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

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Talk Castle Douglas, Food and History

This is the text of a talk I gave for the Castle Douglas Harvest food festival 9 September 2017. I will add some images later

Castle Douglas  and Food

Castle Douglas is not quite 230 years old but people have been living here for about 10 000 years. For the first four or five thousand years it would be more accurate to say people visited the Castle Douglas area- they were gatherers, fishers and hunters not farmers. They arrived here after the  last ice age ended when, as the climate warmed up, Galloway was covered by a huge forest.

 They would have spent the winter on the  Solway coast and then moved up into the Galloway hills in the spring before moving back down to the coast in the autumn.  They gathered fruit, edible roots and hazel nuts and hunted for deer in the hills. They would have caught salmon in the Dee and wildfowl from the marshes on what is  now the National Trust’s Threave Estate.

About 6000 years ago a revolution reached Galloway. This was the beginning of farming here, when cereals and livestock were domesticated and the first settled communities began. Castle Douglas’ oldest residents date from this period- two small standing stones in a field below the Urr Valley hotel.

The problem the first farmers had was that to make room for their crops and livestock, they had to clear away a 5000 year old forest. With stone axes this was difficult. It was easier with the bronze axes which came in 3 and a half thousand years ago but what really made a difference were iron axes and saws. These would have been available 2700 years ago. With the new technology, even the thickest areas of forest growing on deep fertile soils could be cleared, opening up the flood plain of the river Dee and the area around Castle Douglas.

Once the land could be farmed more effectively, the population could begin to grow. With more people available, more land could be cultivated and more livestock herded. As a result, by the time the first Roman soldiers marched into Galloway, one historian has described the Castle Douglas area as a centre of paramount power and wealth.

He based that claim on what is now one of the treasures of the National Museum in Edinburgh - the Torrs Pony Cap. This stunning beautiful object was found in 1812 when a loch on Torrs farm was being drained. Found in Carlingwark Loch, the Carlingwark cauldron is also in the National Museum as is a beautiful bronze mirror found in Balmaclellan.

The pony cap would have been worn by a horse which puked a chariot.  Two ornamental harness fittings have also been found- one at Auchendolly and the other at Wheatcroft. On Meiklewood Hill which overlooks the Dee on one side and Castle Douglas on the other there was a large and impressive iron age roundhouse. There was also a hill fort at Torrs and another one on Dunmuir Hill.

The |Torrs hill fort was excavated by Dr Fraser Hunter of the National Museum last year. He found evidence that the walls of the hill fort had been rebuilt at least twice, but there was no sign of anyone actually living inside it.

Taken altogether, this evidence suggests that 2000 years ago, the Castle Douglas area was where a succession of  powerful  Celtic chieftains lived, controlling a territory that stretched up into the Glenkens.  An indication that the Castle Douglas area was important comes from the Roman forts and camps at Glenlochar. These represent the largest concentration of Roman power in Galloway and shows that it was the key area the Romans needed  to subdue.

If the Castle Douglas area was a centre of wealth and power 2000 years ago, where did that power and wealth come from? There were no gold mines or copper mines and it was too far inland to be a centre for sea trade. The only place the wealth and power could come from was the land itself, from the crops of barley and wheat the people grew and from the animals they farmed- cattle, sheep, pigs and goats - as well as horses.

On the other hand, everyone else in the region grew the same crops and had the same mix of livestock. There must have been something additional factor which help to concentrate the wealth of the land in the Castle Douglas area. I suspect it may have been the rivers Dee and Ken. The river system is navigable from Threave island upstream to the head of loch Ken. When Carlingwark loch was partially drained in the 18th century, as well as an Iron Age  crannog, several dug out canoes were found.

The rivers could have been used as a transport system, creating an extended community - a tribal territory- along their length. The Roman forts and camps at Glenlochar may have disrupted the  political and economic structures of this Iron Age community because we now have to jump forward a thousand years to the age of Archibald the Grim and Threave castle before the Castle Douglas area becomes important again.

Archibald the Grim was an illegitimate son of James Douglas, Robert the Bruce’s most loyal  follower. The people of Galloway were not loyal to Robert the Bruce, they supported his rival John Balliol and then his son Edward. Even after Edward Balliol died in 1365, the Gaelic speaking kindreds or clans of Galloway- the McDowalls, the McCullochs and the McLellans - were still hostile to Bruce’s son King David II. The year after Edward Balliol died, King David proposed gifting the Lordship of Galloway to John of Gaunt, one of the English king Edward III’s sons, but was talked out of it.

What David did do was make Archibald the Grim warden of the West March of the Scottish border. In 1369, David is supposed to have gifted Archibald all the lands between the Nith and the Cree but I think Archibald grabbed the Stewartry first and then got David to make it legal. In 1372 Archibald bought Wigtownshire from the earl of Wigtown for £500 and re-established the Lordship of Galloway.

In 1325, Robert the Bruce had granted the castle and barony of Buittle to James Douglas and it was still owned by the Douglases of Morton. Archibald therefore decided to build a new castle on Threave island. It was a good defensible site surrounded by good farmland.

The river was also a source of food for the castle. In 1706, William Maxwell, earl of Nithsdale sold  the lands of Kelton, now Threave estate to a Dumfries merchant,  but although the castle was a ruin, he kept it because it gave him the valuable fishing rights for a large section of the Dee. Ownership of the castle also gave the earl the right every autumn to demand a nice fat cow or bull from each of the 28 parishes in the Stewartry.

From this period we also have rental rolls  and charters which give the names of individual farms and sometimes their tenants. In Buittle most of the farms have Gaelic names. There is a boundary between Kelton and Buittle parishes at the Cuckoo bridge on the Gelston road. The stream there is the parish boundary and on the Kelton side the farm is Whitepark and on the Buittle side it is Cuil. Cuil means corner in Gaelic and it is in the corner of Buittle parish.

Whitepark is Scots and, if we compare it with Blackpark on the other side of the town, which takes its name from the dark peaty soil which is turned over by ploughing,  its name would come from the thinner paler soil seen when the higher ground Whitepark sits on was ploughed. Whitepark was part of Kelton grange, now Kelton Mains along with Midkelton and Nether Kelton which is now Halmyre and Carlingwark. Carlin is a Scots word which can either mean an old woman or a witch. On the other side of the Dee was Threave grange, which is now called Threave Mains. From these  Scots farm names we can see that Archibald settled Scots speakers in the lands around his castle.

Blackpark is in Crossmichael parish and all the farms in Crossmichael belonged to Lincluden abbey- which was originally a nunnery founded  in about 1160.  In  1389, Archibald the Grim got rid of the nuns and turned Lincluden into a collegiate church - where the monks had to pray for the souls of Archibald and his family.

In 1455 King James II besieged Threave castle and after it surrendered to him, he took control of all the Douglas lands in Galloway. In 1456 James had a list of all his new lands drawn up which included useful details - for example that the king’s oxen had been set to plough the lands of Kelton and that when harvested, the king’s oats were to be ground at the mill of Kelton.

Between the Iron Age and the Middle Ages oats had replaced wheat as the staple crop alongside barley which continued to be grown. A big heavy wooden plough drawn by six or 8 oxen had also been introduced. We don’t know exactly when and how this change occurred, but it was probably around the time that Fergus of Galloway rose to power. Fergus introduced Cistercian monks to Dundrennan in 1142  and the Cistercians were renowned as agricultural improvers in the early Middle Ages.

If the heavy plough and the cultivation of oats were introduced to Galloway at the same time, food production in Galloway would have increased, generating wealth and power for Fergus and his descendants. Archibald the Grim and the Douglas lords of Galloway would also have benefited. Of the Douglas lands in Galloway taken over by James II in 1455, the densest cluster lies between the Urr and the Dee with another cluster around Wigtown in the Machars, several of which were also arable grange lands.

In the Castle Douglas area records from the 16th and 17th century show that the farms were arable farms, ploughed by teams of oxen and producing oats and barley. This medieval system survived well into the 18th century.

Then in 1765 it all starts to change.

After the Reformation, in  1587, the Gordons of Kenmure managed to get a hold of all the farms in Crossmichael parish which had belonged to Lincluden. These included Greenlaw where there was an old tower house on the banks of the Dee. In the 1680s the Gordons would live there in the summer, transporting their furniture by boat down from Kenmure castle.

By  1740s the lands of Greenlaw were still owned by a branch of the Gordon family and included the new but only partly built mansion house of Greenlaw. Alexander Gordon of Greenlaw was born in 1748 and lived to the ripe old age of 82.

 In 1765, when a canal was cut from Carlingwark Hill to the river Dee Alexander  would have been only 17, so it was probably not entirely his idea. In 1766 or 1767 a cut was made through Carlingwark Hill to increase the water supply to the canal and partly drain the loch. This made it easier to get at the beds of shell marl which lay beneath the loch.

Shell marl is a type of clay enriched with lime by several thousand years worth of fresh water snail shells- and no doubt fish bones.

Applied to the land, shell marl neutralises the acid in acid soils which improves fertility. Shell marl dug out of mosses and small lochs was already being used by improving landowners in the Stewartry. In other areas, like Nithsdale, lime was used but there is very little limestone in the Stewartry.  Along the coast, sea shells from the sea shore were used to improve the soil.

However, because there were only tracks rather than proper roads in the Stewartry -apart from the newly built Military Road, it was difficult and expensive to transport the shell marl. The canal solved this problem, making it easier to improve Alexander Gordon’s lands. Once a shallow section of the river below Glenlochar had been by-passed by another short section of canal, the marl could be carried on barges all the way up to New Galloway and the Boatpool of Dalry and sold to farmers in the Glenkens.

By the 1790s, travellers through Galloway were commenting on how the area around Castle Douglas stood out for the quality of its farms and the richness of its crops. Soon afterwards though, the canal and the marl workings in the loch fell out of use. By then, a whole network of new and improved roads had been built, linking Castle Douglas with the ports of Kirkcudbright and Palnackie and with Nithdsale. The new roads allowed fertiliser made directly from limestone to be brought in by the cart load making shell marl redundant.

Before the new roads were built, Alexander Gordon’s marl workings were kept very busy and a constant stream of barges were in use, some of which could carry 25 tons of marl.  To house his workers, Alexander Gordon had a village of about 100 houses built, strung out along the new Military Road. In 1786 Gordon decided to sell Carlingwark loch and its marl workings along with the village. He had a map drawn up, showing the loch and the village. The next year Gordon tried to sell Carlingwark to
William Cunningham, a wealth Glasgow tobacco lord who had just bought Duchrae- now Hensol- estate. Cunninghame was not interested, but in 1788 another wealth merchant, William Douglas- was. He bought Gordon’s village and the loch for £2000.

William Douglas, the founder of Castle Douglas, does not seem to have been very interested in agricultural improvement, but his new town benefited from the work of landowners who were. The Napoleonic Wars also helped by driving up the price of food. High food prices encouraged further improvement of the land, sweeping away the last vestiges of the medieval farmed landscape. Cast iron ploughs pulled by horses replaced the last teams of oxen and their old wooden ploughs. Tile drains were introduced to help drain the fields so the old raised rigs which had been built up to keep the crops dry could be levelled.

Before Sir William Douglas died in 1809, a turnpike road had been built to replace the Military Road. This became the A 75 which until the 1980s twisted and turned across the countryside. The twists and turns were need to make the road as level as possible for horse drawn carts and coaches. Other new and improved  roads connected Castle Douglas to Ayr and Dalbeattie as well as Kirkcudbright and the surrounding countryside.

By the 1840s, Castle Douglas had weekly livestock sales on the Market Hill, an important post office several banks and many ‘remarkably elegant and well furnished shops’.  William Douglas had set up a cotton weaving factory in the town, but the weaving was all done by hand. By  1831, when power-loom weaving took over from hand-loom weaving, the factory had closed.  From then on the town would depend on farming and agriculture as the source of its prosperity.

The next big change to happen was the rise of dairy farming. In 1845, laws which had kept up the price of cereal crops since the end of the Napoleonic Wars were finally repealed. This encouraged a shift towards dairy farming. This had already begun before the a railway from Dumfries reached Castle Douglas in 1859. The railway was extended to Stranraer in 1861 and Kirkcudbright in 1864. Instead of having to be turned into cheese or butter, fresh milk from the farms around Castle Douglas could be sent by rail to large towns and cities.

For centuries, the farms in the Castle Douglas area had been more or less self-sufficient for most of their needs but as farms became more and more specialised the families of the farmers and their workers need to buy the clothes, tools, beer and food they had once produced for themselves. Farm buildings were no longer made of wood with turf or thatched roofs and home made furniture became a thing of the past.

The shops and businesses based in Castle Douglas grew and developed to meet these new needs. Although individual business have come and gone, there are still bankers, doctors, tailors, joiners, painters, cabinet makers, solicitors and innkeepers in the town as there were in 1840. One change which my mother has observed since she moved to Castle Douglas to teach domestic science in 1954 is the loss of the many grocers’ shops which have been replaced by supermarkets.

Altogether she and her friends have given me a list of ten grocers shops. They were busiest on Mondays when the farmers would come into the market  in their cars along with their wives. The wives  would then  place their orders for a week’s supplies at one of the grocers. When the market was over, supplies would be collected  and put the car for the journey home.

Forty years earlier there were no cars so similar shopping and market trips were made by horse and cart. Farmers from above the town would show of their best horses by parading down King Street to the stables at the back of the Douglas Arms, while farmers from below the town would parade up the street to the stables behind the Crown or the Imperial.

On Saturdays the shops would stay open until eleven o’clock so the farm workers and their wives could do their shopping. My great uncle Bob Livingston’s first job was working for one of the grocer’s shops. Once an order had been made up he would take the box of groceries round to one of the stables and put it in the  farm cart. The tradition of late night opening ended during the First War when, as a way to save oil and gas, shops were not allowed to be illuminated after five pm.

I have a list of the ten grocer’s shops.

Note: the modern locations are roughly where the grocer's shops were. For discussion of more precise locations see https://www.facebook.com/groups/196338190426226/permalink/1534985369894828/

1 Halls -this was above the Imperial on King Street, perhaps where G M Thompson is now.
2. Stevensons, which I can remember- that was where Sunsrise is now.
3. Coopers, previously called Hornels  was where one of the Gowans shops is now,.
4. There was a Co-op roughly where Stepping Out is now. About 1991 the Co-op  moved to Cotton Street, taking over the site of Wallace’s Foundry- then moving to the site of Derby’s Feedmill
and Wilko’s took over the Wallace’s site.
5. Lipton’s was where Designs is now.
6. Smith’s is where Coral is now, previously Victorian Wines.
7. Oliver’s was where the Jade Palace is now.
8. Across the road on the corner with St Andrew street and now part of the Douglas Arms was McMeekin’s
9. McKeand’s was on St Andrew Street where the cycle shop is  now.
10. Hays- this  was next to the Town Hall.

 I think by the late-1960s most of these grocers had gone, since I can only remember a few of them. On the other hand my strongest memory from the 1960s is being very angry with Dr Beeching for closing the railway.

18 years ago I  made a list of all the businesses trading in Castle Douglas. It came to over 200 of which I reckoned about 50 were ‘food related’ - including the Sulwath Brewery which had just opened for example. At that time the abattoir on Cotton Street had just closed. The next year there was a proposal to re-open it - I think by Buccleuch Scotch Beef. This was opposed by some of the residents of Cotton Street so I wrote a letter to the Galloway News suggesting that the abattoir could be moved out to the Abercromby Road Industrial Estate which could be promoted as a ‘Food Park’ where food was produced and processed.

Castle Douglas could then be promoted as a ‘Food Town’ selling and using locally produced food. The idea was that the traditional shops in Castle Douglas attract thousands of visitors every year. The same tourists would also visit Threave castle for its history and Threave estate for its wildlife. My idea was to find ways to make  links between the history and scenic attraction of the countryside around Castle Douglas with the food produced within that  landscape.

Back then I did not know as much about the history of the Castle Douglas area as I do now. Tonight I have skimmed through a lot of history but what I hope has come across is that  the Castle Douglas area has been shaped by ability of its inhabitants to harness the wealth and power which grows out of the land. That Castle Douglas is a town built on food.


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