Site Visit to Commondyke and Darnconner, May 2022

With marking out the way for another academic year, the Lost Villages team visited the sites of Commondyke and Darnconner, just outside Auchinleck and Cumnock. Our guide was our volunteer Nanette McKee whose grandfather came from Commondyke and has family connections to other Lost Villages as well. Colin MacDonald from CCLP also came along to see what remains of these villages we have read and heard so much about. 

Memorial Clock at the Boswell Centre, Auchinleck. 2022

IMAGE: Memorial Clock at the Boswell Centre, Auchinleck. 2022

Our first stop was the Boswell Centre in Auchinleck, right next to the housing the villagers were moved to in the interwar period. Nanette’s grannies stayed just across the road and round the corner. As we entered the green of the Ayrshire countryside, we came to the Birnie, locally this is the name given to Commondyke by many who lived there. Birnieknowe was a religious community next to the Commondyke rows. Immediately the bings mark where the village once was. Now lush with grass, wild flowers and trees, they stand proud in the landscape a relic from a past that now lives on in people’s memories.

countryside view of a a field with a mound of hill of grass and trees that is made up of a bing
One of the bings at Commondyke. 2022

IMAGE: One of the bings at Commondyke. 2022

Here we can see the ticket office on the road up to the Bridge as it would have looked in the early twentieth century and below is the bridge today.

A wooden railway station building to the right with the road on the left
Commondyke Railway Station building. c. early 20th century. Image courtesy of Rab McMurdo

Commondyke Railway Station building. c. early 20th century. Image courtesy of Rab McMurdo

From the bridge, we could look down into the old railway cutting and see the station platforms

Commondyke Bridge, 2022

IMAGE: Commondyke Bridge, 2022

Muirkirk railway line with the bricks from the platform visible. Commondyke, 2022

IMAGE: Muirkirk railway line with the bricks from the platform visible. Commondyke, 2022

Railway in the countryside stretching into the distance. On the left in the foreground is a sign saying 'Commondyke'
Commondyke Railway, c.early 20th century. Image courtesy of Rab McMurdo

IMAGE: Commondyke Railway, c.early 20th century. Image courtesy of Rab McMurdo

As we walked up the row, we stopped where Nanette’s family, the Johnstone’s lived. She showed us a postcard sent from her Grandfather John to his mother during the First World War. It was emotional reading the postcard at the spot where it was received – imagining a mother receiving long awaited news from her son.

Photograph of a young man in soldiers uniform

IMAGE: John Collins Johnstone, photographed before he left for war. With permission from Nanette McKee

colour postcard with a drawing of a male figure dressed in a blue pinstriped suit with red waistcoat and brown at the bar holding a pint of beer with a cigar in his mouth. The caption reads 'It's better to be alive with 18 pence, than dead with a thousand points. The coins and a bag of money are shown next to the caption
Postcard sent to Mrs Johnston of Commondyke from her son John, 1918. With permission from Nanette McKee

IMAGES: Front and back of postcard sent to Mrs Johnston of Commondyke from her son John, 1918. With permission from Nanette McKee

The first row past the religious community of Burnieknowe was picture from the bing below. After making friends with some curious sheep, we walked along the row in the middle of the houses photographed below, their footprint just visible through the grass. As with other villages, the houses have long gone but the outhouses seems to weather the tests of time. Our researcher, Yvonne was delighted to see what appeared to be the remains of the washhouses/outbuildings were the best preserved. If you remember these, please get in touch to tell us more.

Village of Commondyke Ayrshire shown as a row of houses to the right with visible washhouses in gardens and surrounded by countryside and other rows in the distance
Postcard of Commondyke. Date unknown.

IMAGE: Postcard of Commondyke. Date unknown.

Green field with some mounds to indicate wall of houses with a tree in the background
Standing in the rows at Commondyke

IMAGE: Standing in the rows at Commondyke

Remains of the washhouse, Commondyke, 2022

IMAGE: Remains of the washhouse, Commondyke, 2022

On the peaceful and fragrant May morning, it was hard to imagine the all the people and bustle of a mining community in the now silent landscape. 

As we made our way to Darnconner, we passed Ballochmyle, Common and Walker Rows which were virtually impossible to make out. From the satellite image from google maps you can see, the open cast mining reservoir of the Common Pit has blasted away pit workings. To the right, the Quarry removed most of the Common Loch Row, the longest row in Ayrshire at ninety-nine houses.

Maps courtesy of Google Maps, map data 2022

IMAGE: Maps courtesy of Google Maps, map data 2022

Map of Darnconner and surrounding area
OS Map 25 inch, 1892-1949, Permission of NLS

IMAGE: OS Map 25 inch, 1892-1949, Permission of NLS

At Darnconner farm, the village Darconner school, a fine red sandstone building, now a domestic home, is all that truly remains of the village. John Johnstone, the young soldier who wrote to his mother during the war in 1918 went to school at Darnconner. We couldn’t make out any lines or bumps in the grass to indicate there once was thriving mining community of around 500 people and at its peak over 1,000.

Large green field with tree line in the background on a cloudy day
Site of Darnconner, 2022. Image: Lost Villages of East Ayrshire collection

IMAGE: Site of Darnconner, 2022. Image: Lost Villages of East Ayrshire collection

We headed back, disappointed to not find more of Darnconner but delighted to the school building still there as a fixture of the village that once stood on this site. Perhaps not entirely unexpected given the village was largely empty by the the First World War.

Our final stop of the day was the High House pit and remaining row in Auchinleck. The bing and the wheel workings at the end of the industrial estate in the middle of the town are striking remains of a once burgeoning industry in this area. 

The Highhouse row is now an industrial estate, it was great to see these houses repurposed for the twenty-first century with local businesses operating out of them.

Row of single storey red brick houses
Remaining Highhouse Rows, 2022

IMAGE: Remaining Highhouse Rows, 2022

black and white photograph of two row of single storey brick houses with railways tracks in the foreground
Highhouse Rows and railway track. Date unknown. Source: unknown.

IMAGE: Highhouse Rows and railway track. Date unknown. Source: unknown.

It was good to get a sense of the area around Commondyke and Darnconner to understand their connection to the landscape and relationship to each other and the clusters of rows around this area just outside of Auchinleck. Little remained of Darnconner, though similar to Lethanhill the school house has been preserved. At Commondyke the new buildings on the Birnieknowe religious community site and the bridge and railway cuttings meant the village as whole was easier to understand, with the aid of the wonderful georeferenced maps from the National Library of Scotland.

We are still collecting stories about Commondyke and Darnconner, if you lived there, or your family did, please get in touch and share your story with us. 

Village-Women Alt
Chrissy McMurdo and colleagues, Commondyke c. 1940s Courtesy of Rab McMurdo

Benwhat Reunion 2011 Screening with Councillor Drew Filson

The Lost Villages team were kindly invited to Dalmellington by Councillor Drew Filson to watch a video of the 2011 Reunion for the village of Benwhat. Looking through the local newspapers, there have often been articles on reunions for these lost mining villages. 

A screen on the wall showing a blue background with a photo in the centre. The words, The Benwhat Reunion, 2011, are along the top.

IMAGE: The Benwhat Reunion 2011 Screening, October 2021 at Dalmellington Community Centre (Image reproduced with permission from Yvonne McFadden)

In 2010, Drew Filson contacted Fiona Lees, CEO of East Ayrshire Council at the time. to request the railings around the War Memorial be renewed. The railings had been damaged by the local population of Benwhat today, the cows, who had been using them as their favourite scratching post! The railings were beautifully restored with replica fleur de lis ironwork in a foundry in Fife and Councillor Filson, whose dad came from Benwhat, thought this would be a good time to organise a Benwhat reunion. 

War memorial at Benwhat. An obelisk surrounded by iron railing on a grass hill with a cloudy sky above with the sun breaking through

IMAGE: Benwhat Memorial. 2021 (Image reproduced with permission from Arthur McIvor)

The exposed hillside village is almost completely flattened and all that significantly remains is the War Memorial above the village and some of the ‘new’ school. With the loss of the footprint of the village, the War Memorial is a focal point for those who climb up to the village. Jutting out on the hillside, the granite obelisk is assertive indication that there once was a community who commemorated and cherished their fallen sons, brothers, and fathers. And latterly, for the people whose families came from the hill, it is a marker of their heritage and history. It is a beautiful, peaceful spot to remember not only the fallen soldiers but also those who once lived in this remote, thriving community. A strong sense of place and belonging is still evident decades after the village was emptied. There are memorial benches scattered across the hillside and some villagers ask for their ashes scatter on their site of their old home. 

a group of people sitting on a memorial bench at the site of the lost mining village of Benwhat.

IMAGE: Councillor Drew Filson and his family at the memorial bench placed at his grandparents Benwhat home where their ashes are scattered. 2018 (Image reproduced with permission from Drew Filson

The video created from Councillor Filson’s photographs and with the editing skills of Walter McCrae shows the amount of preparation and time that went into planning the reunion. The commitment and the real sense of pulling together to make this happen was evident from the video. Ahead of the event, a team worked into the fading summer evening to haul the equipment up the hill, cut the grass and erect the marquee. Scottish Coal filled the potholes to allow the local bus company to get the elderly villagers two miles up the steep hill to the their village. One man, Robin Farell signed himself out of hospital to make that last trip up Benwhat. It was quite emotional watching all the smiling faces being piped off the bus to the event, as Councillor Filson commented on who was sadly no longer with us. As oral historians, it is one of the most poignant and difficult things about working on projects that go back so far that many stories are already lost and pressing sense of urgency that we need to capture these histories quickly before that wonderful living memory is gone. While at the same time, many narrators express in their recordings that they feel a sense of legacy and for their families it means they have their story for generations to come. 

A group of people being led by a piper through the green hills of to the former mining village of Benwhat

IMAGE: The participants of the Benwhat Reunion being piped off the bus to the marquee, 2011 (Image reproduced with permission from Drew Filson)

The combination of the music and the images of these Benwhatonians climbing the steep hill to then bow their heads in silence for what once was and all those that were now gone was moving to watch. However, the laughter, the buzz of the day was clear from the pictures. Councillor Filson’s own father and uncle, twins who grew up in the village, took part in the day and are also no longer with us. The memory of this day, the stories that were shared there with generations of families whose fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers makes this video special. The story of the snow covering the houses so that you had to dig your way out your front door. The playing of the Dalmellington Silver Band in memory of the now gone Benwhat band. The woman who brought up a child’s potty to make everyone laugh about the outhouses, now no longer standing. Middleton Park, the baker, who made a cake of the village with the words: ‘Brick and mortar may be gone, but Benwhat’s spirit lingers on’.

photo of a cake with a scene on it of grass hills, a row of houses and sheet. The message reads: Bricks and mortar may be gone but Benwhat's spirit lingers on.

IMAGE: Cake of Benwhat for the reunion, baked by Middleton Park who sadly passed away recently, 2011 (Image reproduced with permission from Drew Filson)

The event seemed like a wonderful day for all who attended and those who worked hard to organise access to such a challenging site. Councillor Filson has kindly offered to put us in touch with some of the people from the video and we look forward to arranging an event in future that can once again bring together villagers and their families to share stories about life in the village of Benwhat. 

Photo of a paining showing sheep on the hills in the foreground to two rows on white housing with pitched roofs and a hill in the background depicting the lost mining village of Benwhat

IMAGE: Painting of Benwhat on the front cover of the DVD case.

Dalmellington Community Remembrance Day, 2018

The second video Councillor Filson showed us for around the Dalmellington Community Remembrance Day event for the centenary of the First World War in 2018. The first sequence shows all the meetings and preparations that went into the event. The focal point was the elegant Tommies designed by the people behind the Tower of London poppy installation. Councillor Filson had the fantastic idea to getting a steam train from Doon Valley Railway up the track towards the village to blow the whistle as a powerful reminder that the last thing many of these men heard as they left their loved ones of the whistle of the train. Again, the community resources, time, work and volunteers that created this event was remarkable. You get a real sense of Dalmellington as a community who wants to remember and keep alive the history of their village and the Doon Valley. The wonderful research of the Dalmellington History Group to uncover more about the soldiers listed on the local war memorials. The video included a list of those who had lost their lives in the major battles which must have been devastating to their families and the village to lose so many at once. 

DVD cover showing a black and red steam train surrounded by trees and greenery. The text reads Dalmellington Remembers 100 years, 1918-2018

IMAGE: Front cover of Dalmellington Parish Remembers

After the Remembrance Day event the Dalmellington Silver Band band played in the Dalmellington Community Centre where thousands of poppies fell from the ceiling (expertly rig up with cabbage netting). The school children did a fantastic job reading out the names of the fallen. The detail and effort that went into this memorial was wonderful to see. 

Finally, we see Councillor Filson and his family hauling one of the Tommy’s up the steep 2 mile hill to its resting place at the war memorial in our lost village of Benwhat. While the Tommy himself was fairly manageable, the concrete block took at tremendous amount of effort. Once installed up the hill, there is a wonderful picture of Councillor Filson with his children and grandson at the memorial. It was a lovely reminder that history is generational and something which helps us feel connected to the past and as long as these stories from our grandmothers and grandfather, mothers and fathers are told then they live on for generations to come. 

IMAGES: Councillor Filson and with his family and friend carrying the Tommy up to Benwhat 2018, (Images reproduced with permission of Drew Filson)

a man holding a poppy reef in front of the war memorial which is surrounded by black railings on a hillside

IMAGE: Councillor Drew Filson with the Tommy at Benwhat Memorial 2021 (Image reproduced with permission from Drew Filson)

If you took part in the any of the Benwhat reunions, we would love to hear from you. Whether you were a Benwhatonian yourself or your family have stories handed down about life in the village, please get in touchand help us preserve the memory of this Lost Village.  

You can find out more about the history of Benwhat here