Dronley Moor & Wood - Some family Reminiscences
by Roderick Stewart, Dronley House 2014
(from RCAHMS website)
|Italian Prisoners of War|
|Narrow Gauge Railway|
|Grandfather Saves the Wood|
|Local Place Names|
|Dronley Wood Wildlife|
The origin of the name Dronley is thought to be derived from 'Dron' = a ridge, and 'Lea' = pasture-land. The Roy Military Survey of 1747 shows it as 'Dronle' and 'Mill of Dronle' and the 'y' appears later. Astonishingly 'Pipersdam' also appears on the Roy map - I had always assumed that was a modern creation.
My Grandfather, David Stewart, bought Dronley House in 1926, almost completed, from the estate of its original builder, William Soutar of Annfield, Carnoustie, who had died of consumption. Grandpa lit fires through that winter to dry the new plasterwork and the family moved from Strathview, Newtyle, the following year. The house was designed by William Allan of Friskin & Allan, and family tradition is that it was originally designed as a bungalow with an attached accommodation for a chicken farmer. Somehow it was completed much larger, described by McKean & Walker as an ‘anachronistic arts and crafts villa' and is now listed Grade 'B'. Most of the original paintwork, by Dundee's well-known Harry G Thomson, still survives, together with woodwork by Justice’s. Four generations of Stewarts have now lived here and the following notes about Dronley Moor and Wood are based on our collective family lore. Dates are rarely recorded and any corrections or additions by your readers would be much appreciated.
When Dronley House was built it was set in bare heather moorland, with just three larch trees and a modest spruce in the garden. Early photographs show a young Dronley Wood to the North and football goal-posts in the field across the road to the West. The new house must have been very conspicuous standing alone on the top of the hill. The three larches have long gone but the old spruce remains, now a very substantial tree. The young trees planted by Grandpa in 1927, and their successors, now entirely hide the house from view and also give marvellous shelter both to humans and to wildlife. In the early 1950s Grandpa bought further land to the South East of the house and planted this with a mix of beech for timber (for the Hackleworks) and spruce to draw the beech up, both adding greatly to the shelter for the house.
A track to the North separated the house from the main Dronley Wood and there were plans for this to give access to a small development of some half-a-dozen houses. None were ever built, and the track has now all-but vanished under a delightful young growth of heather, birch and scots pine, which needs careful maintenance to prevent it being clear-felled by the electricity linesmen looking after the 11kV line.
Dronley Moor, to the south and east, was rough pasture, traditionally used for cattle to graze when they were suffering from the 'scaurs'. (the doric name for a sort of bovine diarrhoea - presumably cognate with 'scour'?).
In the South-west corner of the Dronley House Wood (where the 275kV and 33kV electricity lines cross the road) there is a small mound about 26 yards across and 12 feet high with a possible encircling ditch, recently made visible from the road following the felling of some spruce to keep the wires safe. Grandfather thought this was simply a 'midden' but an archaeologist friend visiting a few years ago thought it might be a "neolithic burial mound". He noted the ditch and also claimed to see three indentations in the mound where early grave-robbers might have dug in for treasure. I foolishly mentioned this in a pub conversation to another archaeologist who worked for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland and a few months later, in 1992, I received a letter stating that the site was listed as a 'scheduled ancient monument'! In later correspondence about this "mound" I was told that there is no other reference and that my conversation was the 'sole authority' for the listing. The listing comes with a hefty raft of restrictions; be careful what you say!
During recent visits by inspectors from RCAHMS and Scottish Natural Heritage I was fascinated to hear that the former had recorded a pile of stones in the southern arm of the wood as 'prehistoric' while the latter had it down as a 'badgers' sett'. Both could, of course, be correct, but the difference in viewpoint is instructive!
My Uncle, Bruce Stewart, remembered Italian prisoners of war working in the wood during the Second World War from around 1940-41. He remembered them having an antique lorry and trailer which they parked in the Dronley gateway during their lunch-break and he did not remember any guards. During the invasion scare they accidentally set a bit of the wood alight, causing great excitement and the belief that that the Germans had landed.
They also had a narrow-gauge railway for extracting the timber, around 18inch/2ft gauge, which took them from the Eastfield gate into the heart of the forest each day and they would, my Uncle told, head off in the morning singing excerpts from Italian opera, just like the beach scene in 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', returning at night having made little impact on the trees. The beech trees to the north, then some 20 years old, had a strip running through them for the railway. In the recent winters, of course, these same beech trees have taken a dreadful battering from storms.
The Italians worked away without making much impact on the wood but towards the end of the War they were replaced by Germans, and, with teutonic efficiency, the wood started to disappear rapidly! My sister and I used to explore the big wood in the 1950s and I remember rusting forestry machinery and a derelict lorry near where the central pylon is now, and possibly the remains of the railway. There is little to see now, but under the huge larch tree in the NW corner of my garden there is a raised circular embankment, reputedly the condensing-pond for a steam driven sawmill.
The entire wood was to be felled, working from the Templeton end, but Grandfather persuaded the authorities (Uncle Bruce thought via the Factor of Glamis, a Mr Murray) to spare the block of Scots Pine to the north of the house. Dronley House, right on the top of the hill, was very exposed - Grandpa would complain that his chrysanthemums were blown right out of the ground - so he was very keen to keep these trees. They also formed the nucleus for the replanting of the forest and we are all greatly indebted to him today for this, as these older Scots Pines now form one of the grandest stands in the wood.
The 'tree-muncher' became a great family excitement in 2000. I was alarmed late one night by engine noises and flickering lights in the middle of the forest so set off with my daughter to investigate... We found an astonishing, rather intimidating machine roaring in the dark and 'munching' trees by its own floodlights, surrounded by a cloud of illuminated insects. It turned out that this was the Forestry Commission's first hydraulic tree-harvesting machine, and only on site for a few days, hence it was working through the night. It could grip a whole coniferous tree, slice it off at the ground, strip the branches, cut the trunk into lengths and then neatly stack the logs! The operator was very proud of it and the children and nephews were thrilled to get a demonstration the next day, when we also asked it to tidy-up one very noticeable leaning tree in the midst of the tall scots pines. The leaning tree had annoyed me for years but no sooner was it 'tidied' than a gale blew several more to 'untidy' angles. I gave up!
My own favourite tree was the scots pine at the SW corner of this stand (by the new road-gate) which had a gloriously picturesque limb which I several times saved from amputation by the Hydro-Electric linesmen clearing back trees from the wires. The tree with its limb made a dramatic silhouette against the setting sun, but the entire tree fell victim the terrible gales of 2013-14. His roots had, some years earlier, been damaged by thoughtless ramblers who had lit a fire in the crook of his roots. It had been a very dry summer, the fire spread deep underground and, when my garden hose failed to put it out, I called the Fire Brigade. Now that the tree has fallen, his roots on that side of the 'plate' appear to show the damage which will surely have contributed to the tree's downfall.
Dronley Wood is now a wonderful local asset, both for humans and for a huge range of wild creatures, and I am extremely proud of the part my Grandfather played in its survival. These few notes are based on family memory and I would love to hear from anyone who may have more to add. My particular pride, however, remains that Grandfather saved the Scots Pines which now form such a grand local amenity.
The idea was that the spruce would grow quickly and 'draw' the beech up into good straight timber. It didn't quite work out and I believe the problem is that spruce require acid soil to grow well whereas beech prefers alkaline, and grows twisted on acid ground. Certainly the Dronley Moor tends to acidity and most of the beech started very twisted. however they are now straightening up, so who knows!
One of my favourite 'folk etymologies' is “Auchterhouse” which I have seen interpreted as the 'eighth house' or similar. It seems that a more likely derivation is from the classic Gaelic place-name 'auchter/ochter’ - a high bit of land, and 'fhuthais' - of ghosts, so it should be correctly pronounced 'Achter hoose'. This may have been thought a bit ‘coarse’ and discretely 'corrected' by genteel Victorian cartographers to “Auchterhouse”.
So the old ‘Achterhoose’ may actually be a more correct pronunciation after all! Do any readers have more information?
Incomers often read names from signposts and maps, rather than listening to locals. There is a brilliant pair of examples of this near Portsmouth - Cosham and Bosham. Bosham is a tiny isolated village on an island and retains its old pronunciation of “Boz’am” while Cosham, on the London Road and filled with incomers is pronounced as spelt, “Cosh’am”.
The Wood now supports a fascinating range of wildlife.
Red squirrels are a high-profile inhabitant and seem to be holding their own against the greys. I first saw a grey squirrel here in 1998 but only yesterday saw an inquisitive red checking on my newly cut logs! The drive seems to be the boundary, with greys to the south and reds to the north, and this seems to have been constant for quite a few years.
Goldcrests (or are they Firecrests - can any reader confirm?) are common, the Bullfinches are back this year,
Buzzards seem slightly reduced this year. I found a dead one a couple of years ago under an electricity pole with the tips of its talons melted, having presumably touched the wrong wire.
Newts also seem to have taken a tumble which is surprising considering how much rain we have had. The garden pond is illuminated at night and we were amazed to watch a newt attacking a full sized toad one evening. The toad was standing still in the water while the newt swam under its armpit, grabbed it by the scruff of its neck and gave it a fierce shake. There was a brief instant while we al waited for the toad to retaliate, then both creatures shot off at high speed!
Three tiny hedgehogs staggered round my garden this spring but didn't seem entirely healthy. I later found two dead, so hope there is not a hedgehog disease about.