A tale of two ruins in Tongland

The interior of Old Parish Church.
The interior of Old Parish Church.

Kirkcudbright History Society demonstrated its strength on the wintry evening of 11th January when close to a hundred members and visitors met for the society’s first meeting of 2017.

The speaker was David Devereux, the retired curator of the Stewartry Museum and his subject was ‘Tongland Abbey and Tongland Fish House - a Tale of Two Ruins’.

The ruins of the Fish House

The ruins of the Fish House

David’s original profession was that of an archaeologist, and his retirement three years ago has given him the time and opportunity to apply his skills and his passion for history to an impressive number of site investigations in the Stewartry.

The two ruins featured in his talk could scarcely be more different in scale, purpose and antiquity, but are linked firstly by their presence in the tiny but important village of Tongland, and secondly by the value of fishing to the local community in general.

The Fish House dated from around 1825 and functioned until the 1930s. Fishing however is known to have been undertaken in the Tongland area since between 5000 BC, as is proved by the existence of a barbed spearhead carved from a deer antler, the oldest item in the collection of the Stewartry Museum.

Over 7000 years of fishing at Tongland sadly came to an end as a consequence of the construction of the Galloway Hydro-Electric Scheme, which reduced the flow of water, and obliterated the pools in the Dee, known as the Doachs.

Trench showing late 18th Century road foundation.

Trench showing late 18th Century road foundation.

Tongland Abbey was founded in 1218 by Alan, Lord of Galloway, but while fragments of masonry are to be found in many houses, gardens, dykes, and even in Tongland old bridge, not a trace of the Abbey is now visible.

The general site of the abbey is recorded on various maps, both modern and antique, and can be identified broadly by the fact that its entrance gates are commemorated by the name ‘Meikleyett’ and much of the land within its precinct is now occupied by the derelict 1813 Parish Church, the ruins of the 1633 Parish Church, and their associated graveyards.

The Abbey is known to have been of impressive scale, broadly similar to that of Dundrennan Abbey, and having a steeple that was the tallest in Galloway.

Substantial quantities of its walls remained standing in 1684, but by 1824, almost all had vanished as a result of recycling for building purposes. Suggestions that one wall of the 1684 church had incorporated part of the abbey wall have recently proved to be improbable, the wall concerned having merely been ornamented by a doorway incorporating random fragments of abbey masonry.

the Ice House exterior.

the Ice House exterior.

Investigation of the Fish House building was prompted by planning permission having been granted in 2011 for its conversion to a dwelling house, subject to the production of a building record. David Devereux and his colleague John Pickin were commissioned to prepare the necessary report.

Details of the investigation were described, from removing the ivy which covered semi-ruinous masonry, to anecdotal and written references to its former uses. Architectural features were examined and drawings prepared to illustrate its functions as an office, store, and a preparation and packing facility for fish, prior to their dispatch by horse and cart directly to customers, or later to Kirkcudbright or Tarff railway stations.

The building’s relationship to the adjacent ice house was also explained. At the peak of operations, up to 100 salmon a day were caught in the Doachs and 100,000 young fish were developing in the hatcheries.

The search for the precise siting of Tongland Abbey was initiated by Tongland and Ringford Community Council, under the aegis of the UK-wide Magna Carta 800th Anniversary celebrations. As well as founding Tongland Abbey, Alan, Lord of Galloway, was the only Scot named in the Magna Carta of 1215. A geophysical survey of an area of land between the former parish churches and the former manse was carried out in 2015, and although the results were rather less than dramatic, a series of follow-up trial pits and trenches were opened up by David, John, and a small team of enthusiastic volunteers during 2016. Parts of a retaining wall related to the 1633 church were uncovered and also a narrow roadway, probably dating from the late 18th century. Minor finds included evidence of probable medieval human habitation, such as fire hearths, animal bones, and a medieval stone games counter as well as a variety of modern motor car parts, including number plates! The abbey itself remains in hiding, but the enthusiasm of the two archaeologists and their team remains high, so the search will hopefully continue with the care, diligence and patience that typify good archaeology.

“592 years and not out – A Short History of the Haill Six Incorporated Trades of Kirkcudbright” is the title of the presentation by local man Ian McIntyre at the next meeting on Wednesday 8th February.

The “Trades” have been well documented over the years and have had many illustrious people accepted as members.