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The hill farm of Over Kirkhope lies near the top of the Ettrick Valley. It would have existed in pleasant anonymity if, in the 1850s period, Jim Elliot the shepherd, had not noticed a peculiarly carved stone in a field and built into the dyke at the corner of his cottage.
Nothing is certainly known about the medieval history of Over Kirkhope even although it is within an extensive land grant made to Melrose Abbey by Alexander II in 1235. This grant comprised the upper reaches of the Ettrick valley from the mouth of the Tima, round the watershed between Ettrick and Eskdale, part of upper Yarrow and back to where the Tima joins the Ettrick.
The grant was confirmed three months later when the land was erected into a ‘free forest’ giving the abbey the right to ban anyone from cutting wood or hunting in it without their licence under the penalty of a £10 fine.
This area was held by Melrose Abbey for over three centuries with little written record until it was noted in 1561 that ‘the Kirks of Wester and New of Ettrick’ had paid no tiends (tithes) since Flodden (1531). So Alexander’s grant may have been generous in acreage but its monetary value was small.
The Westerkirk lies over the county border in Dumfriesshire and still retains that name. The ‘New Kirk of Ettrick’ infers that there was an Old Kirk somewhere in the land grant. This may have been at Over Kirkhope but there is no documentary evidence to prove it.
The Pont map of 1608 shows that there was a Kirkup Burn and a New Kirk in existence but not particularly accurately positioned.
The Scotts of Thirlstane.
The most prominent family in the Upper Ettrick was the Scotts although nobody is sure when they received tenure of the lands of Thirlstane but there was a John Scott of Thirlstane in 1539.
Around 1610, Sir Robert Scott of Thirlestane erected a new building on the site of the New Kirk where there was a higher population density and this became the principal place of worship. The kirk was not a substantial edifice and prone to deterioration. Seventy years later, the minister was reported as having great difficulty getting ‘heather, thack(thatch) and divots’ to repair it and the manse.
The present building dates from 1824 and is certainly more substantial than its predecessors.
The Over Kirkhope Stone.
In the mid-1850s, Over Kirkhope was owned by Lord Napier, leased by Mitchell of
Henderland and shepherded by Walter Elliot and his son Jim. To improve the farm land, a decision was made to enclose some of the hill ground to the north of the steading and cottage. This was done by 1858 according to the O.S. map of the area.
During this period of enclosure, a large burial ground was uncovered in the new field to the north of the steading. This was not a new discovery as it had been common knowledge for years. See Craig-Brown p 265/7, Inventory of Selkirkshire p 21 &69 and Selkirkshire and the Borders, Book One p244/5.
Somewhere within or near the enclosures, Jim Elliot had found a large stone on which was carved the crude figure of a man with outstretched arms. He saved the stone by building it into the dyke at the corner of his cottage and this is where it remained until it was removed to be exhibited to the Society of Antiquaries and ‘temporarily placed’ in the Museum of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1885. It can now be seen in the Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street. It has been recognised as one of the earliest Christian marker/memorial stone to be found in Scotland even although there are debates as to its dating. That question I will leave for others to decide.
Jim Elliot was my great-grandfather and I have received his story through my father. Unfortunately, he was never asked where exactly he found it or if he was, the location has never been passed down the family grapevine to me. It may have found in the newly turned soil of the 19th century enclosures or in the much more interesting visible foundation marks in the undisturbed hill ground 500m to the north of the steading. We just don’t know.
He did tell my father that some of the grave-markers, simple unmarked stones, were removed from newly-ploughed ground and taken down to the graveyard around the present Ettrick Kirk where they can still be seen. This was confirmed separately by the Craig-Brown (1886) and in the 1957 Inventory by a statement from Mrs G. Nichol who was born at Over Kirkhope.
Mrs Nichol was a fund of information to the Commissioners of Ancient Monuments, confirming that the Over Kirkhope Stone had been taken from the cottage garden dyke and also that when the burial ground had been ‘taken into cultivation, a row of trees had been planted along its SW side, by the left bank of the Kirkhope Burn to mark its position’ and this is shown on the 1858 map.
It is comforting to have oral traditions confirmed.
Although my family had been in Eskdalemuir and the top of Ettrick for three centuries, I had not been in the upper Ettrick hills there very much until I was twenty.
After National Service (1952-54), I joined my father’s firm of fencing contractors and as most of our work was in the hillier parts of the Borders, I spent thirty-three years there, hearing the poetry/stories/legends of the place and seeing the changes that generations had left on the land. The ‘aye been’ traditions last longer in the hill country than in the lower, more accessible flat lands of The Merse.
In 1957/8 we were working on Over Kirkhope and I got the verbal history, some of which is recounted above. I regret that I didn’t listen more carefully or persuade my father to write his knowledge down.
As fencing contractors, we used divining rods, two pieces of wire bent at a right angle. With those we could determine where field drains could be found in order to avoid them and where straining posts had rotted off at ground level so that we could lever the stumps out and slip in a new post. They were practical working tools which saved a lot of hard work.
Although my father and grandfather could use them, I was the first to apply them to archaeology. They could not tell the difference between a field drain 0.5m deep and 0.3m wide and a Roman ditch 4m deep and 7m wide except in size but worked equally well in both cases. NB Archaeologists have been traditionally sceptical about the results but are now coming round to consider the ‘there might be something in it after all’.
Basically divining rods react to the difference in soil texture and/or water retention; and long experience using them tells.
Traditionally the Dark Ages/Early Medieval period has been ignored in The Borders because there is little documentary or construction evidence. This does not mean that there were no activity here but rather that until recently, nobody has bothered to look for it. But now early Christianity in the Borders is being investigated. The potential of the Yarrow Stone and the Warriors’ Rest cemetery is attracting interest from Durham University and America.
Over the thirty-three years of fencing and a further twenty-seven years of interest, I have looked for ‘kil’, ‘kirk’, ‘eccles’ and ‘chapel’ names in fields and hills which show no surface trace of ever having a building there. However divining rods can pick up the shapes of where they had once been. I wrote up many of these in Selkirkshire and the Borders, Book One in the hope that somebody might a) believe me and b) investigate further.
On 22nd September 2015, I visited Over Kirkhope after a long absence and found that a large agricultural building covered much of the burial area above mentioned. So I decided to carry out a ground-observation-backed-up-with-divining-rod-survey to note what was there for any potential future interest. As I am not a good plan/map drawer, I divided the site area into three blocks.
A is the area of the cottage, steading, wood and first enclosed field to the north.
I went over the site with divining rods and found that the burial ground has covered the area where the steading, the new agricultural building and northern half of the wood are now. This was over an acre and the graves were lined conventionally east and west. The cemetery area was enclosed by two wooden palisade fences which were 3m apart; this is something which I consistently find in early cemeteries.
The thrice-sourced story that plain stones were taken from this graveyard and taken to the New Kirk probably happened in 1824 when the present kirk was built. Even although the stones were uninscribed, they must have had family connections and were moved to the new place.
I probably have some early relatives lying under the new agricultural shed at Over Kirkhope but the only family heirloom that I have is a shiny home-made stone button with ‘Over Kirkhope, Ettrick’ written on it.
The field to the north of the burial ground has been ploughed many times but there were a number of short visible hollows which were obviously not natural. On divining, these are of varying sizes, roughly 4 to 5m wide and 6 to 10m long. Assuming they were houses, I found that the door was at the end of the building.
This field, originally No 474 and 475 in the 1858 survey, is rougher and consequently is less disturbed by ploughing; so more features can be seen on the surface.
Items of real interest are –
B1. There is a grave-like shape on the top of a knowe at NT 21192 12197. There is a large stone (cap-stone?) visible at one end and a pattern of postholes which suggest that it had been enclosed at one time.
B4. There is an interesting low mound beside the burn at NT21244 12031. Although nothing can be seen on the surface, divining rods give a stone building? about 6.3m square. It has an internal square room with 4m sides with a door facing East. Guesswork could make this a monk’s kil, a later medieval kirk of an exceptionally small pele tower.
B2 and B3 are visible examples of the sunken buildings noted in A.
B2 at NT 21273 12994 is 8m long and 5m wide; B3 at NT 213 12099 is 12m long and 5m wide. The doorway is at the end of the building in both cases. I am fairly sure that these are ‘grubenhauser’. There are ten or more visible but unmarked on the plan.
C. This is the area outside the dyke-enclosed fields and is on rough hill ground. With no traces of cultivation, the remains of a scattered village can be traced by the foundation mounds of small houses. These vary in size and shape being rectangular, circular and oval. I have borrowed the illustration of this settlement, Fig 108 from the Inventory of Selkirkshire and added a few additions which can be plainly seen on the ground or suggested by divining rods.
This settlement is bounded on the NW side by a 1.5m earthen bank which has post-holes every 1.6m/1.7m suggesting a palisade to keep out animals.
C1 the most interesting part of the site. Local tradition, the map of 1858 and the Inventory of Selkirkshire all give this as the site of a ‘chapel’ at NT 21081 12227.
Google and Bing aerial maps show a large white oval shape here. On the ground this shape is approximately 25m by 10m and divining rods indicate that there was a building here. Internally it measured about 15m long by 6m wide with stone walls nearly 1m thick and a doorway on the eastern end. A drain round the higher north-eastern side kept the site dry.
This certainly could be a ‘chapel’ but dating is always going to be a problem. It is never mentioned in the Liber de Mailros either as a building or having a priest in residence or control. Nor is it mentioned in Scottish Medieval records as far as I can find out.
So this leaves us with an Early Medieval/Dark Age period. The Over Kirkhope Stone could date any time in the 4th to 6th Centuries and is that of ‘a hermit devotee, who in the manner of St Cuthbert, chose the remote solitude for a life of austerity and devotion’ according to The Inventory of Selkirkshire.
On the ground the oval shape looks like a stone and lime spread that could indicate a stone building, lime being the binding material and the high percentage of lime produces the white aspect of the site.
I would have loved to have a Candida Casa building but the whiteness is more probably geological, a limestone vent or plug in the heavier rocks.
Either way, a perpetually white mound in a green/brown hill would make an impressive foundation for a chapel. Equally impressive is the fact that few plants grow on the mound even yet. Opinions invited.
C2. This is a circular house at NT 21094 12205. There are posts every 1m/1.2m round the circumference. There are several others of varying sizes which are un-noted in the plan.
C3. This is a small graveyard with a double palisade fence surround. Two of the graves are visible with a number of covering stones; one of them contains metal. All the tested graves are oriented NW/SE. NT 21085 12179.
C4. Two buildings? at NT 21112 12152 are small enough, 4m by 2.5m, to have been monastic cells.
Beyond The Bank.
Winter beat me before I could have a close look at some interesting bumps and hollows further up the burn. These will have to be inspected after the hill lambing next year.
This is an interim report on the potentially very interesting site at Over Kirkhope; interim because I have more to inspect there but at 81, there is no certainty that I will reach 82.
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