History of the Parish
of New Cumnock
by Robert Guthrie
© The Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland
(Please See Copyright Notes on previous page)
Nith Lodge Cairn : Stone axe-head
The Nith Lodge Stone Axe
Alexander G. McLeod writing about his discovery in 1938, describes the Nith Lodge axe (right) as
'a perfectly shaped polished axe-hammer of dolerite. It measures 4 29/32 inches in length, 1 5/8 inch in thickness
opposite of the perforation, and 2 3/32 inches by 1 5/16 inch at the butt. From the cutting edge, which is 2 19/32
inches in breadth, and from the butt the axe contracts evenly to the centre of the perforation, where it is 1 3/16
inch in width. The extreme end of the butt is circular and flattened, being 1 inch diameter. The hole, which has
been bored from both sides, is equidistant from either end and measure 7/8 inch in diameter externally, but
tapering to 1/2 inch in the centre of its interior.'
Stone axes are classified into two the major groups of (i) battle-axe and (ii) axe-hammer. Although McLeod
originally designated the Nith Lodge axe as an axe-hammer, it is now classified as a battle-axe, of the Intermediate
Developed variant. A thin section of the battle-axe has been removed for petrological analysis, and it has been
attributed to the Petrology Group, XXIX, Essexite from central Ayrshire. ( Essexite is named after Essex County,
Massachusetts, from where it was originally defined in 1891). F E S Roe (1966, 1967 ) T H McK Clough and W A
Parallels can be drawn with the Nith Lodge battle-axe found in a Bronze Age cremation cemetery and a stone axe
found in Bronze Age burial mound at Mousland, Orkney. P.J. Ashmore (1996) explains of the Mousland axe' It is
usually assumed that stone axes went out of use at the end of Neolithic. However, fine axeheads had a
significance beyond their use as tools; and perhaps this one symbolized a long connection between a powerful
family and the land'. Further parallels can then be drawn with the Neolithic decorated stone, found at the Beoch
Bronze Age burial cairn, less than a mile from the Nith lodge cemetery, where this stone may have been part of the
family regalia, marking out the grave of someone of relatively high status.
The Nith Lodge battle-axe is truly a marvellous specimen and probably was never used in anger. Instead, as an
honoured heirloom, it passed through generations of a great family that lived on the uplands overlooking the confluence
of the Beoch Lane with the River Nith, before it was placed with great purpose in the family cemetery on Rig Hill.
Stages and the Method of Manufacture
(1) Shaping blank stones : The four basic techniques for shaping blank stones are flaking, chipping, pecking or grinding.
The latter two techniques were found to the be most successful when applied to rounded stones , the most common form
of stone used for battle-axes and axe-hammers. Pecking is a slow process, involving striking the blank stone hundreds of
times, typically with quartzite pebbles. The process can be speeded up by the selecting a well-shaped blank. Grinding is a
much slower process involving the use of quartz sand as an abrasive, or a grinding slab. Efficiency in this case was
improved through the use of water in a wet-grinding process.
(2) Making a shafthole : The two basic techniques employed in making a shafthole in the stone are drilling and pecking.
Drilling, a form of grinding, covers a variety of techniques including using a solid wooden rod with sand as an abrasive, or
using cylindrical drill bits fashioned from bone, horn, wood or metal. Typically a small cusp would be pecked on the stone
in order to secure the drill, which was then turned by a hand or by some other device such a bow or strap. An extremely
time-consuming process with modern-experiments using wood and sand taking 20 hours to complete a shafthole. Drilling
was the preferred (or necessary) technique in making the require narrow shaftholes for battle-axes. Pecking on the other-
hand was the preferred option for the broader shaftholes of axe-hammers. Whole and broken quartzite pebbles of
different sizes were used to peck to the stone from both sides to equal depths, with the final breakthrough being achieved
by drilling. This combination of pecking and drilling producing the hourglass shafthole common in most axe-hammers.
(3) Polishing : Polishing is another form of grinding. In modern-day experiments a blank stone was successfully polished
using quartz sand as an abrasive on a limestone block. A final polish was applied using a smooth quartzite pebble and
water, the whole process taking around 3 hours. Several of the battle-axes included in the study have polished surfaces
but not so the axe-hammers, although weathering is likely to have taken its toll on the original polished surfaces of both
these types of stone axes.
Benbeoch Hill, parish of
River Nith, New Cumnock
at Nith Lodge with
Rig Hill in the background
Benbeoch Hill, Dalmellington, Ayrshire
Field trials were conducted at sites throughout Scotland, chosen in relation to the distribution map of battle-axe and axe-
hammer finds. Included in these trials was a cobble-deposit in the neighbouring parish of Kirkconnel, Dumfriesshire, close
to where an axe-hammer was discovered and the scree of Benbeoch hill in the neighbouring parish of Dalmellington,
Ayrshire close to where the Nith Lodge battle-axe was found. Timed-searches for suitable stone blanks for both battle-
axes and axe-hammers were carried out at a number of sites. The stones were classified as 'good blanks' if the stone
was of a suitable rock-type and size & shape, and classified as 'poor blanks' if either one or both of these properties
were not met - typically size & shape. The results of the Benbeoch trials (Site No. 18) are summarised thus
Total Time Searched : 44 minutes
Axe-hammer Good Blanks : 0
Axe-hammer Poor Blanks : 1
Battle-axe Good Blanks : 0
Battle-axe Poor Blanks: 3
In this case the 'poor blank' categorisation is based solely on the size and shape of the stone blanks since the rock-type
for all 4 examples was confirmed by petrological analysis as Group XXIX, essexite, i.e. the same as the Nith Lodge
battle-axe. The ratio of 3 battle-axe : 1 axe-hammer stone blank candidates is encouraging in determining Benbeoch hill
as the possible source of the stone for the Nith Lodge battle-axe. If the scree on Benbeoch is indeed the source, it would
set up the Nith Lodge battle-axe as being in the minority, in accordance with M.B. Fenton's conclusion 'the great
majority of Scottish battle-axes and axe-hammers were made from cobbles'. However, the fact that all three battle-
axe blanks were poor blanks, in terms of shape and size, suggests that another source, a cobble-deposit source should
Only 3 other battle-axes of the 82 found throughout Scotland have the same petrology, Group XXIX essexite as the Nith
Lodge battle-axe. M.B. Fenton's field trials at Killantringan Bay in Wigtonshire yielded 2 'good blanks' for battle-axes,
from the cobble-deposits on the coast, both of which shared the Group XXIX essexite petrology. Could the battle-axe
have been traded with a Wigtonshire family or brought by such a family moving further inland to settle? The answer
appears to be no since the petrological analysis of the Nith Lodge battle-axe specifically attributes the essexite to be from
central Ayrshire. The only other Ayrshire site included in Fenton's field trials was Troon, but here the cobble petrology
was Group XXVII(m) granite. Further research is required to identify the source of the central Ayrshire essexite.
Nature of the source of stone
The two main sources of stone are categorised as cobble-deposits and scree / outcrop sites.
(1) Cobbles : Beaches (coastal) and river-beds (fluvial) are the major sources of cobbles, and are commonplace in
Scotland, particularly near the mountains and hills of the Highlands and the Southern Uplands. M.B. Fenton remarks
'Before the control of rivers in Britain there must have been many more cobble-deposits exposed in the
shallower, wider channels'.
(2) Screes and outcrops : Although not found in the same abundance as cobble-deposits, scree and outcrop sites are
still relatively common and accessible throughout Scotland. Most outcrop sites suffer in popularity as potential sources of
stone blanks, since better candidates are often found in the scree-blocks below the outcrop.
(3) Cobbles vs. scree-blocks : Field trials demonstrated that cobbles outscored scree-blocks in the three critical
criteria for stone blanks , quality , rock-type and shape & size, leading M.B. Fenton to conclude 'the great majority of
Scottish battle-axes and axe-hammers were made from cobbles'
Manufacture of Scottish Battle-Axes
In 1984, M.B.Fenton presented a fascinating paper on 'The Nature of the Source and the Manufacture of
Scottish Battle-axes and Axe-Hammers'. The study covered 190 axe-hammers and 82 battle-axes found
throughout Scotland, including the Nith Lodge battle-axe, one of only 8 found in Ayrshire. Following a detailed
overview on the methods of axe manufacture, the work focused on determining the nature of the sources of stone
used to make axes.
River Nith , New Cumnock , Ayrshire
A case is now made for the River Nith being the source of the stone from which was fashioned the Nith Lodge battle-
axe. Writing in 1938, A.G. McLeod records the discovery of the Nith Lodge axe on Rig Hill 'lying near the edge of the
granite outcrop, was found a perfectly shaped polished axe-hammer of dolerite'. The science of petrology has
advanced in the intervening years and we now know that the axe, is a battle-axe of essexite. But what of the granite
outcrop in the cemetery, could there also be an outcrop of essexite, after all it is only 2 miles to the east of the essexite
scree of Benbeoch hill. If there is an outcrop of essexite on the Rig Hill, M.B. Fenton's studies suggest that such an
outcrop would yield 'poor blanks', in terms of extracting a piece of suitable size of shape.
Fenton's conclusion forces us to consider cobbles as the key source of stone for battle-axes. Rig Hill, as previously
discussed, was as recently as the 16th century known as 'The Ridge of Drumkalladyr', where drumkalladyr comprises
the element Welsh drum 'ridge' and the element kalladyr which is a survival of an early British caleto-dubron 'hard
water'. Rig Hill was the ridge overlooking the hard-water, a reference to the river-bed quality of the River Nith.The
source of the Nith is only a few miles upstream from Rig Hill and the river bed is shallow, and abundant in stones large
and small, round and angular. Fenton's observations about cobble fluvial deposits comes to mind. 'Before the control of
rivers in Britain there must have been many more cobble-deposits exposed in the shallower, wider channels'.
The River Nith meanders alongside
'The Ridge of Drumkalladyr'
Johan Blaeu 'Coila Provincia',
Atlus Novus (1654)
Manuscript Map of Kyle c.1590
Fenton's field studies of cobble deposits covered 13 fluvial sites, including the site at Kirkconnel and 10 coastal sites,
where 'No less than 11 of the 13 fluvial sites and 6 of the 10 coastal sites were observed to contain rock-types
which, because of their distance from a possible source, must have undergone glacial transport.' It seems
reasonable to consider that sources of essexite, possibly originating from nearby Benbeoch hill, were transported to the
River Nith, and slowly transformed into cobbles, making their own contribution to this hard-water.
In summarising the manufacture of battle-axes and axe-hammers M.B. Fenton concludes 'No great level of skill is
needed to fashion an ordinary axe-hammer or battle-axe. The main quality demanded of the manufacture is
patience. The raw materials are readily available in most parts of Scotland. Thus almost anyone might have
made their own implement, and specialist manufacturers need not have existed'
The skill of identifying the right cobble was one that undoubtedly was valued. As the Neoilithic age drew to a close, one
of the Rig Hill family picked the cobble out of the hard-water of the River Nith. He fashioned into a battle-axe, through
pecking and drilling, and polishing at the water's edge. The battle-axe was a prized possession staying in the family, for
generations. Until finally at the passing of the last chief of the family it was placed in the family cemetery on the Rig hill.