Bastle Houses and Sheep Buchts

Glenochar bastle house and ferm toun
Glenochar bastle house and ferm toun

Coming from zero in terms of knowledge of these sites, we have now recorded bastles or possible bastles, countless sheep milking buchts and numerous shieling sites. The emerging scenario depicts tenant farmers, rearing sheep and cattle in relatively isolated upland areas, in some instances being forced to occupy (if not necessarily having to build) a strong defensive house to protect themselves and their wealth from the infamous border raiders or reivers.

Smithwood Bastle house
Consolidated Smithwood Bastle House

The excavation of several bastle sites has shown that they began in the late 16th century or the early 17th century, with occupation throughout the 17th century and for some as yet unknown reason they were abandoned in the mid 18th century. When the buildings were deserted stone robbing and demolition quickly took place. Affluence on these rural communities is attested by the use of tobacco from the mid 17th century and by the 18th century wine bottles and finer pottery such as Delft and Staffordshire slip wares were being acquired. However, the earlier archaeology required to help with interpretation as to why bastles were built is generally absent.

Glenochar excavations
Glenochar excavations

The architecture of the bastles themselves speaks volumes, some were more sophisticated than others, and for example two had slate roofs which must have been a huge cost factor since the roofs needed to be entirely boarded to carry the slates. A house built in Lanark in the mid 17th century still retains its original roof with the wooden nails used for fixing the slates, we had the timber analysed and it appears to be Baltic pine. It is likely that the treeless landscape which we know existed at this time would mean the major requirements for timber would have to be imported from abroad

Glenochar Bastle House
The standing remains of Glenochar Bastle House

Dressed sandstone was used for doors and windows and in one case at Glendorch for The transcription and analysis of the last wills of some of these 17th century farmers is now enabling us to understand the numbers and valuations of livestock, the cash and debt economy which prevailed, and importantly gives us access to a great many place names and people who lived in the bastle houses
Since the testaments only mention the place names of the deceased, it is assumed that these were the people who lived in the bastle houses, where one existed at a particular site.

Hypothetical drawing of Glenochar bastle
Artist impression of Glenohar bastle house. The house is shown thatched as no roof tiles were found during excavation.

The fact that people milked sheep far more than cattle for the dairy produce of butter and cheese is well attested in many reference books, but strangely seems to be omitted from most histories of the period. We have now linked this industry to the archaeology of the landscape by re-discovering the open ended pens, which are the buchts where the ewes were milked after lambing time. The buchts are often found near to the settlements and are also found at shieling locations. Rural settlement in the post medieval period has now given up many secrets in light of this unique archaeological and historical research of the River Clyde and Tweed Valleys.

The Pitt Rivers Award for best voluntary archaeologists was awarded to Biggar Museums for the Glenochar Bastle and Fermtoun Project, being a major heritage trail around the excavated site.

You can read more about the awards the group have won on our awards page. Report Status (Ward, 1998 ibid, Ward forthcoming)

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