The Glenochar trail, which was officially opened on 30 August 1997 by the Marquess of Linlithgow, leads you through a landscape which has changed little since the occupation of the fermtoun.
It is likely that the treeless glen seen today is much as it was in the 17th century, except that drystane dykes have since replaced feal or turf dykes which enclosed arable ground where the faint traces of undeveloped rig and furrow fields can still be seen. Similarly, modern stone buchts have replaced their turf precursors, which were used to milk sheep after lambing. Then, as now, flocks of sheep were the principle livestock but the large healthy cheviot sheep of today have replaced a rather scrawny breed, similar to Shetland sheep. Likewise, today’s heavy beef cattle have superseded short stocky black cattle which were reared in the many byres on the fermtoun.
Glenochar fermtoun straddles the Rae Cleuch at the point where it joins the Glenochar Burn. It is one of the many deserted farms in the Southern Uplands of Scotland, which are still visible, but now seen only as grassy banks and mounds on the ground.
The fermtoun site consists of the bastle house and numerous other buildings, which were mostly houses and byres. Many of these buildings have been excavated to enable visitors to see the layout of the structures. Unexcavated buildings are visible as grassy banks, the stones protruding, ghostly outlines from a former age.
The trail also leads to sites of much earlier settlement. Homes of Bronze Age farmers between 1000 BC and 2000 BC were built on recessed platforms cut into the hillsides. These are clearly visible and are part of a large system of pre-historic villages which have been recorded in Clydesdale and Tweeddale.
The trail has been designed and constructed to make walking easy, but it is over coarse ground and suitable footwear and clothing is strongly recommended. Dogs are not permitted as this is sheep country.
The buildings are described and explained as visitors would walk around the site.
Building 15 and 14
Buildings 15 and 14 have been left unexcavated, when the vegetation is low (as in early Spring) these building can be seen. Large stones help define where the walls of building 15 once stood. It is likely that these buildings are a house with integral byre. Building 14 may have functioned, at least in part, as a stable because several 17th Century horse shoes were discovered through metal detecting.
As with all other buildings left exposed to view, floor surfaces are the key to interpreting the functions of the buildings. Open drains mean byres and usually these drains are paralleled with a space between the cobbled floor and the wall, interpreted as for the wooden feeding troughs. In building 13, about three-quarters of the room length on the west side is given over to an animal stance, and to the north a small chamber has been created by a short wall. This end of the room had three prominent hearths which had been extensively used, causing stone settings to become totally heat crazed. Two of these fireplaces are now indicated with modern tinted stone and the third is still on view. Fireplaces indicate that the area was occupied by people, with the little chamber perhaps used as a sleeping area. It is important to realise that the floor surfaces seen in these buildings show the last period of occupation before abandonment. Most of the floors are several layers deep.
This building was almost completely demolished, only the corner of the east gable and the north wall surviving. Nevertheless, the all-important evidence of a central drain was left to show that this end of the building at least was a byre. Glenochar Burn has undercut the building and this may have been the reason for abandoning it. Most wall stones were removed for building elsewhere.
At the east side of the building, abutments for a footbridge over the burn can be seen in the form of stones set into the bank. A hollow way can be seen on the other side of the burn leading up towards the enclosure which looks down on the fermtoun from Doddin Hill. Hollow ways were created mainly by cattle being driven around the site – such hoofed traffic possibly causing sunken paths to be created in a relatively short time. Another hollow way connects buildings 11 and 15 and shows where the burn was forded.
Building 10 is a complex structure, much more modified throughout its history. The best preserved room, now measuring 7.2m x 3.8m, was originally a byre with an open drain running down the centre of the floor and discharging through the east gable. The byre was converted into a house, the drain was infilled and two hearths were created on the stones. Slabs of slate were laid along the inside face of the walls to form a better floor surface. What may be the position of a sleeping area, perhaps for a box bed, was made with cobble stones and a slate back-plate in the angle of the cross wall and the long wall. Objects such as pottery, thimbles, buckles and the clay tobacco pipes also confirm human occupation. The entrance into this room from the roadway is adjacent to the cross wall which has a connecting doorway into the western end of the building.
This house-byre measures 16m by 4.3m internally and s one of the few buildings that appear to have been used for the same purpose throughout its history. The byre end is shown by the open drain, as usual, at the lower end of the building. Evidence of a timber partition between the byre and the house was found and in this case the building was split equally between people and animals.
In the south-east corner of the byre, two Continental silver dollars were found. One, a thaler, was issued in Cologne in 1610 by the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph 11, and the other, a Dutch rijksdaaler, came from Zeeland in Holland sometime after 1606 (D. Bateson, pers Comm). These coins and an Elizabeth of England hoard of sixpences found near the bastle house are good evidence of a cash economy operating in rural Scotland in early 17th century.
Originally this building was open for it’s entire length, originally 18m x 5m wide. The house and its fireplace were at the higher end and occupied half of the available space, slate covered dranes were made to keep the floor dry. Originally individually stalled animal pens, the building was modified at some point in it’s history and converted into a house by filling in the drain. A cross wall and reduction of the gable took place around this time and the north wall rebuilt against the original one.
A fine copper alloy rowel spur was found and an iron lock plate had graced the last door of the large room.
One of the smallest on the site measuring 11.8 x 5.2m. Again a house byre configuration, with the byre indicated by an open drain and occupying the lower two-thirds of the room. A large, well-developed hearth is visible as heat cracked stone in the north-west corner of the room. Against two of the walls there are two surviving seats in the form of slabs of slate.
The largest single roomed building at 17m x 4.5m wide/ This long byre may have had a house at the west end, but no evidence of habitation was found.
A very neatly made byre distinguished from the others by the configuration of animal stances. Here beasts were stalled facing the end walls rather than the long walls. The space for timber feeding boxes can be seen against each end wall.
Also a byre to start with Building 7 changed through the years to a blacksmith’s workshop. The last blacksmith left his anvil behind, now on display at Biggar Museum.
Building 1 – the bastle house
With lime mortar walls over 1m thick – a standard 16th century thickness for these types of buildings in Scotland. Strangely the house was built askew. The internal area of the byre is 8m x 4.5m. It is likely that the upper chamber forming the house would have been slightly wider, assuming the upper, long walls were thinner. The barrel-vaulted basement, was constructed first with the gables then built into each end.
Building 2, is unexcavated, but it can be seen as grassy banks with stones showing.
Almost completely destroyed with only an alignments of stones still visible and what appears to be a doorstep and pathway. Modern stones mark the place where extensive burning had happened on a circular patch of cobbles. This may have been the site of a corn drying kiln. A hoard of eleven silver sixpences from the reign of Elizabeth of England were found under a ruined wall within this structure. The latest date in the hoard was 1595, the earliest 1566.
Only the stones of the west gable survive the rest of the building nearly all removed.
Immediately opposite the bastle house, over the burn, there is as mall patch of lazy beds. A garden area of spade cultivation, taking advantage of the steep gradient for free drainage. Lazy beds are a common feature on sites of small farms and isolated dwellings dating from the 17th to the 19th century.
Sheep buchts and field walls.
Up the slope from the farm, there is a complex of turf enclosures and walls. The sheep buchts (open ended pens), where shepherds once milked ewes after lambing time. This was an evening pursuit which produced cheese and butter, made and kept in wooden tubs.
To find out more about what Biggar Archaeology Group have discovered about bastle houses and sheep buchts, read our Bastle House and Sheep Buchts research project pages.