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Glenbuchat Heritage

2 Kilns: Introduction
The Glenbuchat Image Library
2 Kilns: Introduction

Pictures above:
1. Map of the Survey Area
2. Typical Lime Kiln at Badenyon
3. Remains of ‘Run-Rig’ cultivation system

Click for the Introduction page


Throughout the parishes of Strathdon, Glenbuchat and Towie, (Pic 1 above) which along with Kildrummy, make up the geographical area of Upper Donside in Western Aberdeenshire, there are distinctive man-made, circular stone structures scattered about the landscape. They are abandoned limekilns, (Picture 2) often to be found at the edge of fields, in various stages of collapse. These kilns (or 'kills' as they are called locally) were last worked in the late 19th century for 'burning' local limestone to produce lime which was used as an agricultural ‘fertiliser’, and spread on the land to help neutralise the natural acidity of the area's soils. In their heyday, lasting around one hundred years, from the late 18th century to the late 19th century, they were prominent features of the countryside, billowing out smoke and fire like miniature volcanoes when in operation during the burning season.

The first edition of the Ordnance Survey (OS) maps from late 1860s and early 1870: (Aberdeenshire, 6" to I mile. sheets L LX. LXVIII and LXIX) indicate there were 93 kilns and the second edition OS maps of [902 - 03 show an additional 7 in the area. Six further sites have been identified giving a total of 106 limekiln sites in Upper Donside. Only a very few have survived in good condition. In Glenbuchat there are well-preserved examples on the old farms of Badenyon, Beltimb and Ryntaing and by the roadside below the old clachan of Upperton. Strathdon has largely intact kilns at Hillockhead on Deskryside, at the Coul of Newe and an unusual rectangular kiln in Glen Ernan, the only example of this design in the area.

The old limestone quarries themselves can easily be overlooked. For example, the recently planted conifer woodland on the western slopes of Ladylea Hill in Glenbuchat hides much of the hand-dug excavations at Corriemore Quarry, and gives little indication of the extensive quarrying activities at the Balloch, or of the friction it caused between the Laird and his tenants, and between neighbouring lairds, over 200 years ago (see appendix l).There were also quarries in the Corgarff district of Strathdon at the Hill of Tornahaish, on Carn Iain - north of Dykehead Farm, at Colnabiachin, on the hill of Allargue and at the Luib where the grass-covered mounds of the former excavations and spoil heaps can be made out high up on the hillside.

It is evident from the numerous disused limekilns and abandoned workings that the quarrying and burning of limestone to produce lime was a small-scale but widespread local industry, involving every farmer. As the estates of the area increasingly encouraged and enforced the adoption of improved farming practices in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, tenant farmers were obliged by the terms of their leases to apply lime to their land in substantial quantities and this stimulated the building of kilns. Not every farm had a limekiln, but a large proportion had them, and those that did not would have nearby access to lime from them for use on their fields. The aim of the survey reported here was to identify on the ground the sites of these kilns, report on their condition, and throw light on their forgotten past, with a view of bringing to attention the need for finding ways of at least ensuring the long-term preservation of a few of the best surviving examples. These historic structures, the majority of which lie within the boundaries of the newly formed Cairngorms National Park, are part of the area's agricultural heritage, and have no legal protection against demolition other than coming under general local authority planning legislation.

In addition, there is surprisingly little published information on the widespread practice of lime burning on Upper Donside and there are many basic questions on the building and use of the limekilns to which we did not have answers. Questions such as: when exactly were they built? who built them - the tenants or the estates? and, when did they go out of use? The technicalities of the design, construction, and operation of the kilns have also been lost locally. By looking at available records from a variety of sources, including those from other rural areas of Scotland with farm limekilns, and examination of the local kilns in situ, it is hoped we have gone a small way to answering some of these questions, and helped to build a picture of local lime production activity and the important part it played in the progress of ‘improved agriculture’ in the area in the 18th and 19th centuries. The appendices include extracts from the Glenbuchat estate papers, which have recently become available for consultation (Duff House Montcoffer Papers, MS 3175, Aberdeen University Library, Historic Collections, Special Archives and Collections). Appendix I contains extracts of letters that show the attitude of successive Lairds of Glenbuchat to the limestone quarrying operations on their properties and the local problems their regulations caused.

Appendix 2 includes a correspondence from the 1750s and 1760s between the Reverend Patrick Duff, minister at St. Marchar Church (St Machar Cathedral), Old Aberdeen and William 1st Earl Fife, the Laird of Glenbuchat. The Rev Duff, a native of the Glen, and prospective tenant farmer of the Mains of Glenbuchat, was an enthusiastic agricultural improver and attempted to interest Lord Fife in his proposals for farming in the Glen, with the use of lime being a major ingredient.

Agriculture before ‘improvement’

Upper Donside, as an upland area on the eastern fringes of the Cairngorm Mountains, had a mainly pastoral economy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with the breeding and rearing of the small highland cow the main saleable commodity and source of income. The physical environment was not sympathetic to arable farming: high altitudes meant low temperatures, late springs; short growing seasons and harvests were often delayed due to wet autumns and early frosts. This restricted the range of crops that could be grown. Oats and bere (an early form of barley), the ‘food and drink’ crops, were the main grain crops, the former for human and horse consumption, and the latter for ale and whisky production.

The people lived in settlements - fermtouns ( or the Highland equivalent - clachans ), a cluster of dwellings and outbuildings surrounded by the cultivated ground, divided into infield land and outfield land. of 1696 The Aberdeenshire ‘Poll Book‘ shows that in Glenbuchat (old spelling - Glenbucket) there were eleven of these clachans, ranging from the largest one at Belnaboth (town of the bothies or huts) with around nine tenants; their families and servants, to small ones at Crofts and Beltom (Beltimb) with 2 or 3 tenants each. ‘Infield land, close to the farming township, was the best land and received most of the scarce manure and fertiliser (dung and other organic material. and dressings of lime). It was intensively cultivated and grew the main corn crops year after year, in simple rotations such as oats/oats/bere, with occasional fallow years. Outfield land, further away from the clachan, was brought into cultivation from ‘waste ground’, cropped for a few years with oats until yields began to fall off, and then left fallow to recover, or to return to waste. The land was worked on a communal basis with a pooling of animal and manpower and tools, using the runrig system (intermingled rig and furrow cultivation strips, each worked by different tenants so that they all had a share of the best land) (Picture 3 above), on open areas of the stony landscape between the lower wet boggy areas and haughland, and the higher moors, in the growing season the stock were sent to the shelling areas of the hills for summer grazing, allowing the grass and crops around the townships open lands to grow and ripen in safety.

By the late 18th century the glens of Upper Donside were undoubtedly over populated for the ability of the methods of agriculture practiced at that time to support the people in anything but a precarious way. Destitution and starvation, for some, were a real annual threat should a poor harvest occur. The major restraint on the system of farming was the shortage of manure for arable land. Limited supplies of animal dung meant a low state of soil fertility due to excessive cropping of the land over a long period of time. Estate papers for Glenbuchat show that in ‘bad years’ the minister, or factor (a class not known for misplaced compassion towards the tenantry), appealed to the Laird on behalf of the tenants for hep, and received meal and seed for sowing the following spring, and some rent relief. For example:

John Forbes of Inverenan, Factor for Glenbuchat Estate to William Ross, Factor for Fife Estates, 18th November 1773:
‘I suppose you did not expect to find so large a bill of rents (arrears) as enclosed. l ‘m sorry they should be so extensive but the sad state and condition of Lord Fife tennantry in this port of the country is such that had l token strict measures with many of them the consequences might have been hurtful to my lord and undoubtedly mode on end of poor men and destroyed their wives and young families. They as well as others here felt the effect of bad years and loss of crop in port and yet notwithstanding l think little chance for the Earl losing anything worthwhile if the poor people are not obliged instantly to make advances (payment of rents) which no doubt l would have sooner done had 1' not considered them according as l saw the circumstances required.’

But in at least one tragic time of crop failure, the system of landlord responsibility broke down. Folk memory in Glenbuchat in the 1860s still told of how in the famine years of 1740 - 41 a group of seven people were found dead from starvation at the holy Well of Culdearg, on the White Hill above Upperton, where they had gone to die.

Despite all the disadvantages of high altitude and an unfavourable climate, however, the farmers of the glens in the upper reaches of Donside were at an advantage over their neighbours in the parishes lower down the Don valley in two important respects. They had a readily accessible source of limestone, and just as essential, a supply of peat for fuel to burn it Liming the ground, as we now know, raised the soil's pH, alleviating the toxic effects of elements such as aluminium and manganese to plants, and released nutrients bound up in the soil's organic matter. More people could gain a subsistence living from a given area of land, despite being highly vulnerable to crop failure because of the uncertain climate.

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Picture added on 06 August 2015 at 17:33
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