Early Settlement in the Glen


If Palaeolithic Man (Old Stone Age) settled the glen in the Interglacials then all record has been swept away by the glaciers. Evidence this far north can only survive in places immune to glacial action, like caves, or where covered and protected by glacial deposits. Whinstone is no cave-former and who knows if Palaeolithic remains lie undiscovered under the till?

I should think it certain that Old Stone Age Man lived in the glen, as the climates of the Interglacials were at least as good as now. Moreover, plentiful animals for hunting existed, such as reindeer, mammoth and woolly rhino, which lived in this area as recently as 14,000 BP. For Palaeolithic Man read Neanderthal Man, as our species of homo sapiens was not round here until 10,000 BP or so.

Mesolithic 10,000-5,000 BP

Mesolithic finds have been made in many sites in Dumfries and Galloway at no distance from Tynron Glen. Scattered blades and flakes have been found in mole hills on river terraces on the Water of Ken and local historian, Tom Affleck, found some in Moniaive.

Nothing has turned up in Tynron yet, but an expert survey of the Shinnel Glen would be likely to reveal the presence of Mesolithic Man. Such folk were hunters and seem to have lived on the Solway coast, coming inland in the summers on hunting expeditions for salmon and trout, red deer and wild boar. Work done in Glenesslin, Dunscore, just south of the glen, shows widespread, if not dense, human presence in 8,500 BP. Evidence of Mesolithic Man at the moment lies not in permanent settlements but in flakes of chert or flint used in early weapons on nomadic hunting trips.

Mesolithic Man followed the retreat of the ice sheets northward and so equally did the vegetation, colonising the tundra. By 7,200 BP the glen was covered from top to bottom in oak, birch, Scots pine, hazel and elm. The valley floor had thickets of willow and alder. Summers were already as warm as they are now, though drier. Then between 7,200 and 5,000 BP the climate became more humid and peat bogs formed, especially on the tops.

Neolithic 5,000-4,000 BP

From 5,000 to 2,750 BP summers became warmer and drier again, forest spreading back to the tops. As the climate started to improve, the first farming started soon after 5,000 BP in the forest. This is what marks the change to the Neolithic. A handful of Neolithic folk would have cleared a few favoured patches by cutting down trees with their improved stone axes and by burning. Like some primitive tribes even today they practised a kind of shifting cultivation, probably without any permanent settlements.

Elk, horse, ox, deer, boar, beaver, wolverine, hare, lemming, lynx, brown bear, wolf, fox, stoat, weasel: this incredible range of animals populated the glen. These animals and their habitat have largely disappeared and we are left with just a remnant.

Some Neolithic finds have turned up in the glen. Neolithic stone axes have been found in Tynron village at 808930, on Barr Hill, and in 1879 by the drove road on Bennan. A granite axe-hammer was found in a cairn in Tynron parish circa 1800 and a flint scraper in Fox’s Hole on the steepest part of Craigturra, the nearest thing Tynron has to a cave. Artifacts like these generally end up in Dumfries Museum.

Bronze Age 4,000 -2,200 BP

A black stone axe, found near the shepherd’s house at Kirkconnel, dates from about 3,000 BP in the Bronze Age, as does the small rapier-like blade of bronze found on Macqueston in 1911/12. It is a cross between a dagger and a rapier, 22 centimetres long, and was used for stabbing or thrusting.

Information on these finds is recorded in the Transactions of the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society (TDGNHAS). For instance, this rapier is in TDGNHAS January 1927.

Bronze Age peoples cleared more land and grew crops of barley and emmer (an early form of wheat), together with plants we ignore now, like white goosefoot, black bindweed and persicaria.

Since 2,750 BP the climate has been cooler and wetter, as we can all see. More peat has formed. Stumps of pine in peat cuttings show how peat expanded at the expense of forest.


There are quite a few cairns in Tynron Glen. Cairns are expected to contain burials, usually of Bronze Age date. Notable among them is the huge pile of stones of Long Cairn, Capenoch at 838926, near the watershed, though apparently no chamber has been found in it. This is now surrounded by forestry.

Lamgarroch had a “great cairn” on top in the eighteenth century, according to Rae, but it has somehow disappeared. A few stones remain on this stoneless hilltop, together with two intriguing circular hollows. Pinzarie had a cairn containing nine stone coffins, but nobody knows where. Lann Hall had a cairn with a cist and a Bronze Age battle-axe, but the cairn was removed in 1863 and its location is unknown.

There is an interesting cairn 30 metres in diameter lying by Gledbrae at 783937. Recent field clearance stones have been dumped on top of it, confusing any interpretation. This may be the cairn on Macqueston, containing a stone coffin and hammer, which is mentioned by several sources.

Yet another cairn of small stones is marked on the Ordnance Survey map at 753952 just north of St Connel’s Chapel. It looks like it has been rifled. In the nineteenth century it was common practice for lairds with an antiquarian bent to dig the conspicuous Bronze Age mounds, sometimes through intellectual curiosity, often in the hope of finding buried treasure. Cairns were needlessly destroyed, finds disappeared. Another cairn 16 metres in diameter is in the field by Craigencoon, not far from the road. The centre has been dug out by a previous century’s enthusiasts, leaving us no evidence of what was in it.


Around 758974, above Old Auchenbrack, lies a cairnfield situated above the junction of Appin and Shinnel Waters, where the valley widens out. It is in two parts, the lower on a steep hillside, consisting of twelve cairns plus a larger one 6.5 metres in diameter. The other group of five cairns lies some 30 metres higher up the slope in a small hollow. They are best seen when the bracken is down.

There are quite a few such cairnfields in South West Scotland, scattered across our hillsides, though they are rather unimpressive relics of human existence.. Some experts see them as covering burials, in that any bodies would have rotted away in the acid soil. Only important people qualified for large cairn burials perhaps, as there are only a few of them.

MJ Yates has written an interesting article on cairnfields in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland 1984. He sees these as evidence for early farming. Their size is usually 2 to 5 metres across. They occur in groups, showing where field plots used to be. The cairns are built of field clearance stones and their irregularity shows they were simply piled up by the early farmers. Cairns are the most convenient way of disposing of field stones, especially when a nearby bog, rock outcrop or immovable boulder could be used to save using up agricultural land. Doesn’t this still go on nowadays? It is significant that cairns lie within throwing distance of each other. Michael Yates excavated 40 cairns elsewhere in South West Scotland and found burials under 6 of them. Those with burials stood out as larger or more carefully constructed.

70% of cairns in Dumfries and Galloway lie between 183 and 305 metres. At lower levels they may have been destroyed, at higher levels growing conditions would be worse. They sit on favourable south or south-west facing slopes and on the gentler slopes. As for a date, they could be as old as 5,000 BP or earlier in the Neolithic, though more likely they are early Bronze Age, 4,000-3,500 BP, when the climate was favourable with the tree-line over the tops of the hills. They could have been abandoned in the wetter climate after 2,750 BP or as late as 2,500 BP. Dating is guesswork.

These small cairns then represent pioneer forest clearance. Tree cover was thinner away from the glacial drift, tree roots shallower and more easy to remove, so cairns are mostly on rock subsoil. Pollen analysis of weeds shows these patches were mainly pastoral and not cultivated: evidence of shifting cultivation. They may have been partly tilled by primitive spade or hoe.

Cairnfields at Pinzarie Hill above Craigencoon

This is an extensive hillside with a south-west aspect, formerly of rough pasture, but developed in 1986/7 by Economic Forestry. This map shows the area before the forestry.

It contains a sizeable cairnfield of some 68 cairns, taken to be prehistoric field clearance cairns. They are made of stones, few of any great size, sometimes partly or completely covered in turf. They are mainly round or oval, about 3 to 6 metres across and not usually more than 40 centimetres high in the middle. The most impressive cairn, and therefore probably a burial, is a solitary one on the top of Pinzarie Hill at A, 4 metres x 5 metres and 45 centimetres high. I confess that in 1995, the trees being 4 metres tall, I was unable to refind this cairn.

Near the source of the main burn on Pinzarie Hill are two interesting rings. One is oval, about 12 metres x 8 metres, the other almost a circle about 20 metres across. They consist of low mounds covered in turf, with some large stones. The oval seems to contain other features. They are associated with 3 of the larger cairns on almost level ground. I can only guess that this is a settlement site. The forestry people have left this area unplanted, but the long grass renders these features more or less invisible now.

On the other side of the hill a 6 metres diameter hut circle showed up clearly in light snow. This, however, is not threatened by forestry.

Most of Pinzarie Hill has disappeared under trees, so most of the cairns are difficult to spot now in the trees and long grass. The forestry people seem quite caring and would protect anything worthwhile. These cairnfields do not come into this category, but will soon be lost forever.

I originally went up Pinzarie Hill before work started on planting in order to map the layout of run-rig and sod dykes. The lowest cairns just above the stell, including a nice group of five, lie in these Mediaeval fields. Some cairns have obstructed Mediaeval rigs on cultivated fields. Ploughmen did not bother to remove them and the Scots plough took pains to avoid them. These lowest are at about 260 metres, the highest being at 370 metres. The cairns are situated on the better, more gently-sloping land facing south-west, just as Michael Yates says.

Burnt Mounds

The Glenesslin booklet also details many burnt mounds. These mounds are by water, are often crescent-shaped or contain a hollow and consist of fire-cracked stones in a matrix of dark soil, sometimes with charcoal. They show where cooking took place or water was heated by immersing hot stones. In Shinnel Glen the only one I know of is at 824912 beside the stream near the corner of the field on the Maxwelton side. There is also a striking patch of red stones and earth where a burn crosses the dyke at 799919, but there must be others waiting to be found. Burnt mounds are hard to date exactly, but belong to prehistoric times.

Vitrified Fort

Here is a fascinating example of a late Victorian field trip up Tynron Glen. This is taken from TDGNHAS 1892-3.

“25th September. Went with J. Hunter and Joseph Kilpatrick, Thornhill, to see a vitrified fort in Tynron. It is situated upon the farm of Pinzarie, about two miles from Tynron Kirk, up the water of Shinnel, a little from the side of the road. The situation is upon a gently rising hill at the bottom of a moderately high range composed of greywacke, passing into greywacke slate, and distant from Shinnel water about 500 yards. It presents a slight elevation above the adjacent land in the form of a circle, and as nearly as may be guessed the circumference of the circle is about 80 yards. Running through the centre from east to west is a rather prominent elevated ridge, the prominence being chiefly in the middle, composed of loose stones, in no way cemented, but chiefly vitrified. These stones, the largest of which may weigh 14 pounds, bear evident marks of having been in a state of fusion. Some are coated with a coarse-like glass of a brown colour. The internal structure of these stones is porous, somewhat resembling pumice stone, but much denser and of a lead colour, but sometimes of a lead colour approaching to purple.

Others again have a somewhat fibrous texture, and these are not so porous, whilst others are devoid of the porous texture, and a good deal resemble some varieties of green stone, particularly when the grains of quartz are large. I shall return to the notice of these stones after I have submitted them to analysis. Could not find the fort mentioned in the statistical account of the parish, but only of the existence of a Roman road and of a Roman encampment. The latter is composed of a quantity of rather small stones, but the larger may have been removed for the building of dykes. It is about one and a half miles from the vitrified fort, and upon the top of a range of hills separating Shinnel water from Scar water. Found an account of vitrified forts in the English Cyclopaedia Art Fort. Found no plants on the way. Brought home some specimens of vitrified stone.”

Unfortunately, I have been unable to discover the whereabouts of this vitrified fort or the supposed “Roman encampment”, as only vague locations are given. This is a problem with many of the old finds. A map would have helped.

A vitrified fort is made by building walls then setting fire to wood on top of them, thereby baking the stones, although some say the stones were only baked when enemies set fire to the walls.

Iron Age

During the Iron Age, which started about 2,200 BP, men had better tools and could clear more land for their cattle and for growing grains. By this time we know the people of the glen as Britons, a Celtic people, as they were throughout Britain. They spoke a language called Brittonic, related to modern Welsh. The Romans called the tribe around here and to the east of us the Selgovae and the tribe to the west in Galloway the Novantae.

Homestead on Auchenbrack

There is an intriguing feature at 769968 astride the 300-metre contour on Auchenbrack, sited on a prominent spur with a clear view up and down the glen. I have marked it on the map of Auchenbrack later in the book.

It is circular, about 21 metres outside circumference, consisting now of turf and mainly small stones. It has walls around 3 metres thick, although they could have spread to that width. There are two entrances 3 metres wide on opposite sides of the feature. A second less-pronounced concentric ring is apparent on the west and south sides. Inside the circle, it is irregular and lumpy with no discernible shapes.

Although it could be a cairn perhaps, it looks remarkably like one of the homesteads in Glenesslin. (See reference at the back). It would have contained a timber house and probably dates from the centuries either side of 100 BC in the Iron Age. The thick stone enclosure would not be enough protection against enemies but would keep out the still numerous wild animals and also keep in a few domesticated animals.

Whatever it is it has shrunk down over the centuries and also, I expect, been thoroughly robbed: there is a stone dyke nearby. Sod dykes and run-rig are associated with it. The sod dyke which meets it on the east and west sides does not seem to run over the top.

It is interesting that the homestead lies on the edge of the mediaeval or post-mediaeval rig, thus indicating the continual use of a good area of level land previously cleared.