It is not an exaggeration to say that you can hardly cross a field in Upper Nithsdale without stumbling upon a site of historical worth – there truly is real, tangible evidence of the area’s fascinating and complicated past everywhere you go.
If the arts and culture are your passion, then there are enough places associated with Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns (as well as Kirkconnel’s own poet, Alexander Anderson) all over the area to satisfy all the poets and dreamers. If the political and royal history of Scotland is more your thing then Upper Nithsdale and the surrounding region won’t disappoint. And if perhaps the religious past (which of course links in with everything else anyway) of the area is of interest to you then you won’t have to go far from Rigg House to find the spot where the story begins…
If you look out the front windows of Rigg House, across the fields you’ll see Kirkland Hill, which, standing at 511m makes it the biggest hill in the immediate area. To reach the trig point, ensure that you follow the footpath leading up Little Kirkland beside Glen Alymer Burn just to the right of Kirkland Hill and cut up and across – don’t just power straight up the steep incline of the main hill (especially during lambing season) as you could potentially upset the sheep and cause huge problems for the farmer. We only became aware of this because we did exactly what I’ve just said you shouldn’t do, but thankfully, on our descent, the farmer explained the situation in a friendly, calm way and didn’t shout at us. Not all farmers are like that, or so I had come to believe.
It is a wonderful, and relatively easy, walk to do, especially in good weather when you will be rewarded with incredible views right down the Nith Valley and up into East Ayrshire. And, unlike hills in more populated areas, chances are you will have the entire place all to yourself which is, for me, the best thing in the world. If it is a longer walk you are after, then this is a great starting point for routes leading to either Wanlockhead or Muirkirk which take in ancient drove roads and go past Coventicles – outdoor places used for religious sermons during the Covenanter’s time.
At the foot of Kirkland Hill you will find the ruins of St.Conal’s Kirk (church), referenced by the aforementioned Alexander Anderson in his poem, ‘The Covenanter’s Tryst’:
“Then I tak’ a look at the Kirkland Heichts,
An’ up at Glen Aylmer Hill,
Then a kinder look at the auld kirkyaird
Where the dead sleep soun’ an’ still.”
This is one of the oldest church sites in Scotland with archaeological remains dating back to the 9th century being discovered here and the foundations of the 12th century church still present. But the story goes back further, back to the 6th century when, close to the site of the church, St.Conal met St. Kentigern/Mungo of Glasgow and became his disciple, bringing Christianity to this area. There is in fact a cup-marked stone somewhere close by which, legend has it, marks the exact spot where the two men met. I have yet to locate this random stone in a random field, but that will be a mission for another day.
Just across the field from the church lies another curious site, part historical and part modern. Right on the base of the hill is an ancient well, adorned with a granite carving in the ground. When I was first told about this ‘face in the ground’, I was under the impression that it was an ancient relic, and of course I had been hoping that it would turn out to be an Indiana Jones-style trapdoor that lead down to a massive underground cavern filled with the revengeful ghosts of the Covenanters. But sadly that didn’t seem to be the case. I can’t seem to find any information about when the carving was actually done, or by whom, but I would guess that it is no more than a decade old. But whatever the story behind this carving, it is still an incredible thing to just find lying in the ground in a field close to home. It does make you wonder just how many other random and surprising things lie hidden in these hills.
Back across the fields leads you to the old cottage of Glenwharrie – a place like many other old farms in the area with a sad connection to the evils perpetrated during the Covenanter’s era. Glenwharrie (or Glenquhary) was once the home of a farmer named John Hair who, during a particularly brutal episode of this religious and politically troubled period (known as New Cumnock’s ‘Killing Day’), was killed, along with his friend and comrade, George Corson, by the king’s dragoons for attending illegal, unsanctioned outdoor Christian sermons. You don’t have to be a Christian, or even particularly religious, to be moved to tears when you learn what happened during those times. There is a monument for Hair and Corson along the A76 overlooking Corsencon hill, a couple of miles along from Rigg House towards New Cumnock, close to the spot where they were killed. These men are also honoured in ‘The Covenanter’s Tryst’.
“The Cairn Hills lie on the other side
Wi’ the sweet Nith rowin’ atween,
An’ there sleep twa leal frien’s o’ mine—
Aul’ frien’s o’ the days that ha’e been”.
From Glenwharrie, follow Willies Burn which runs through the woodland around the back of the cottage and head NW straight towards the mast on the horizon. Continue up alongside the burn and before too long you will spot St.Conal’s Cross standing on the hill side. This Celtic cross was erected in 1880 by the Duke of Buccleuch to mark the supposed burial spot of St. Conal. This beautiful place was chosen due to it’s vantage point from where, on a clear day, you can see the parish churches of Kirkconnel, Sanquhar and Kirkbride – all associated with St. Conal himself. You can also easily see Rigg House from the cross so even if the sky starts pelting you with acupuncture-like hail (as it did up there today), you know you haven’t got far to go to get dry and warm!
Despite living here for nearly 18 months I still find it hard to believe that there is such an incredible wealth of interesting places to find right on our doorstep – I don’t believe I have ever lived anywhere with such strong links to its past. It seems to me that every little track and path leading off the A76 takes you to a new part of the puzzle of the history of Upper Nithsdale and I can’t wait to discover and share more of it.