Meeting Report: The Laird and the Land Surveyor: The Mapping of the Queensbury Estate

11 March 2016
Professor David M. Munro, MBE

When Professor David Munro, MBE, stepped down as director of the Royal Geographical Society six years ago, he accepted an invitation from the present Duke of Buccleuch to investigate the archives held in Drumlanrig Castle. With the somewhat vague remit that he should ‘dig around’ in the surviving documents, Professor Munro had little idea of what he might discover. But the pleasant plan for his ‘retirement’ was to spend three days a month in the archives which are housed in an old wine cellar at the castle. Six years on, he was able to share some of the fruits of his research with members of the society at a well-attended monthly meeting. As Professor Munro modestly put it, his enquiries have translated into a host of ‘interesting stories’, which he has turned so far into 57 academic papers. And his work is likely to continue for many years yet.
At the heart of the archive lies the work of a succession of land surveyors whose job it was to chart the Drumlanrig estate, augmented from the early nineteenth century by the fusion of the Queensberry and Buccleuch titles. Land surveyors became particularly significant from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, following the failure of the Jacobite Rising of 1745–6. Their legacy is a large collection of estate plans, drawings of the contemporary landscape which are characterized by a quite surprising degree of accuracy considering the relatively primitive equipment available in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These estate plans were, at the time, working documents essential for the management of the estate. To the historian of the landscape they now represent an invaluable record of the change and evolution seen on the land, but are also minor works of art in their own right. Members were shown examples of the exquisite detail that many contain, with the painstaking depiction of trees becoming increasingly common in the early nineteenth century.
Drumlanrig Castle itself dates from the 1670s and by 1711 estate improvements were being carried out by the 3rd Duke of Queensberry. Sadly, the 4th Duke, distracted from his duties by a combination of wine, women and gambling (and the resulting need to pay off significant debts), showed little interest in his estate, this at a time when many such landholdings across Britain were being ‘improved’ as part of the so-called Agricultural Revolution. Crucially, however, in 1810 the Drumlanrig estate passed to the Dukes of Buccleuch and the work of estate management and improvement resumed, all recorded in the surviving castle archives. The last major surveys were carried out in the 1840s and 1850s.
As Professor Munro showed, the surveyors have left us with a most valuable resource which throws light on such topics as the history of a nineteenth-century township such as Thornhill, the changing use of land and pattern of land ownership, the coming of the railways and its impact on the rural community, the history of the local coal-mining industry and the division of the common land, as well as adding to our understanding of such specific matters as the shape of the Roman fort at Birrens (before damage by agricultural activity), the extent of the lead mines at Wanlockhead and the huge, but now vanished, kitchen garden at Drumlanrig.
Professor Munro held his audience enthralled before responding authoritatively to a number of questions from members, many of whom were now keen to visit the exhibition of maps and plans soon opening at Dumfries Museum.