The Hill Villages above Dalmellington, Ayrshire
Benwhat (the locally preferred spelling, rather than the Ordnance Survey's Benquhat) and its sister villages of the Doon Valley in Ayrshire no longer exist. It was one of several villages created in the Doon Valley of Ayrshire by the Dalmellington Iron Company in the mid to late 19th century. The hill villagers came to the area, in common with families from Ireland, England and elsewhere in Scotland for work in the rapidly expanding iron workings and the iron and coal mining which supported it. Most of the incomers lived in these new villages. They either moved on to housing in the more established areas of Waterside, Patna or Dalmellington, or in the majority of cases remained in the new villages. The communities so formed were close knit, independent and very hardy in the difficult circumstances of hill life, especially in the several periods of decline of the iron industry.
Six villages were created in the period 1840 to 1885; only one of them remains in anything like its original form. They were: Waterside, astride the River Doon between Dalmellington and Patna; the twin villages of Lethanhill and Burnfoothill on the Knockkippen plateau at 900 feet above sea level and 11/4 miles above Patna and the River Doon; Benwhat, and its close neighbour Corbie Craigs, were smaller villages even higher up the plateau above Waterside; and lastly Craigmark in the hills closer to the town of Dalmellington.
Waterside, which was of some 89 houses in 1851, grew around the original iron works which were built between 1846 and 1856. The works are now sadly derelict but the target of a local conservation group who are beginning a heritage museum to illustrate the life of the 19th century miners and iron workers. The village lies astride the River Doon between Dalmellington and the largely 20th century former mining village of Patna.
The twin villages of Lethanhill and Burnfoothill were built between 1849 and the 1860s on the Knockkippen plateau at 900 feet above sea level and 11/4 miles above Patna and the River Doon. The villages were a series of miners row houses built by the Dalmellington Iron Company close to the iron pits and open hearths where the men worked converting iron ore extracted from surface workings into crude pig iron in open hearths. The Iron Company also controlled the village store and the inclined railway which carried coal, iron ore and part refined iron char as well as working miners.
Benwhat, and its close neighbour Corbie Craigs, were smaller villages higher up the plateau above Waterside. Corbie Craigs was probably the original hill village of only 10 houses built in the early 1850s to support the ironstone pits at Corbie Craigs. Although Corbie Craigs may have originally been intended to be the centre of a large hillside mining community, its growth was stopped by the shift of interest to Lethanhill and Benwhat. The need to develop mines higher up the plateau allowed the Iron Company to build Benwhat, built between the early 1860s and 1875, and totalling 130 houses.
Craigmark which was built in the latter part of the 19th century and comprised 6 rows - a total of some 80 houses - to support the Minnevey and Sillyhole coal mines, lay closer to the town of Dalmellington. Craigmark also boasted a flagstone quarry about a mile north-east of Dalmellington, with its own row of houses. To the north-east of the quarry is Craigmark Hill, the site of many old ironstone mines. To the south of the quarry there was a small 'Craigmark School' and a 'Craigmark Smithy' There was a mineral water spring at the hill, which fed the Craigmark Burn flowing down to the Quarry.
The houses and life styles in each of these villages appears to have been very similar. The villages included a store, and eventually schools and churches and were very self contained with their own community associations, sports teams and social gatherings. They were dependent on the villages in the valley only for supplies, medical support, cemeteries and of course work!
The hill villages were run down in the 1930s and then finally evacuated in the post war period with the families being rehoused in new estates in Patna and Dalmellington. The buildings were demolished and little remains to show 100 years of life on the exposed plateau, save the war memorials erected close to the churches and the foundations of the rows - some close to the foundations of 17th century farms which were victims of earlier clearance policies! The moors are now inhabited only by wild life, the ghosts of the past and occasional visitors.
The village families were remarkable in their determination to improve the lot of their children and to provide the best education possible. As a result the descendants of those original Benwhat and Burnfoothill families have made their mark in several parts of Scotland in education and government, in New Zealand, the USA and in Canada.
"Benwhat and Corbie Craigs; a brief History" by Robert Farrell, published by East Ayrshire District Council (formerly Cumnock and Doon Valley District Council), Council Offices, Lugar, CUMNOCK, Ayrshire KA 18 3 JQ, Scotland.