Story of the Galloway Glens – in 1200 words!

Many thanks to Alistair Livingston, Local Historian,  for the following, giving us a background to the formation of the Ken/Dee Valley….

The first pages of this story are written in the rocks of the Southern Uplands. In places across the parishes of Kells, Carsphairn and Dalry the rocks rise up over 2000 feet high. It is the rain which falls on these hills which rushes down to fill the streams and lochs and rivers of the Galloway Glens. As the uplands give way to the lowlands, the river Ken is joined by the river Dee which winds it way more slowly towards Kirkcudbright and the sea.

Eagles and ospreys, red deer and red squirrels, salmon and pike, perch and trout, black faced sheep and belted Galloways, silage fields and Sitka spruce, marshlands and moor lands- these are other pages of this story through which the waters wend their way.

Tiny fossils have written words in the rocks. Translated by geologists they tell of an ancient ocean which became the land of Galloway. Other rocks were forged in fire, molten upsurges which burst from the depths, solidifying as shimmering crystals of grey granite. In this deep time, if each word of the story written so far took a million years to form, we would still only be half way through the 400 million years between the eruption of molten rock which formed the granite rocks and the next part of this story.

The Galloway Glens have been submerged by an ocean of ice more than once in the past. The most recent happened 20 000 years ago when even Merrick, the Rhinns of Kells and Cairnsmore of Carsphairn were hidden beneath the ice and snow. A glacier would have filled the Galloway Glens and then as it began to melt, great torrents of icy water would have followed its course.

Then, about 10 000 years ago, as rain water replaced melt water, something new happened. From Dundeugh down to Threave Castle Island, the waters of the Galloway Glens flow south east. Below Threave, the waters gathered up by the Dee flow west towards Kirkcudbright. Before this new course was taken, the river swollen by melting glaciers would have continued its south-easterly course past Screel and reached the sea at Orchardton Bay. The marshes on either side of Carlingwark Loch mark the passing of this lost river.

The ice had stripped the land bare, but when it had gone and the waters retreated, life returned to the land. The white of ice, blue of water and grey of bare rock was slowly submerged by a creeping tide of green as first mosses and grasses then scrub and bushes and finally trees reclaimed the barren landscape. In time the trees took root everywhere that was not bare rock or open water, foresting the Galloway Glens.

Then the forest began to retreat, surviving only here and there as patches of woodland. It is only recently that something similar to the post-glacial forest has returned, marking out great blocks of the landscape with a darker green.

The ebb and flow of the forest records a new presence in the Galloway Glens- people. For the first few thousand years there were only a few extended family groups, counted in tens rather than hundreds, gathering, hunting and fishing through the forest and along the rivers and marshes. It would take a revolution before their way of life would change.

The revolution was profound and we are still living within the changes it brought. We call it ‘farming’.

The farming revolution was a slow revolution. It was much more labour intensive than gathering and hunting. Growing crops needed the most labour, but had the advantage that the grain produced could be stored, building up a surplus against times when the harvest was poor. Livestock farming needed fewer people, but needed more land to provide food for the livestock in winter. It was also much more difficult to store meat without it going bad.

A late spring, a wet summer, an early autumn, a hard winter; any of these could mean starvation for the people of the Galloway Glen, keeping a check on population growth. On the other hand, a series of good years would see the population increase allowing the area of farmed land to expand.

Gradually then, the forest gave way to ever expanding patches of farmed land, but survived in between as areas of woodland. The pattern of farming which had emerged by the time Fergus of Galloway (died 1161) ruled Galloway persisted for another 700 years.

Where the soil was deeper, the farms were clustered closer and teams of oxen toiled through the autumn and winter ploughing the ground ready for crops of oats and bere (a type of barley) to be planted in the spring. Where the soil was thinner, the farms were more widely scattered. Oats and bere were cultivated, but the main activity was the grazing of sheep, cattle and horses on the moors and hills.

Over the past 200 years the Galloway Glens has undergone many changes. In the uplands, sheep farming became the dominant land use. Then, over the past 50 years, the trees have replaced the sheep. In the lowlands, farms which had been arable farms for hundreds of years are now intensively worked dairy farms.

The hundreds of horses which once worked the farms and transported people and goods have vanished from the Galloway Glens as have the iron horses of the railway which once wound its way from Castle Douglas down the Dee to Kirkcudbright and up to Loch Ken. Here the delicate wrought iron spans of a bridge survive; very different to the massive brick reinforced pillars of the Fleet viaduct which can be seen 10 miles to the west.

Building the railway was a great feat of Victorian engineering, but was matched in the 1930s when the Galloway Hydro-electric Scheme was constructed, harnessing and controlling the rivers of the Galloway Glens. The dams and power stations which can be seen by travellers on the A 713 provide a strong contrast to the former deep and open cast coal mines of the Doon Valley beyond.

But while the landscape of the Galloway Glens may seem to be more natural and less industrial then that of the Doon Valley, this is in many ways a side effect of urbanisation. The most striking example of urbanisation is Castle Douglas. From a hamlet of half a dozen houses and inn in 1792, the town has grown to become the largest – 4500 – settlement in the Galloway Glens. While the smaller settlements in the Galloway Glen may not have grown so explosively, only one, the hamlet of Polmaddy, has been abandoned.

Many farms, however, have been abandoned and others converted to residential use. Even the farms which survive are home to only one family rather than the several required when horses or oxen rather tractors and contractors were needed to work the land. And trees, unlike sheep, do not need to be sheparded.

In the 21st century then, the intimate linkages between land and people which have shaped  the Galloway Glens for thousands of years are weaker and more tenuous than they have ever been before. Finding ways to strengthen and deepen the vital connections between the towns and villages of the Galloway Glens and the natural and cultural heritage embodied in the landscape is therefore an essential task.

Over the next few years, the Galloway Glens Partnership will provide a unique opportunity to bring together individuals, communities, agencies and institutions in response to this challenging task. If the potential of the Partnership can be realised, the outlines of a new chapter in the story of the Galloway Glens will emerge. But the chapter itself will be written by those who visit, live and work in the Galloway Glens

Photo: Woodhall loch, courtesy Stuart Littlewood.