Hew Graeme’s Improvements – a risky business

Flanders Moss NNR

Earth bank marking a boundary relating to Hew Graeme’s land

In 1749 a local man Hew Graeme or Arngomery, east of Kippen, who was also an Edinburgh lawyer bought 2 pieces of land on the edges of Flanders Moss. One was an area of what was then bog north Littlewards farm and west of Myme farm on the east side of Flanders Moss. The other piece of land was on the north west side of Flanders Moss around the edges of Flanders Hill, both pices became known as Graeme’s Improvements. It appears that Mr. Graeme had an idea and thought it was going to make him some money. At this time lots of landowners and developers were looking at the peatlands in the Forth Valley with the idea of clearing the peat away to get to the valuable, productive clay farmland that lay under it. Many burned or flushed away the waste peat. Mr. Graeme’s idea was to produce “clayed moss”. This involved actually farming the surface of the bog through the prodigious labour of ploughing the moss surface, burning the peat, spreading the ashes and adding clay from deeply dug ditches. As it turned out this particular method wasn’t a success as the economics didn’t work out, it used to much paid labour, the cropping area wasn’t productive enough and by mid 1750’s Hew Graeme had run out of money and had left Scotland.

1797 map showing most of Flanders Moss – nearly 50 years after Hew Graeme had run out of money and left the features of his work are mapped – see below.
Close up of 19797 map of Flanders. The strong straight line angling across the map marks the earth bank still to be seen on the ground. The line of square plots represent some of his “improvements”.

But though his work was unsuccessful and his stay short Hew Graeme left his mark on the landscape. On the west side of Flanders, south and east of Flanders Hill the banks that mark the boundary of his land holdings still can be seen, with the last ancestors of the original hawthorn hedge that would have topped it, along with drainage ditches that creep out into the moss.

Further earth bank boundary.
One of the few hawthorn left on the bank – the last ancestors of the original hawthorn hedge that would have topped the bank.
There are a number of large bouldars on the surface lying next to the boundary – old markers stones? gateways?

But perhaps more vivid as a legacy are the testimonies made during in the early 1800’s by local people during the dispute about who had rights of use over the land.

A John Graham recalled at the age of 76 that when he was 16 years old Mr. Graeme was working on the moss “tirring the surface of the moss, burning it in heaps, and spreading the ashes with clay, which was brought to cover the surface; that the ground was then ploughed with what was called breast ploughs, continued cropping for about 4 or 5 years, when it was laid down for pasture.

81 year old Hugh Mitchell recounted that Hew Graeme employed several men to work the ground “and did not always pay them properly.”

And others recount how the ground was so wet that it couldn’t be worked easily by horses and oxen but the ploughing had to be done by the back breaking method of breast ploughing, i.e. a plough pushed by a man. He also used large numbers of wheelbarrows to move the clay and ashes and if oxen were used they had specially made shoes of broad pieces of wood to prevent them from sinking in.

Where Hew Graeme failed others, in subsequent years, succeeded and some 40 % of the original size of Flanders Moss was removed (approx. 500 ha). But by 1860 much of the peat clearences stopped as agricultural economics meant that it made more sense to better drain your existing land rather than win more new land. But despite the huge damage to the peatlands that was carried out i can’t help but have some admiration for the people involved. I know exactly how hard work it is to work on peatlands, very wet, very hard walking and very hard work but these guys cleared huge areas of bog with only hand tools, wheelbarrows, breast ploughs and cows on skis! Respect.

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