A Secret Place in Scotland

A Secret Place in Scotland

The Lowther Hills. Photo Credit: Scothill

I know of a very special and secret place in Scotland. A place with an incredible history and with astonishing treasures of real national importance. And, yet, it’s a sleepy and unassuming place.

It’s a village small enough to be known as a hamlet with an ancient church and a historic graveyard, a war memorial and a collection of dwellings, all nestling deeply in the wildest of countryside amidst the heather-clad Lowther Hills in the Southern Uplands of Scotland.

The village is called Durisdeer

The Road to Durisdeer Village
Photo Credit: Walter Baxter / Durisdeer from the southwest / CC BY-SA 2.0

Alexander Anderson, a local railway poet known as Surfaceman (1845-1909) wrote a poem called From A Carriage Window about the views across the Lowther Hills and the village ‘hamlet’ of Durisdeer. This is the final verse:

I saw each and all through the heather, That purple lay spread like a sheet, On the hills that watch over the hamlet, That sleeps like a child at their feet.

Alexander Anderson

And, how do I know about this special and secret place in Scotland?

Well, the answer is, that I used to live in Durisdeer myself. I lived there for 27 years.

It’s where my husband and I bought a once-derelict shepherd’s cottage to renovate and make into our family home. It’s where we brought up our three children. It’s where we lived amongst a close-knit community of friends and neighbours.

For that reason, this beautiful place called Durisdeer, will always have a special place in my heart.

But, while Durisdeer is where we spent a significant and very special time in our lives before our children grew up and we eventually found ourselves as empty-nesters – selling our home in 2014 to become wandering world travellers – the people and the church at Durisdeer have played a key part in our lives.

“And, as well as playing a key part in our lives, the church at Durisdeer is also a key part of the secrets buried there and the treasures of national importance that I’m about to share with you…”

While I lived at Durisdeer, the heart of the village and therefore the community was focussed around the church. This was undoubtedly all down to the wonderful Late Rev. William (Bill) Scott and his beloved wife Nester Scott.

Rev. Scott was Minister at Durisdeer church for 55 years. Back then, he and Nester lived in The Manse in the centre of the village. With the help of Bill and Nester and the village congregation (and whether you attended the church or not wasn’t a requirement) and with the local Scottish Women’s Institute (affectionately known as ‘the rural’ of which I was a member) we would help organise many of the community activities and village celebrations throughout the year.

Rev William (Bill) Scott with my son in 1991
Rev. William (Bill) Scott with my son in 1991

We’d attend harvest festivals, Christmas services, and nativity plays and while Rev. Bill Scott held the service in the church, the Sunday school would take place in the ‘laird’s loft’ or old Ducal room. Halloween fancy dress competitions were held in the village hall. Easter egg rolling and other sporting activities took place on the hill at the back of the Manse garden.

Durisdeer church nativity performance and sports on the hill at the back of the Manse garden
Durisdeer church nativity performance and sports on the hill at the back of the Manse garden

And, the highlight of the summertime, the wonderful bi-annual traditional summer fete held in the Manse Garden, which always had me believing we’d stepped back in time to the 1950s. Every Sunday throughout the summer, the church would host cream teas in the Ducal room, which became famous with locals and tourists alike.

“The famous Durisdeer teas are served every Sunday in the kirk over the summer. It is here that visitors to the ancient pilgrim route stop-over can sample the delights of a wide range of home-baked produce by the ladies of the local guild, from scones, fresh sandwiches, cakes, tray bakes and Mrs Scott’s celebrated cream meringues.”

The Dumfries and Galloway News

Three Hundred Years of Worship. Tercentenary Booklet.

Three Hundred Years of Worship. Tercentenary Booklet by Rev William Scott. Durisdeer Minister from 1953 to 2008
Tercentenary Booklet by Rev. William Scott. Durisdeer Kirk Minister from 1953 to 2008

During the time I lived in Durisdeer, the church celebrated its 300th anniversary in the year 2000. Rev. Bill Scott wrote a booklet with the title Three Hundred Years of Worship to celebrate the history of his church. It is from this booklet I have quoted some text extracts and these are therefore credited to him.

A Small Village with an Incredible History

Durisdeer is first recorded in the form ‘Durrysder’ in 1328. This likely represents the Gaelic words dubhros – ‘a dark wood’ and doire – ‘an oak copse’. The name would therefore mean ‘the entrance to the dark wood of the oak copse’ or to be consise ‘the gate of the forest’.

“Someone has described Durisdeer as a parish of historic roads and castles. Roads between Clydesdale and Nithsdale and Galloway pass conveniently this way. The Enterkin Pass, well known for its connection with the Covenanters, the Wald Path, with its Roman Fort in the gorge, and the Dalveen Pass, which is now the main route and where one sees the old Toll House with its white walls. There were these and other drove roads. The noise of cattle and sheep passing through was at times so loud that it is recorded that a Minister had cause to complain to the Presbyterian of Penpont.”

Rev William (Bill) Scott

These days, the beauty of the village and surrounding rolling countryside is unmistakable. And yet, you’d never pass through Durisdeer mistakenly, as there’s only one road in and out again. Although, it wasn’t always that way, because this was once a road well used by legions. That is… Roman Legions.

Astonishing Treasures of National Importance

1: THE ROMAN FORT

Incredibly, just beyond this tiny village of Durisdeer and through a wooden gate onto the Wald Path, in an area once historically considered a strategically important crossing point over the Lowther Hills, lies the remains of one of Scotland’s best-preserved Roman Forts dating back to the Antonine period (AD 138-180). It is of archaeological importance and now considered a national treasure of Scotland.

The Fort is now in the shape of an oblong earth mound where only the hardiest of sheep now graze.

The Roman Fort Durisdeer. Photo credit: Scothill CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

The Roman Road that once skirted the village leading into the hills and the site of the garrison that once guarded the pass and regulated the use of the road. The Wald Path is now a dirt and grass track flanked by drystone dykes. About a mile south there are also the remains of two much older temporary Roman marching camps believed to date back to the Flavian period (AD 90-105).

The Wald Road to Durisdeer Roman Fort
The Roman Road ‘Wald Path’ at Durisdeer. Photos: Janice Horton
The Roman Road ‘Wald Path’ Durisdeer. Photo: Roger Griffith. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It’s incredible that this area – unploughed and undisturbed for centuries – is a window into the past.

Durisdeer Roman Road and Wald Path

And, as you might imagine, walking the old Roman Road and amongst the hills around Durisdeer and Beyond is a wonderful way to explore this whole area. For a detailed Walking Map click HERE.

2: THE CHURCH

The first mention of Durisdeer church (kirk) is found in the records of Kelso Abbey. The church at Durisdeer that we see today was rebuilt on the foundations of a much older parish church whose first recorded minister is recorded as John de Cader in 1394. The original church was dedicated to St. Mary and rebuilt by the 3rd Duke in 1699.

Durisdeer Church
Durisdeer Church

Durisdeer Church, designed by architect James Smith, is built in a typical presbyterian layout with a central pulpit and three galleries with box pews. The north aisle, mostly remaining from the earlier church, is taller and more sophisticated and built to seat the Duke and his family.

Throughout the whole time that a church has stood here in Durisdeer, it has not only served its humble village congregation but also the nearby Drumlanrig Castle and therefore His Grace The Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry and the Douglas Scott family (the largest private landowners in Scotland).

Indeed, the Lady Amabel Clare Alice Montagu Douglas Scott, daughter of the 10th Duke, and her fiancé Dougal were married in Durisdeer church in December 2020.

The Church at Durisdeer graveyard and the Queensberry Burial Vault
Durisdeer graveyard and the Queensberry Burial Vault. Photos: Janice Horton
Durisdeer Church and Graveyard

3: THE SECRETS IN THE CHURCH

The astonishing secret about this tiny village lies buried within its small and unassuming church.

Inside Durisdeer church, behind a wrought-iron screen in the Queensberry Aisle, is the Queensberry burial vault. This burial chamber, part of the original and much earlier church on this site, holds the 12 lead coffins of the ancestors of the Dukes of Buccleuch and Queensberry going right back to Isabella Douglas, Duchess of Queensberry who was the wife of William, first Duke, entombed following her death on 3rd November 1684.

And, not only that, as well as the burial chamber itself, inside the vault room there is an incredible free standing Baldacchino Italian baroque marble mausoleum carved in 1695 by Flemish sculptor John van Nost.

Yes. You read that right. A high-profile Italian marble. Hidden at the back of a tiny church in Scotland!

Yes, it’s an absolute surprise and something of a secret. But, more to the point, it’s a real treasure.

Scotland’s Churches Trust describes the marble mausoleum as “A riot of swagged fabric, garlands of flowers, urns, barley-sugar columns, cherubs, skulls and pediments, all in gleaming white marble”.

‘There are few buildings in which baroque magnificence and presbyterian decency are so happily combined.’

George Hay. Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches
The Queensberry Aisle and The Douglas Vault. Durisdeer Church

4: THE COVENENTERS GRAVE

In the Durisdeer graveyard there are many fascinating old gravestones. One has a woman carved and there is a moss-covered skull. One for David Scott, who died December 12th, 1747. His stone has a horizontal hourglass and crossed bones carved on it with the symbols of a mallet to show his trade as a carpenter.

Famously, Durisdeer churchyard also has the grave of a Scottish Martyr – the covenanter Daniel McMichael.

Covenanters were those people in Scotland who signed the National Covenant in 1638 to confirm their opposition to the interference by the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

“The 17th century saw the National Covenant signed in 1638, and there then followed years of strive between Church and State. The Martyr’s Grave against the south wall of the kirk is to Daniel McMichael, who suffered in the struggle for religious and civil liberty. After the Revolution Settlement came years of reconciliation which resulted in the establishment of our Scottish Presbyterian Church and the union of parliaments (1707). The Duke of Queensberry, commemorated in marble, was known as ‘The Union Duke’ for he played a principal part in that historic event”.

Rev. William (Bill) Scott

Daniel McMichael, a covenanter with a considerable price on his head whether dead or alive, had been captured and was being transported to Edinburgh for trial. While en route, on the 31st January 1685, at the foot of the nearby Dalveen Pass amongst the Lowther Hills, he fell ill and to save the problem of dealing with him, the soldiers shot him dead. A monument marks the spot. His grave is in Durisdeer churchyard.

Left: Durisdeer Church. Right: The Backpacking Housewife at The Martyr’s Grave
Old gravestones at Durisdeer Churchyard. Photo credit: (1)Walter Baxter and (2,3) Roger Griffith
The Martyrs Grave and Durisdeer Churchyard. Photo Credit: Rosser1954 (2,4) Walter Baxter (1,3)

Lady John Scott’s (1810-1900) song ‘Durisdeer’ has a verse about the ‘auld kirkyard’:

Far up into the wild hills, There’s a kirkyard auld and still, Where the frosts lie ilka morning, And the mists hang low and chill. And there ye sleep in silence while, I wander here my lane, Till we meet ance mair in Heaven, Never to part again

Durisdeer by Lady John Scott
Sketch Durisdeer Church

Lots More Interesting Secrets About Durisdeer Village!

Durisdeer is famously included in the 1978 film version of The Thirty Nine Steps, starring Robert Powell and a film of John Galt’s Annals of the Parish made use of the interior of the church.

The name Durisdeer is used in the Robert Louis Stevenson novel The Master of Ballantrae.

Durisdeer is the setting for part of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was ‘holed up’ in Durisdeer during his fatwa and describes it as ‘a village so small it doesn’t have a pub.’

Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon in 1969 signed the Durisdeer Visitors Book while he was a guest at Drumlanrig Castle.

King James IV, on pilgrimage in 1497, stayed overnight at a lodging Durisdeer. The King’s Lord Treasurer’s account is: ‘to the Wife of Durisdeer where the king lodged 14s’.

Pilgrims passed through Durisdeer on route to the shrine of Saint Ninian at Whithorn.

A modern cemetery to the south of the village of Durisdeer contains the graves of ballerina Moira Shearer (1926 – 2006) and her husband author and broadcaster Sir Ludovic Kennedy (1919 – 2009)

In the year 2000, The Duke of Buccleuch gifted Durisdeer a clock, which was placed in the church tower to mark the millennium and the tercentenary of the church.

Isn’t it incredible that such a small and assuming place – my secret place in Scotland – tucked away in rolling heather-clad hills, has hosted and protected not only my own family over the years, but Kings and Dukes and Duchesses and pilgrims and outlaws – as well as a famous astronaut and an author in hiding and sculptors and poets and dancers and songstresses and movie-makers.

Durisdeer has such an amazingly rich history and it houses national treasures of Scotland that can still be appreciated today… if only you know exactly where to look!

HOW TO FIND DURISDEER:

Durisdeer lies 6 miles (9.7 km) north of Thornhill and via Carronbridge on the A702.

OS Grid Reference  NS893036

OS maps of Durisdeer Village Location

Undiscovered Scotland on its website states: Durisdeer is a tiny hamlet nestling at the foot of the Lowther Hills in the Southern Uplands of South West Scotland.

From the South: About an hour’s drive (approx 50 miles) over the border from Carlisle on the A75 and then A76 trunk roads. Then from the A76 just north of Thornhill at Carronbridge take the A702 road.

From the North: Take the M74 and exit at J14 and follow the A702 road.

Durisdeer is signposted and is accessed from the A702 by two very narrow roads that merge and go no further than the village itself. As a result, the village is little known and seldom visited.

Do you have a special and secret place that you hold dear in your heart?

Don’t hesitate to tell me about it in a message below!

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