The Deil’s Dyke

The Deil’s Dyke

The first mention of the Deil’s Dyke, seems to have been in Chalmers ‘Caledonia’, published in 1824.  This states that he is indebted to Joseph Train, and others, for the account of the ‘remains’. A report, written by Train himself is given in an appendix in MacKenzie’s ‘History of Galloway’, published in 1841. (Graham 1949).  

Train claimed that he had discovered an ancient earthwork rampart stretching from Beoch Farm on the shores of Loch Ryan to the shores of the Inner Solway, near Annan and although it had a number of breaks in it, he asserted that it could be followed all the way.  He said that the dyke was built of large blocks of stone in some places and earth and stone in others, and was eight feet broad (2.4m) at the base but had been robbed out in places.  Maxwell thought it would have been strengthened with palisades and defended by watchtowers and camps.  It seems to be been generally assumed that it was built by the Picts as a defence against the people of Strathclyde, though Dick also states that the RCAHMS* Inventory suggests that it wasn’t defensive in nature and was more likely a boundary marker. (Mackenzie (1841, Maxwell 1896, Dick 1919)

Subsequent writers about Galloway, such as Maxwell and Dick above,  have continued to perpetuate the myth, copying one from the other until relatively recently.   In 1949, Graham published a study of the Galloway end of the Dyke, from Beoch Farm to Knockreoch.  He showed that, for example, the ‘Dyke’ at Beoch is probably part of enclosure banks, such as there are in Ireland, and elsewhere there was either nothing, or parts of old enclosure or head dykes, none of which were particularly old.

In 1956, Graham and Feachem, published the results of a survey of the Dumfriesshire and Ayrshire sections of the Dyke.  They concluded that there was evidence of an earthwork, running roughly between Burnmouth Farm, north of Enterkinfoot and Dalhanna Hill, beside Afton Water, south-west of New Cumnock, a distance of about 16 miles.  They thought that it may have been a boundary separating good land along the banks of the River Nith, but were unable to find any definite historical reason for it.

An excavation of part of the structure was carried out in 1981 as it was scheduled for destruction due to ongoing opencast mining operations.  It was found that it consisted of an earth bank, but there no ditch related to it.  Land from either side had been used to strip turves and soil to create the bank, which was about 4.5 feet (1.4m) wide at the base, and estimated the original height to be around 6.5 feet (2m).  Two shards of mediaeval pottery were found in one section and although it is possible, it is extremely unlikely that they could have been incorporated into the bank by moles or earthworms, so that section, at least appears to be mediaeval in origin.  It is also possible that the core of the bank is much older, as dating evidence from the original ground surface, under the bank, showed it to be from some time in the late Iron Age, however the excavation did not find any evidence that the bank had been constructed in two phases. (Barber 1982)  

Tabraham (1982), can find no reason for it to be an estate boundary as it passed through the existing boundaries, but suggests that it may be a mediaeval head-dyke or marking divisions within a hunting forest.  He was concerned, when walking the area, by the number of similar earthworks in the vicinity of the Dyke, suggesting that these had been too easily dismissed by Graham and Feachem.

An interesting origin for the name ‘Deil’s Dyke’ from Graham (1949), who reports that a shepherd’s wife in Kirkcudbrightshire, when asked about a nearby portion of the Dyke, called it the ‘deil-dyke’, which in Galloway used to mean ‘march-dyke’.

BARBER, J. W. (1982). 'The Deil's Dyke, Nithsdale', with contributions from Mate, I.D. and Tabraham, C. J. in Trans. Dumfries and Galloway Nat. Hist. & Antiq. Soc. (1982), pp. 29-46
DICK, C.H., Rev. (1919) Highways and Byways in Galloway and Carrick, pp. 288-290
GRAHAM, A. 1949 'The Deil's Dyke in Galloway', in Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scot. 83, (1948-9), pp. 174-85
GRAHAM, A. and FEACHEM,  R. W. (1956) 'The Deil's Dyke in Dumfriesshire and Ayrshire'', in Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scot. 88, pp. 137-53
MACKENZIE, W. (1841) The History of Galloway, volume 1, Appendix note B, p 2 - 5
MAXWELL, H. (1896) Dumfries and Galloway, pp. 14-16
TABRAHAM, .C.J.  (1982). contributions in 'The Deil's Dyke, Nithsdale', (see BARBER 1982) in Trans. Dumfries and Galloway Nat. Hist. & Antiq. Soc. (1982), pp. 29-46

*Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.