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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Feel the force of the weather

WHAT a pity there hadn’t been more publicity so more people could have listened to a radio broadcast last week about Eskdalemuir.

The E&L got word of it just before the programme started.

In the series Past Lives, which has been on Monday mornings on Radio Scotland for six weeks, presenter Mark Stephen has roamed the country looking for places with an interesting history and the fifth programme was about Eskdalemuir.

It told how a 17th-century climate change made a village vanish and why the valley now has its famous weather observatory and seismological monitoring station.

As Tom McCarthy, who came to the valley 40 years ago and has always been interested in local history, stood beside Davington Burn where at one time there were 10 to 14 houses, he asked an expert from Aberdeen University why the village, which used to house a thriving community, had disappeared at the end of the 17th century.

Had there been a clearance similar to the Highland clearances? Was there a conflict between the introduction of large-scale sheep farming and the subsistence farming? The answer was yes and no.

The introduction by the landlord of more intensive sheep farming had contributed but it hadn’t been on the same scale as in the Highlands and there was no coercion at Davington.

The third Duke of Buccleuch had made improvements in the valley, draining the low-lying areas of bog and weed to make it suitable for wintering sheep. It had been more a case of a shrinking village rather than a cleared village. The people had simply moved out.

The climate, too, had played its part in its demise. In the 1680s the country suffered a mini-Ice Age when bad weather had killed sheep and shepherds. In one particularly severe winter 13 shepherds lost their lives. Each season saw thousands of sheep killed. So it was a combination of circumstance which drove the people away.

But the extremes of climate resulted in something more positive – the siting of what Mark called “the meteorological office real time monitoring centre”.

He spoke to Ian Dawson, one of the Observatory’s scientists, who explained why Eskdalemuir was chosen as the location.Originally, the equipment had been housed at Kew but with the arrival of the underground and the electric railway, there was interference with the geomagnetic instruments so somewhere remote but not too remote had to be found. Being only half an hour away from a mainline railway, Eskdalemuir was chosen.

Several important figures have worked at the Observatory, one being Lewis Fry Richardson who was its superintendent from 1913 to 1918. He gave us weather forecasting as we know it today. Another was John Stagg who became Eisenhower’s meteorology adviser during the war and he advised on the timing of the D-Day landings. Another was Dr Mitchell who invented a means of detecting submarines.

Ian left no doubt in Mark’s mind that Eskdalemuir was one of the most important meteorological and seismological sites in the world.

The presenter made his way down the valley to Bentpath where he visited the Westerkirk Library and heard from Margaret Sanderson that it is the oldest lending library in Scotland, if not in Britain. Mark was certainly impressed with the building, exclaiming ‘wow’ as he entered the room which houses the books.

Margaret explained it had been founded in 1793 by the Westerhall Mining Company, which inaugurated the Louisa antimony mine at Glendinning because they wanted their miners well-read and bought books for them to borrow.

Some of the titles Mark read out made for some pretty heavy reading: sermons, Guthrie’s Grammar, Treatise on Virtue, Robertson’s History of Scotland.

Margaret told of Thomas Telford’s legacy 200 years ago of £1,000 to be divided between the Westerkirk library and the Langholm library and how the interest on the original sum still allowed books to be bought.

This broadcast had provided a most interesting journey through a historic place right on our doorstep.

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