Delighted to have the opportunity to investigate the heritage of Barhill Wood, Kirkcudbright, as part of the Can You Dig It archaeology programme being run by Rathmell Archaeology for the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership (GGLP). A prior walkover assessment helped to inform the public guided walk events, highlights of which can be seen here (with huge thanks to Sam Kelly for videoing): https://youtu.be/6QEfcEQ4V3Y
What follows is the interim summary of our findings, prepared by my colleague Peter Quelch who is a forester and native woodlands advisor. A fuller report will become available through the GGLP website later this year. Most of the map resources mentioned can be found on the National Library of Scotland maps website.
Old map analysis shows that Barhill ridge was wooded at the time of Timothy Pont’s survey c 1590, as depicted in Blaeu’s Atlas of 1654. One assumes these must have been natural origin woods, but not necessarily –they could be late medieval/early modern period plantings, being so close to an important town with port and castle.
Either way Barr Hill seems to be bare at the time of Roy’s survey in c1750, though we know that woods in poor condition or unenclosed may be missed off his maps. We do have a very useful survey plan by Robt Heron of 1790 which does indeed show a new star shaped plantation on Barr Hill, and this is confirmed by maps by Ainslie 1797 and Thomson 1821.
The first edition OS map of 1847 shows these now mature woodlands in great detail, as does the second edition OS map of 1895 which is also available at the 25inch to the mile scale. The woodland’s complex outline changes little over this time, and this is verified by a fascinating early aerial view of the town and wooded hill in 1930.
Then the FC acquired Barhill wood in 1952 and successfully replanted the entire woodland and the bare fields included within it, along with Janet’s Plantation to the north, probably after clearing most of any remaining early planting and seminatural woodland. So most parts of the woodland today have tall, heavily stocked and only lightly thinned crops of the common conifers, mainly Norway Spruce and Japanese Larch mixed with tall and slender beech, sycamore and ash.
However the archaeology of the old strip fields and alternating woodland mosaic is fascinating and yet easy to picture. The neighbouring fields often have that type of mosaic landscape, while the old maps and the early aerial photo back that up. This landscape is particularly interesting to the author who sees a very similar arrangement in the landscape of Mid Argyll. We heard that even today the remaining strip field between the FC and council owned woods is still used for outdoor lambing and prized for that reason by the local farmer.
The woodland in both ownerships is heavily used by local residents and is easily accessed by foot, car and bicycle, and sports both a visitor centre classroom and a squirrel observation hide. Janet’s plantation, at the north end, however has no trails and has more difficult access at present.
The resident red squirrels may present a challenge for future management of the woodland as the pines, larch and spruce trees probably represent a significant food source and shelter for these animals. So any kind of simplistic conversion to predominantly native species woodland would almost certainly worsen the squirrel habitat value of the woodlands. The way forward will probably involve selective thinning and felling, probably being hard on the beech and favouring birch and pine. However with all the various interests and issues of this wood, which is an important asset for Kirkcudbright town, both the drawing up of woodland management plans, and the carrying out of any work sensitively, will be quite a challenge for the community and the woodland owners.