The Glenbuchat Image Library
No Contributor Year: 20158. Part 7 Kilns: The Decline of Lime Burning
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The Decline of Lime Burning
By the beginning of the 20th century lime burning was already a distant memory and a historical curiosity in Glenbuchat. The Laird, J. W. Barclay, wrote in 1906 in an account of his estate in the early 19th century:
‘Then there was pretty extensive quarrying of lime, as the excavations at the Balloch School. Every farm had its limekiln, for lime was then the only extraneous manure. And burning lime for home as well as for sale outside involved a large consumption of peats. The quarrying and burning of lime provided employment far a good many hands during three-fourths of the year.’
The second edition OS maps of the area of 1902 - 03 labels almost every kiln in Upper Donside as an ‘old limekiln', indicating they had gone out of use by this time. Some of the kilns marked on the ﬁrst edition maps of 1869 - 70 fail to make an appearance on the second edition, suggesting they had been demolished in the intervening years. The main limestone quarries at Corriemore in Glenbuchat and Carn Iain, the Hill of Tornahaish.and Colnabiachin in Corgarff, were now designated as ‘disused' or ‘old quarries’.
The practice appears to have lingered on into the early 20th century on a few farms in the remoter parts of Corgarff however. The second edition OS map of 1902 indicates that the limestone quarry at the Luib was still being worked. Kilns on the isolated farms of Duninfiew and East Dunandub at the furthest end of cultivation of the Don valley (locally called the ‘West End‘) where the Allt Veannich and the Allt Tuileach join to form the River Don, were still in use while those on the neighbouring farms closer to ‘civillsation' at Dunfeal, Badnabein, Loinherry and Delahash, at the east end of the same glen were out of use. Still in Corgarff, but further down the Don valley the OS map shows the small quarry at Wester Tornahaish on Rinn Dearg was still worked and the local kilns at Delavine, Tor nan Sithean and Boilhandy were in operation at this time. (Emily McDonald (1884 - 1976) who farmed with her husband Alex Reid at Tornahaish on Corgarf, remembered when a girl, seeing the kiln at Tor nan Sithean near the toll house at Colnabiachan being used around 1900.)
A number of interrelated economic and social forces from out with the local area, but from which it was not immune, led to the decline in the practice of burning limestone in the latter part of the 19th century. It gradually became more economical, on the larger commercial farms at first, to buy lime from an agricultural merchant than for a farmer and his family or his farm labourers to quarry the limestone, transport it to the limekiln, cut, dry and transport the peat, load and attend the kiln, remove the burnt lime and spread it on the land. As early as 1836, the minister for Glenlivet, immediately across the Ladder Hills from Strathdon complained about the amount of time farmers spent on casting and carting peat for burning limestone (and for domestic use), despite the limestone rock being available to buy from a quarry:
‘Hence lime kilns are to be found on almost every farm in Glenlivet for which, and for family purposes, no small portion of time is taken up in providing peat fuel. It (lime) is got in this way at less nominal expense, but both manual and animal labour on the farms is in consequence much increased, as the attention of the fanner is too much diverted from the cultivation of his farm and care of his stack to the production of a stimulant which it would be much to his advantage to procure in a manufactured state.’
The mid 1820s saw the extension of the North East's turnpike road system to Upper Donside. Improved roads and bridges and the string of tollhouses and gates at Toll of Mossat, Bridge End (Glenkindie), Poldullie and Colnabaichin extended to Corgarff to join the old military road (the ‘Kings Road‘), which ran from Edinburgh via upper Deeside to Fort George near Inverness. The coming of the railways in the late 1850s with stations at Gartly on the Great North of Scotland Railway Company's main line north, and Alford on the Donside branch line (1859), and Aboyne (1859), Dinnet and Ballater (1866) on the Deeside line further broke down the area’s isolation and its enforced reliance on local self-sufficiency. Gradual improvement in road and rail links with the outside world made the transport of goods by horse and cart into and out of the area much easier. The Forbes family of Newe Estate, for example, contributed funds for the construction of the turnpike road from Alford to Strathdon in the 1820s, and after the Deeside railway line was built, they had the ‘New Road, laid down between the Donside turnpike road near Deskry Farm and Boultinstone, making an easier cart route possible via Logie Coldstone to and from Dinnet Railway Station.
Amy Stewart Fraser, who was brought up in Glen Gairn on Deeside in the late 19th century, evocatively wrote in her book 'In Memory Long‘ of the carters working between Ballater Station and Corgarff:
‘By fording the (river} Cairn the distance between Ballater and Donside was considerably shortened for the Corgarff carriers who made the journey at frequent intervals in spring and summer, their tired horses panting up the Manse brae between the shafts of clumsy farm carts, laden with goods of every description for form and cottage, and Miss McHardy’s shoppie at Greenbank. James Rogie spent most of his early years at the farm at Cockbridge. His father was one of the carriers who went four or five times a week in the (shooting) Season with game and luggage, and the butter and cheese which his mother made, hopeful of a better price in Ballater than she could get in Corgarff. On the return journey he brought provisions for the Big Hoose, which was Delnadamph (Shooting Lodge}. The carriers rested their horses for a spell at the head of the Manse brae. One man was called Kellas. At some point in his life he had lost an ear, and was an abject of wonder to us bairns. It was said he had been bitten by on angry horse. He and the other carriers lightened their home word journey with racous song and imbibed, as they travelled, the supply of whisky they had bought for the road. The need for carriers ceased when o good road carried motor-vehicles speedily from Cockbridge to Strathdon, Alford, and on to Aberdeen’
The tentacles of the lime, seed and fertiliser suppliers such as the Aberdeen Lime Company and the Aberdeen Commercial Company, with their depots and agents at the railway stations, could now penetrate to even the most isolated farms and crofts of the remote glens. J. W. Barclay wrote of his Glenbuchat Estate:
‘When the railway was brought to Alford it (lime) could be had cheaper from Aberdeen than quarried and burned in the Glen.’
By the latter half of the 19th century new sources of fertility - bone meal and imported guano, and later, chemical fertilisers such as super phosphates, sulphate of ammonia and potash became available locally and began to be used on the large farms. Spectacular results were obtainable from these nitrogen, phosphate and potassium rich fertilisers on exhausted, nutrient-poor land. Lime, with its slower less conspicuous action became the poor relation, and the practice of burning limestone gradually declined in the area as the application of these other elements took precedence over calcium carbonate levels in the soil.
The years of high farming‘ from the 1840s up to the end of 1870s, with good prices for grain and cattle, gave way to a slump in agriculture from the 1880s onwards, in the main due to foreign competition. As the import of store cattle took hold, depressed cattle prices particularly hurt the prosperity of the area, as its main cash generator was the breeding and rearing of the humble ‘stirk'. In general, farming became less proﬁtable and the large cost in time and labour required to produce lime from limestone became less justiﬁable as tenants and lairds cut back on expenditure. The ﬁelds of the marginal land suffered most. J. W. Barclay reported on the condition of farming in Glenbuchat when he became Laird 1901:
‘On many forms the land was in the lowest stage of cultivation with outlying ﬁelds no longer ploughed but lying as permanent pasture without (sown) grass.’
The craving of earlier decades to increase a farms cultivated acreage or to carve a new croft out of wasteland had ended, and with it the need for huge quantities of lime to ‘sweeten the sour ground’. As farming incomes fell, the demand for farms and crofts subsided, they became more difﬁcult to let, the prosperity of the area suffered, and the decline in population took hold.
As with other rural areas, in the mid to late 19th century, the flight of people, especially the young, from Upper Donside to better opportunities at home and abroad left a reduced and ageing farming population. There were less family labour resources for the highly labour-intensive work of the croft and farm, at a time when more labour was required to sustain a living .The Official Census ﬁgures show Glenbuchat’s population in the 19th century gradually reaching a high of 570 people in 1871, but shrinking to 403 by 1891, a dramatic drop of almost 30% in 20 years. (Today it stands at less than ﬁfty permanent residents).Strathdon, Kildrummy and Towie populations also peaked in the 19th century and the pattern of long term depopulation was the same.
The hunger for new land, up to the latter half of the 19th century, had resulted in farms and crofts being established on marginal ground and at heights and remoteness that often astound us today. These holdings once at the frontiers of cultivation were the ﬁrst to be abandoned when economic conditions changed for the worse, and numerous examples of the ruins of long-deserted old clachans, farm houses and steadings, and cottages can be found in the glens of Upper Donside today. John R. Allan's passage from his book, 'The North-East Lowlands of Scotland’, forms an unsurpassed epitaph to the people who tried and ultimately failed to make a living from these and similar inhospitable places:
‘As you walk across the lower slopes of the hills you may ﬁnd a heap of stones that once was a house, and trace among the bracken the rectangle that was once a field. They are melancholy things, witnessing that courage, determination and all the ancient virtues are not enough to bring life from a stone. A hunger for the land drove the people there, and the insatiable hunger of the soil drove them away again. Those ruins are at the stony limit where o human tide spent itself before it began to ebb away.’
Neglect of Liming the Land
Increasing reluctance to lime the land, from the latter part of the 19th century onwards, did not have an immediate, obvious effect on crop production. Of the main crops, oats and potatoes were relatively acid-tolerant, grass, turnips and barley much less so. The effects of lime in the soil were apparently long lasting and little reduction in crop yields was noticed at first but reserves of calcium laid down over previous decades were drawn upon by leaching from the soil, repeated cropping and animal grazing and were gradually depleted over the following years. One indication of the extent of the neglect of liming and the concern felt by many in the agricultural industry comes from the pages of the Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland of 1916, James Hendrick, professor of agriculture at Aberdeen University, and his colleague James M. Smith, were asked by ‘The Society‘ to re-educate farmers on how lime should be applied to the land .They gave a brief review of the situation at that time in the introduction to their article -‘Methods of Applying Lime‘:
‘Liming, a good old Practice: in the past fifty years a great change has taken place in the practice of liming, and far less lime is now used than formerly. In many parts of Scotland the use of lime, whether in the burnt or the mild form (mechanically ground limestone), has been practically given up for many years, and in travelling about Scotland an observant person cannot but be struck by the large number of disused limekilns which are seen in various parts of the country, many of which were supplying lime for agricultural use until quite recent times. In consequence, many practices that were at one time common and familiar to farmers have been forgotten or almost forgotten. An illustration of this can be seen in the inquiry columns of the agricultural papers, where questions as to the use of lime are of constant occurrence.’
By the 1930s, an informal national survey of advisory soil samples, involving the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in Aberdeen for the N. E. of Scotland, indicated that with soil pH levels falling much of the nation's agricultural land was seriously deﬁcient in lime. The agriculture industry was still in a slump and the Government recognised that the general neglect of liming the land was a major factor in limiting the production of arable crops, and the fertility of permanent grassland in Britain. With the spur of looming war and threatened shortage of supplies of food from abroad, it took action to reverse the situation, and boost home production. The 1937 Land Fertility Scheme subsidised the price of lime ‘at the farm gate' to the tune of half the cost to the farmer, thus making it cheap to buy and transport costs negligible - important for remote areas such as Upper Donside. By the outbreak of War farmers had become much more lime-conscious and British agriculture immediately before and after the War years was directed towards a massive revival of liming the land. 5’ In the 40 years the subsidy was in place, average lime use increased by 10 fold. However, this supply of lime came from commercial quarries and suppliers. For Upper Donside, the days of local self-sufficiency in lime, with a farmer quarrying limestone and burning it in his own farm limekiln had passed into history.
Nationally, the ‘heritage industry’ is a multi-million pound commercial phenomenon with wide-spread popular and state support we are naturally proud of our rich historical past, and spend large sums of public and private money on preserving our castles, church buildings and ‘big houses‘, of which Upper Donside has many ﬁne examples.
In recent years, we have increasingly come to appreciate our farming past too and the agricultural legacy we have inherited. Locally, in the Alford area of Donside various public and private bodies have set up the Agricultural Heritage Museum. the bronze statue of a bull to commemorate the development of the great Aberdeen Angus breed, the Grampian Transport Museum and the working oat-meal mill at Montgarrie. Perhaps we can also ﬁnd ways to preserve and restore the best examples of the limekilns of Upper Donside as the last visible remnants of a small scale but important local industry. The few remaining largely intact kilns could be given conservation work, with the landowners’ consent, before they eventually tumble down through neglect. The four kilns in Glenbuchat at Badenyon (NJ 3422 1894), Ryntaing (NJ 3376 2014), Beltimb (NJ 3773 1715), and Upperton (NJ 3673 1754) and the three in lower Strathdon at Hillockhead on Deskryside (NJ 3830 0927), Coul of Newe (NJ 3714 1277) and on Sron Aonghais in Glen Ernan (NJ 3039 1230) would be worth considering. There are less complete examples in Towie, at Barns (NJ 4045 1308) and in the Corgarff district such as Milltown (NJ 2645 D928), Dunfeal (NJ 23680953), Ordachoinachan (NJ 2892 0769) and Burnside (West) (NJ 2831 0895) amongst several others in the area. These historically important stone structures have no legal protection against demolition or organisation responsible for their preservation. They played an important but largely forgotten role in the early progress of modern agriculture in Upper Donside, and stand as mute stone memorials to the people who came before us and who toiled to create from a ‘wilderness’ the farming landscape we live in. work in, and enjoy for recreation today.
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Picture added on 06 August 2015 at 20:52
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