An programme of archaeological work was undertaken by staff from Headland Archaeology Ltd in order to satisfy a condition of planning consent for the proposed extension to Laigh Glenmure Surface Mine, near Duncanziemere. An initial evaluation by trial trenching was followed by open area excavation in two sections of the site, one in the vicinity of the upstanding Hillhead farmstead, to look for evidence of earlier phases of occupation, the other to record material associated with a farmstead called Back of Hill, which was shown on Roy's Military Survey of the mid 18th century, but which had been removed before the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map of the mid 19th.
At Hillhead, remains relating to an earlier settlement phase were recorded. These included drainage and enclosure ditches containing predominantly 18th century artefacts. A garden plot of narrow furrows was also revealed. The building survey established a phased expansion of the central 19th century Hillhead farmhouse, while trenches around the upstanding buildings revealed the sub surface remains of previously demolished structures, which could be identified with buildings depicted on 19th century Ordnance Survey maps. The location of the pre-Improvement Hillhead farm buildings depicted on Roy`s military map of 1747-55 could not be ascertained. However, the remains of boundary and drainage ditches to the south of the upstanding ruinous buildings provided evidence of that earlier settlement, as finds dating to the 17th -18th centuries were recovered from the features. It seems likely that the later structures were erected on the footprint of the previous farmstead, remains of which may partially survive below ground. In addition, an area of narrow furrows forming a garden plot was identified, sealed by the cobble yard area of the 19th century farmstead phase. Comparable with the 'kaleyards' of northern Scotland, such a feature appears to have continued in use on farmsteads into the following centuries as Fairburn (1926) notes that this method was used for growing potatoes around the locality of Muirkirk.
In the second area targeting Back of the Hill farmstead, a number of significant features representing the remains of the settlement depicted on Roy`s map of 1747-55 were identified. The trial trenching had revealed little evidence for this settlement, but open area excavation demonstrated that significant remains had survived located between the initial trenches. The remnants of three separate structures could be identified; a building with cobbled floor, beam slots that may have supported a raised barn and a byre.
The remains of a likely rudimentary byre were identified and further structural remains survived in the form of stone wall bases, cobbling and beam slots. The structure identified as a byre was formed from an initial curvilinear cut, the base of which ran down slope towards a natural channel, possibly forming a rudimentary drain for slurry and other waste. The cut was relatively uneven, which may represent wear by livestock trample. In order to aid drainage, two stone-lined drains were also constructed which extended from the feature and cut into the silt deposits of the channel. There was little surviving evidence of upstanding structural elements, with only a single course of stones along the northeast edge of the feature representing in-situ walling. There was no identifiable formal flooring or hearth remains and it appeared the fill of the cut represented a build up of redeposited topsoil. These characteristics suggest a non-domestic use for the structure, supporting its interpretation as a byre.
The limited evidence for walling suggests that turf or clay was utilised; the stones dispersed across the top of the feature may represent the remanants of a clay and stone aggregate. This reflects construction techniques seen on earlier medieval sites in the area, such as the turf building at Cronberry (Baker 2000). The continued use of such materials is attested by a 19th century description of rural buildings in Ayrshire, which noted that wattle walls, lined with turf or clay, were common in farmhouses until the 1740s (Aiton 1811). Due to the organic composition, these structural elements are rarely preserved. As a result, there is continuing difficulty in identifying medieval/post medieval rural buildings in the landscape, or apportioning function and form where remains do survive.
The remains of Back of the Hill do not appear to be in the medieval longhouse/ Byrehouse tradition, with humans and animals under the same roof. Instead, the farmstead is likely to have constituted a domestic structure with a series of outbuildings for animals and storage. The presence of outbuildings became an increasingly common feature of low status farms in the 18th century as agricultural improvements began to take hold (Dixon 2003). Despite the farmstead making this transition in layout, it appears construction techniques had not evolved towards the mortared stone wall architecture that began to appear elsewhere in Scotland at this time.
Dating evidence provided by the bottle glass and pottery suggests the site was occupied from possibly as early as the 17th century, was certainly in use by c.1730, and continued through to c.1790/1800. It is of note that the decline of the Back of the Hill farmstead coincides with the agricultural Improvement period that had firmly established itself in Scotland by the late 18th century. In addition to innovations in farming systems and the development of new crops and livestock breeds, the structure of farms themselves changed. On many estates a process of amalgamation took place at this time. The number of tenancies on farms was reduced, leading to a dominance of larger single-tenant units in areas such as the southern Uplands and western Lowlands (Whyte 1995). Back of the Hill farmstead may have succumbed to this process, with Hillhead becoming the sole tenant of the surrounding land.
These remains are of significance, as examples of relatively low status medieval and post-medieval farmsteads are rarely found in the archaeological record. The recovery of the associated 17th-18th century finds assemblage is also important as the rural setting of such finds is unusual. The fact that the sites are relatively undisturbed by later intrusions adds further significance to their importance in furthering our knowledge of Scotland`s rural settlements in this period.