In the early summer of 1969 and as soon as the dust had settled on my O level exams, I hitch-hiked out from my home in North Yorkshire and headed for Galloway. Unlike Richard Hannay, the fugitive hero of John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps, I was not using this corner of south west Scotland to hide from pursuers, but instead going there to observe at first hand its distinctive topography.
The specific object of my interest constituted a small detail within the school geography curriculum. I knew the feature in question to be a product of glaciation, manifested in undulating hills and hummocks that were said to look like a basket of eggs. These showed themselves on the ordnance survey map as tightly clustered waving lines in vaguely oviform shapes, albeit with many indentations, but often with a more or less blunt end and a pointed end. I was good at spotting them on maps and was hoping this had served me well in the exam.
These curious landforms are called drumlins. I wanted to see them in situ, and so fetched up in a place where whole ‘swarms’ of them litter the landscape.
Looking back, I think I made a system error. In the absence of a detailed map, I mistook the rounded higher hills, likely also shaped by the ice, for the smaller forms that were the reason for my visit. One explanation may be that whilst the drumlins are often anonymous on the map, the larger eminences are resplendent in their nomenclatures, possessing names like the Rhinns of Kells, the Range of the Awful Hand, and the Dungeon Hills. It was these that drew my eye, and in the process I overlooked something far more modest and enigmatic.
In the end I didn’t spend much time on physical geography during that 1969 visit, but rather breathed in the under-stated beauty of the small towns and villages, the multiple layered tones of the sky and coast-scapes, and the dark forests that make up some of the delights of Wigtownshire and the Stewatry of Kirkudbright.
As a sixteen year old, growing up in industrial Teesside, little did I know that over 40 years later I would come to settle in drumlin-rich Dumfriesshire, which from 2009 came to be my permanent home. Suddenly, in my new locus, driving to and from my place of work, on journeys to meetings around the region and through weekend excursions, I began to see the landscape close up and in detail. It led to an enduring, and even intensifying fascination with the subtle beauty, beguiling geography and continuing presence of the drumlins and their variants.
In the last Ice Age southern Scotland was dissected into deep glaciated valleys. The ice pressed and scoured with immense weight and power. It may have reached half a kilometer in thickness. The glacier we are concerned with here ran south east from its origin in the Galloway Hills, eventually pushing into northern England – long before such names had been created of course.
Two schools of thought explain the actions of the ice and how the drumlins were formed.
First, as the great sheet of the glacier pushed forward, it scooped and shaped the underlying terrain, dozing rocks and boulders and moulding them into rounded forms, (the drumlins) and whale-backed sinuous ridges (known as eskers). Think of pushing both your hands and arms in parallel into wet sand and shaping it as you go.
Second, and the idea I know better, concerns the retreating glacier. Now melting, huge rivers poured out from the base of the ice, shedding from the outwash vast quantities of stone, gravel, sand and mud, or ‘till’ as it is known to geologists. Think of these extrusions as coming from a gigantic cake icer, pushing out the rounded forms and the elongated spines.
Indeed both of these formation narratives hold good. For the ice did not advance in one temporal movement and then in due course melt back the way it had come. It was dynamic and volatile, oscillating, forward and back, but also sideways and across. Shifting, groaning, cracking and melting, freezing again and even moving uphill, whilst all the while plastering the land with thick depositional layers and conformations like upturned boats, the backs of spoons, or slugs with their tentacles pulled in. These varied patterns have led to different interpretations of ‘drumlinization‘ as well as terms such as megadrumlins, megaridges, elongate daughter drumlins and drumlin-like ‘elipsoidal bumps’.
This was all going on in the Pleistocene, over roughly 70,000 years, and most particularly in the improbably recent Late Devensian, ending just 11,500 years ago. That final period obliterated all the effects of the previous Ice Ages. How we see the drumlins today therefore has its origins then, but is also the product of another epoch, the Anthropocene. For in the years since the final ice disappeared, human beings, combining with further agents of natural change, have inscribed the raw post-glacial drumlin landscape into enduring, but still shifting features of the world around us.
There are some places where the drumlins still lay relatively free and unbothered. Here they are rough-surfaced by tussocks and scrub, lending them a hobbity look.
There are places where the drumlins are over-layed with grazed pasture, creating fathomless shades of green, revealed and cross-hatched by bars of shadows and shifting light, that almost take your eye beneath the thin layer of soil that supports the cloaking grass.
There are places where the drumlins are inhabited by sparsely distributed beech trees that break the skyline, clinging to the ridges, their thick, sinewed roots mossed over and sprawling down the slopes. Here, in autumn, a scattered layer of beech mast makes a thick carpet, that fades, brushed by the wind, to the edge of the canopy.
In other places a drumlin is truncated, where a river over centuries has cut deep into its side, creating a fragile cliff where broom and briar grow, gorged around with flames of bright yellow above the flowing stream.
Elsewhere the work has been done in an instant by a wind farm road that slices open the drumlin’s belly, where its bright entrails pour into an ugly ditch and where ‘landscaping’ can be minimal.
Then there are places of residence established in the waning taper of the drumlin, garden walls built from the revealed stone, an old orchard enclosed by what the Galloway songwriter Alan McClure calls the ‘ghosts of the ice’.
The place called Drumlanrig, north of the Dumfries and Galloway village of Thornhill, means something like hill by a settlement on a ridge. Along the elegant entrance drive to the castle, just to the left, are two small, beautifully formed ovoid mounds. Are they the work of the glacier or the ironic product of the road-making, enhancing nature, where ice formed mounds are everywhere to be seen – drumlins on the drumlin? It sounds like something from Dylan Thomas.
Nithsdale, where I live and where all this can be seen, is credited with some of the finest drumlins in south west Scotland. It is also home to the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, created by the late Charles Jencks and Maggie Keswick. Pass by it as you travel on the train to Glasgow and just before the red bridge takes you over the river Nith, do a double take as you see two earth formed female buttocks, lying seductively and yet drumlin-like, close to the track: ‘hurdies like a distant hill’. Within the garden there are further echoes, in the domed landforms and the esker like, curling ridge around the loch.
Why the fascination with these hummocky moraines? It’s partly because the lockdowns of 2020-21 have exposed my drumlin neighbours like never before. I have discovered something called the Dalswinton Moraine Formation that lies exactly where I am living and comprises bouldery and sandy demiction, reflected in the name of a property about a mile away, called Sandbed and explaining the preponderance of long-form eskers around here. My garden is a drumlin, rippled through by the Pennyland Burn. The photographs at the top of this page are all taken within a stone’s throw from my home. Yet I observe that the drumlins go unnoticed in the quotidian world. They lay un-named even in the most detailed maps. Many who live among them are unaware, even insentient, of what they are and whence they came.
This lacuna in our psycho-cultural geography demands attention.
The Nithsdale-based and internationally acclaimed artist Andy Goldsworthy has shown the way in his 2016 work of snow-etched drumlins. Carried out just off the main road between Thornhill and Dumfries, about one mile across the river from my home, the work connects the topography of today to the Devensian conditions that formed it. The finest of lines traces the contours of pasture-green drumlins, somehow penning in a flock of sheep and then disappearing at each end over the line of sight, to further its journey. Its elegance brings to mind Laura Knight’s phrase about ‘the magic of a line’. Here it forms an ephemeral boundary within the drumlin swarm, but at the same time, enhances the line of an otherwise imperceptible ridge. I am grateful to Andy Goldsworthy for allowing me to share this inspiring image here, which also encourages me to think more about the artistic possibilities of our post-glacial terroir.
When conditions allow, I am therefore calling for a drumlin day of discovery! Twenty four hours each year when we can come together to walk on, to celebrate, to name and salute our post glacial companions in the landscape. Indeed, the artistic, scientific and public interest potential of drumlins and their associated forms is enormous. I see a drumlin festival, an academic conference, build-a-drumlin workshops for children. I am only half joking. Why should we not embrace the beauty that the last Ice Age bequeathed to us and which should not be forgotten? After all, it was only yesterday in the geological scheme of things.
In 1969, before portable devices, there was usually a musical soundtrack playing in my head as I travelled around. Back then I had already discovered the paradoxical songwriting and understated guitar playing of Richard Thompson. For my title here, I have adapted the name of a song he recorded in 1973 with his wife Linda. If you have not done so already, I can recommend you take a cue from what I am saying here, open your eyes to this post-glacial beauty, and get yourself (to paraphrase Richard) down where the drumlins roll …