Blane Valley from the Cuilt Brae

Until the mid-20th century farming was very much an integral part of the life of the parish of Strathblane. The school log contains frequent references to children skipping school to help with the harvest. The Blanefield printworks acknowledged that they had difficulty in recruiting children to work in the factory, probably because there was alternative work on the farms.

Contention & Bloodshed

Yet for centuries the parish, like much of Stirlingshire, had suffered the consequences of its geography. In Roman times, it lay on the wild frontier of Rome’s vast empire with all the disruption that this implied. And after their departure it found itself at the meeting place of four different kingdoms, with the Northumbrian and Cumbrian to the south and the Scots and Picts to the north, all competing for ascendancy. Then the Vikings arrived. As The First Statistical Account of 1796 observed, Stirlingshire was “for ages a field of contention and bloodshed”. This was hardly conducive to the development of farming.

Blackmail

Even after the political future of Scotland was more settled, as John Guthrie Smith recorded: “The parish was for centuries kept in a state of unrest and often of misery, and both agriculture and sheep and cattle breeding were seriously hindered by the raids of cattle lifters and ‘broken men’ from the north.”

Rob Roy MacGregor, engraving from c1820

The traditional solution was to adopt the policy of “setting a thief to catch a thief”. In other words, pay blackmail to some Highland “gentlemen”, who would retrieve their cattle, sheep and other property stolen by other Highland “gentlemen”.  Members of the MacGregor clan developed a good line in this business. The government didn’t think much of the idea and Acts of Parliament in 1567 and 1587 made the payment of blackmail a criminal offence. To little avail. On 3 February 1659 the Justices of the Peace at the Quarter Sessions in Stirling decreed that the inhabitants of certain parishes, including Strathblane, should pay what they owed to Hew MacGregor, who was acting as captain of an armed watch for protecting the cattle in the area east and south of Loch Lomond. However, they should also inform him that in future “they are not to expect any service frae him or he to expect any payment frae them.” A copy of this proclamation was to be posted at the Kirk of Strathblane. [Note: Many accounts, including the First Statistical Account of the Parish of Strathblane, mistakenly link this incident to Hew MacGregor’s better-known kinsman, Rob Roy MacGregor, who was also in the security/extortion business. However, Rob Roy was not born until 1671. He was certainly active in the area around 1710 when his men set fire to Auchentroig, a house near Killearn, over an issue about unpaid blackmail. The Meikle Tree at Blairquhosh on the Duntreath Estate was also known as “Rob Roy’s Tree”. It is one of several in which the freebooter supposedly hid while the Duke of Montrose’s factor stood below discussing how he could be caught. [The tree was declared unsafe and chopped down around 1980.]

Rob Roy’s Tree from The History of the Parish of Strathblane by John Guthrie Smith

It would be nearly 100 years before the farmers of Strathblane were free of this menace. In fact, in 1691 things got so bad that a petition was presented to the Privy Council by a group of lairds, including Craig of Leddriegreen, complaining that they were so harassed by cattle thieves that they could not afford to pay their taxes and requesting that they be allowed to employ one of the MacGregors to protect them. The council relented and when a band of McCraws lifted 200 sheep from Strathblane, the MacGregors set off in pursuit and caught up with the marauders in Ross-shire, returning with 199 of the 200 sheep, according to John Guthire Smith. Blackmailing and cattle rustling were not put down finally until after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

In his putative map of the parish in the late 17th century John Guthrie Smith showed the location of farms with such names as ‘Dirty Mailings’, ‘The Hole’ and ‘Puddock Hole’. All these names are suggestive of poor drainage. (The first two farms are no longer in existence though ‘Puddock Hole’, or Wester Leddriegreen as it is correctly known, still exists but not as a working farm.)

Part of John Guthrie Smith’s map attempting to show the various farms in Strathblane Parish c1680

The Duntreath Estate had a number of farms, including the Cuilt, Blairquhosh, Burnfoot and Craigbrock, with others in the Killearn parish, and beyond Duntreath there was Quinloch Farm. Ballewan Farm was owned by the Grahams of Ballewan. Wester Leddriegreen, Kirkhouse Farm, Broadgate Farm and Ballagan Farm covered the area in the middle of the parish. There was also Milndavie Farm, Muirhouse Farm and Boards Farm (on the Gowk Stane track and latterly owned by Clyde shipbuilder Charles Connell of Craigallian). At Mugdock there were the three farms of Easterton, Middleton and Westerton.

First Statistical Account, 1796

We are unusually fortunate in having a detailed portrait of the state of farming in Strathblane in the 1790s. That was when Sir John Sinclair commissioned Scotland’s church ministers to draw up detailed accounts of their parishes. By happy coincidence the Rev Gavin Gibb, Minister of Strathblane, was also an excellent farmer with a zeal for agricultural improvement.

At the end of the 18th century, developments had begun in the methods used in farming. Guthrie Smith remarked that the new road from Glasgow to Balfron had contributed to this, but the real innovators were the Rev. Gibb, who had come to the parish in 1791, and Archibald Edmonstone of Spittal, who came from a minor branch of the Edmonstone family. [At this time Duntreath Castle was a ruin and the family lived mainly in Ireland. The Spittal was a small tongue of land on the flanks of the Campsies near Craigbrock.]

Opening page of The First Statistical Account of the Parish of Strathblane, 1796

The First Statistical Account of the Parish of Strathblane, compiled by Rev Gibb in 1796, noted that the parish was divided into moorland, which provided excellent pasture for black cattle and blackfaced sheep, and valley, which sustained crops, principally oats, barley and grass. Some also grew peas and beans.

 “For many years the farmers have paid particular attention to the improvement of their lands. It requires only to be manured and laboured to produce plentifully.”

Rev Gavin Gibb, First Statistical Account, 1796

Many local farmers were clubbing together to subscribe to the Farmers Society of Glasgow, which lent money for agricultural improvements, such as the provision of new strains of high-quality grass seed.

At the same time, the number of cottagers, who lived and worked on their own small pieces of land, was diminishing, as larger farms were further enlarged. That is the most likely explanation for the drop in the parish population from 797 in 1755 to 620 in 1795.

At that time there were 100 working horses in the parish and around 300 milk cows, as well as about 1200 ewes. Lambs, noted the Rev Gibb, began to appear around 10 April and in November some farmers would smear their sheep with a mixture of tar and butter, which was thought to improve the quantity and quality of their wool. Archibald Edmonstone of Spittal was renowned for his success in breeding both sheep and cattle. In one instance, he crossed a Spanish ram with Scottish blackface ewes with encouraging results. Some Highland cattle were bought in the autumn, overwintered in the Blane Valley, and sold in the markets of Glasgow and Paisley the following year.

The Innundation of 1795

In view of recent flooding issues in the area, it is worth reproducing in full Gibb’s vivid account of the Great Innundation of 1795, which must have threatened the liveliehood of every farmer in the parish. On 13 August around 8pm clouds that had hung “in a threatening aspect” condesned over Earl’s Seat, then burst and fell in sheets. He continues:

1795 Innundation

Second Statistical Account

In the early part of the 19th century many of the tree plantations in the area were completed. By the time The Second Statistical Account was written in 1841, there were around 2000 acres of woodland in the parish, including a number of newly created plantations. By now the number of working horses had declined to 88 but numbers of ewes and milk cows were roughly comparable with 45 years before. During that time around 300 acres of waste land had been reclaimed by draining it.

In this era the standard crop rotation was a crop of oats, a second crop of oats or turnips (or potatoes), a third crop of ryegrass, followed by three years of pasture. The minister, Rev Hamilton Buchanan, complained that tenant farmers suffered from having to pay set rents when the price of produce varied considerably according to market fluctuations. In 1841 there were 42 farms in the parish, including Mugdock.  A male farm worker would expect to be paid just £15 a year and a shepherd £22. Little wonder that agricultural workers might aspire to jobs in Blanefield printworks, where a journeyman block printer could earn more than £50 annually.

Extract from The Second Statistical Account of the Parish of Strathblane, revised in 1841

The opening the Blane Valley Railway in 1866 for freight meant that agricultural produce could be quickly transported into Glasgow. This was particularly advantageous for milk, which had previously been transported via Balloch.

John Guthrie Smith

In 1886 John Guthrie Smith usefully compared the state of farming in the parish with that of 45 years before. The acreage under oats was down from 550 to 311 and very little wheat or barley was being cultivated. By contrast natural hay production had trebled. The number of working horses was falling, while more were being kept for stud, while sheep numbers had risen to nearly 5,000. (These figures come from The Second Statistical Account and the Agricultural Department of the Privy Council.)

Edenkiln showing the field at the corner of Dumbrock Road and Old Mugdock Road where Strathblane livestock fairs were held

The Strathblane Fair, a livestock fair, held at Edenkiln in the field at the corner of Dumbrock Road and Old Mugdock Road, helped to stimulate improvements in stock breeding and agriculture. The same applies to the activities of the Farmers Society of Strathblane, who organised annual ploughing matches. A minute book in our archives reports that the 1870 match was held at Blairtummoch Farm and won by Robert Weir. The prize was £1.

Extract from the minute book of the Farmers’ Society of Strathblane for 1870

There was also a number of dairies, the most notable ones being the Cuilt Dairy and Arneil’s Dairy at Ballewan, later taken over by Findlays.

The Cuilt Farm Dairy Cart
. Ballewan Farm Milk bottle
Milking Time at Ballagan Farm

Muirhouse Farm had a buttermilk run. At the beginning of the 20th century they used a horse and cart, but in 1926 a Model T lorry was purchased to make the journey to St George’s Cross in Glasgow to deliver buttermilk to the City Bakeries.

Ploughing at Cuilt Farm with Clydesdale Horses

By the end of the Second World War some farmers were still using Clydesdale horses for ploughing, but most of the horses had been replaced by tractors. The last farm that used them was Wester Leddriegreen.

Harvest time was a very busy time on the farm. The arrival of the threshing mill was part of harvesting. The corn was cut with a binder, then stooked. The threshing mill would thresh the corn or straw. These mills were often run by water wheels. At Ballewan Farm there was a specially built small dam to work the water wheel.

Ballewan, where there was a water-powered threshing mill

The hay cut by a reaper would be left lying in swathes. The turner would turn it to make sure that it was drying right through. An implement known as a tedder was also used – often by the children on the farm – to turn it and let the air through. When it was more common to use horses, a machine known as a tumbling tam would be used to turn the hay over. The hay would then be made into hay ricks – an art form in itself.

Haymaking at Cuilt Farm
Haystacks at Cuilt Farm
Haymaking at Cuilt Farm 1960

The building of drystane dykes was very much a craft in its own and a specialist dyker would normally be brought in to build them, using the various stones lying about in the fields to build the dykes. When fencing began to become more common it was not unusual to bring in a contractor for large areas. Another constant job was the drainage of the land: in the days before mechanisation this would be done by spades and shovels.

Tattie howkin’ (potato harvesting) was part of village life. Schoolchildren would often be recruited to help with the harvesting and one of the local farms, the Cuilt, would employ local people. Once gathered, the potatoes would be placed in large three-foot-wide pits, known as clamps, and covered with soil and straw to keep the frost out. This method would also be used for storing turnips.

Dumbrock, showing Dumbrock House (white, nearest camera) where Thom the pig man lived

Strathblane farms often kept a pig or two. A farmer called Thom, who lived at Dumbrock House, which was near what is now the Wildlife Sanctuary, was noted for both keeping pigs and running up debts. His solution to cash-flow problems was to promise a leg of pork in settlement. Alas, he often promised more pigs’ legs than he had but never mastered the trick of breeding porkers with more than four legs. (This tale came from the late Arthur Muir.) The slaughtering of some animals would be done by the farmer on the farm. Hens were kept for eggs and where the present Scout and Guide Hut stands, there were once large hen coops. Boards Farm had battery hens and produced eggs on a large scale.

By the time the Rev Philip McCardal sat down to write the Third Statistical Account in 1951, there were around 1,000 cattle and 5,000 sheep and close to 5,000 acres of rough grazing but barely 300 acres were in cultivation or lying fallow and the main crop was oats. Only 11 owner-occupied farms were left out of 24.

Herding sheep at Ballagan Farm

Small-scale horticulture has come and gone. There was a short-lived market garden as part of William Wallace’s business venture at Yarrow House. More fields were cultivated for crops during the Second World War ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, including allotments at Ballewan Crescent. New allotments were opened in 2012 next to the old railway track in Blanefield.

In 1975, at a meeting in the Edmonstone Hall, John Cumming of Muirhouse Farm, gave a short talk about the history of farming in the parish. By then the number of working farms was down to 12, excluding Duntreath, and the number of agricultural workers no more than 20, down from 100 in 1881. He himself was the only Strathblane farmer growing turnips and nobody was growing wheat, potatoes or beans. By then milk production in the parish had also ceased. “Very few are cultivating the land at the moment,” he said. John died in 1997. His beautiful black marble tombstone in the cemetery, featuring his sheepdog against the backdrop of the Campsies, could be a monument to a lost way of life.

Tombstone of John Cumming of Muirhouse Farm, who died in 1997, aged 77

Over recent decades a growing number of fields have been let for horse-grazing.  Milndavie Farm is now a riding school, as is Easterton at Mugdock. Muirhouse Farm became a quarry. Most former farmhouses are now private homes. Much of the Duntreath estate is let for grazing.

The start of the 21st century has seen some interest in specialist small-scale farming for the local market and that was reflected locally in the launch in 2007 of Ardunan Farm, which had sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys and vegetables. It ceased operations in 2022.

All in all the parish was very much an agricultural one. However, in common with other parts of Scotland, the dependency on farming has diminished and of the old farms only Ballagan survives as a working enterprise in 2023, raising sheep and cattle and now incorporating the farming operations of Ballewan.

John Grassom Map of the County of Stirling, showing local farms, 1817

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