The Landscape of Dalserf Parish

The parish of Dalserf, situated in the middle reaches of the River Clyde, occupies a unique position in the heart of what the writer Neil Munro described as ‘Clydesdale’s treasure house’. Physical and human geography have combined to create a distinctive landscape whose character has captured the attention of writers for centuries. The Lanarkshire-born poet and traveller William Lithgow (c.1585–1645) called this the ‘Paradice of Scotland’, making special reference to a landscape remarkable for its diversity that comprised ‘Cornes, Meeds, Pastorage, Woods, Parks, Orchards, Castles, Pallaces, divers kinds of Coale and earth-fewell’. It was into this contrasting landscape of collieries and castles that -Andrew Shaw was born in 1892.

The making of the physical landscape of Scotland is a fascinating and almost unbelievable story that involves colliding continents, erupting volcanoes and moving ice sheets, all part of a dramatic series of events spanning millions of years. For such a small country, Scotland has, as a result of this, a geology and a landscape that are amongst the most varied of any country on the planet.

The oldest rocks in Scotland are the Lewisian gneisses that were part of the Earth’s crust 3 billion years ago. Mostly to be found on the north-west coast and in the Outer Hebrides, these rocks represent great thicknesses of sediments and lavas that have been altered over long periods of time. The rocks that immediately underlie Dalserf Parish are much younger, but they too have been altered by dynamic processes that have reworked the land over the past 500 million years. Scotland, throughout this time span, has slowly drifted northwards across the equator, passing through the tropics before arriving in northern, more temperate regions. Deserts, tropical river deltas and the impact of 2,000-foot-high glaciers are all elements of this long journey that are reflected in today’s landscape.

Nearly 410 million years ago, two separate landmasses, with the early incarnations of Scotland and England, began to collide. As the ocean between them disappeared, and the lands merged, the marine sediments were compressed, raised and folded into a mountain chain that forms the foundation of the Southern Uplands of Scotland. The Southern Upland fault marks the northern boundary of this range, just as the Highland Boundary fault marks the southern extent of the older rocks of the Grampian Mountains, which were also created as a result of this collision of continents.

No sooner are mountains built than they are whittled down to size by wind, weather and the passage of streams and rivers that carry water and large quantities of sediment to lower ground. In the period following the geological union of Scotland and England, the mountains to the north and south eroded rapidly, depositing great quantities of sediment into the Midland Valley of Scotland between the Southern Upland and Highland Boundary faults. The land between these two fault lines sank to form a great rift valley into which flowed large rivers carrying gravels. Today, the River Clyde continues that process. Rising as a small stream in the Southern Uplands, the Clyde drops down to Roberton where it gradually begins to widen and gather momentum before winding slowly north-eastwards through the Midland Valley, a journey of 106 miles from its source to the Clyde estuary at Dumbarton.

Between 290 and 360 million years ago, during a period of geological time known as the Carboniferous, Scotland sat astride the equator, with rainforest and pockets of steamy tropical swamp covering much of the Midland Valley. Dead trees collapsing into the swamp areas -created deposits rich in carbon and subsequently, as more sediment accumulated on top, these carbon-rich layers were compressed to form vast areas of coal that were eventually to fuel the Industrial Revolution in central Scotland. Dalserf Parish stands on a great coalfield which extends over thirty miles from Douglas almost as far as Glasgow. This coalfield held nine seams of coal which were exploited at the peak of coal mining in the early twentieth century. At that time, some twenty collieries in Dalserf Parish produced over 7,000 tons of coal a day.

As a young miner, Andrew Shaw would have been familiar, not just with the coal measures that earned him a modest living, but also with the sandstones worked from a number of local quarries for use in the building of houses and dry stone dykes. The white, yellow and grey sandstones laid down during the hot and humid Carboniferous period, and the red sandstones deposited under desert conditions before and after the Carboniferous, were commonly used building materials throughout central Scotland, and in Dalserf Parish there were about ten quarries providing this easily worked freestone, as it was called. The largest of these quarries were near the banks of the Avon Water at Raploch, Machan and Broomhill, at Marlage (Fig. 1) in the centre of the parish and to the east overlooking the Clyde at Skellyton and Dalpatrick. Another stone of volcanic origin, called whinstone, was less common in the parish, only making an appearance in the form of natural intrusions or dykes at Birkenshaw, by the Avon Water, and on the upper slopes overlooking the Clyde Valley.

On a clear day, from high ground in the heart of the parish, there is a remarkable panorama in all directions. To the north-east, the eye can see as far as the peaks of Ben Lomond; The Cobbler, rising beyond the distinctive line of the Campsie Fells; and Kilpatrick Hills, which mark the northern edge of the Midland Valley. These basalt ranges were formed as a -result of vast outpourings of volcanic lava that occurred just before the creation of the Carboniferous coal measures. To the south, the conical peak of Tinto Hill is another reminder of Scotland’s turbulent volcanic history.

Two million years ago, the onset of the Ice Age brought repeated glaciations, with ice sheets moulding the hilltops, carving out corries [hollows] and crags and creating flat-bottomed valleys. The Ice Age came to an end about 12,000 years ago and, as the last of the ice sheets retreated, large deposits of sand and gravel were dumped over the land and meltwater rivers cut large valleys. The River Clyde meanders through these valley deposits creating its own distinctive course, which at Dalserf takes the form of a great loop (Fig. 2). The view from the kirkyard will have changed little since the time Andrew Shaw walked down the Manse Brae to the parish church on a Sunday. Unlike the wide vistas offered on the higher ground at Broomfield or Netherburn, the field of vision is restricted here. It is like standing in the middle of a basin. Wooded slopes rise steeply from the valley floor on each side of a river whose wide, meandering loop encloses alluvial haugh land still grazed by cattle. The haugh, or valley land, by the River Clyde gives rise to numerous names with the prefix dal-, which indicates meadow land or cleared land subject to occasional flooding. Dalpatrick, Dalbeg and, of course, Dalserf, are all local names that derive from this ancient Brittonic word.

The landscape created as a result of all of these dynamic processes resembles an island -surrounded by water courses. Dalserf Parish occupies the greater part of this island plateau, which rises gently to a height of more than 600 feet above sea level in the south. To the east and north-east, the River Clyde separates Dalserf from the parishes of Carluke and Cambusnethan, while to the west and north-west, the Avon Water flows north to meet the Clyde at Hamilton. The Cander Water, a tributary of the Avon, forms the south-western boundary of the parish, while the River Nethan flows north-east through Lesmahagow Parish to join the Clyde at Nethanfoot. From the high ground numerous small streams cut their way down the steep east-facing slope to empty into the Clyde. These streams, which occupy narrow wooded valleys, have names such as Mill Burn, Dalserf Burn, Whittrock Burn and Tammy’s Burn. The narrowest of these streams carry ‘gill’ names such as Stewart Gill (Fig. 2), Tod Burn Gill, Carcain Gill, Skelly Gill, Hall Gill and the Regill Burn, gill being an old Scots word for a -narrow wooded glen or ravine with a stream running through it. These gills have remained unchanged for many years and would, like the area around Dalserf village, be just as familiar to Andrew Shaw today as they were a century or more ago.

The landscape of the upland plateau area of Dalserf has experienced the greatest transformation, first as a result of changes in agricultural practice, and second as the consequence of the arrival and departure of industrial development, in particular coal mining. If Andrew Shaw were to return to Dalserf today, he would be surprised to encounter a landscape not bustling with activity. Since his day, the coal mines, tile works and brick works have fallen silent, and the railways that hauled coal to the ports and cities of Scotland have all disappeared, leaving only a handful of relict buildings, former rail tracks now used by walkers, and mounds of waste where nature has regained a foothold. The sights, sounds and smells that existed during the height of industrial activity a hundred years ago have gone, and the prospect is now largely rural once again, just as it was before the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the early years of the nineteenth century. Modernity, though, still makes itself felt in the form of the M74 -motorway, which slices through the parish from north to south. From the high plateau, the view to the north and north-east is now dotted with the high-rise buildings of Glasgow, Motherwell and Hamilton, as well as the gently rotating blades of giant wind turbines standing sentinel beyond Carluke.

The lie of the land and the course of rivers have always had a strong influence on both communication and settlement. River valleys offer good routeways, and the Clyde is no exception. The presence of a thousand-year-old hogback burial stone in the kirkyard suggests that Vikings passed this way, but it was only in the late eighteenth century that a proper road was built along the riverside to provide a link between Glasgow and Lanark. Travellers often -preferred higher ground free from flooding, the route of the old A74 road on the west side of the parish being favoured by those travelling south to Carlisle. On this side of the parish, the ground drops away far more gently towards the Avon and Cander Waters. With the development of coal mining in the nineteenth century, new roads appeared in the landscape, one of these being the road built by the 12th Duke of Hamilton to connect the Netherburn colliery with the Lanark road at Overton (Fig. 3).

When Andrew Shaw’s family boarded the RMS Carmania to sail to America in 1905, the ship’s manifest listed their place of residence as Netherburn (Fig. 3). Now a commuter settlement, Netherburn lies on high ground close to the southern edge of Dalserf Parish. Charles Ross’s ‘Map of the Shire of Lanark’, engraved by George Cameron in 1773, makes no reference to Netherburn. Four decades later, William Forrest’s plan of ‘The County of Lanark’, engraved by J. & G. Menzies in 1816, indicates a farm called Netherburn. At that time there were only a handful of coal pits at Woodside, Swinhill and Larkhall. The Reverend James Craig and his successor the Reverend John Russell, authors of the 1840 article ‘Dalserf Parish’ in The New Statistical Account of Scotland, witnessed the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, recording eight or nine collieries. They reported that ‘The numerous new attempts for, and fittings of coal in the parish, have arisen from the speculative spirit of the age, from the impulse given by the railroad system, and the increased activity of the neighbourhood ironworks, from the hope of finding ironstone, and more especially from the expectation that a railroad from Glasgow to the north of England will pass through the parish, affording an easy transit for its mineral stores.’

By the time of Andrew Shaw’s birth in 1892, coal mining and ancillary industries were in full swing. The landscape of Dalserf had been transformed to one of industry. The 1913–14 Editions of the Ordnance Survey’s Six Inches to One Mile Maps, based on 1909–10 updates of the original 1858–9 surveys, indicate coal mining at its peak in the parish, with almost twenty collieries operating:

Bog Colliery
Dykehead Colliery
Raploch Colliery
Shawsburn Colliery
Birkrigg Colliery
Skellyton Colliery
Shaws Colliery
Swinhill Colliery
Canderigg Colliery
South Longrigg Colliery (Netherburn)
Hill Colliery
Woodside Colliery
Cornsilloch Colliery
Auldton Colliery
Over Dalserf Colliery
New Struther Colliery
Bentrigg Colliery (Netherburn)

The railway predicted by the writers of the Statistical Account in 1840 eventually arrived in 1866 with the opening of the Lesmahagow branch of the Caledonian Railway. Nearly all of the collieries were served by feeder lines or mineral railways linking with the main branch line to create a landscape dominated by the movement of coal out of the parish. The principal branch stations at Larkhall, Dalserf (Ayr Road) and Netherburn (Bents) eventually closed in 1951 when the Reverend Kenneth J. Macpherson, author of ‘The Parish of Dalserf’ in The Third Statistical Account of Scotland, reported that ‘Most of these great collieries are now out of existence, and the present production, from the remaining five, is about 750 tons a day. It seems probable that, within the next few years, coal mining in the parish will come to an end.’

The great expansion of coal mining between 1900 and the onset of the First World War had been facilitated by the introduction of coal-cutting machinery as well as electrical pumping and haulage to the far end of the coal workings. This had a decisive impact on the number of miners required to work in the pits, and for the first time in years, workers had to look beyond the parish for a source of income. Some, like the family of Andrew Shaw, decided to seek a new life beyond the shores of Scotland.

Between 1791 and 1891, the year before Andrew Shaw’s birth, industrial development in Dalserf Parish had generated a tenfold increase in the population, which rose from 1,100 to 11,325. A decade later, in 1901, the number of people living in the parish had risen by a further forty per cent to 16,122. The inevitable result of this population boom was an increase in the size of existing settlements such as Larkhall, and the creation of new colliery settlements such as Netherburn, Cornsilloch, Shawsburn and Ashgillhead, where rows of colliers’ cottages were built (Fig. 4). Andrew Shaw’s parents had been married in Ashgillhead in 1881, and were still living there with their first five children at the time of the 1891 Census. The next year, after having spent ten years at Ashgillhead, the family moved to another nearby colliery settlement, Shawsburn, where Andrew’s baptism was registered in 1892. The Shaws would not recognise the area today. In the 1920s, the group of miners’ cottages at Ashgillhead were demolished as part of the national rehousing scheme to make way for the rebuilt village of Ashgill, which lies a mile from Larkhall. The cottage in Dalserf where Andrew spent most of his thirteen years in Scotland has been demolished as well. In 1894, two years after his birth, the baptismal records show that the Shaw family had moved to Burnside Cottage, at the top of Manse Brae, in Dalserf, where they continued to live at least until the birth of their last child in April 1905. It is not known why they listed Netherburn as their residence on the RMS Carmania’s manifest eight months later. Perhaps they sold their cottage to help finance their new life in America and rented a house in Netherburn shortly before emigrating in December 1905. Other family members lived in the three cottages next to Burnside Cottage, and these are still standing in Manse Brae.

Beyond the settlement of Larkhall, the industrial landscape of Dalserf Parish has all but disappeared, leaving only scattered remnants of a heritage that thrived for just over a century.

The agricultural landscape survives, with dairy and arable farming, orchards and market gardening each having played their part in helping to supply the expanding needs of the Greater Glasgow area. The fortunes of such places have risen and fallen with the economy of the day, influenced, for example, by competition from foreign imports, varying government subsidies and changing lifestyles. Market gardens that used to produce fruit and vegetables under glass have been transformed into garden centres supplying shrubs and bedding plants for modern suburban gardens, and the once-important apple, plum and pear trees, thought to have been first planted by the monks of Lesmahagow in the Middle Ages, still blossom today, reminding us that the valley of the River Clyde has its own special micro-climate. Between Lanark and Hamilton, shelter from the wind and reflections of light from the river serve to enhance conditions for growth already created by the warm Gulf Stream that blows across the Atlantic to the shores of Scotland from the south-west, often bringing rain. Compare the climate of Dalserf with that of Dawson Creek in the far north of British Columbia, Canada. Although both places lie at 55º 44’ N, Dawson Creek experiences a more continental climate, with dry summers and winters characterised by cold winds that blow south from the Arctic, bringing extensive snowfalls.

Who knows how young Andrew Shaw felt in 1905 when he left Dalserf to immigrate to America? He will have taken with him not only memories of life at Shawsburn, Netherburn and Manse Brae, but also mental images of landscapes associated with both work and play. While much has changed in 100 years, the landscape of Dalserf still retains its essential character. A sense of place is derived from the contrast between the once-industrialised upland plateau with great vistas in all directions and the natural beauty of the valley of the River Clyde with its haughs and steep wooded slopes. Writing in 1907, just over a year after Andrew Shaw had emigrated, Neil Munro captured the essence of Dalserf when he remarked how the Clyde ‘loiters and bends as if reluctant to leave so fine a place behind’. Who knows how the landscape will look a century from now?

August 2005

About the Author

David M. Munro, MBE, B.Sc., Ph.D., FRSA, FRGS, FSA Scot, is the former ­director of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, an honorary professor of the University of Dundee, and an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of ­Edinburgh. He has written and broadcast extensively on landscape and travel, and has led numerous research expeditions to the tropical forests of Central America. The author and editor of a wide range of publications, Dr Munro has compiled two major geographical reference works: Chambers World Gazetteer (1988) and The Oxford Dictionary of the World (1995). He is currently also a consultant to the publishers of The Times Atlas of the World and an adviser to the British government and the United Nations on geographical names.