‘The ruined sheepfold stood four-square on the western slope of Stannon Hill. Built nearly a hundred years ago, at the time when many enthusiastic spirits discovered Dartmoor and dreamed dreams of prosperity to be dug from her bowels or garnered on her breast, it adds one to a long list of futile enterprises and lies forlorn among the hills—historic evidence that even the toil of a Scot may miscarry. Down the midst run parallel rows of great stones, and at the eastern extremity still stand the roofless remains of a dwelling-house.’, (Eden Phillpotts – The Thief of Virtue, 1910, p.24).
Although this page is titled ‘The Scotch Sheepfold’ it is really concerned with the old farmstead of which the fold is but one feature. Granted it is a large and noteworthy feature and one that is commonly known to the locals and many walkers but there is a bit more history involved. There is a false theory that there was a farmstead at Stannon which was mentioned in the Court Rolls of 1401 and this idea has been blamed on the Place Name Society. However, if you read the entry carefully it does not actually refer to the farmstead on Dartmoor. The entry is as follows:
Stannon Tor is Stannon 1702 Dartmoor. Stannon (Co) is Staundon, Standon 1401 Ct ‘Stone Hill’, (Gover et al. 1992, p.199).
The ‘Dartmoor’ after 1702 refers to a paper of 1891 written for the Dartmoor preservation Society and the (Co) is an abbreviation for Cornwall and pertains to Stannon near St. Breward in Cornwall which appears in their Court Rolls of 1401, it was used as an exemplar for the place-name etymology. So sadly the English Heritage field investigator got things a bit wrong by accusing the Place-Name Society of incorrect information.
The first known record of any Stannon comes from 1702 when Stannon Newtake is mentioned in the depositions, (Bellamy, 1998, p.72). The first dwelling built at Stannon appeared sometime in the late 1700s and was erected by John and Thomas Hullett. Tradition has it that they had plans to start a starch factory at Stannon, this would have also involved growing the potatoes in order to make the starch. Many writers have questioned this idea as they say it’s impossible to grow such a crop so high up on the moor, but there is no actual information that states the potatoes were to be grown at Stannon. The common quoted source for this information comes from Theo Brown’s book – ‘Tales of a Dartmoor Village’ where she simply says:
‘A Mr. Paterson bought a grant of land here and resold it to the brothers John and Thomas Hullett. They decided to found a starch factory. The raw material was potatoes, which were grown in lazy beds on the virgin moor. To process the potatoes they built a factory (whose ruins are known as the Scottish Sheepfold) on the side of Stannon Tor.’, (1973, pp3 – 4).
The whole area around nearby Moretonhampstead was noted for growing potatoes so who is to say that their intentions were not to source the potatoes from there? English Heritage do list a record of some ‘lazy beds’ at Ordnance Survey grid reference SX 6498 8081 which were used for growing potatoes. But this record places the lazy beds in a small enclosure to the north of the farmstead and may simply have been a garden plot and the potatoes used for human consumption. Either way there are those of the opinion in the local area that the fold was originally constructed as part of the starch factory and in fact to some this is what the fold became known as – the Starch Factory.
On the other hand, William Crossing considers that the sheepfold was built by a Scotsman who was, ‘engaged extensively in sheep farming‘, (1987, p.40). This clearly is where the name of the ‘Scotch Sheepfold’ came from but as noted above, this alternative theory suggests that the fold was originally built to house sheep not as a starch factory.
Eric Hemery tends to have a foot in each camp by suggesting that there was an attempt at establishing a starch factory which failed and the structure of this industry was then converted into a sheepfold. He too relates how this was done by a Scotsman and also adds that he had reason to believe his name was Crawford, (1983, p.496). A recent article has suggested that it was from the sheep breed of Scottish Blackfaces that the fold took its name and also that this breed was introduced to Dartmoor by a Mr. Lamb. Stanbrook emphatically states that it was a Mr. Gemmell of Teignhead Farm who introduced the breed sometime in the 1870s, (1994, p.26). As to the ‘Scotch’ name for the fold nobody can be sure.
One thing is for sure, the workmanship that went into building the sheepfold is second to none, Hemery, (1983, p.497) goes into raptures about it, saying:
‘An astonishing display of manual labou5r is revealed in the courtyard walls, which consist of carefully laid courses of stones with frames, or ‘panels’ formed by granite posts, of menhir size, set vertically at intervals of eight to nine feet… The inexhaustible supply of moorstone in the region of Stannon Tor, the shelter from northerly winds, the spring in the hollow and excellence of pasture in the vicinity surely justified the hopes in this beautiful cherished place by the optimistic Scottish improver, who must have paid dearly for the labour involved in its construction.’
The actual fold itself measures 50 metres by 34 metres in a north/south direction, the enclosure wall stands at a lofty 2.2 metres high and is 0.7 metres thick. As noted above its unusual construction consists of upright, drill-split granite posts that are infilled with both trimmed and untrimmed moorstones. Inside the northern, eastern and western walls are a number of granite posts which are set 2 metres apart and probably served as roof supports for shelters or pens. Crossing, (1990, p.476) considers that that, in later years these pens were used as cattle shelters.
The rest of the farmstead consisted of one huge newtake known as Stannon Great Newtake, some smaller enclosures and a small cottage which was located on the south side of the fold. On a east to west alignment the structure measures 11 metres long and 3.5 metres wide and consists of three rooms. There are granite framed windows located on the southern side of the house that actually pierce the enclosure wall. It is thought that water for the farmstead came from a nearby spring but was taken away by a small leat still visible and recorded by English Heritage. Sadly there was a devastating fire at the cottage sometime between 1820 and 1830 in which a small girl lost her life, (Crossing, 1990, p.476). Following that tragedy the dwelling remained empty for many years, Hemery (1983, p.497) relates how in the tithe apportionment of 1839 it was recorded as being, ‘unoccupied’. There are some tales which tell of the ghost of the young girl haunting the ruins of the old cott which I suppose is not surprising.
About 800 metres north of Stannon are the remains of what has been described as a pound and is thought to be associated with the farmstead. The structure is sub rectangular and measures 32 by 25.3 metres, the walls are built from crude drystones that lay in four to five courses and reach an average height of 0.6m high. A small rectangular building was built onto the inside of the lower wall of the ‘pound’, it measures 8.8 metres by 2.7 metres and has boulder walls that reach up to 0.6 metres thus mimicking the enclosure wall. It has been suggested that this building was used either as a shepherd’s shelter or a barn and dates to the early 19th century, (English Heritage Pastscape Record – online source).
Two hundred metres to the south-west of this pound lies another ruined building which was a longhouse that dates to the post medieval period. English Heritage suggest that possibly it may have been built by the Hullett brothers sometime after 1807. The longhouse is built along the contour and on a north/south alignment, its internal measurements are 15.2m long and 3.6 metres wide with coursed walls which today stand on average at 0.75 metres, there is a section of wall at the south eastern corner which is 1.7 metres high which may well indicate its original height. The entrance lies on the south eastern side and has a typical cross passage which is 0.8 metres wide. Two granite slabs measuring 0.8 metres high and standing 1.1 apart can be seen on the north wall and may well be the remains of the fireplace. A choked spring rises near the entrance which probably was the water supply for the longhouse and oddly enough there are no signs of any associated plots or enclosure walls near to the structure, (English Heritage Pastscape Record – on-line source).
Both buildings remain a mystery, if the longhouse was built by the Hulletts’ why would a pound be needed when such a large fold stood a mere 800 metres away?
Bellamy, R. 1998. Postbridge – The Heart of the Moor, Tiverton: Halsgrove Publishing. v vg
Brown, T. 1973. Tales of a Dartmoor Village, St. Peter Port: J. Stevens Cox.
Crossing, W. 1990. Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor, Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press.
Crossing, W. 1987. A Hundred Years on Dartmoor, Exeter: Devon Books.
Gover, J, Mawer, A. & Stenton, F. M. 1992. The Place Names of Devon. Nottingham: English Place-Name Society.
Hemery, E. 1983. High Dartmoor, London: Robert Hale.
Stanbrook, E. 1994. Dartmoor Forest Farms, Tiverton: Devon Books.