Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Biggar and the House of Fleming
Chapter I - Prehistoric Remains nr the Biggar District

BIGGAR, a parish in the Upper Ward of Clydesdale, is bounded dj T\ on the west by Libberton and the river Clyde, on the north by Dolphinton and Walston, on the east by Skirling, and on the south by Coulter and Kilbucho. The form of the parish is nearly triangular, and comprises 5852 Scots acres, or 11 square miles. It is chiefly of a hilly and undulating character, with exception of a level tract on the south, which is watered by Biggar Burn, and which forms part of what may be denominated the Strath of Biggar. This strath or valley is 628 feet above the level of the sea, and sends its waters, on the west, into the Clyde, and on the east, into the Tweed The parish lies about 23 miles south-west from Edinburgh, and 32 miles south-east from Glasgow, and has ready communication by good roads, and now by railway, with all parts of the kingdom, The name of the parish in old documents is variously written, such as Bygare, Bygair, Bigre, Biger, Begar, and Bigar, and it is only of late years that its present orthography has been established. Its etymology, according to the learned George Chalmers, is to be traced to the Scoto-Irish words ‘big,’ soft, and 'thir’ land. It is far from unlikely that the title ‘soft* was applicable to the lands of the parish at a remote period; for, even at the commencement of the present century, a large portion of the lowest parts of it consisted of marshes and peat-mosses. Others, again, think that 'big ’ may refer to a coarse kind of barley called bigg or bear, and, therefore, that the meaning of the word Biggar is the bigg or bear land. This is a subject, however, on which entire certainty will not be easily attained, and on which etymologists, in all probability, will continue to hold conflicting opinions.

The parish was, no doubt, peopled many ages previous to the existence of historical records, or the time at which the Roman invaders planted their eagles on our soil. The early inhabitants, like those of other parts of Scotland, would be very indifferently lodged, clothed, and fed. Their houses would be composed of turf, rough stones, and the branches of trees; their raiment would consist of the skins of wild or domesticated animals; and their food would be drawn from the spontaneous fruits of the soil, or the fish and venison which their skill and dexterity in fishing and hunting enabled them to procure. The parish, in these remote times, was evidently covered with forests of hazel, oak, alder, birch, etc., fragments of which have been dug up at considerable depths in its different peat-mosses. With the wild beasts with which these were tenanted, as well as with marauding neighbours, the inhabitants would wage a constant warfare. Traces of the early inhabitants are to be found in the stone weapons and utensils that are, from time to time, dug up in the neighbourhood. They belong to what is called the Stone Period; that is, a period when the metals were still unknown, and the implements used by man were composed of stone and wood. It has often been remarked, that where geology leaves the world’s history, archaeology takes it up. The one deals with the different processes that have taken place to form the earth’s crust, and render it fit for the habitation of man ; the other takes up the industrial developments of man from the rude and simple fabrications of aboriginal times, to the complicated and scientific productions of our own day. As the excavator and the miner have contributed much to geological science by laying open the wonders of the earth’s crust, so the ploughman and the drainer have enriched archeology by the stores of relics which they have brought to light. Few districts have yielded a more plentiful crop of those remains of the past than the one around Biggar. A large portion of those dug up in recent times have fortunately found their way into the hands of Adam Sim, Esq. of Coulter. The collection of Lanarkshire antiquities in the possession of that gentleman is now exceeding rich, and, we may say, perfectly unique. With his kind permission, a few of those, more immediately connected with Biggar and its neighbourhood, have been selected for brief description and pictorial representation.

The stone hammer is a primitive implement that is very commonly to be met with. It is often found in the older cists, or bury-ing-places; and hence by the vulgar it has been called a purgatory hammer, from the supposition that it was placed in graves in order to be used by the dead when they came to the gates of purgatory. It is on this account that in some districts it has been regarded as an object of religious veneration. The one here represented was found at Aikbrae on Crosscryne, about three miles from Biggar. It measures inches in length, and 2| inches across the cutting edge.

The circular perforated stone here represented was found at Coulter, and is a specimen of what is very generally denominated a flail-stone. It has received this name from a supposition that it was a military weapon, which was made effective by suspending it by a cord or thong of leather from a short staff, and used in the same manner as the ‘morning star* of the middle ages. As stones of this kind are often found in the graves of the aboriginal inhabitants, it has been conjectured by some person that they were personal ornaments, and worn as beads. The ornamentation on some of them would also favour this conjecture; but the fact is, that the real use of them cannot now be known.

Fiall stone

Hammer.                Celt

Another primitive stone weapon was an axe, or, as it is commonly called, a celt. It is a weapon that has been extensively dug up in almost every country in the world. It has been a matter of considerable speculation, to what use the celt was applied, and by what mode it was fixed to a handle. The likelihood is, that it was used both for warlike and domestic purposes, and that it was inserted in a wooden shaft or handle, and secured in such a way that it could be employed either in striking a foe, cutting down a tree, or constructing an article of domestic use. The one here represented was found at Biggar.

The practice of archery appears to be of a very remote antiquity in the Britannic Isles, and the number of flint arrow-heads, beautifully formed, that have been picked up on Bizzyberry, the Borrow Muir, and Biggar Shields, is a convincing proof that the Caledonian of Biggar ‘put his reliance on his bow.* To shoot well with the bow, both in the battle-field and the more peaceful pursuit of the chase, would be regarded as a necessary accomplishment by the men of Biggar; and at such places as Bowflat, now called Bamphflat, and Batts, or Butts, now called Springfield, it is more than probable that gatherings for practice were wont to take place. The annexed wood-cut represents a fine specimen of a flint arrowhead found on the hill of Bizzyberry, that overlooks the town of Biggar.

The manner in which these arrow-heads were fabricated, and the places from which they were brought, are involved in obscurity. They appear to have been very extensively used, as they have been found in many different parts of the world, including the South Sea Islands and the immense continent of America. As some of these regions are far remote from the spots where flint is a natural deposit, it is plain that, in the primitive times in which they were used, they must have formed an article of extensive traffic. The rude material must have been dug up, and most likely fashioned, in places, such as the south of England, where flint formations abound, and then conveyed to distant parts of the country, to be bartered for other commodities which the natives could supply.

The flint arrow-heads, as is well known, were long associated with the superstitions of this and other countries. They were termed elf or elfin bolts, and were supposed to be shot by the fairies, or other malignant spirits, and to produce the most fatal effects. Hence, in some parts of the country, whenever they were found, they were carefully buried, in case some of these evil beings might find them, and use them in the accomplishment of their destructive designs. They seem also to have been worn in some districts as an amulet or charm. They were in that case sewed in a part of the dress, and regarded as an effectual antidote against the spells of witches, and the injurious tricks of elfs and fairies. In the Biggar district, till a very recent period, many of the diseases of cattle were attributed to the elf-shot. One of the most remarkable statements regarding the fabrication of these elf-bolts, and the deadly effects which they produced, was made by Isobel Goudie, the famous witch of Auldem, on her trial before a commission in 1662. In her second confession she said, ‘ As for elf arrow-heidis, the Divel shapis thame with his a win hand, and syne deliveris thame to elf-boyis, wha whyttis and dyghtis thame with a sharp thing lyke a paking neidle, bot quhan I was in Elfland, I saw thame whytting and dighting thame. . . . Thes that dightis thaim ar litle ones, hollow and bossbaked. They speak gowstie lyk. Quhan the Divel giues thaim to ws he sayes,

Shoot thes in my name,
And they sail not goe heall hame.

And quhan we shoot thes arrowes we say,

I shoot yon man in the Divel’s name,
He sail nott win heall hame;
And this sal be alswa tru,
Thair sail not be an bit of him on lieiw.

We hau no bow to shoot with, but spang thaim from the naillis of our thowmbes. Som tymes we misse, bot, if they twitch, be he beast, or man, or woman, it will kill tho’ they had a jack upon thaim. This, of course, is the declaration of a poor creature made mad by prolonged insults and torture, and deserves no consideration, further than it shows the strange hallucinations into which persons charged with witchcraft could be driven, and the gross absurdities which men, even of the highest rank and intelligence of the age, could be led to entertain and believe.

The annexed cut represents part of an ancient stone quern, or hand-mill for grinding corn, which was found at Coulter. The quern is an article of very great antiquity. The use of it would, no doubt, be almost coeval with the existence of the human race. Some rude contrivance of the kind was evidently requisite ere the grain furnished by the bountiful Creator could, to any extent, be converted into food. One of them would therefore be found in every household. The people were attached to their use, and, after the introduction of water-mills, were decidedly averse to give them up. The Government, who wished to encourage the watermills, therefore, in 1284, during the reign of Alexander HI., passed the following enactment:—‘ That na man sail presume to grind quheit, maislhock, or rye, with hand mylnes, except he be compelled be storm, or be lack of mylnes, quhilk sould grind the samen. And in this case, gif a man grinds at hand mylnes, he sail gif the threttein measure as multer; and gif anie man contraveins this our prohibition, he sail tine his hand mylnes perpetuallie.’ This law failed to some extent to effect the end contemplated, and in some remote districts of Scotland the querns continued in use almost to our own times. At almost all the old farm towns in the Biggar district, these primitive and once useful utensils were lately to be found very generally built into the wall of some of the office-houses. Those of most recent date were hollowed out like a trough, and the com, or rather the barley, was placed inside and bruised by a stone, or sometimes by a piece of wood called a knocker, and hence these utensils were usually denominated ‘ knocking stones.’

Another article that must be ascribed to a very remote antiquity is the ornamented stone ball It is found in various parts of Scotland. Four or five very fine specimens are to be seen in the Museum of the Antiquaries of Scotland at Edinburgh. They are nearly alike in size, but they differ very much in their ornamentation. The one here represented (Fig. 1) was found at Biggar Shields. It has six regularly arranged circles in relief, with intervening spaces, which give it a J fine symmetrical appearance. The use to which these balls were put is not certainly known. It may be that they were used for warlike purposes, as balls of a similar kind have been so employed by some tribes of American Indians, who enclosed them in leather, and attached to them a thong a yard and a half in length. By some parties, on the contrary, it has been conjectured that they were used in the process of grinding corn, and hence they have been called ‘ corn-crushers.’ They are frequently dug up in cists; and this may be taken as a proof that, in remote ages, they were held in respect. As might be expected, they have been identified with the superstitions of subsequent ages, and have been supposed to possess the same virtues, and to have the same claim to awe and veneration, as elf-bolts, stone-hammers, adder-stones, etc.

In course of time several of the metals were discovered, particularly copper and tin, as these, in some plaoes, were found lying near the surface. By smelting these two metals together, a substance was produced of much greater hardness than either of them possessed, taken singly. This substance, which was called bronze, was, for a period, most extensively used, and superseded stone as a material for the construction of warlike and domestic implements. The introduction of this metal marks an important stage in the history of human improvement ; and it is interesting to note that articles, formerly composed of stone, were now produced in almost the same form in bronze. The ancient Caledonians who inhabited Biggar, so soon as a knowledge of the newly-discovered metals reached them, would no doubt throw aside their stone implements as comparatively of little value, and adopt those composed of the more durable and effective material Several remarkably fine examples of bronze axe-heads or celts, spear-heads, and the weapons called paalstaves, have been found in the vicinity of Biggar. Fig. 1 is a curious bronze implement, the real use of which it is not very easy to divine. It may have been employed as a dagger, as in some specimens the blade contains two or three holes, for the evident purpose of riveting it to a handle. It measures 7 inches in length, and, at the smaller end, 2 inches in breadth; but it is evident that a portion of it has been broken off. It was found at Coulter. In Fig. 2 we have a fine specimen of the bronze socket or pot-celt. Its sides are ornamented with the groovings or tridental it more firmly to the handle, or to suspend it from the girdle of the wearer. It is 4^ inches long, and was found at Hapgingshaw in the parish of Coulter. The bronze axe-head here engraved (Fig. 8) was found in a cairn, within the camp on the summit of Wintermuir Hill. It is 63 inches in length, and nearly three inches across the cutting edge.

The spear-head engraved (Fig. 4) was found in the neighbourhood, and has been selected as a good specimen of this early but beautiful weapon, and as in all likelihood the product of some of the ancient forges in the district. Another bronze implement here engraved (Fig. 5) is what is called a paalstave or paalstab. This weapon has, seemingly, been attached to a cleft handle, and might be used either as a spear or an axe. It was found at Aikbrae, on Crosscryne. Another very fine one in Mr Sim's possession was found at Kersewell, and several others have lately been discovered in this district. Paalstaves are met with in considerable variety, some of them being finely ornamented and engraved; but antiquaries are by no means agreed as to the purposes for which they were employed. It is very likely that they were used both. as a warlike and a domestic implement, and perhaps, also, in the rites of some of the old religious systems that prevailed in the country.

Marks common in this type, which have very frequently been met with in the north of England. It has a loop, intended either to fasten


the bronze ball (Fig, 2) represented in the woodcut, along with the one in stone, is the only specimen of the kind known to exist, being of the same type as those of stone formerly referred to. It is somewhat smaller, being only l inches in diameter, and was found at Walston, three or four miles from Biggar. George Vere Irving, Esq. of Newton, in describing it in an Archeological Journal, says, ‘It is beautifully incised with volutes, so as to produce six discshaped figures. It has been cast in two portions, each half being composed of a different metal, and of a different density. The workmanship of it would assign its production to a period subsequent to the occupation of this country by the Romans.’

The religion of the ancient inhabitants of the Biggar district is supposed to have been Druidism. It has, no doubt, been stoutly asserted by several authors that the practice of this system of religion in Great Britain was confined to the southern parts of the island, and they demand a proof to the contrary. Now, it must be admitted that no direct proof of the kind can be given. No ancient author has made any statement on the subject; and the Druids themselves left no writings, as it was one of their tenets that no record of their opinions and transactions should be kept Caesar, indeed, states that the Druidical system was in operation in South Britain, a region which he had himself visited;* but this does not prove that it did not prevail in other parts of the country, which he never saw. However this may be, it becomes us to notice several remains of antiquity in the parish of Biggar and its neighbourhood, which have been generally set down as Druidical.

On the Shields Hill, in the parish of Biggar, several upright stones are still standing, which have been considered to be part of a Druidical temple. Here the Druids, with their flowing robes, their white surplices, their long beards, and their rods of office, may have expounded their religious opinions, and offered up human victims in sacrifice. At the west end of the town of Biggar is the Moat, or Moathill, which in Saxon signifies the meeting-hill. It is of a circular form, and measures 100 feet in height on the west side, 477 feet in circumference at the base, and 225 feet at the top. From the top of it, which is quite fiat, three other moats of a similar form, though of less dimensions, are in sight,—one at Roberton, one at Wolf-Clyde, and another at Bamphfiat. In the opinion of some, these were places ' on which the Druids held their courts of justice, as they are known to have acted in a judicial as well as in a religious capacity, and to have transacted their business and performed their rites in the open air. Here, then, the priests of the Druidical superstition may have tried many trembling culprits, pronounced on them the terrible sentence of excommunication, or sent them to expiate their crimes on the blazing pile. At a few miles distant, conspicuously in view, and forming a termination to the vista from the main street of the town of Biggar, is Tinto, the hill of fire, with its huge cairn, on which, on May eve, and on the 1st of November, yearly, the Druids are said to have lighted fires in honour of Beal or Belenus, the sun. Fires at the same time would blaze on the mountains of Lothian, Tweeddale, and others still more distant, till the whole island was lighted up with a ruddy glow. Then the fires on every hearth would be extinguished, and the people would hasten to the nearest mountain-top to obtain a portion of the consecrated fire to rekindle the fires in their huts or weems. No fire was, however, given unless the customary dues were paid to the Caimeach, or officiating priest; and no person dared to supply the defaulter, under the pain of excommunication, which is said to have been worse than death itself.

Two very fine specimens of an ornament, supposed to be Druidical, were found, in 1858, on a piece of newly broken up ground on the farm of Southside, in the parish of Kilbucho, about three miles from Biggar. They were at first thought to be merely pieces of tin, debris from the anvil of Moses Marshall, the tinker, and were taken to the farm-house, and thrown behind the kitchen fire.

A relative of the farmer, Mr Core, who had visited America, happened to have his attention attracted by their singular appearance, and, on examination, found that they were composed of the finest gold. They were taken to Biggar and weighed, and ultimately found their way into the hands of Adam Sim, Esq. That gentleman, on the 10th of June 1861, presented one of them to the Antiquarian Society of Scotland, and it is now to be seen in the Museum of that body at Edinburgh. The other still remains in his possession at Coultermains. Each of them weighs 1 oz. 8 dwt. 13 grs. They are in the form of a crescent or half-moon, measure at the broadest part If inches, terminate at each extremity with a button or small disc, and have a slight ornamentation, consisting of faint lines and small depressions. They are both exactly alike; and it is remarkable that two of them were found at the same spot,—a spot at which other remains of a remdte antiquity, in the shape of paalstabs and bronze celts, have been dug up. A representation of one of them is to be seen in the annexed woodcut.

The writers who consider that these ornaments were worn by the Druids, state that they were carried in the hand of the priest when he went to cut the sacred mistletoe on the sixth day of the moon, and that, as the Druids paid great attention to astronomy, this crescent-shaped ornament was intended to symbolize the moon at that stage of her course, and to indicate that the time of the festival had arrived. Such of them as had a button or disc at the extremities, are said also to have been worn on the head of the priest during sacrifices and other ceremonies, and were then placed behind the ears, and fastened with a string. looped to the buttons. In this position they very much resemble the nimbus or rays of glory which are usually made, in pictorial representations, to surround the head of Christ and His apostles. Another ornament of the same shape is said to have been worn on the breast of the Druidical priest. This was called the Iod-hain Morain, or breastplate of judgment; and, according to the fables of Ireland, was believed to possess the power of squeezing the neck on the utterance of a false judgment. Representations of these ornaments, and the manner in which they are said to have been worn, are to be seen in the ‘Collectanea de Rebus Hibemicis,’ and in ‘Meyricks and Smith’s Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands.’

Though some authors have very strongly and positively asserted that these were the uses to which these ornaments were put, yet it must be admitted that their statements rest very much on conjecture. It is beyond question, however, that ornaments of the same kind were worn at a very remote era. They have been shown by Auberi, Montfaucon, and others, to have been represented on bas-reliefs and statues of great antiquity. Specimens of these ornaments have been occasionally dug up in the bogs of Ireland; but in Scotland they are more rarely to be met with, and hence the value of the two found at Southside.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus