Wanlockhead
The Dumfriesshire Companion
Haig Gordon

THEMES & PERSONALITIES

Introduction

Some Historical Background

The Border

From Westerkirk to Westminster Abbey -
Thomas Telford


Robert Burns - Doonhamer

The Sage of Ecclefechan - Thomas Carlyle

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon

Other Literary Figures

The Artists

Fame and Fortune

Other Pairs of Eyes

Wanlockhead

Scotland's highest village, 1531 feet above sea-level, would never have become much more than a few shepherds and their sheep if it had not been for the mineral content, mainly lead but also a trace of gold, of the surrounding Lowther Hills.

At first it was the prospect of finding gold that brought fortune-seekers here. Finds of the precious metal were regularly made during the late-medieval period.

The phrase 'God's treasure-house in Scotland' was applied to the area and furnished the title for a local history published in 1876 by the Wanlockhead minister Rev J Moir Porteous. Although the last serious attempt to extract gold had been in the 1620s, the minister reported that occasional finds were still being made in his time: 'Several years ago a little girl playing with companions upon the steep face of Dod Hill exclaimed, "Ah! what a bonnie stane! I'll tak' it hame to my faether." The "bonnie stane" was found to be a nugget of gold.In one summer a Wanlockhead miner made 20 by gold-finding over and above his remuneration as a lead miner.'

Goldscaur Row is a reminder of this aspect of the Wanlockhead story. Hope never dies and today the village offers courses in gold-panning.

Beam Engine

Rev Porteous was in the happy position of being able to offer theological justification for the lure of geological riches: 'it appears that, comparatively small, poor, and barren as Scotland is,...God has therein filled her house with the richest treasure - precious gold. To know that He has put it there for man's use is warrant sufficient to take it from His hand gratefully - a duty and a privilege.'


The lead in the Lowther Hills had been known about from earliest times. There is archaeological evidence of lead smelting from about 850 AD and it is thought that the Romans may have obtained supplies from here. The mining became more organised from the 1670s. At the peak of the industry in the late nineteenth century the population was around 800, including immigrant miners and their families from Italy. In 1902 the village was joined up, mainly for goods traffic, to the railway system via the Elvanfoot-Wanlockhead branch off the Glasgow-Carlisle mainline.


The miners required something other than alcohol with which to relax after the rigours of being underground. So in 1756 the workers established a subscription library, the second oldest of its kind in Europe (the one at neighbouring Leadhills in Lanarkshire takes first place). The library building that can be seen today dates from about 1850, as do many of the other buildings.


By the early 1930s, with the closure of the last mine, Glencrieff, the industry was defunct. This mine was re-opened in 1951 but the revival was short-lived. By the 1960s the population was down to around thirty. This rump, however, declined the local council's offer to re-house them elsewhere. Had the residents agreed to the proposal, the village buildings would have been demolished. Today the population is back up and the community cheerily gets by through a tourist industry revolving around the Museum of Lead Mining. Preservation of the village heritage began in 1974 with the founding of the Wanlockhead Museum Trust.


A plaque attached to the miners' library honours Wanlockhead's bard Robert Reid (born 1850), who described his native village as:

A lanely wee toon,
Far hid amang hills o' heather sae broon,
Wi' its hooses reel-rall, keekin' oot at ilk turn,
Like an ill-cuisten crap in the howe o' the burn.

In 1877 Reid emigrated to Montreal in Canada but Wanlockhead remained his theme. In 'Glenballantyne' [a local hill-burn], written in 1890 during a visit home, the poet is wandering in the hills when a mist comes down. Out of the mist emerge ghostly apparitions of his dead relatives:

For, richt i' my gate, a' waesome and worn,
The yirdit deid, whase name I beir,
Were waitin' for me, by the muirlan' burn -
An awesome trystin' o' dule and fear.

The dear deid faces - the lips I've kiss't -
The een that langsyne look't luve i' my ain -
They gapit and glowre't frae the muirlan' mist,
And they fley'd me, and into the mist again:

And up on the heichts I could hear their cries;
I can hear them yet! I sall never tine
The gruesome dreid at my heart that lies
Sin' the sauls o' my kinsfolk spak' wi' mine!

In 2008 Wanlockhead became a film set. The BBC began shooting Hope Springs, a comic drama about four female ex-cons. Their plans to begin a new life in Barbados go awry and they have to resort to hiding in Wanlockhead.

PLACES

Ae
Amisfield
Annan
Auldgirth
Bankend
Beattock
Bentpath
Brydekirk
Canonbie
Carronbridge
Carrurtherstown
Chapelknowe
Clarencefield
Closeburn
Collin
Cummertrees
Dalswinton
Dalton
Dornock
Dumfries
Duncow
Dunscore
Durisdeer
Eaglesfield
Eastriggs
Ecclefechan
Eskdalemuir
Glencaple
Gretna
Hightae
Holywood
Johnstonebridge
Kettleholm
Kirkconnel
Kirkpatrick Fleming
Kirkton
Kirtlebridge
Langholm
Lochmaben
Lockerbie
Middlebie
Moffat
Moniaive
Mouswald
Newton Wamphray
Parkgate
Penpont
Powfoot
Ruthwell
Sanquhar
Templand
Thornhill
Tinwald
Torthorwald
Tynron
Wanlockhead
Waterbeck

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