Kirkconnel
The Dumfriesshire Companion
Haig Gordon

THEMES & PERSONALITIES

Introduction

Some Historical Background

The Border

From Westerkirk to Westminster Abbey -
Thomas Telford


Robert Burns - Doonhamer

The Sage of Ecclefechan - Thomas Carlyle

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon

Other Literary Figures

The Artists

Fame and Fortune

Other Pairs of Eyes

Kirkconnel

The KIRK is that of St Connel or Conal, an Irish acolyte of St Columba. The ruins of the original chapel lie a couple of miles to the north of the village, just beyond the farm of Kirkland and close to an old drove road that went north-eastwards along Glen Aylmer. The church was built possibly around 1300, though there may have been a religious foundation here from as early as the mid-eleventh century.

After the Reformation it became the parish kirk but went into decline from the 1680s when the minister refused to abide by the Test Act giving the Stuart monarchy ultimate control over the Church of Scotland.

The parishioners did not have a regular place of worship until the building of the present Kirkconnel Parish Church, at the west end of Main Street, was completed in 1730. In 1926, with the help of local miners, the site of the original St Connel's was excavated and the miners erected a cairn in celebration.


The first incumbent of the new kirk, from 1732 until his death in 1748, was the controversial Rev Peter Rae. In his previous post at Kirkbride near Durisdeer he had antagonised his parishioners by devoting much of his time to running a printing and publishing business, as a local versifier protested:

The printing trade he now does try
The minister trade he should lay by.

Rae's press published the Dumfries Mercury, the first newspaper to be produced in Scotland outside of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Many of its other publications were Rae's own writings, including a tract against the 1707 Act of Union and A History of the Late Rebellion (1718), still an important source for studies of the Jacobite disturbances of 1715. Rae tried downplaying his involvement in the business by naming his son as the printer, though the boy was only eight years old when the enterprise began.

During his lifetime Rae was restlessly versatile: his activities included being agent for the lead mines at Wanlockhead, surveying the Lochar Moss near Dumfries, and making clocks.


Kirkconnel was a quiet rural backwater, slightly forgotten on the north-west periphery of the county, until coal-mining transformed the place. The coal had been known about for a long time and had been extracted from the surrounding hillsides for many centuries for local consumption. Then the vast industrial developments of nineteenth-century Britain and its hugely expanding cities demanded a more concerted exploitation of deposits such as Kirkconnel's. From 1838, when the Sanquhar merchant George Whigham acquired the mineral rights, a steady succession of new pits were opened up: Drumbuie, Gateside, Bankhead and Fauldhead.

The opening in the 1850s of the Dumfries-Glasgow railway, with a station at Kirkconnel, boosted the economics of the mining operations. Kirkconnel's population grew from 500 to 4000 in the twenty years before the outbreak of the First World War and it eventually peaked at 5000.

A serious housing shortage began to be tackled from 1921 with the start of a whole new community south of the river at Kelloholm. After the Second World War the Kelloholm housing scheme was expanded further - just as the mines were starting to go into decline. The last of them closed down in 1980. In 1984 a miners' memorial was unveiled, a fitting reminder of the many victims of a harsh working environment.

Though some open-cast mining has continued at Glenmuchloch and Rigg, Kirkconnel has never quite lived down its reputation as an unemployment blackspot. A meat factory which opened in the early 1990s went into receivership within a year. Robin Smith, author of The Making of Scotland (2001), gave his impression of the area at this time: 'two bings still dominated the skyline to the east, huge opencast mines were turning over the hills to the west a nd even on a warm May day a miasma of coal smoke from a hundred domestic chimneys hung over the sad little town, an unloved outpost of the agricultural Dumfries and Galloway Region.'


Despite all its scars, however, the hill country setting of Kirkconnel retains a stark beauty and generations of its miners had close, restorative contact with the natural world on their doorstep, as the Third Statistical Account of Scotland, written in the 1950s, was keen to point out:

People who motor through Kirkconnel have remarked on the somewhat gloomy aspect of the place and they proceed to draw wholly unwarranted conclusions. One must live with people in order to know them: it has long been recognised that the men who work in the so-called Sanquhar coal-field (all the coal is actually in Kirkconnel parish) are among the best types of mineworkers in the country. No one is better aware of this fact than the members of the police force who have had a happy sojourn here. Kirkconnel miners are keenly interested in nature, and many have an extensive knowledge of bird and plant life, while others are keen fishers.

An acute sense of its past is vigorously and enterprisingly maintained today by the Kirkconnel Parish Heritage Society, which since its founding in 1997 has compiled a community archive, undertaken works of restoration and created an informative network of paths.


Kirkconnel takes pride in two local men who made their names as poets.

James Hyslop (1798-1827), best known for 'The Cameronian Dream' on the theme of the Covenanters, was a poor shepherd lad who educated himself out of farm toil and into making a living as a tutor. He was teaching on board HMS Tweed when he died of a fever off the Cape Verde Islands and was buried at sea with military honours. He was just 29.

The nineteenth-century Dumfries chronicler John McDiarmid cherished by preference an image of Hyslop's simple life before tutoring: 'What he missed at school, he found by his own unassisted efforts on the lonely moor, or the bleak hill-side, with his dog at his foot, a book in his hand, and his hirsel peacefully grazing around him.'


Alexander Anderson (1845-1909), a railwayman turned librarian, wrote poetry under the pen-name of 'Surfaceman' and is commemorated by an elegant plaque placed in the grounds of the parish kirk in 1912.

Alexander Anderson 'Surfaceman' plaque

PLACES

Ae
Amisfield
Annan
Auldgirth
Bankend
Beattock
Bentpath
Brydekirk
Canonbie
Carronbridge
Carrurtherstown
Chapelknowe
Clarencefield
Closeburn
Collin
Cummertrees
Dalswinton
Dalton
Dornock
Dumfries
Duncow
Dunscore
Durisdeer
Eaglesfield
Eastriggs
Ecclefechan
Eskdalemuir
Glencaple
Gretna
Hightae
Holywood
Johnstonebridge
Kettleholm
Kirkconnel
Kirkpatrick Fleming
Kirkton
Kirtlebridge
Langholm
Lochmaben
Lockerbie
Middlebie
Moffat
Moniaive
Mouswald
Newton Wamphray
Parkgate
Penpont
Powfoot
Ruthwell
Sanquhar
Templand
Thornhill
Tinwald
Torthorwald
Tynron
Wanlockhead
Waterbeck

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