It is no secret that I love ruined buildings. I love the sense of beautiful decay and the way that time alters structures left untouched. Standing within a ruined and abandoned building – no matter the type of building, its past use or its age – is one of my favourite things to do. When you rebuild it in your mind and imagine how it might have once looked in its prime, past decades and centuries feel as if they happened only moments ago.
I have fallen in love with many ruined old cottages and farms since we moved to Scotland nearly two years ago, but recently I think I have found my new favourite. Situated on the Southern Upland Way, almost exactly half way between Sanquhar and Wanlockhead, sits the ruin of Cogshead. Its location can be found on an old estate map from 1831: https://maps.nls.uk/view/129392947
I appreciate that to most people this ruin is no different from any other old shepherd’s cottage ruin you’d find in any rural location; a roofless semi-structure serving no obvious purpose. But of course each and every ruin like Cogshead has a story to tell; a history of its people and how the building was used and why it was abandoned. But Cogshead, perhaps unlike most other ruined cottages of its type, has a special story to tell.
There is little written about the history of Cogshead, or at least as far as I can find. You’ll find lots of accounts of walks and blogs about the Southern Upland Way which mention Cogshead in passing, but none that seem to be interested into looking at the history of this building. Of course dear old Rev. Simpson, in his book ‘Traditions of the Covenanters‘ (published 1867), is one of the only people to have included more than a brief mention of Cogshead:
‘This house, now a shepherd’s cottage, is situated in a delightful glen, and surrounded by lofty and green mountains. It stands not far from the edge of a precipitous brow, the base of which is laved by the limpid brook that traverses the glen, and pours its slender streamlet into the River Crawick. In the times of our persecuted forefathers, the place must have been a desirable retreat, as even now there are no regular roads that lead to it, except the solitary footpaths which here and there mark out a track for pedestrians across the hills.’
These days there is a road, of sorts, which passes by the path up to the old cottage; the cottage now sits at the edge of farmed forestry plantations with a rough dirt track leading up from the B740. But of course its situation ‘in a delightful glen’ has not changed and, despite the ‘modern’ pine trees it is quite easy to imagine how this place looked 300 years ago, or more.
When Simpson refers to ‘our persecuted forefathers’, he is of course talking of the Covenanters and their struggles over the last half of the 17th century. He goes on to explain a little about the connections between Cogshead and one of the Nithsdale Martyrs, William Brown:
‘The family which, at this time, resided in Cogshead, was related to William Brown, one of the wanderers who had taken refuge in Glenshilloch; and as the two places were contiguous, Brown made his way stealthily over the intervening height, and informed his friends of the circumstances in which he and his companions in suffering were placed. The sympathy of this household was easily gained, and an ample supply of provisions was conveyed to the men in their hiding place. It is not easy to say how long the party might have continued here among the dense brushwood during the warm days of summer, had not a strict search been made for them in all the glens and hills of the locality in which it was suspected they had taken refuge.’
More information about Brown and the other Nithsdale Martyrs can be found here: https://thescottishdream.com/2019/05/03/part-3-the-nithsdale-martyrs/ and here: https://thescottishdream.com/2019/05/07/part-4-martyrs-of-tradition/
Curiously Simpson goes on to state that:
‘Cogshead stands almost in the centre of a Celtic burial ground. The graves are all circular, formed of little heaps of stones grassed over. On the green within the enclosure at Cogshead the graves are in some places arranged in straight rows, some larger and the others smaller’.
But Canmore – The National Record for the Historic Environment, (https://canmore.org.uk/site/46419/cogshead) disputes this account after their investigations recorded:
‘Two groups of small turf-and-stone mounds, which may have been linked by many more. Each mound averages 2.0m in diameter (many are smaller) and is no more than 0.2m high. They are comparable with the mounds on Sanquhar Moor and may therefore only be field clearance heaps’.
Who knows what the truth is here? It’s the mysteries which make it all the more special. But the thing which makes me feel a little sad is the way that Cogshead is being left to crumble. Duncan Close, Chairman of the Sanquhar Heritage Society, believes that the building became uninhabited prior to the start of the Second World War, but he remembers a time when it was ‘a fairly dry, almost habitable structure’. When I started looking for other photos of the ruin to compare with the ones I took, one of the only ones I could find, taken in 2006, proved just how rapidly this structure is deteriorating. Just 13 short years ago the building still had something resembling a roof. And in the photo of Cogshead on Dr. Mark Jardine’s Book of Martyrs blog, posted in 2012, reveals that the chimney and a sort of front porch were still erect. These features now lie in broken piles around the ruin. https://drmarkjardine.wordpress.com/2012/05/19/the-craignorth-martyrs-near-sanquhar/
With a little bit of imagination, there could be ways to stop this piece of Scottish history from turning into nothing more than a pile of stones. It could simply be rebuilt as a shelter for walkers – maybe even a bothy as an alternative to Polskeoch for SUW trekkers. Or maybe it could even be a basic museum; I suppose more like an information point which informs people about the history of the Covenanters and about how Cogshead was once the site of a secret convention in 1688. It just seems a shame that there is currently nothing to explain what this place once was.
Since I believe Cogshead is situated on land belonging to the Duke of Buccleuch, perhaps he might be interested in a plan to save this ruin? But, judging from the sad state of Sanquhar Castle, I won’t hold my breath.