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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Deer hunting in medieval Galloway

 Loch Neldricken -'loch nEileirgan' looking to Craig Neldricken 'creag nEileirgan' [from Gaelic meaning loch and hill of the small deer trap] -in the Galloway Highlands.

I have been asked the question - were there enough people living in medieval Galloway to provide enough people -500 to 1000- for large scale deer hunting. This type of hunting involved a large number of 'beaters' driving the deer into a enclosed space/ trap where they were shot by archers.

Here is my answer.

The population of medieval Scotland is estimated to have grown from 500 000 circa 1000 AD to 1 million in 1348 -but was then drastically reduced by the Black Death. [See Tyson, R.E., "Population Patterns", in M. Lynch (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, (New York, 2001), pp. 487–489 for details]

I have not seen any figures for the population of medieval Galloway, but from Webster’s account in 1755 and the first census in 1801, the population of Galloway then was approximately 3% of the Scottish total. In 1755 and 1801, 44% of the population lived in Wigtownshire and 56% in the Stewartry.

If we take 750 000  starting point for the population of medieval Scotland  (splitting the difference between 500 000 and 1 million), this would give a population of  22 523 for medieval Galloway. This in turn suggests a Wigtownshire population of  9910 and 12 613 for the Stewartry during the Middle Ages.

However, these populations were not evenly distributed.. Most of the population would have lived in the lowland areas where arable farming was practised.. This can be illustrated by the 1684 parish records for Wigtownshire and Minnigaff, looking at the Minnigaff figures. http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~leighann/1684/nminnig.txt

Farms in the Forest of Buchan only had two or three families while lowland farms had 10 or so families. This pattern of farming had not changed since the medieval period.

The total figures for the 1684 survey are given here http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~leighann/1684/fintrod2.txt
 -but only people over the age of 12 were counted. The total adult population given for Wigtownshire plus Minnigaff in 1684 is 9267, of which 4446 or 48% were males over the age of 12.

Applying this figure to the medieval Galloway population of 22 523 gives a total of 4757 males over the age of 12 in Wigtownshire (out of 9910 total population)  and 6054 for the Stewartry (out of 12 163 total population).

Distribution of eileidrig [deer trap] sites in Galloway -Michael Ansell.

Assuming hunting took place in the upland areas, in the Stewartry, the upland parishes of Carsphairn, Dalry, Kells and Minnigaff have a combined area of 358 square miles. The adult male population of this huge area would have been about 1000 in the medieval period..

The upland parishes of Kirkcowan and Penningham have an area of 110 square miles. [I have excluded New Luce since the whole of Old and New Luce parishes belonged to Glenluce abbey so were not part of the lords of Galloway’s lands]. The adult male population of this area would have been about 950.

In theory then, it would have been just about possible to deploy 500 to 1000 adult males for hunting in these areas, but practically the numbers would have to have been made up with extra bodies from lowland parishes.

What this suggests is that hunting on this large scale would have required a lot of organisation- to recruit, move, assemble, feed and shelter a large group of people in the difficult conditions of upland Galloway. Effectively, large scale hunting would have been equivalent to a military exercise. This fits with the historical record. For example, on 20 July 1212, King John of England asked Alan, lord of Galloway, to send  ‘one thousand of his best and most active Galwegians’ to Chester to help subdue a revolt in Wales. [Richard Oram, The Lordship of Galloway, page 118, quoting Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland vol.I no 529] .

At the risk of diverting from your theme,  there could be s a strong link between the  military strength of Galloway and hunting. For example Ronan Toolis  discussion of the role of  Galwegian soldiers in the Battle of the Stnadard in 138 [ Naked and Unarmoured in Transactions DGNHAS vol 78  2004 - online via
http://www.dgnhas.org.uk/transonline.php ] plus Richard Oram Lordship of Galloway chapters on Roland and Alan which gives details of the use by Scottish and English kings of  Galwegian soldiers e.g. in 1187 when Roland’s troops defeated the forces of Domnall meic Uilliam near Dingwall in the Highlands [Oram p. 102]

To conclude- hunting involving 500 to 1000 adult males would have been
 possible in medieval Galloway but would have required a high level
 of planning and organisation. This would have been possible for the 
lords of Galloway. This in turn suggests that such large scale
 hunting may have been used as military practice and training by
 the lords of Galloway for their lightly armoured but very mobile
 troops - which strongly connects to  historical records about the
 actual use of Galwegian troops in medieval warfare.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Can I ask where you got your illustration from, would love to use it for a piece of interpretation I am working on

12:10 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

It is from Puir Labourers and Busy Husbandmen: The Medieval Countryside of Scotland published by Historic Scotland.The illustration is by David Simon on page 43 and shows a deer trap.

6:49 pm  

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