foresaid duties, 2 stone of good butter or 10 merks, 1 dozen poultry fowls and 2 “fasterinevine henns;” and ” to pay and lay in the work and service” of 40 loads of peats, providing sacks for carrying them, and 2 barrows with bearers to peat casting, 4 “naigs” one day yearly to harrowing, 2 men and 2 horses one day to the hay-stack making, and 4 shearers yearly, paying £3 in satisfaction of other work and service of men and horses paid by the present possessors the said Adam is to give timber, great and small, for the upkeep of the houses which the said William and Andrew are to keep wind and water tight; should any of the said Adam’s cattle pasturing in Staiverran the summer half year come home through the said “rowme,” the tenants promise not to molest them but either to put them back to the “heft” or allow them to pass peaceably homeward ; they are to pay all public burdens, maintenance taxations and levies of foot or horse and will be allowed the half of all discharges for such which they produce. At Clauchen of Dalry 2 December 1678 witnesses Robert Greirsone of Mylmark, John McNaght in Overtoune, James Chalmer of Wattersyd, and William Hunter in Midtowne of Clauchen.

No. 1420 TACK (2 December 1689) by Adam Newall of Barskeoch, heritable proprietor of the lands under-written, to James McCutchine, lawful son to the deceased Alexander McCutchine in Drumbuy, of the half of the 4 merkland of Drumbuy and the piece called the Lumpe between the burns, with the pertinents, presently possessed by the said James, for five years from Whitsunday 1686, for the yearly payment of 160 merks, 1 stone of good salt butter in the summer time or 5 merks as the price thereof, 6 poultry fowls, and a fasteneven hen, with the work of 25 loads of peats, providing good sacks to carry them, with a man and a horse, a man and a spade and 2 bearers a day to the casting of them, a man and a horse to hay-stacking, “with a man and sheirs to the cliping off Straveran,” and a man and a horse to fetch a load of lime or free stone; the said Adam promises to give timber, great and small, for upholding the houses and the said James is to keep them wind and water tight and leave them in good condition, and he is to leave ” ryll trees and soil trees and staiks and doors and the lyk” which Andrew McClemeroch, present tenant, leaves in the houses ; should any of the said Adam’s cattle pasturing in Strauveran the summer and harvest half year come to the Braidside or through his ground, the said James promises to put them back to the “heff” again; he is to pay all public burdens and be allowed for the same in his rent. At the Watersid 26 May 1686 ; witnesses Thomas Macaw in Garroch, Robert Macaw, his son, John Paisla, schoolmaster in Barskeoch. and John Makill there.

What is fascinating about these two tacks are the references to cattle pasturing on Staiverran/ Strauveran in the ‘summer half of the year’. Straverron Hill is the 1943 feet high western shoulder of Meikle Millyea (2448 feet) which is in the Rhinns of Kells SSSI and part of the core area of the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere Reserve. Clenrie (clon airigh, sloping pasture) is on the eastern shoulder of Meikle Millyea. Six or seven hundred years after Gall-Ghàidheil settlers pastured their cattle on the Rhinns in the summer, a similar type of farming was still being practiced there.

Then, in 1780, the farms were bought by William Forbes of Callendar. Forbes had made his fortune (equivalent to $1 billion according to Wikipedia…) through government contracts to copper bottom naval vessels. Forbes bought over 20 farms in the area, converting them to large scale sheep farming. By the 1790s there were over 100 000 sheep grazing the Galloway Highlands. This type of farming lasted until the 1960s when the market for mutton collapsed (replaced by lamb) and wool lost out to artificial fabrics. The value of the sheep farms plummeted, allowing the forestry Commission to buy them up cheaply.


Kilnair from Lochinvar- the pale green patches are remains of fields which grew oats and barley. Existing house is 19th century, but Kilnair was inhabited in 17th century.

With mechanisation (crawler tractors and deep ploughs) plus the use helicopters to spread artificial fertilisers, it was now possible to plant Sitka spruce on land which had previously been unsuitable for forestry. The Galloway Forest Park, first established in 1947 as the Glentrool Forest Park, expanded to cover an area of 300 square miles. Only the highest hills, steepest slopes and deepest bogs were left unplanted. These areas became the Merrick Kells SSSI.

2 thoughts on “The Countryside is Wasteland

  1. Thank you for this interesting post. I did a lot of similar reading and exploring a couple of years ago, for my short poetry collection ‘The Dark Farms’ (Roncadora Press, 2012). ‘The Dark Farms’ is about the abandoned steadings and dark skies of the Galloway Forest. There’s even a poem about Low Cornarroch. I’m reading from this collection for EAFS (Environmental Art Festival Scotland) on Sunday 1 Sept

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