Meeting Report: Abandoned farmsteads in Dumfries and Galloway

10 January 2020
Peter Norman, Project Officer, South West Scotland Environment Information Centre

Peter began by explaining that farmsteads have been deserted throughout history, sometimes being rebuilt on the same site, but his study concerned farmsteads which had already been deserted by the time of the first edition Ordnance Survey maps of around 1850, but which have visible remains surviving today. He first came across such sites by accident during his work as an ecologist, but has subsequently searched them out and has visited around 60 of them. The majority are in Wigtownshire, fewer in Kirkcudbrightshire, and a handful surviving in Dumfriesshire. Most are located on marginal land at medium altitude, but there are examples at lower levels, primarily on bogs and mosses.

Michael Ansell gave a summary of the names, as depicted on the OS maps. Of 52 named sites, 44 names were of Gaelic origin, 6 Scots, 1 English and 1 unknown. The Gaelic names related to woodland/trees, wild/domesticated animals, land units or topographical features, with a few linked to personal names.

Peter then described some of the structures common to the sites, including long houses shared by people and livestock, barns for hand-threshing, corn-drying kilns and kiln-barns, hay and sheep ‘rees’ (a term unique to SW Scotland), and boundaries enclosing small, irregularly-shaped fields. Landscape features include rig and furrow and lazybed cultivation remains, and veteran trees, the most common by far being Ash. Many of these trees are clearly the same ones as those shown as mature specimens on the 1850 maps.

Peter went on to speculate about who built the farmsteads, when were they occupied and why they were deserted. Each one is different, but in broad terms it appears that although they are often found in close proximity to prehistoric structures, the oldest farmsteads appear to date only to the late medieval period. At that time, some were attached to a minor towers or bastle-type buildings, likely to be occupied by a farmer of some social standing. The majority probably date from the 17th century when they were likely to have been occupied by families of lower status, eking out a living by arable farming on the drier hillocks, combined with grazing livestock and cutting hay from the wetter rough ground in the hollows, all supplemented by collection of wild food. Most sites also have features of later, ‘improvement’ era farming and in one case a deer park. However, the occupancy records and surviving features suggest a declining population and final abandonment prior to improvements in the 18th or early 19th century, possibly due poor winters or a need for better living standards, rather than forcible eviction. Analysis of estate records may further elucidate the reasons for desertion.

Peter considers that many deserted farmsteads were lost or substantially damaged by 20th century afforestation, but surviving sites are now under less threat, other than by gradual deterioration. A few, such as Polmaddy, have been opened for public access and interpretation provided, and a few others have been subject to recent archaeological investigation. He finished with a site in Wigtownshire called Drumbuie which has a 1734 datestone and a surviving archway, but evidence suggests that the stone was moved from another building, possibly when Drumbuie was operated as an inn for travellers on the military road. To add to the intrigue, another date, 15 May 1889 has been scratched on nearby bedrock, along with the name John Law(s), but this was long after the farmstead had been deserted.