The manors of Cloghogall and Dunnalong in the eighteenth century

Throughout the eighteenth century the Abercorns consolidated and developed their lands around Strabane. They were, for the most part, absentee landlords, preferring to spend the greater part of their time in London. However, they took a keen interest in their lands and kept in close correspondence with the various agents who were responsible for estate management in their absence. Thousands of letters written by the Abercorns and their agents in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries have survived. These provide a unique and detailed insight into the social and economic life of rural west Ulster in this period.

There were also a number of small estates in Leckpatrick and Dunnalong, which traced their origins back to the original Plantation freeholds of the early seventeenth century. The Hamiltons of Lisdivin traced their descent from Hugh Hamilton, a trader in luxury foodstuffs in Strabane in the early seventeenth century. This family also owned the former abbeylands at Grange. The descendants of James Hamilton, the original grantee, owned the freehold of Dullerton, which also comprised the townlands of Altrest, Ardmore and Gortmonly. This man’s grandson John married Sarah, daughter of Sir William Hamilton of Manor Elieston, thereby creating the line of the Hamiltons of Dunnamanagh.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century the freehold of Moyagh was still in the possession of the descendants of Hugh Hamilton, the original grantee. However, soon afterwards it passed to a Knox family with Co. Mayo connections. The Knoxes were absentee landlords and would appear to have neglected Moyagh. The freehold of Holy Hill, owned by the Sinclair family, was to become the most important of the minor estates in this area. The Sinclairs took a keen interest in their estate at Hollyhill and about 1740 commissioned a survey of it. They also acquired lands in Co. Donegal. During the course of the eighteenth century they steadily built up their wealth and status. The most obvious sign of this is the Georgian house that survives at Holy Hill, the finest house in the district. A detailed account of the Sinclairs of Holy Hill is provided in a later chapter.

The Sinclairs of Holy Hill and the Hamiltons of Lisdivin and Grange can be regarded as the gentry of the area, above the level of the tenant farmer, but still some way below that of the Abercorns. They represented, however, only a fraction of one per cent of the total population of Leckpatrick and Dunnalong at this time. The overwelming majority of the inhabitants of Leckpatrick and Dunnalong in the eighteenth century were connected with agriculture, either as tenant farmers or labourers and cottiers.

In the middle part of the eighteenth century the eighth earl of Abercorn bought back a number of his freeholds. As freeholds they were of little value to him, paying only nominal rents which could not be altered. However, once they were restored to his estate as ordinary leaseholds the earl could set them at the current market value. In December 1744 the freehold of Woodend and Ardnacliske, which also included Tullyard, was bought from Patrick Hamilton for £2250. Abercorn did not directly buy the freehold from Hamilton, but employed his agent, John McClintock, to purchase it for him. In May 1745 McClintock conveyed this freehold to Abercorn.

In 1745 Abercorn tried to buy from John Hamilton of Lisdivin the upper part of the freehold of Lisdivin for £535. On what he thought was the conclusion of the deal he wrote to his agent John Colhoun expressing his satisfaction at the ‘purchase’, especially since Hamilton had initially wanted £600 for it. However, the deal fell through. In February 1749 it was reported to Abercorn that John Hamilton of Lisdivin was planning to sell the lower part of the freehold of Lisdivin. Abercorn did not make any bid at this time. Later in 1749 William Hamilton of Tyrkernaghan, brother of John Hamilton of Lisdivin, offered Abercorn the freehold of Loughneas in the manor of Cloghogall. Shortly afterwards he again wrote to Abercorn informing him that he had just bought the lower part of Lisdivin from his brother and hoped that Abercorn would also allow him to buy the upper part as it was all one freehold and had been in his family’s possession a long time. In November 1749 James Hamilton of Strabane also expressed an interest in Lisdivin. He was shortly to be married ‘and in vast distress for a place of residence’. He considered Lisdivin ‘most pleasantly situated for my present country business, and also for the cloth trade which I resolve if in my power to follow’.

In late 1749 negotiations began between John McClintock, acting on behalf of the earl of Abercorn, and William Hamilton of Tyrkernaghan over the purchase of Loughneas. On 14 January 1750 McClintock informed Abercorn that Hamilton was willing to sell Loughneas for £1400. However, difficulties arose and in April 1750 it was reported that the two Hamilton brothers had differed over William’s purchase of Lower Lisdivin for £1100. However, Abercorn was still interested in Lisdivin and suggested to his agent John Colhoun that if John Hamilton’s only objection to selling the whole of Lisdivin was his reluctance to leave the place he would be prepared to allow him ‘his house rent free, only paying me five pounds a year to keep it in repair and as much land as he will choose to occupy at a reasonable rent’. At the beginning of 1754 Colhoun lamented to Abercorn that he feared the bargains for Loughneas and Lisdivin would never be sorted out. However, in July of that year the purchase of both Loughneas and Upper Lisdivin was concluded.

The issue of Lower Lisdivin remained outstanding, however. It was revived in the late 1760s when John Hamilton’s widow put the freehold up for sale. Abercorn was prepared to offer £2300 for the property. However, difficulties arose when Mrs Hamilton insisted that Abercorn buy the trees around the ‘mansion house’ separately. According to the Lisdivin rent roll, the mansion house was ... let to a gentleman, who would lay out £200 in improvements according to the Lisdivin rent roll. There was also the additional problem that Lower Lisdivin had been mortgaged to a Dr Law and he had been receiving the rents since 1761. Further delays were due to the fact that one of the Hamiltons was in America. In the end nothing was forthcoming with these discussions and it was not until 1836 that the second marquess of Abercorn acquired the lands of Lower Lisdivin by virtue of a perpetuity lease from James and William Sinclair of Holy Hill.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century the freehold of Cloghogle in the manor of Dunnalong was divided between the Nisbetts who had married into the Lynn family, the original grantees and the Bairds. The Nisbetts continued to hold the lower part of the freehold of Cloghogle until well into the nineteenth century. Thomas Baird bequeathed the upper part of Cloghogle to his daughters, one of whom was married to Tristram Cary and the other to a Mr Rankin. In 1766 Tristram Cary wrote to the earl of Abercorn about his farm in the freehold of Cloghogle, explaining the farming arrangement between himself and the Rankins:

Mr Rankin and I held them [the lands of Upper Cloghogle] in common during his life. His eldest son and I divided them from the high road to the top of the mountain, cut out a large bottom for a mearing ditch and cast lots for our shares and since each has enjoyed their lot separately.

In 1775 Abercorn bought the Carys’ part of the freehold of Cloghogle for £315. Just before the purchase James Hamilton had written to Abercorn describing Cloghogle:

Mr Cary had planted about 2 [acres] with fruit trees, but at present there is not above half an acre of it that has trees in it. If that had a side ditch to enclose it of the field, it might grow to something, but if it is suffered to lie open to the people as it is at present and the cattle to rub as they certainly do after the crop is off it will soon be ruined.

The smallest freehold in the manor of Dunnalong was Dunnalong tenement, which traced it origins back to the grant of a few acres of land in Menagh Hill by Sir George Hamilton to Michael Marshall in the 1630s. Dunnalong tenement was later purchased by William Lynn of Cloghogle and then passed into the possession of the Nisbett family. In 1778 Richard Nesbitt of Cloghogle wrote to Abercorn suggesting that the earl might consider purchasing Dunnalong tenement for £300. Nisbett gave as his reason for selling his need to ‘provide for some of my brothers who depend on me for their fortunes’. Abercorn considered the asking price too high and eventually, after much haggling, bought it for £225.

Landlord-tenant relations in the eighteenth century

In the eighteenth century the relationship between a landlord and his tenants was defined by the lease. Unfortunately no eighteenth century leases have survived for either Cloghogall or Dunnalong. However, from the Abercorn correspondence we have some idea of the contents of these leases. During the eighteenth century most of the leases on the Abercorn estate were for 21 years, though others were for seven and fourteen years. The eighth earl of Abercorn was uninterested in Irish politics and did not include lives in his leases. Had he done so his tenants would have become freeholders and would have been entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. Security of tenure was of major concern to the tenants and many complained that their leases were not long enough. This was acknowledged by Abercorn’s agent John McClintock who offered the following opinion to his employer in 1749: ‘I would beg leave to observe ... that nothing gives such encouragement to tenants or causes them improve with such spirits as a good tenure.

McClintock was responding to a proposal by Abercorn to renew the leases in the manor of Dunnalong: ‘What I design to offer the tenants is to take up the old leases and grant new ones from the 1st of next November for twenty-one years advancing the rent about a third (as from £15 to £20)’. Abercorn’s intention was obviously to increase his own income, though it may have been encouraged by representations made to him by his own tenants.For the first half of the eighteenth century the tenants on the Abercorn were required to have their corn ground at the appointed mill. However, from the 1750s on this was no longer an obligation. The issue of tenants and the mills will be discussed in greater detail in the chapter on rural industry. The requirement to plant trees was also an important clause in the leases on the Abercorn estate. However, as with many of the other clauses this was difficult to enforce. In May 1751 Abercorn pointed out to his agents that:

The tenants are bound by their leases to plant one tree yearly for each pound rent (except in the case of mills and holdings of that sort). I put it so low that they might be the more encouraged to it, but they have most of them neglected it and it is difficult to look to them every year. As this is the sixteenth year of the leases, there are consequently sixteen trees due upon each pound rent. Give them notice that I expect half of them to be planted by next November and the other half by November following and their failure will be the loss of their tenant right.

Abercorn also controlled the right of succession on a farm supposing the lessee died before the expiration of his lease. In 1758 he informed his agent, John Sinclair: ‘There seems no doubt but that Joseph King’s son should succeed to the land in Eden left him by his father, and that William Simpson’s son should succeed, in like manner, to his father’s land in Creaghcor’. The above examples were relatively straight forward, but this was not always the case. In November 1767 John Hamilton wrote to Abercorn about a case involving the Biglay family of Brownhill:

Patrick Biglay, late of Brownhill, had three sons, Patrick, Thomas and George. Patrick, who was the eldest got the half of his father’s land several years ago. Thomas was taught the weaver trade and maintained in his father’s house, notwithstanding would not leave his father or give up his claim to the land till George, who laboured the land and supported his aged father, was obliged to pay him five guineas upon which his father gave an article of the land to George, reserving some little part to himself. Patrick the father was a papist and his wife being a Protestant, all the sons went to church with the mother. Thomas never satisfied that George should get the land. To ingratiate himself into his father’s favour returned to Mass, and the father upon that takes him again into his house and dispossess George. the father on his death bed made a will and left it to be divided equally between them. Now as Thomas has a trade and in good circumstances and George quite destitute, who made a fair bargain with the father, I think ... that George has the best right.

One thing that Abercorn became particularly concerned with was insisting that his tenants actually lived on the farms that they leased. In 1772 William Sproul of Mountcastle resolved to emigrate to America with his family, having had letters from relatives already there encouraging him to come over. He sold the interest in his farm to one John Hamilton. However, Abercorn would not consent to the sale because Hamilton was not prepared to move immediately to the farm. Tenants who sold their holdings were obliged to pay half a year’s rent; this sum was also demanded of individuals who were about to enter a new farm.

There was also the problem of tenants who fell behind in their rent payments. The process of eviction could be long and complex, especially if the tenant challenged it. It was also expensive and was usually only used as a last resort. In December 1777 James Hamilton reported to Abercorn that Robert Drew of Ballymagorry could not be ‘persuaded ... to quit his farm’. Early the next year Drew had still not left and Hamilton informed Abercorn that the eviction would cost £9. Generally, it was troublesome tenants who fell behind in their rent payments who were evicted. Patience was usually shown to those hard working tenants who had fallen on hard times.


Leases could be issued to tenants in severalty (individually) or jointly. Where tenants came together to lease a farm or townland it was known as rundale. The social and economic historian, Bill Crawford, has defined the phenomenon of rundale in the following terms:

The term rundale was applied to the arrangements made among several partners (related or unrelated by kin) in a lease, each of whom required enough resources to maintain his own family. Rundale did not mean living or farming in common: it implied that each participant had a definite share of the holding even if those shares were intermingled. Within the limits of the lease several members of a kin group or partnership could discuss and resolve their claims on a temporary basis that would allow for changing circumstances. If they felt strongly enough about variations in quality of the land, they might even insist on regular redistribution of the holdings, a practice known as changedale. Because every partner was resident and knew his rights it was unnecessary to define boundaries in any permanent fashion and so low earthen mearings rather than hedges or stone walls marked temporary boundaries within the property: to outsiders the landscape appeared unenclosed. All the houses clustered around the original house on the lease but they held nuclear families.

The question that arises is whether rundale was particularly widespread in the manors of Cloghogall and Dunnalong in the eighteenth century. The evidence from the poll book for the parish of Donagheady (c.1662) shows that in most of the townlands in the manor of Dunnalong there was only a single yeoman or farmer, implying compact farms. Rundale probably did not emerge in the manors to any significant extent until after the heavy in-migration of Scottish settlers in the 1690s. Our main problem here is the almost complete lack of relevant estate records from the seventeenth and early part of the eighteenth century. Thus it is impossible for us to gauge the spread of rundale in the manors and whether any areas escaped it altogether. A series of maps, undated but probably from the 1730s, of the townlands in Cloghogall show that nearly all of the townlands contain clusters of houses, the largest being in Cavanacaw where a cluster of seven houses is represented and called Cavanamore. However, while it is possible that these clusters represent kin groups, it is also possible that they represent a tenant farmer and his cottiers.

The Abercorn correspondence has surprisingly few explicit references to rundale. In one interesting reference from 1737 John McClintock, one of the agents on the estate, requested that flaxseed would be distributed among the tenants in the manor of Dunnalong as many of them had ‘had great hardships in removing and building their houses’. This implies some kind of reorganisation of farms in at least part of the manor and indicates that even at this stage the Abercorns were taking steps where they could against rundale.

However, the Abercorns and their agents did take a practical view of rundale in certain situations. In 1744 McClintock was called in to settle a dispute in Ballybeeny over a recent division of the farms there. He wrote to Abercorn:

I was yesterday at Ballybeeny in order to enforce their division, but could not prevail on Archibald Deniston and his partner to submit to it till November next. They say they improved some land in the Lower Division last season at a considerable expense from which they have not had a return of their labour, and the reason they say they forbid running the mearing was that Mr Wirling refused giving them a convenient road to draw their turf. However, I believe all their debates might be settled if Mr Wirling would allow them “rune dale” this season so that they may have the benefit of their last years labour and the division to take effect form 1st November next.

This letter highlights the difficulties often encountered when effecting farm reorganisation in the manors. The reorganisation of farms could also impact on boundary disputes. In 1748 there was a disagreement between the tenants in Cullion and the tenants of Sir William Hamilton in the freehold of Dullerton. The disputed ground had been most held in common until the division of the farms in Cullion at the commencement of the then current leases. It was then put into the possession of John Semple. McClintock was concerned that the row could cause Abercorn a great deal of trouble, though the disputed portion was only about half an acre.

The Abercorn correspondence contains other references to the division of holdings following the abandonment of rundale. Although referring to another part of the estate the following is a good example of Abercorn’s instructions regarding the division of farms:

I would have you employ a surveyor when the weather is good to make divisions where they are wanted. They must bear as near a proportion as conveniently may be to the respective holdings of the tenants, but need not correspond so exactly as where lands are already in lease. By making the divisions now the tenants will have two years trial of them, and may have the advantage of being relieved in any hardships that may happen.

Occasionally tenants were not satisfied with their divisions. In 1753 John Marshall of Upper Tamnabryan employed at his own expense a professional surveyor, Samuel McCrea, to survey all the farms in Tamnabryan. It was found that his third was two acres smaller than it should have been. However, his neighbours refused to give him any compensation. In 1774 there was a dispute between Bogle of Gortmessan and Drummond ‘with whom he divided at taking of last leases’. Bogle claimed that Drummond had received more than his fair share of the land, though the latter claimed that the difference was due to the improvements he had made to his own holding. Abercorn’s agent, James Hamilton appointed John Smith of Eden, David Love of Tamnaclare and Alexander McCarnan to investigate the matter. They decided to lay off half an acre of Drummond’s farm to Bogle. On another occasion Thomas Hamilton of Gortavea complained to Abercorn that his farm was not as large as its stated acreage. Abercorn promised to investigate the matter, but pointed out that he would have the ultimate say in setting a new value on his holding if this were found to be necessary.

On other occasions tenants were reluctant to fully co-operate in proposed division of their holding. In 1770 James Luke of Ballydonaghy and his neighbours were considering a division but found that they could not come to an agreement on it. In order to satisfy the complainers it was suggested that they be given five guineas. However, when the division of farms was proceeding satisfactorily, Abercorn and his agents were prepared to let them get on with it, as was the case with the tenants in Stranisk in 1774.

By the early 1770s the division of farms was well established. In December 1773, James Hamilton wrote to Abercorn stating that ‘It is scarce possible to prevent the tenants from dividing their land’. He then went on to describe a dispute between John Meathers of Tamnabryan and James Wilson over the farm they had bought from John Marshall. Meathers wished to have Marshall’s old farm divided between them, but Wilson was against this because he hoped that at the expiration of the existing leases it would be included in his holding. According to Hamilton: ‘It’s going on for the remainder of the lease in rundale, can be but little inconvenience, then your Lordship will judge to whom it ought to go’. In 1778 Hamilton asked Abercorn whether he should ‘fill the leases according to their divisions or hold them joined as your Lordship let them’. This request would appear to have been in response to an instruction by Abercorn that those ‘tenants holding in common shall have but one lease, as, for example, the four tenants in east Carrickatane, without distinguishing the proportions in which they hold’.

The problems associated with rundale included the difficulties surrounding a situation where one tenant was unable to keep up with his rent payments. Abercorn made clear that when tenants were bound together in one lease he considered them all responsible for the payment of the rent. Referring to a dispute in the townland of Desart, he wrote: ‘Tell the tenants of that division of Desart that I look upon Hasty’s holding over as the joint act of them all’. On another occasion Abercorn wrote to his agent, James Hamilton, with the following piece of advice:

The circumstances of finding a paying tenant and a backward one joined in the same lease creates a difficulty, which we did not advert to. In order to get over it and to avoid disappointing the paying tenant and yet to make a distinction, let the backward tenant be joined in a new lease upon payment of a fine of a quarter of his yearly rent and clearing his arrears by the 1st of may next, the last November rent excepted. Thus, for example, in Magheramason, McNeely paying a fine of £34 17s. 6d., Gamble and he may have a joint lease at £39.

While the division of farms following the abandonment of rundale was a major feature of the later part of the eighteenth century, so was the sub-division of existing farms into smaller holdings. Abercorn was largely against this, sometimes forcefully so. In January 1778 he wrote to his agent, James Hamilton: ‘Samuel Smith of Ballymagorry can upon no account split his farm. This is, I hope, the last time you will give me occasion to write upon this sort of subject’. Three years later he again wrote to his agent with the following instructions: ‘Margaret Kelly’s land in Altnageerog must not be divided; she and her son-in-law must sell out or one of them must hold the whole’. However, by 1788 his position had shifted slightly and he suggested to Hamilton: ‘Where farms are large you may admit splitting a little more freely than we used to do’.

Cottiers in the manors of Cloghogall and Dunnalong

In 1761 on one of his trips to Ireland, and passing through Ballymagorry, Abercorn ‘found great complaints of trespass committed by cottiers of Woodend who live there in great numbers upon the lands under long leases and bring their turf through Ballymagorry from Woodend bog’. The earl instructed his agents to put an immediate stop to this. One of Abercorn’s principal objections to cottiers was the pressure they were putting on natural resources such as turf which was becoming increasingly scarce as more and more land was reclaimed. In a dispute over turf rights in Gortavea in 1761 Abercorn demanded that the cottiers living under Thomas Hamilton were to be removed or else the advanced rent mentioned in the lease would have to be paid. The earl was at this time keeping a list of cottiers on his estate and only those that were on this list were permitted. In 1775 he wrote to James Hamilton: ‘I am sensible of the want of turf about Burndennet. It is owing in great measure to a number of cottiers harboured about the mill whom I took great pains to get rid of’.

Although he considered cottiers to be something of a nuisance, there were occasions when Abercorn sympathised with their plight. In 1769 a case involving cottiers living on the farm at Prospect was brought to his attention. The difficulties arose when a new tenant came into possession of the farm and wished to get rid of the cottiers living on his holding. Abercorn instructed his agent to ‘give the new tenant to understand that his own possession will not be safe till he gives ample security to these poor people’. He later elaborated to James Hamilton, one of his agents his views on the situation:

My own [opinion] is that men who have occupied land three and thirty years and pay so high a rent as twenty-six pounds can hardly in equity be considered as cottiers, especially by me, who do not allow of cottiers except necessary workmen under which description these men cannot fall. And where it is said I gave Mr Hamilton [the previous tenant] leave to keep cottiers to work his bleach green it is, I believe, true. But I guess I must have been deceived and have thought the green was my own. For there seems to be no reason why I should depart from a covenant to permit cottiers to live upon my estate to work a green upon another’s estate.

The life of one cottier can be seen in the example of Hugh Arbucle who possessed a small tenement in Killynaught. During the summer this man would lock up his house and travel around the countryside looking for work. In the winter he would return to Killynaught and live off what he had earned in the summer. By January 1786 he had been doing this for seven years. Arbucle’s way of life should not be regarded as typical of a cottier in the Abercorn estate; his story is merely an example of how one man earned a livelihood.

Two letters from James Hamilton to the earl of Abercorn in February 1788 and January 1789 provide a fascinating insight into the condition and status of the cottiers in the estate at that time. In the first Hamilton gave the following suggestion to Abercorn and pointed out the reasoning behind it:

I do think it would be more for the advantage of the estates that tenants were allowed to let skirts of their farms without fearing to lose the tenant right of it, and to avoid splitting as much as possible. The cottier in such cases would be helped by his landlord. He would give him assistance in many ways; he would give him weaving and labour to enable him to pay his rent; they would get leases for perhaps ten years; they would live as friends, whereas the tenant who would get a mountainy bit, your Lordship’s tenant who considers the farm all his right is seldom friendly to the little tenant who lives on a part he intended for a son in a future day.

In the letter of the following year Hamilton differentiated between the cottier who lived in reasonably good circumstances from one who was in a wretched state:

There are many cottiers who pay from ten to 15s. in very much more distress than those who pay much more than double to a tenant who keeps the cottier’s house thatched, brings home his turf, puts out his manure, serves him with meal or potatoes in his distress, and in general takes work for all. I really think I can observe the tenant’s farm who has a working cottier in better order than his neighbours who has not one.

The next chapter deals with the condition of the cottiers in Leckpatrick and Dunnalong in the nineteenth century.

Land reclamation and improvements to the estate

As the population of Ireland expanded in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was increasing pressure on the available agricultural land. This caused expansion into previously uncultivated areas. Bog in the low lying areas was steadily exhausted and the ground converted into arable land. In the manor of Dunnalong Oliver Dunn attempted this on the farm in Gortavea, which he had taken over from his father-in-law John Davison. In 1771 James Hamilton reported to Abercorn that Dunn was growing hay and potatoes on a patch of former bogland. He believed that his crops were ‘appearing very well for such ground. He clayed shelled and dunged it, potatoed and had oats and sowed hay seed in the part that is meadow’. At the same time, Hamilton pointed out that this form of land improvement was ‘vastly expensive as we can never plough nor take in the manure, but by men, and after our potatoes we must fit the ground with spades for sowing our oats, then we sow grass seed, and after perhaps one or two years that we have it in hay we work it over again in the same manner’.

In November 1774 there was a serious incident on Dunn’s farm when fire destroyed his malt kiln and most of his dwelling house. His wife’s uncle died in the blaze. James Hamilton believed his farm buildings and furniture to have been ‘uncommonly good’ and taking into consideration the large quantity of barley that was also destroyed he reckoned that Dunn had lost upwards of £150. Following the incident Dunn’s neighbours offered to help him by providing timber from their own farms free of charge. Hamilton admitted to Abercorn that: ‘There have more accidents happened and more lives lost by fire in this neighbourhood than I ever remember in a year, chiefly occasioned by drying flax’. Abercorn allowed Dunn £5 to help him repair his buildings.

In the 1780s Abercorn and his agent, James Hamilton, attempted to turn the high ground in Gortmellan and Castlewarren into profitable agricultural land which would be able to sustain several farms. Before this these areas had been grazed in common and used as a source of turf. In May 1781 Hamilton described to Abercorn a dispute in Gortmellan between those who used the top part for grazing and those who dug turf there:

Those who hold Gortmellan top complain that the people who cut turf there cover their grazing with their turf, and that keeping their cattle from hurting the turf when there is very troublesome to them. They say that the mountain is the only place they have to graze on and they lose much by keeping the cattle from the turf ... the lowland people do not feel much for the highlanders. I do not consider such a mountain to be on a footing with a bog, quite set apart for cutting turf, for the mountain is rated by your Lordship I suppose at very little, yet the people who hold the tops reckon it their grazing.

In 1778 Abercorn, in a letter to Hamilton discussing Gortmellan, had stated: ‘There is no harm in multiplying tenants in a rough place’. However, attempts to introduce farmers to the high ground in Gortmellan did not prove particularly successful to begin with. In July 1784 James Hamilton reported to Abercorn that he had made a recent visit to Gortmellan tops and had found that the people there were ‘wretchedly poor’ and had ‘done very little’. The building work that they had carried out consisted of ‘four poor little houses, one of them by Taylor very improperly’. Hamilton did not value ‘all the improvements they made there to £13 a year’s rent’. However, he still considered it to be ‘an opening of a place and people of some substance would take it, and such might improve it into a holding’. Later in the year he was critical of the Gortmellan tenants, describing them as ‘people of bad character, very troublesome even amongst themselves’. Abercorn responded to this by stating that: ‘Gortmellan mountain has no pretension to be rent free. If the tenants be too troublesome turn them out’.

In the spring of 1786 Hamilton instructed the tenants to divide Gortmellan top. With regard to Castlewarren top, he found that several of its tenants did not actually live there, and as far as he was concerned, he did not ‘think a man should have it who did not live on it, for sending up their little stock to graze on it, it doing nothing’. In October 1787 Hamilton recommended to Abercorn that the rent of Gortmellan and Castlewarren tops ought not to be raised as the tenants there were greatly in arrears. He told Abercorn that he would have pressed them harder, but acknowledged that they had little and their small patch of corn had still not been cut. He also wondered whether the tenants having leases would encourage them to exert themselves. The following February Hamilton described Gortmellan and Castlewarren tops as being in a ‘sad way’ and admitted that they were ‘as poor as when they set down, though they have paid very little rent’. However, by the summer of 1791 things seem to have improved and Hamilton was able to write to Abercorn that settling tenants in these areas had ‘pretty well succeeded in several places’.

Life for a farmer high up in Glenmornan was also tough, and many of the problems experienced in Gortmellan and Castlewarren were endured here too. Bryan Casey possessed a farm in Owenreagh. He had great difficulty in paying his rent and James Hamilton sympathised with his plight, pointing out that the holding was ‘quite mountainous and he is by no means fit for it as he has no stock’. Casey also complained that his neighbours trespassed on his farm. In order to solve this particular problem Abercorn encouraged him to build his own mearing and he (Abercorn) would pay three-quarters of the expense. However, according to James Hamilton, Casey ‘wrought some little, but never finished any of it properly’. Casey’s problems were compounded when his crop was washed away in a flood and his small flock of nineteen sheep was destroyed by dogs. Casey desired that he be allowed to give up his farm and it would appear that this request was granted. In January 1811 Sir John James Burgoyne, agent to the marquis of Abercorn, admitted: ‘The Glenmornan mountains are a constant loss, and I fear that the settlers are discouraged by the old tenants. I think therefore it might be advisable to build five or six cabins and place herds in them who would take in cattle and encourage others to settle’.

In the late 1770s the earl of Abercorn initiated an ambitious project to improve the infrastructure of his estate, which lasted the better part of a decade. This included draining, embanking, ditching, enclosing, and in general improving the potential agricultural productivity of the different manors. Appropriate measures were taken in thoses areas where they were judged most necessary. For example, in the manor of Cloghogall the low-lying land along the River Foyle was prone to flooding. A series of embankments were constructed to try to prevent this. In June 1784 Hamilton wrote to Abercorn that ‘... the embankment at Desert and Backfence are supposed to save perhaps more than 100 acres of land from being flooded ...’. In March 1786 Hamilton confidently wrote to Abercorn: ‘It will not be long, I believe, till the very extensive and fertile flats from John McCrea’s farm in Magherareagh to Backfence will be secured from the floods, almost all by your Lordship, the rest from your Lordship’s example’.

In the townland of Castletown an extensive scheme of ditching was introduced. By May 1778 1170 perches of ditching had been carried out, the expense of which came to £65, with white thorn quicks, furze, seed etc. costing just over £4. Hamilton pointed out that‘Castletown is mighty rocky and the ditches consequently not so good, as they would have been where there was soil, yet I am convinced they are worth to the land all they cost. I was examining them all yesterday and charge the tenants to keep them up and advise them to divide by which they would have farms all in fields’. In the 1790s Abercorn encouraged his tenants to enclose their farms by offering a £15 prize for the individual who completed the best piece of work.

Abercorn was also keen to reward those tenants who tried to improve their farms on their own initiative. One such case was that of James Cox of Pollockstown who in November 1784 told James Hamilton that he was sinking for pump and wished he should call and see it . Hamilton found that Cox had sunk 75 feet and had still not come to water. To carry out this work Cox had employed a Scotsman, whom Hamilton considered a ‘very clever fellow’. Cox had a malt kiln, and at that time drew his water for it some 400 yards. Hamilton described Cox to Abercorn as a ’very honest industrious man; he has his farm in neat good order’. Eventually Cox did manage to procure for himself a sufficient supply of water. Abercorn acknowledged Cox’s efforts to supply himself with water and instructed Hamilton to ‘make a scheme of those that may be benefitted by it and in what proportions they may be made to contribute to it’.

Woodland management

A large number of the letters in the Abercorn correspondence are concerned with the woods in the Abercorn estate, particularly those in the manor of Dunnalong, where the woods included Tullyard, Castlemellan and Dunnalong, which took in parts of Menagh Hill and Magheramason. The principal problem which preoccupied Abercorn and his agents as far as the woods were concerned was the illegal cutting down of trees. Technically speaking, the earl of Abercorn owned all the trees on his estate. His tenants were forbidden to cut any down without his permission. This also applied to the freeholders, but in 1751 John McClintock reported to Abercorn that Knox, the proprietor of Moyagh, was cutting down the trees in his freehold. Abercorn found that he could do little to prevent this. In October of that year his agent, John Colhoun informed him:

I have been through the manor of Dunnalong and find nothing wrong but Dunnalong wood much abused of late. It consists chiefly of alder, a little ash and a very little oak. It stands on a very large parcel of very rich ground well worth ten shillings per acre and will scarce sell for three times what the keeping costs ... it is just for the country’s use. ... The other woods at Castlemellan and Tullyard consist of oak wholly and stand well saved on land scarce fit for any other use.

Just under two years later Colhoun again wrote to Abercorn on the issue of Dunnalong wood:

As I found Dunnalong wood diminishing daily and could make no proof against any worthwhile, I turned off the ranger I found there who I understand has been long in composition with many of the tenants and others, and I have persuaded one James Moorhead, a tenant, to take that charge on him who says he’s insulted every day for being concerned with it.

In 1760 John Sinclair reported to Abercorn that many of the ash trees in Dunnalong wood had been stolen, some of which had been ‘bored through to prevent the noise of cutting’. At the beginning of 1764 Sinclair was forced to write again to Abercorn on the subject of the theft of trees from the woods in the manor of Dunnalong:

Saturday last your Lordship’s bailiff and woodranger informed me that several small trees were cut, that he was told they were carried into the Liberties of Derry. I sent him to Derry for a warrant and on Wednesday took him and Castlemellan woodranger with two or three more men with me and searched every house, garden, field, and old flax holes in the suspected places, but could not find timber of any kind. What ash are now standing are of very little value and what has been cut the stumps are mostly from one to three feet high which should be cut down.

In April 1764 Sinclair admitted that it was not in the woodranger’s power to prevent the trees from being stolen or to find out who was responsible for the theft. In December of that year he wrote to Abercorn about the ranger of Dunnalong wood, to whom he had given a small holding of just over two acres as his wages, pointing out that he had not cleared a patch of ground or built a house as he had been instructed to do. Sinclair had also given the woodranger a gun so that ‘he might with more safety watch in the night’. Sinclair believed that the woodranger was possibly in collusion with the thieves. At the very least he believed him to have been ‘remiss in his duty’ and had turned him out and given over responsibility for preserving what remained of the wood to Joseph Osburn of Menagh Hill.

In October 1767 Sinclair reported a further incident in Dunnalong wood:

The latter end of August Mr George Hamilton told me he believed the wood at Menagh Hill was destroying, that one of his cottiers some time before that heard a hatchet in the night, that he went out, that the owner of the hatchet and company went off. He returned home and hearing the noise a second time he went out and they fled. He then went to bed and a man whose voice he did not know called to him not to come out again or perhaps he might repent it if he regarded himself. ... I really believe a wood will not be preserved there as I suspect your Lordship’s tenants to be the principal destroyers of it.

Abercorn’s attitude to the problem of protecting his woods was one of exasperation. In 1761 he wrote to John Sinclair: ‘I am not so much displeased at the destruction made in Menagh Hill wood as I lament the thievery and villainy by which that unfortunate country is distinguished from the rest of the world’. When James Lowry of Carrickatane was caught stealing a sycamore tree from one of the woods in the manor of Dunnalong, Abercorn considered the act to be one of ‘great folly and insolence than of felony’, and he instructed his agent to fine Lowry three guineas and give the money to the rector of Donagheady to be distributed among the poor. By the end of the eighteenth century Dunnalong wood was no more. However, in the townland of Magheramason there is a place still known as The Wood. The woods at Castlemellan and Tullyard survived beyond the eighteenth century and the problems associated with their maintenance continued. In 1808 John James Burgoyne pointed out to the marquis of Abercorn that ‘Dogs and guns will be very necessary for the wood keepers, as the bishop’s tenants and the glebe tenants are a lawless and unruly lot’.

William Hamilton of Gortavea, surgeon

A professional middle class was almost entirely absent fom Leckpatrick and Dunnalong in the eighteenth century, as it was from nearly all rural areas in Ireland at this time. In this area one interesting exception was a surgeon from Gortavea called William Hamilton. In 1774 this man wrote to the earl of Abercorn asking him if he would use his influence to secure for Hamilton the position of surgeon at Lifford hospital. Hamilton had been in the navy, but was forced to return home on health grounds on the advice, as he put it, of a number of the most ‘eminent physicians’ in the West Indies. In the five years since then he had lived at Gortavea and had been able to earn a precarious living by inoclulating children against smallpox. (Since this was some twenty-five years before Edward Jenner discoved the smallpox vaccine one wonders what Hamilton was actually doing.) Hamilton had intended setting up a practice in Strabane, but had not been able to afford to do so.

Abercorn acknowledged Hamilton’s petition, but pointed out that he was not a subscriber to the hospital in Lifford and so was in no position to use his influence in Hamilton’s favour. Hamilton applied for the post of surgeon in Lifford hospital when it became available again in 1779. However, he was not successful on this occasion either. Hamilton wrote a further letter to Abercorn in November 1783. By this time he had set up an apothecary’s shop in Derry. However, due to asthma attacks and chest pains it was not possible for him to spend more than a week at a time in Derry. His desire was to ‘settle with his brother in Gortavea, to keep some medicines and practice as surgeon’, though whether he would be able to make a satisfactory living out of this was his concern. Abercorn’s response to Hamilton’s letter is not known, but in March 1786 it was reported that Hamilton was still living and working in Derry. His financial circumstances, if not his health, would seem to have improved and he had been able to help his brother Michael to make ‘very rational, but yet very expensive improvements on his marshy grounds near the shore’. James Hamilton, Abercorn’s agent, who considered Hamilton to be ‘an exceeding good man’, reckoned that £50 had been spent in two years on the improvements at Gortavea.

As a surgeon, William Hamilton of Gortavea was probably unique in Leckpatrick and Dunnalong, but there were many other individuals who were not solely dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. The millers, drapers, bleachers and brickmakers etc. will all be considered elsewhere, but attention should be drawn to others such as Manus Brodly of Ballydonaghy who operated a small business dealing in ‘groceries, boards, iron etc.’ in the 1780s. Also at this time a young man by the name of Haragan, who was responsible for the pound at Drumgauty, had ‘by little trading in “cambrack” and remnants of cloth which he retails through the country ... made himself worth ... at least £50’.


This chapter has been almost entirely based on the correspondence between the eighth earl of Abercorn and his agents. These letters have been calendared in detail by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland under D.623 and T.2541. The eighth earl took a keen interest in his estate and was very demanding of his agents who were, in general, a conscientious and diligent lot. From the 1730s to the 1760s the agents with reponsibility for the manors of Cloghogall and Dunnalong included John McClintock, John Colhoun, Nathaniel Nisbitt, John Sinclair and John Hamilton. The most detailed letters were written by James Hamilton of Strabane who by the early 1770s had become the earl’s sole agent and who was incredibly knowledgeable about the estate. He was succeeded by his son James Hamilton junior whose letters contain significantly less factual information about life in the manors.

  Designed and developed by the Ulster Historical Foundation in conjunction with BRS Systems