The Mystery of Damhead Rig Memorial

March 01, 2019  •  6 Comments

The Mystery of Damhead Rig Memorial, Kirklands, Scottish Borders

Damhead Rig Memorial-long-0883Damhead Rig Memorial-long-0883The view of Damhead Rigg from the house has been a hill I have wanted to climb for many years.

There is a hill on the distant southern landscape that I am able to see from my house and I have always been foxed as to where it actually lay and where to access it from. So I dug out my 1:50 000 OS map and was able to find its location with the letters ‘Meml’ indicated at its peak. I then consulted my 1:25 000 series map which is more detailed and sure enough the word Memorial was clearly indicated.

Intrigued, I wondered to whom this memorial was built and so then decided I would have to get up there and find out as I had not heard anything about it before. Damhead Rig is a broad rolling hill with a signature brown-cap peak which links the northern flanks of the Southern Uplands, with the Southern Uplands Way route from St Mary’s Loch further south, to Traquair, on its north eastern side, where it passes directly through on its way up to Minch Moor and Yair beyond to its east.

From my bedroom window, aided with an old pair of binoculars, I observed two distinct cairns, one on the summit and a smaller feature below and to its left. I was looking for a good route up, however no distinct path was visible to the summit from the main walkway route and so I guessed that a detour from the main path would probably be required.

On the mid morning of the Summer Solstice on June 21st, 2018, with a good weather window, I set off in search of my quarry from Damhead Farm which lies just beyond the tiny hamlet of Traquair. Passing through four large metal farm gates I was at last following the farm track as it meandered left and upwards past a small wood on my right to another metal gate.

When walking, I always feel it is worthwhile to stop every so often and take in the views, not only of what lies ahead, but what is around and behind you too as it is otherwise too easy to just head up and miss parts of the bigger picture.

Damhead Rig Memorial-wide-1315Damhead Rig Memorial-wide-1315Ascending from the farm track at Damhead Farm then looking back towards Innerleithen from the first advantage point on the marked way.

From this early vantage point, I was struck with the natural beauty of the landscape as it rolled back towards Traquair and Innerleithen and reminded myself just how lucky I was to live in such an idillic area of the Borders.

Looking ahead, the path snaked upwards and as my goal came into view in the distance, I progressed steadily, observing the lower track down on my left from the farm as it cut along the valley floor continuing deeper into the glen, eventually leading to two small-holdings first at Damhead Shiels and then a little further up at Camp Shiels approximately a mile and half in. Trevana Know lay adjacently above, and between them was an area marked on the OS maps as The Lead Mine, now cleared of forestry, whilst further still rose the lower slopes of Minch Moor canopied by forestry then heather on the top. It is the highest peak in the area at 567M (1,860 ft) and is slightly offset from the main Southern Upland Way.

Damhead Rig Memorial-wide-1326Damhead Rig Memorial-wide-1326Looking east from the Way path with Damhead Shiel and Camp Shiel cottages below an area marked on the OS map as The Lead Mine above. The summit of Minch Moor is just heading out of shot on the right

As I passed through two further gates the track opened up bearing left around the contour of the hillside I was following, towards the glen at Glengaber and the ominously named Hammel Bog, from where the three prominent ridges of Welshie Law, Glengaber Hill and Peatshank Head can be accessed (a walk for another day perhaps!).

Unfortunately by this point I had not found what I was hoping for, i.e. a path leading directly up towards the summit! The only option was to leave the path and cut up onto the carpet of thick heather and start plodding. Anyone who has walked through dense heather will know it saps the very life out of your legs and with some parts almost knee deep, I wasn’t enjoying the experience but vowed to ‘plod-on’ regardless. I usually look for sheep trails as they are experts at cutting tracks, however on this occasion I was unable to locate any.

Climbing blind with my heavy camera gear & tripod, I soon stumbled upon the ruins of another cairn or maybe a shelter or store. It was fairly round and appeared to have been hollow and so may even have been a well at one time. Not sure what it was, but certainly not a memorial. After what seemed an eternity of more tough plodding, I saw what I believed to be the main cairn up ahead. Hooray!

Damhead Rig Memorial-wide-1333Damhead Rig Memorial-wide-1333The broken cairn

Damhead Rig Memorial-wide-1335Damhead Rig Memorial-wide-1335The summit of Damhead Rigg is marked by a cairn and the place where the Memorial to George John Learmont Drysdale used to be.Was this it? As there were no obvious tracks to be seen, the only option was to march ever upwards being careful not to step on nesting birds roosts, several of which would cause their residents to suddenly shoot into the air with a cacophony of noise that would alarm even the most raucous of souls. The heather was just beginning to flower, not enough to be visible yet, and would later transform the hillside in a deeply rich purple mass through July and August.

Then at last I was there. The cairn was about four feet high and cone shaped and offered some welcome protection from a brisk breeze which was bellowing across the land from the north west. As normal, I took a few photographs to mark the position and to celebrate the occasion. One showed my walking stick and tripod for scale, whilst the other was to feature on the Geograph online map reference NT3331. Yet I could not see any sign or evidence of a plaque or inscription on it to inform the sojourning pilgrim.
Damhead Rig Memorial-wide-1341Damhead Rig Memorial-wide-1341The cairn has been rebuilt at least once and the original monument is now no more than a memory

damhear-rigg-long-0863damhear-rigg-long-0863Cairn marking what I believed to be the memorial spot where the monument to (George John) Learmont Drysdale stood. It overlooks Innerleithen and Traquair to the Moorfoot Hills beyond.

It was a pleasant, very warm and sunny day with blue skies all the way, however by the time I got there with my weighty camera gear, I was literally soaked in sweat. As is usual, I always like to spend at least half an hour at the top and take in the views and so I enjoyed my packed lunch in the peace and tranquillity of my hard found location, taking in the stunning scenery of the rolling landscape, with Innerleithen and it's local hill Lee Pen below and the Moorfoot Hills beyond far into the distance. 

After I had dried out, I began the search for the best return path and looking back homeward, I could see the remnants of a faint cart track or perhaps a more modern quad bike route over to my left, so I made my way over finding ground which was much more welcoming and favourable for walking on.

Dotted around were little clumps of wild cotton vigorously shaking their heads in the stiffening breeze, a sign perhaps that in less favourable conditions this ground might well become quite boggy, as I soon found out when I knelt down to take some photos of them, as it did not take long for the hidden moisture underground to seep through my trousers at the knee.

damhead-rigg-wide-1352damhead-rigg-wide-1352A small clump of wild cotton growing amongst the heather with the Learmont Drysdale memorial cairn and Minch Moor behind.

Walking slowly back down, the track petered-out and was lost to more heather and I realised now why I could not find this route on my way up. It brought me to an acute edge of a stone-wall dyke surrounding the field that I had earlier passed through on the way up. The route to this point was not at all obvious or marked from the main track below, which had it been, would have saved me a lot of expended energy and a tough scramble through the tortuous heather mantle. Soon though I was reunited with the main path and heading back down to where I'd started.

Damhead Rig Memorial-wide-1368Damhead Rig Memorial-wide-1368The way path meandering from Damhead and Traquair, with Innerlerleithen in the distance.

So to whom was the memorial erected? I simply didn't know.

After I got back and having made more investigations online, I was able piece together a fragment of this person’s life. Having struggled to find a good account of him locally, he was mentioned in a pamphlet in a Scottish Borders Council publication ‘Paths around Innerleithen and Walkerburn’ dated August 2013, which had an old photograph of the original opening ceremony accompanied by this text..


'There is a memorial cairn to George John Learmont Drysdale on the hill above Hannel Bog. Drysdale was a Scottish composer born in 1866 in Edinburgh. From 1887 to 1904 he worked and studied in London having failed to gain a place at the Edinburgh Royal College of Music. When he returned to Scotland in 1904 he spent the rest of his short life composing. He died at the age of 42 in June 1909 only one month after his mother died’.


                                      Drysdale Monument Opening-35Drysdale Monument Opening-35Old photograph showing the opening of the original monument to George John Learmont Drysdale. Date unknown.

From a pamphlet by Scottish Borders Council Walks around Innerleithen and Walkerburn.
            George John Learmont DrysdaleGeorge John Learmont DrysdaleGeorge John Learmont Drysdale

Known as Learmont Drysdale (see Wikipedia entry), this talented composer lived a short life and was immortalised by his sister Janey Crighton Drysdale who lived locally. I am grateful to Jim Barton for his entry on Geograph dated June 2011 (NT3331 : Memorial cairn for Learmont Drysdale) which reads as follows:-


              “A plastic box, just visible at the base of the cairn, contains a Visitors’ Book. It explains that the cairn was dedicated in a ceremony held on 1st September 1937, attended by about 60 people. The plaque was unveiled by Sir Dan Godfrey, conductor of Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra. Also attending was the composer’s sister Janey Drysdale, who lived at the nearby cottage of the Hennel. She died in 1949, aged 87, following a fire at the cottage, which is now a roofless ruin.”


So I came to realise to my dismay, that I had not found the Memorial Cairn at all, but some other other cairn, perhaps a way marker, and lovely though that spot was I knew I had to return someday and complete this story.


Graham J Riddell

29th June 2018


UPDATE: 26th February 2019


It was a remarkably warm and still day for February and we were experiencing record high temperatures of 18 degrees or more!! I set off again in search of Leamont Drysdale's monument cairn about 2:00pm in the afternoon since the light was longer again and I should make it back easily before darkness and temperatures fell.

This time I travelled light with only a small haversack, one camera, spare jacket fleece a flask of water and an apple and orange for sustenance. On reaching the point again where the way skirted left around the hillside I cut up sharp right following the dyke wall to an orange gas pipeline marker (314). This time I was confident I would be on the correct route. Unfortunately though for me there were two paths leading off it!! I took the first and after about twenty minutes, realised my mistake and had yet another unpleasant scramble across the now infamous heather moorland. At last I was reunited with the sparse track I had come down on my previous trip and so made my way slowly way ever upwards.

Eventually, to my left, was the cairn I had previously reached and I continued past wondering how I had not considered this option when I last visited. After about a further ten minutes or so climbing carefully in the narrow tracks between the heather, the cairn finally came into view - relief!. The track coiled its way around towards it, then with just a short excursion through the heather - I was finally there (I should have taken champagne)!!

Sure enough the cairn was larger and as I had seen on the OS Geotag web page. It had a stone plaque, obscured by moss, lichen and weathering which read; 

‘Learmont Drysdale, Composer, 1866 - 1909’

and a large stone at the base concealing something wrapped in black plastic. Removing the stone, I carefully unwrapped the layers of wet plastic bags to reveal a rusting old tin box, not the plastic one so described in previous reports, and I was fearful the notebook inside might have been contaminated or destroyed.

To my delight, the final plastic bag was thicker and inside was a small red notebook with a couple of biro pens. I duly made my entry, noting that this was not the original book but a subsequent update and thought how a plastic box would still have been a better option than the this rusting old metal thing.

Learmont Drysdale Monument-0086Learmont Drysdale Monument-0086"Learmont Drysdale, Composer, 1866 - 1909 Learmont Drysdale Monument-0079Learmont Drysdale Monument-0079The visitor's book at the memorial cairn to composer George John Learmont Drysdale Learmont Drysdale Monument-0114Learmont Drysdale Monument-0114Memorial cairn to composer George John Learmont Drysdale.Sitting atop Damhead Rig, with the Southern Uplands surrounding it.


Learmont Drysdale Monument-0088Learmont Drysdale Monument-0088The memorial cairn to Learmont Drysdale, composer, overlooking Innerleithen and the Moorfoot Hills beyond. Scottish Borders. I had finally managed to pay my respects to the memory of Mr Drysdale and his sister Janey, who pushed for the monument to preserve Learmont's name and who also died tragically in a fire at her cottage at Hannel Bog below the summit in 1949.

George John Learmont Drysdale was born in Edinburgh on October 3rd, 1866 to Andrew Drysdale (1831–1918), a builder, and his wife, Jane Elspeth Learmont (1827–1909), who was descended through his mother's line, from the 13th Century border Laird, poet and seer, Thomas the Rhymer (Sir Thomas de Ercildoun). 

Learmont was one of three siblings, Andrew, and his sister Janey Crichton Drysdale. He had wanted to study at Edinburgh Royal College of Music but was turned down due to a lack of orchestration skills. He left and studied in London eventually enrolling with The Royal College of Music. One of his aims was to establish a Society for Scottish music which came into being only after his untimely death (the Dunedin Association). He never married and was devoted to his mother who died suddenly in May 1909 from pneumonia. Learmont was just finishing off his opera 'Fionn and Tera' when he also suddenly developed the same illness just a month later and he died aged just 42 on the 18th June 1909.

On Janey Drysdale (Mrs Farmer): "as the result of the friendship which developed in the 1940s between Henry Farmer and Drysdale’s sister Janey, who through the years had tried to promote her brother’s works whenever possible, she was persuaded by Farmer to donate his papers to Glasgow University Library" 

(see link below).


After a short rest to absorb the utter stillness, peace and serenity of this place on this remarkably warm and yet winter afternoon, I headed back home, much wiser and richer in knowledge of this local landmark which for over twenty years I had simply gazed at out of my bedroom window in wonder.

Graham J Riddell

28th February 2019



Further Reading and sources for this article:-


Scottish Composers




Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


University of Glasgow - Special Collections















Graham Riddell Photographer - Landscape & Nature Art
Thank you Moira. I had a quick Google search and look just now and found it on the Glasgow University web site though I can't access the document as I am not logged in..
Moira Ann Harris(non-registered)
Dear Graham, I've also completed this walk a couple of times when researching Drysdale and his sister. It is a beautiful if wild and remote place. If you would like a full account of Drysdale see my thesis which is available online. M Harris
Graham Riddell Photographer - Landscape & Nature Art
Thank you taking a few moments to write about your experience Ian. I don't know of any plaques in Peebles or anywhere else for that matter.
Ian Newton,(non-registered)
About 24 years ago l did this same walk, had noticed the cairn from the track and just went up the hill to have a look. Looked up on getting home to find out more about Learmont Drysdale. Last Friday while walking around Peebles with my bus pass buddies 13/3/2020 we stopped to read plaques above doorways, l mentioned if there might be one for Learmont Drysdale then wondered just how l remembered his name. Enjoyed your description of your walk.
Graham Riddell Photographer - Landscape & Nature Art
Thanks sis. Glad you enjoyed it and yes, hopefully, I have archived a little known story for them both.
No comments posted.

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