James Hendrie charts the community buyout of Gallow Hill and its woodlands in the Dumfriesshire town of Moffat, which in recent times have been a lifeline for local residents.

IN 2015, Moffat Community Woodlands was formed to oversee the purchase of Gallow Hill at Moffat from the Annandale Estates. The opportunity saw a series of public meetings to assess whether there was an appetite to bring Gallow Hill and its woodlands into public ownership. A steering group was formed and approaching 200 local people joined up to support them in their efforts.

Robbie Porteous was one member of the local community who was minded to join the organisation and to become involved in the steering group itself. Robbie, who stays in Moffat and runs a successful Scottish outdoors book-publishing company, has also spent time researching the history of Gallow Hill. He explained that King David I granted a lordship and lands to Robert de Brus in the 12th century who built a motte-and-bailey castle, Aulton Motte, at the foot of the hill. There are then connections to de Brus’s descendant, Robert the Bruce, who is believed to have met his right-hand man Lord Douglas due north of Gallow Hill, at Ericstane, before deciding to raise his claim for the crown. The summit of the hill has long been known as the King’s Chair and the town’s motto ‘Ready Aye Ready’ refers to the bale fires that were kept primed on the hill to warn of invasion from the south. Robbie also believes that Gallow Hill is a great example of Scotland’s Age of Improvement.

Forestry Journal: How the view of Moffat looked from Gallow Hill many years ago.How the view of Moffat looked from Gallow Hill many years ago.

“This was the time of enlightenment for landowners. Moffat was a bog but then the two rivers on either side of the hill were canalised and the bog that was Moffat drained. There was a drainage scheme implemented on Gallow Hill which can still be seen on Google Earth, and carriage drives designed through planted Roccoco-influenced woodland. I found a copy of the planting scheme map in Lord Annandale’s archives at Raehills dated 1763. Lord Annadale had spent time in Italy. It was meant to be a romantic place with twisty paths, as opposed to the straight lines of trees which were a feature of other improved woodlands.

Forestry Journal: Throughout history Gallow Hill has been used by the people of Moffat for leisure pursuits.Throughout history Gallow Hill has been used by the people of Moffat for leisure pursuits.

“In the 19th century many grand houses were built in Moffat, as well as a 350-room hydropathic hotel, which is now gone, and the wood was known as the Pride of Annandale, drawing tourists from all over. There were even postcards available of it. After the First World War, however, the wood was cleared and replanted with spruce. The old carriageways were forgotten and it became just a plantation, until the community group bought it via the Scottish Land Fund.”

Forestry Journal: How Gallow Hill woodland looked in the past.How Gallow Hill woodland looked in the past.

Before this was achieved in October 2016, a feasibility study was carried out and a proposed business plan for Moffat Community Woodlands drawn up. The recommendation of the feasibility study was: ‘Proceed with the creation of a Moffat Community Woodlands facility on Gallow Hill’. It was on the understanding that the steering group could ‘secure a mix of funding to purchase the site, deliver the legal planting obligations, and create a community-supported facility’.

The feasibility study noted that Gallow Hill is located north of the town of Moffat and that there had been a partial clearfell of the site in 2014. It went on to record that the 33.4-ha site was being offered for sale by the Annandale Estates but there was a time sensitivity to any purchase with the need to start replanting on it with a planting contract with the then Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS).

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It also confirmed that two thirds of the local community who took part in a consultation exercise were in support of the idea to purchase Gallow Hill. Finally, it identified that the primary source of funding for the site purchase would be then Big Lottery Scottish Land Fund (SLF). Importantly, from a potential future success point of view, it confirmed that the purchase would allow Moffat to tap into funds that the Scottish Government was making available to support its priorities of outdoor learning, health and well-being.

Forestry Journal: A volunteer planting day in full swing.A volunteer planting day in full swing.

The business plan for Moffat Community Woodlands was published the following year. It offered a vision from the steering group as to what they hoped to achieve with the purchase of Gallow Hill. This was ‘to create a thriving mixed woodland owned by the community that provides a lasting legacy for the next generation driven by sound environmental and financial stewardship’.

The steering group noted in this report that it would be looking to manage and develop the land for the Moffat community and visitors with sustainability of the trees and wildlife being a key aim, as well as focusing on social education and awareness. There was also a pledge to engage with other local community groups and statutory bodies as well as looking to support projects that would encourage outdoor recreation for the community of Moffat and the surrounding area.

Forestry Journal: How Gallow Hill looked after the clear-felling prior to its ownership moving to Moffat Community Woodlands.How Gallow Hill looked after the clear-felling prior to its ownership moving to Moffat Community Woodlands.

The business plan also covered the areas of operation and management, confirming the intention of employing a paid part-time community woodlands officer and the desire to employ professional forestry contractors to support and deliver survey and tree-planting work. There was also an investigation into potential visitor targets and what the potential community and social benefits might be from the purchase.

There can only be so much planning and research that can be carried out before the need to have the actual funds. These arrived for the steering group in the form of a £171,622 SLF award, announced on the 26 May, 2016. Tom Mulholland, chair of Moffat Community Woodlands, told the local press: “This grant will enable us to improve recreational opportunities for the people of Moffat, and visitors to the town. Ownership of Gallow Hill gives the community the opportunity to enhance the natural environment of the hill for future generations, including the town’s recently awarded Dark Sky status.”

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The formal purchase of Gallow Hill went through on 15 December, 2016.

During 2017, a planting schedule was drawn up and implemented. In the clearfelled compartment on Gallow Hill, the schedule called for the planting of sessile oak as the dominant tree species to provide the tree canopy with an underplanting of downy birch and juniper. These three tree types were to form 60 per cent of the tree-planting area. Holly, rowan and aspen, as minor tree species, were to cover 20 per cent and the remaining 20 per cent was to be hazel, hawthorn and rowan.

Forestry Journal: Like many from the local area, Robbie and his children enjoy being on Gallow Hill.Like many from the local area, Robbie and his children enjoy being on Gallow Hill.

The planting area was defined as being 17.8 ha with the number of trees to be planted ranging from just under 14,000 sessile oaks, 3,400 downy birch, right down to just under 600 aspen and nearly 300 juniper. Funding was also attained from the supermarket chain Tesco to plant a 1.5-ha area near the entrance to Gallow Hill with a selection of fruit-bearing shrubs including hazel, hawthorn, crab apple, and bird cherry, nearly 7,500 trees in total.

A number of volunteer planting days were carried out during 2017 and these have continued in the subsequent years. This has been to supplement the work carried out by professional contractors to enhance and promote community involvement. Such planting days have attracted volunteers numbering at times over 50 adults and children, with sometimes over 500 trees planted.

From 2017 onwards there have been continued efforts to raise funds to continue the tree planting, and also to maintain, repair and develop the path network on Gallow Hill. Early on in the journey, two project officers were appointed to support the trustees and promote the Moffat Community Woodland within the town and the surrounding area.

Forestry Journal: The woodland classroom that will help community involvement.The woodland classroom that will help community involvement.

There was a six-month programme of community engagement and consultation. This included project officer meetings with a number of local organisations, representing 700 people, to tell them about what the purchase of Gallow Hill would mean for them and the plans for its development by the trustees. Use was also made of social media and a survey was carried out to gauge the views of both the membership of the Moffat Community Woodland as well as the general public.

There were four main things that the survey suggested people would like to see on Gallow Hill: a natural play area with equipment made from wood and ropes; family cycle trails; a tree house, shelter or outdoor learning area; and picnic benches. While the trustees were happy to receive this feedback and have taken steps since then to deliver some of these ideas, they were also conscious that extensive development could change Gallow Hill too much.

Forestry Journal: A frosty scene on Gallow Hill, with new tree plantings.A frosty scene on Gallow Hill, with new tree plantings.

Robbie explained: “It was a strange position to be in. We had some criticism for wanting to change the wood. One view was it was too much responsibility for the community and it should be replanted as a plantation. Then, on the other side, we had a group of fanatical re-wilders who wanted us to not plant trees at all but just leave the site to itself. We started having to counter bizarre rumours that we had secret plans for the hill and were killing badgers as part of whatever these secret plans were. This was all complete nonsense, largely on local social media. Sadly, Scottish Badgers believed the rumours and without visiting the site, decided we were up to no good. From there, the abuse and harassment snowballed.”

While the purchase of Gallow Hill and the ongoing tree-planting and development programme for use by the local community has continued apace since 2016, it came to light after a court case in 2018 that some of those associated with Moffat Community Woodlands and their families were subjected to what was reported in the local press as “a horrific campaign of malicious harassment by persons then unknown using anonymous identities or impersonating real individuals’ identities”.

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A statement from the trustees after a former employee of Moffat Community Woodland ‘accepted a fiscal fine for assault and threatening behaviour to trustees and others’ offered their view on what had happened in the two years from 2016 to 2018. “The malicious communications have had a devastating impact on the individuals concerned and their families. The personal toll has been very damaging to their health and is not something that should be tolerated. The charity itself and the project to create a mixed broadleaf woodland on Gallow Hill have also been set back because of the time and energy that we have had to devote to dealing with this harassment.”

Entering 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Moffat Community Woodland was successful in receiving funds to allow the planting of a further 7,500 trees.

Then lockdown came into force. However, with the relaxations during the summer the trustees have continued to progress with their plans for Gallow Hill. In May, a new entrance sign was put in place with lines from a poem by Kathleen Jamie inscribed in it:

 

Here lies our land: every airt

Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,

Belonging to none but itself

 

More volunteer planting days took place during the year. Also, in October, further contractor-led tree-planting works took place at the southern end of the slope of Gallow Hill. This planting saw 3,000 oak, 2,500 hazel and 1,200 holly trees being planted, with the rest of the total numbers being made up of downy birch, rowan and hawthorn. A woodland shelter/outdoor forest classroom has also been put in place.

Forestry Journal: Gallow Hill woodland today is a mixture of new and existing planting.Gallow Hill woodland today is a mixture of new and existing planting.

Designed and built by local Adam Murray in a traditional post-and-beam style from Douglas fir with larch roof shingles, the shelter officially opened on 19 September 2020.

Fundraising during the year has continued with an application to the now National Lottery Community Fund being successful for £7,744 towards the cost of tree protection products and the hiring of a planting contractor. Trees were also donated by Carbon Footprint Ltd and others. The vision that started in 2016 with the initial purchase of Gallow Hill from the Annandale Estate continues, and the objectives for the future include planting small numbers of native species using local volunteers, gradually removing remaining spruce (with some to sell as Christmas trees), keeping on top of path repairs, and encouraging more use by the community.

Robbie concluded: “The hill has been a lifeline for many in Moffat, during lockdown especially. It is a great place to walk the dog, play with the children, or ride a bike. It is hugely rewarding to see the new trees grow, to imagine what the place will look like in 10, 20, 30 years’ time and to hear woodpeckers again or see foxes and badgers.

“With the installation of the shelter, I think the community now understand the idea we had for a community woodland and hopefully when they visit the hill now they feel a sense of ownership and involvement that was not there when it was a plantation. The latest development has been the establishment of a very popular forest school by the local nursery Wise Owls. Now young kids spend all day out among the trees and wildlife rather than within the four walls of the nursery building. Their awareness of the natural world is now completely different and that is what it has all been about.”

www.moffatcommunitywoodlands.com

www.facebook.com/FriendsofGallowHill

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