“The Moss Lairds”, excerpted from Perthshire in History and Legend, pp

“The Moss Lairds” by Archie MacKerracher


  • Excerpted from Perthshire in History and Legend, by Archie MacKerracher, pp. 134-142, © 1988 The Estate of Archie MacKerracher, published by John Donald Publishers, Edinburgh.
  • Edited by Ryk Brown


The Carse of Stirling


The River Forth marks the southern boundary of Perthshire.  The flood plain it winds through [is called] the Carse of Stirling… a semi-fluid quaking peat bog four miles wide by fourteen miles long…. The swamp it traversed was totally impassible over most of its 35,000 acres.


The Carse remained an impenetrable, quaking peat bog covered with dense marsh vegetation, inhabited only by wildfowl and the most desperate of outlaws…until 1766 when Agatha Drummond inherited the ancestral estate of Blair Drummond on the north side of the Carse (about five miles from Stirling)…. Agatha was married to the learned, but eccentric, Henry Home, Lord Kames, a judge of the Court of Session…. He was over 70 when he and his wife took up residence at Blair Drummond.  They found that over 1500 acres of the soaking moss lay within the inherited estate and he turned his undoubted intellect towards the problem of draining it.  Beneath the moss lay rich, alluvial clay which would produce fertile and valuable farmland.


Blair Drummond


Lord Kames…cut a three-mile channel right across the Carse from Blair Drummond to the Forth and diverted [a] mill lade into it.  [With a team of workmen, he began] draining the moss; to continue with hired workmen, however, would prove too costly.


Kames advertised for tenants in the Callander area and offered them a lease of eight acres for thirty-eight years.  They were to be provided with timber to build a house and enough oatmeal to sustain them for a year.  They would pay no rent for seven years; in the eighth, one merk; in the ninth, two merks; and thereafter they would pay 12s for each cleared acre and 2/6d for each acre of moss.  This was quite a bargain when the best farmland at this time had a rent of 30s.


In 1768, the first tenant was settled on the Low Moss, nearest to Blair Drummond, and by 1774 another eleven were established.  The moss here was only three feet thick, and the new settlers quickly stripped this off….  Within a year, the first crops had been produced, and when Lord Kames died in 1783, aged 86, some twenty-nine tenants were living on 400 acres of cleared moss.


Home Drummond


His son, George Home Drummond, continued his father’s project but had to find new methods.  The remaining 1100 acres, comprising the High Moss and the Flow Moss, lay nearer the centre of the Carse.  It was over twelve feet deep in this first section, but on the Flow Moss it was bottomless.  A man could not walk here unless he wore boards on his feet to spread his weight, and a stamp of the foot made the moss quake for fifty yards.


Balquhidder Tenants


A special breed of person was now required who could endure the hardship of living on the moss.  Home Drummond found them amongst the poverty-stricken dispossessed Highlanders from Perthshire who were still suffering from the consequences of the Jacobite Uprising fifty years before.  Most came from the Balquhidder area.  [Their plots were accessed by] a twelve-foot-wide road dug down to the clay and crossing the Carse between twelve-foot-high walls of peat and moss.


Life on the Moss


[A typical] eight-acre plot was marked off and behind it ran a drainage channel connected with the complex of waterways.  [In the] summer the whole family set to work stripping the top three-foot layer of sphagnum moss which they flung into the ditch.  Then came their house.  On a small area beside the road, they proceeded to clear the next three-foot layer which consisted of swamp grass and rotting vegetation.  Once down to the layer of peat, they cut four trenches about five feet deep right down into the clay sub-strata.  Then they scooped out the interior like a turnip lantern.  The outside walls dried and shrank, and the estate timber was used to form a roof over this pit which was covered with turf.


Others were not so fortunate.  In some areas, the moss was so soft that the houses had to be built on boards and literally floated on top.


Soon, over a hundred little houses had been built and the whole area was covered with people toiling to strip off as much moss as possible before the winter.  It was appalling work, for they were soaked from morning to night, and there was little comfort inside the rude huts.  However, being Highlanders, they were used to living in the harshest of conditions.


The lease conditions were different here because of the immense problems.  The tack was still for thirty-eight years, but no rent was payable for the first nineteen.


The local farmers did everything possible to obstruct the work, and the surrounding population ostracized the new settlers and mockingly referred to them as The Moss Lairds.  The newcomers eked out an isolated life in what was virtually a loch colony.  They spoke only Gaelic and thus were unable to attend the local church or have their children educated.  An appeal was made to the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge for a teacher-cum-missionary, but this was refused at first because they were not residing in the Highlands.  Eventually George Home Drummond offered the Society a subsidy of ₤5 per annum and a Gaelic-speaking teacher was established in a school on the moss in 1795.


The Home Drummonds did everything possible to encourage their new tenants.  A prize of a new plough was offered to the one who had cleared the largest area in a year.  A new metalled road was driven in from the east, and so grateful were th tenants that they offered ₤100 towards the cost, but this was declined.  The estate ensured that nobody went hungry or was ill-clothed, and even arranged the services of a doctor.  Apart from the wet conditions, t seems to have been a healthy enough life, for antiseptic properties of the peat and moss kept most diseases at bay.  The mortality rate amongst children was certainly high, but mainly as a result of croup and smallpox.


A brick and tile works was built…using the exposed clay as raw material.  Soon, neat houses of brick walls and tiled roofs had replaced the earlier huts once the clay foundation had been reached, and the areas immediately adjacent to the roads began to have a prosperous appearance.


A detailed census of the population on the Moss was carried out in 1811 and this showed 764 men, woman and children living there along with 264 cows, 166 horses, 375 hens, 30 pigs, 168 cats, and 8 dogs.  Things were improving each year as more and more land was cleared.  Once the peat layer was reached, the settlers sold this for fuel in neighbouring towns, and began producing crops.  The great wheel at the Mill of Torr turned continuously for sixty-one years until, by 1840, all the area had been cleared right down to the clay.  It was a stupendous operation.  At a rough calculation, over twenty million cubic yards of moss, vegetation, and ancient tree trunks had been excavated solely by human power.


By 1840, the original leases had expired, and the only criticism of the project was that the tenants were then left with nothing.  However, many had sold their leases at a profit once their plots were cleared, and used the money to buy farms elsewhere.  Many also put in bids to amalgamate several of the plots into larger units, and out of the fifty or so houses ranged along Kirk Lane, only two farms exist today….  The majority of the original tenants drifted off the Moss on the expiry of their leases.


Other landowners followed the example of the Home Drummonds.  Graham of Meiklewood employed a ten horsepower steam engine to clear his 150 acres south of the Blair Drummond lands from 1840 onwards.  Several schemes were started further west to reclaim some of the vast Flanders Moss, but all such work was prohibited in 1865 as the peat and moss had silted up the Forth at Stirling and finished it as a sea port.  By this time over 10,000 acres of the Carse of Stirling, stretching eight miles west from the Castle, had been turned into fertile farmland.


The Carse of Stirling today is a flat, fertile area famous for its dairy cattle and the production of Timothy grass, much valued as hill fodder.  Some of the complex of ditches and channels which drained the Carse are still visible today.


Henry Home, Lord Kames, and his son George Home Drummond, lie in the little graveyard of Kincardine-in-Menteith.  Beside them lie the Moss Lairds who left their Highland homes to begin a new and strange life on the bog.  The ingenuity of the former, and the arduous work of the latter, turned a useless swamp into the fertile land they watch over today.