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.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Archaeology, history and ethnography of Galloway

View across Fleet Valley from Trusty's Hill 31 May 2012


What was the population of Galloway 1500 years ago? One of the most interesting sources I have found  is the 1684 Parish Lists for Wigtownshire and Minnigaff (the information is online and the book can eb downloaded). For some of the parishes, the lists are given for each farm , so it is possible to establish that upland farms in Minnigaff  were worked by one or two families while some of the larger lowland farms were occupied by up to ten families. The lowland farms needed more people to work them because they were arable farms growing oats and barley and needed more people to work the oxen  drawn wooden ploughs and for planting and harvesting. The cattle, sheep and horses (and some goats) of the upland farms  needed fewer people to manage them and the farms only had small patches of arable land.

It is possible- using the 1456 Exchequer Rolls for example - to trace this basic division back 200 years. From very sketchy charter evidence,  the pattern can be followed  back another 300 years to the mid- twelfth century. Back beyond then, there are no written records to go on so we have to rely on archaeology and a little bit of place name evidence - for example the Gaelic airigh place name element which indicates places where cattle were pastured in the summer.

The archaeology reveals many cattle bones and  several quern (grinding) stones, plough pebbles (at Whithorn) and a  simple plough at Milton loch (Urr) crannog. In the Carlingwark Cauldron there were scythe  blades and sickles. As well as the crannogs, there are hill and coastal forts,  roundhouses and ‘homesteads’ concentrated in the lowland zones along the coast and up the river valleys. I am not sure how much forest there was 1500 years ago, probably quite a lot. There would also have been a lot more bog and marsh since wetland areas were only drained in the later eighteenth/ early nineteenth century. Between woods and wetlands, the amount of land on which crops could be grown would have been limited.

This would have been a limiting factor on population growth.  Cereal crops can be stored to provide a surplus against years of bad harvests. But without enough people, the scope of arable farming would have been constrained, making it more difficult to accumulate surpluses through extending the amount of arable land. Increasing the numbers of cattle would create the problem of feeding them through the winter. In the seventeenth century the problem of overstocking farms was managed by the use of ‘soums’ - each farm had a fixed number of soums, calculated as the area of pasture needed to keep different types of livestock. [Along the lines of 1 soum = 1 horse = 2 cows = 6 sheep.]

By the end of the seventeenth century, the population of Galloway was around 30 000. But by then, even if there were still areas of wetland to be drained, there was very little forest left and some of the farms had been in existence for at least 500 years. Sypland near Kirkcudbright (now Meikle and Little Sypland which are about 1 mile apart) is mentioned in a charter from  circa 1200 as being one of the farms Fergus of Galloway gifted to Holyrood abbey in 1160.

Thinking about earlier settlement patterns, the possibility is of  them being dotted around in places where cereal crops could be grown  surrounded by a larger area of wood pasture where the cattle were grazed. It would have been difficult to extend this pattern into the upland zone due to its unsuitability for cereal production. How many people does this imply? A few thousand. Perhaps 4000 to 6000 in Galloway?  [I found a figure of 10 000 for Dal Riata  and 80/100 000 for Pictland while trying to work this out in  L. R. Laing, The Archaeology of Celtic Britain and Ireland, c. AD 400-1200 ].

If here were only such a few people, then cultural/political/ religious/ linguistic changes would have occurred more easily. For example, if Irish missionaries were active in the sixth century, leading to conversion of the ruling elite, Gaelic could have spread quite quickly through such a small population. On the other hand, if there was significant Northumbrian settlement in the eighth  century then Old English should have become the dominant language. That it does not seem to have done suggests Northumbrian influence was more limited.

Thinking about Trusty’s Hill- I wonder what did the landscape look like then? Where were their fields, what crops did they grow, where did the graze their cattle? Did they have horses, ancestors of the ‘Galloway ponies’? How many people lived there, and for how long? What language(s) did they speak? Whose name is recorded in the ogham inscription? What happened after the fort was set on fire and its stones vitrified?

I am reading and re-reading  background sources and archaeology reports, trying to gain a fuller understanding  of the period. It is difficult though. I have researched seventeenth and eighteenth century Galloway for my Galloway Levellers M.Phil dissertation. I have also made  similar study of medieval Galloway, focused on the rise and fall of Gaelic. But that is history, requiring a close reading of contemporary materials added to a knowledge of the landscape as it is and partially as it was. It is also possible to trace the histories of individuals, find where they lives, find their graves. This is different, it is - since lacking written sources- prehistory. To move beyond the artefacts, the pieces of bone, the fragments of pottery and metal, the outlines of tumbled walls - leads to speculations. This is a very different pattern of the past.

Even in the scorching heat of late May, even with the sun blazing down on the hill, the past exposed beneath the turf seemed shadowy, a dusty darkness in the depths of time, illuminated only here and there, the sun striking a fragment of fired clay, an encrusted piece of iron, enigmatic markings on a rock, a puddle of muddy water in a rock cut well. The seemingly solid dissolving into air.

There is a risk here of straying into philosophical speculations about the possibility of knowledge. If it is possible to recognise the limits of knowledge about the past, does that mean it is also possible to recognise the limits of knowledge about the present? I am thinking of the University of Edinburgh European Ethnological Research Centre’s Dumfries and Galloway Ethnological Stuyd  project.

The ethnological study will have far more ‘data-points’ from which to build its understandings from,  but will it be  able to reveal a less shadowy image of  the contemporary culture of Dumfries and Galloway compared to the culture of sixth and seventh century Dumfries and Galloway?


Post a Comment

<< Home