From G. Houston 1962 The Third Statistical Account of Scotland: The County of Dumfries (Glasgow: Collins) pp. 148-153.


by the Rev. W. ARNOLD REID

Boundaries and Extent. The extreme length of the parish from east to west is about ten miles, its average breadth one and a half miles, and its area 8,807 acres. The south-eastern portion fills the angle made by the Nith with its tributary, the Cluden, and from there the land rises very gradually westwards towards a small range of hills of which the highest point is Speddoch Hill, 875 feet. The Nith forms the entire eastern boundary of the parish for about six miles, with a few intersections resulting from changes in the channel of the river: across the Nith lie the parishes of Kirkmahoe and Dumfries. The southern boundary for about eight miles is the Cluden, known as the Cairn above Newtonairds. The contiguous parishes south of this river are the recently extended burgh lands of Dumfries from Lincluden to beyond Newbridge; Terregles; and Kirkpatrick-Irongray. A portion of the parish of approximately 1,200 acres and comprising the lands of Speddoch and Milliganton lies south of the Cairn at Stepford. On the north and west, the adjoining parish is Dunscore.

This is an entirely rural parish with the population dispersed over the whole area in farms, estates and cottages. Hitherto, there have been no substantial groupings anywhere. Holywood village, situated on the main north road and containing the only post office and shop in the parish, is a single row of 14 houses, and a similar number are grouped beside the mill at East Cluden. Many of these are obsolete and fall short of modern standards of comfort and convenience, but they are being replaced by the new village which is developing east of the main road at Holywood Hall.

History. As was pointed out by the Rev. R. Kirkwood in the New Statistical Account (1837), the parish takes its name from the oak forest or grove which covered its surface in early times, encircling the ancient stone circle near Kilness, and also, at a later date, the abbey, which for six centuries occupied a site close to where the parish church now stands. The name appears on the seal of the abbot, dated 1264, which bears the inscription Sg. Abbat. Sacri Nemoris, the seal of the Abbot of the Sacred Grove, that is Holywood, originally written Halywood or Haliewood. Further evidence is afforded by many of the place names, mainly of Gaelic origin, which refer to the wooded nature of the district. The most ancient relic in the parish is a stone circle, known locally as the 'Twelve Apostles', and standing in a field adjoining the road which turns westward off the main road just north of Newbridge. There were originally twelve of these stones, but one has disappeared. They are massive boulders, the largest weighing about 12 tons, and they are arranged in a circle approximately 370 feet in diameter. Tradition associates them with some form of Druidic worship, and certain features in the lay-out seem to indicate an astronomical setting similar to that at Stonehenge.

About half a mile to the east of the circle is the site of the abbey. Its earliest name appears to have been the Abbey of Dercongal, and that is the title given to it in the bulls and charters of the thirteenth century. Dercongal means the oak wood of Congal or Connel, an Irish saint who visited Scotland in the sixth century and is believed to have founded a church or cell here. The abbey was erected on the site of that cell, probably during the reign of David I (1124-1153), for canons of the Premonstratensian Order. Thereafter, for 400 years, it was a centre of importance and influence, and there are frequent references to its activities in documents of the period. After the Reformation, however, it lost much of its glory and most of its possessions. In the year 1779 about half of the head of the cross of the abbey still stood and served as the parish church. These remains were then pulled down and the materials used in part for the building of the present church. The demolition seems to have been complete as no vestige of the ancient building remains above ground, but parts of the foundation walls have been uncovered at various times in recent years in the course of excavations. The only visible relics of the abbey today are two finely-toned bells which hang in the tower of the parish church and are still rung regularly for services. These are the bells from the abbey and one of them bears an inscription indicating that it was consecrated by the abbot, John Wrich, in the year 1154 in the reign of Malcolm IV. The present church is the only one in the parish. It is a simple building with a tall square tower, and has accommodation for 370 persons. Among the communion vessels still in use is a silver cup inscribed 'For the Parish of Halywood 1619'. The kirk session records are almost complete and start in the year 1698.

The later history of the parish has been uneventful. There have been no great changes apart from the general development of agricultural practice and modern transport. The scattered nature of the population has prevented the emergence of any strong sense of community. In former days the abbey was the centre and focus of the whole district. It owned the land and directed and controlled everything that went on. Later, to a lesser degree, a similar function was performed by the parish church, linking within the parish system the various estates which in themselves formed separate small communities. Now, even that has altered and there has been a tendency for the parish to break down into three ecclesiastical zones. The eastern zone, comprising the parts around and east of the main road, lies conveniently to the parish church; the central zone around Gribton and Steilston is within easy reach of the parish church of Irongray; while the western zone, including Speddoch, is little more than a mile from Dunscore, as against seven or eight miles from Holywood Church. Added to this is the fact that several people who have moved out from time to time to houses in the parish retain a church connection in Dumfries. One significant change is, however, taking place at present, with the development of the new county council housing scheme at Holywood Hall, just east of the main road and three miles from Dumfries. This will provide an initial group of 56 houses, conveniently placed near church and school, and the intended extension of social services and shopping facilities, together with the likelihood of further development, will make this by far the largest grouping of population that the parish has had in its whole history. Already there is evidence of the awakening of a community spirit which finds expression in a growing pride in the new village and an increasing demand for corporate activities.

Population. The population of the parish in 1951 was 867, compared with 969 in 1931 and 1,078 in 1881, the highest recorded figure. The census returns over the last 150 years reveal no great variation and are in keeping with the nature of the parish and its occupations. While the number of people employed on the land is appreciably smaller than formerly, better transport services have enabled an increasing number to find employment in Dumfries, in shops, offices and factories, so that the total population, remaining almost constant, has been conditioned largely by the housing available. About one-quarter of the inhabitants are native to the parish. Of the remainder the great majority are from the south-western counties, with only a few from other parts of Scotland, and a small number from outside Scotland.

Agriculture. Out of a total parish area of 8,807 acres in 1955, 1,383 acres were in tillage, 2,303 in temporary and 2,171 in permanent grasses, and 1,266 acres in rough grazings. The long-term trend has been for the tillage area to decline (it was 1,872 acres in 1913,2,136 acres in 1866), while the temporary (and permanent) grass acreage has risen slightly (there were 2,179 acres of temporary grass in 1913, 1,818 acres in 1866). Out of 37 full-time farms in 1956,25 were classified as dairy farms. In 1955 there were 2,651 dairy cattle out of a total cattle population of 3,346. (In 1913 there were 1,869 cattle in the parish, in 1866 only 620). Most of the dairy farms have Ayrshire herds. There were, in 1955, 4,265 sheep, including 1,585 breeding ewes. (In 1913 there were 4,036 sheep in the parish and in 1866 5,703.)

In 1956 there were 64 tractors in the parish, almost three times the number of horses (23). The decline in the number of horses has been sharper in Holywood than in most other parishes, for there were 217 horses in 1913 (221 in 1869). Generally speaking, the parish is one of the most highly mechanised in the county, having one tractor for every 22 acres of tillage, and one combine-harvester for every 152 acres of grain. The main crops are oats (896 acres), turnips (224 acres) and potatoes (135 acres); the yield of oats generally varies between 20 and 30 cwt. an acre.

Roughly 60 per cent. of the crops and grass acreage is now on farms which are owner-occupied, but about a dozen farms are still in the hands of tenants. The average rent is from £1 10s. to £2 an acre for the better land, and £1 for the poorer. Great improvement has taken place in the land in the last 30 years, the result of wider application of scientific methods and the greater attention given to the preparation of the soil. With guaranteed prices and the advice and assistance given by the state services, with better working conditions, wages and housing, agricultural prospects are brighter than they have been for a very long time. There is, however, a continuing shortage of skilled labour, the result in some measure of the growth of large new industries in the neighbourhood of Dumfries.

Other industries. There is a creamery at Killylung, built by the late Major Henry Keswick of Cowhill, who also modernised steadings and built new cottages on most of his farms. The creamery is now operated by United Dairies (Scotland) and receives a large proportion of the milk produced in the parish for the manufacture of cheese. One old-established mill at East Cluden does all the general milling and preparation of feeding stuffs.

In contrast to its early state, there are now no extensive woods in the parish, though there is some good timber, mostly larch and spruce, at Newtonairds, as well as some varied woods at Speddoch and Cowhill. The only other industry in the parish is the quarrying of stone and the preparation of road metal carried on at Morrinton. Apart from three joiners resident in the parish and the usual estate workers, all tradesmen come from Dumfries and the surrounding district.

Roads and Communications. The main trunk road between Dumfries and Glasgow crosses the parish from Newbridge in a north-westerly direction for two and a half miles, and is a busy highway carrying a large volume of traffic. North of Newbridge a road leads off westwards for Dunscore and Moniaive. There are also adequate by-roads and service roads on either side of the main highway. Running roughly parallel to this main road, the main Dumfries-Glasgow railway line also passes through the parish, but the station at Holywood has now been closed to all but heavy goods traffic. The Cairn Valley branch line from Dumfries to Moniaive, which was opened in 1905 and traversed the parish from east to west with three stations at Irongray, Newtonairds, and Stepford, was finally closed for all traffic in 1949 and is now dismantled. In place of these services, bus transport has been developed with an adequate hourly service in either direction on the main road, but a somewhat limited service in the direction of Dunscore. Extensive use is made of these services, though some parts of the parish remain rather isolated.

Housing. One of the most notable changes is in the housing of the people. Progress here is necessarily slow, but is gradually effecting a marked improvement in the lives and habits of the population. Many of the houses are old and beyond adequate repair : some of them are already condemned but continue to be occupied because there is as yet no alternative accommodation. There are a few cases of overcrowding. The improvement began on the estates and farms with the reconstruction of many houses and the building of new cottages for workers. In the new village at Holywood Hall, the first group of (18) three room and kitchen houses was completed by the county council and occupied–almost entirely by landworkers–in 1949, and a further 38 have been added. As the older houses are vacated, most of them are closed or demolished.

It is estimated that there are approximately 240 inhabited houses in the parish. Of these, 9 are mansion houses, 45 are substantial farmhouses, and the remainder are of cottage type. Most have gardens that are generally well cultivated, notably those in the new housing scheme. One of the mansion houses, Gribton, has been acquired by the hospital board for use as a residence and training centre for nurses from the Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary. Fifty houses in the parish are owner-occupied, the remainder tenanted.

Education. The parish has three primary schools; Holywood, near the new village, has 81 pupils and three teachers; Steilston and Speddoch with 23 and 22 pupils respectively, are both single-teacher schools. Ali secondary education for the area is concentrated in Dumfries. and pupils, on leaving the local schools, travel there daily by bus for the remainder of their course. Most of them are content to leave at 15 when many of them enter employment in Dumfries and some return to work on the land. Very few continue further study at Dumfries Academy.

Health Services. The health of the inhabitants is well cared for. No doctor is resident in the parish, but patients are attended by many of the Dumfries doctors and by the doctor at Dunscore. A district nurse, also resident at Dunscore, gives valuable service throughout the district, while the health of the children is in the care of the school medical and dental services.

Public and Social Services. Great advances have been made in the last 20 years in the provision of public and social services, and these now extend to all parts of the parish. An excellent and ample water supply is available to all through the county mains. Electricity, too, is almost universal, and very few of the older houses still use oil lamps. There are two special street lighting districts, at Holywood village with Newington, and in the Holywood Hall district. The latter also has a county sewage and scavenging scheme. The parish is well-served commercially by the many tradesmen's vans which have regular rounds, but the bulk of the shopping is done personally and quite conveniently in Dumfries. This is an excellent centre, and much of the shopping is done on Wednesday, the weekly market day.

Church. The parish church is the only church in the parish. Its membership in 1958 was 240 - 102 men and 138 women. In addition to these, a further number, including a few Episcopalians, attend churches in Dumfries, while others are members of the churches at Irongray and Dunscore. Attendance at church is fair, but there has been some decline during the last 10 of 15 years, partly because of the greater opportunities now available for travelling and visiting on Sundays, and partly because of Sunday work. Almost everyone claims some church connection and most people are well-disposed towards the church, but that is often as far as it goes. Children are regularly baptised and there is a Sunday school of about 8o children at Holywood.

Voluntary Services. The only place of public assembly in the parish, apart from the church and the schools, is Holywood church hall; as a consequence, this is in regular use for all communal functions and activities in addition to the meetings of church organisations. A vigorous branch of the W.R.I. meets here at least once a month and has a membership of 77, while a second branch with a similar membership meets in Steilston school. The Lower Nithsdale Young Farmers' Club and the local branch of the Farm Servants' Union also meet in the hall. Periodic classes in country dancing, discussion groups and the usual social and dramatic functions held. Here again the proximity to Dumfries tends to limit the social life of the parish, since many find most of their entertainment and interests amply catered for in that larger community.

There is little active participation in sport of any kind by adults, apart from two carpet bowling clubs each with a membership between 20 and 30, and a curling club, but outdoor curling has almost ceased and members travel for play to the rinks at Ayr or Glasgow. Church badminton and tennis clubs flourished for a time but are at present in abeyance. This state of affairs arises partly from the absence of any facilities for outdoor games and recreation, and this may be rectified in the future by the provision of playing fields. The most prominent sporting interest is association football, and, though little or none is played locally, the majority of the male population attend as spectators at the Saturday matches in Dumfries.

The Way of Life. While there have been striking changes in certain aspects and details, the general pattern of life remains substantially and basically the same. Life goes on quietly and industriously -- as it has always done -- with no outstanding events to record, nor any appreciable variation in the regular pulse of rural life. Farm mechanisation, progress in agricultural science, and improvements in housing, wages and working conditions have removed much of the drudgery of farm work, and alleviated the lot of many on the land; but such changes as have occurred are so revolutionary nor so violent as those that have taken place in industrial or commercial communities. In essentials, life on the land is largely unchanged; the seasons come and go, each bringing its peculiar tasks. Despite the increased pace and intricacy of things elsewhere, there remain a balance and quiet purpose and evenness in the life of a parish such as this.

April 1952.

Revised May, 1959