Last of the Westland Whigs

In the late 17th century, the 'Westland Whigs' were the radical descendants of earlier Covenanters who had defied the absolutist rule of Stuart kings in south west Scotland.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Witches drowned in a sea of sitka spruce

Looking for Gilbert Browne’s spouse.

In her paper “The Survival of Witchcraft Prosecutions and Witch belief in South -West Scotland” [Scottish Historical Review, April 2006) Dr. Lizanne Henderson discusses the case of five alleged witches who were taken from Dumfries for trial in Kirkcudbright in 1671. One of the witches was called Bessie Paine who claimed to be a ‘white’ rather than a ‘black’ witch.

“When the wife of Gilbert Browne of Craigend became ill, he sent for Paine who determined ‘that Agnes Rowan’ had witched her. Paine successfully cured the wife, hinting that the best way to combat the magic of a ‘black’ witch’ was to deploy the skills of a ‘white’ witch.”.

The question I then asked myself was - can the Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds provide any background details? The answer was Yes.

Deed 1734 is a Bond drawn up at Knockvalloch on 7 April 1674 where by Cuthbert Browne of Craigend and Grissel Waighe, spouses, promised to pay Major James Mauwell of Glenlea £100 Scots, payable at Lammas 1674 and Candlemas 1675, with £10 of penalty for each term’s non- payment and annualrent [interest] from the date hereof.

But where was Craigend? ‘Glenlea’ was the clue. Glenlee is (or was) an estate. There still is a Glenlee House, and a Glenlee power station (part of the Galloway Hydro- Electric Scheme completed in 1936). Following the Craigshinnie Burn which flows past Glenlee house upstream, I found a Craigend on the map [ OS Explorer series 319 Galloway Forest Park South]. However all the map showed were a few black dots. So I checked with Ainslie’s 1797 map of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright [online via excellent National Library of Scotland’s digital library]. There, close to Craigshinnie was a building called Craigend.

But would anything survive? The only way to find out was to go and take a look.

On the map it seemed easy enough. From just past the Coom Bridge on the A 762 a single track road runs up and over the hill towards Clatteringshaws Loch on the A 712. From Craigshinnie Bridge on this back road a forest road runs up towards Craigend, which is on a forest ride. Unfortunately the forest road runs parallel with an old estate road which is so overgrown as to be near invisible. Craigend is close to where the estate road crosses the forest road and so I missed the turn. Luckily, thanks in part from input from the Galloway Mountain Rescue Team and my brother Ian, the OS now show forest rides as distinct from forest roads, and mark dykes boldly, even where they are now hidden by sitka spruce.

So when I found a dyke and then a forest ride, I knew I had come too far. Turning back I found the old track hidden behind a clump of broom, beyond which I could see the ride. However it was not a clear ‘firebreak’ but rather a patch of indigenous woodland, including an impressive mature ash tree and some alder/ hazel bush-trees. A wee burn rushed down beside these -its course partially defined by what looked by a stone wall. Beside the burn and beneath the bushes was a rough rectangle of mossy boulders. Other short lines of mossy boulders lurked in the green gloom. Here or nowhere was Craigend. A rickle o’ stanes in a sea of sitka. Here or nowhere was where Bessie Paine had cured Cuthbert Browne’s spouse Grissel Waighe of the sickness laid upon (allegedly) by Agnes Rowan in 1671.

And here, or nowhere, Cuthbert and Grissel had eked the £100 Scots from the land to pay Major Maxuell of Glenlea (as rent?) in 1674/5.

How did they farm the land? Did they herd cattle, sheep or goats [the Forest Park has a substantial population of wild / ferral goats and a Wild Goat Park]. Or did they grow oats and bere? Or some combination of all the above, plus make ‘ewes milk cheese’ as the occupants of the similar steading of Kilnair near Lochinvar Loch did around the same time?

That there was some arable farming up here in the Galloway Highlands can be shown by the next bit of exploration.

Narrow-curving rig system at Stroan NX 645 696

Recently Mary-Anne Smythe and Richard Cunningham of Craig Farm ( Balmaclellan ) gave me a fascinating book -‘The History of Soils and Field Systems’ ed. S. Foster and T.C. Smout: Scottish Cultural press: 1994 - to help me with my Galloway Levellers research. In the book is chapter by Piers Dixon of RCHAMS on Field Systems, Rig and Other Cultivation Remains in Scotland: The Field Evidence.

One of Pier’s case studies is the system at Stroan - just above Stroan Loch and beside the old ‘Port Road’ [Portpatrick Railway, opened 1861 and which ran from Castle Douglas to Stranraer and Portpatrick] which crosses the Black Water of Dee by a sturdy granite viaduct as the river exits Loch Stroan. There is a car park and picnic site here, part of the ‘Raiders Road’ [from novel ‘The Raiders’ by local author S.R. Crockett]

The railway makes a cutting through Stroan Hill. I followed this, hoping to check out the abandoned farm of Stroan mentioned by Piers. Unfortunately the way down to Stroan farm beside the loch was blocked and obscured by an endless expanse of chest high bracken. However, there was a recently made track leading up towards Stroan Hill. I followed this, but it soon petered out. I could see the green summit of the hill, but to get there had to cross a very boggy and pathless section of mixed blaeberry, heather, bracken and spiky grass. I made slow progress, hopping from tussock to tussock, skirting the boggiest looking patches, until at last I crossed the low, tumbled remains of a dyke.

Severla more such dykes criss-crossed the summit of the hill, but progress was much easier over long but ‘proper’ grass. But even here, the summer growth made it very difficult/ impossible to make out any of the ‘narrow-curving’ rigs. Nor could I make out (despite the help of the detailed map contained in the book) the ‘several houses, yards and kiln’ of the township which had once existed here and which pre-dated the farm at Stroan. [Although I could see the farm of Airie surrounded by its green fields beneath Airie Hill, 291. m/ 955 ft..]

Heights? Significance?

Craigend is at 230 m./ 755 ft. The summit of Stroan Hill is 125 m./ 410 ft. The fields of Airie farm (110m. / 360 ft.) reach up to the 150m./ 492 ft. contour level. Stroan farm was at 70 m./ 230ft. Craigend was clearly at the upper end of viabilty, if height above sea level is a factor, but if so, then why does Airie survive as a farm when Stroan does not?

By the time of the Old Statistical Account (1790s) sheep farming had become the dominant form of agriculture in the Galloway Highlands. It remained so until the 1960s, when
[D. Mackay: Scotland’s Rural Land Use Agencies: Scottish Cultural Press: 1995: 35] ‘the market for mature (wedder) mutton collapsed, as did the market for wool.’. Combined with the wetter climate of Galloway (compared with the Borders - J. Tivy: The Organic Resources of Scotland: Edinburgh : 1973) which made sheep farming in Galloway less viable than in eastern Scotland, the value of sheep-farms dropped rapidly, allowing the Forestry Commission to buy them up cheapply and blanket-plant all but the highest peaks with 230 squares miles of sitka spruce.

In today’s green desert, the ‘black vs white’ witchcraft argument Bessie Paine and Agnes Rowan once fought out over the body and soul of Grissel Waighe has become irrelevant. Neither bodies nor souls survive here anymore. The hissings of the witches have been silenced by the whispering of the wind amongst the vivid/ alien green sea of sitka spruce.


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