A hamlet in South Lanarkshire, but also a historic parish, in the south-west of Scotland.
Now accessible by a steep brae from the A72 Lanark Road, Dalserf proper consists of only a double-row of three single-storey cottages, the historic church and graveyard, and a further row of two cottages converted from stables. Meanwhile, the civil parish (administrative/government district) encompasses the areas of Ashgill, Larkhall, Netherburn, Rosebank and Shawburn. Compare their population of 17,985 (2011 census) to that of the village: a mere fifty-two.
The current church, or let us rather say kirk, A-listed, dates from 1655, but there was likely a settlement here before that. Old descriptions of the Parish call the area "the chaplainry of Machan" (1150), or Machanshire, a barony dating to the 14th Century. Machan, is known to be St Machan, who with St Serf (d. 543) is known to be a companion of St Kentigern. The name of Dalserf itself is a portmanteau of the gaelic dail (field) and Serf, that is the same St Serf, who is said to have lived there. He is later said to have founded the Abbey and town of Culross in Fife, some 35 miles to the north-east. Incidentally, an Altar to St Machan stood in Glasgow Cathedral until the protestant Reformation.
Whilst the current kirk was transferred from the old Chapel building at Dalpatrick ('field of St Patrick', 1 mile distant) in 1655, a hogback stone is preserved in the graveyard here, which dates to the 10th or 11th Century. One can certainly see Dalserf on Pont's map of 1596 and the Blaeu Atlas of Scotland's "Glottiana Praefectura Inferior, cum Baronia Glascuensi" (nether ward).
The kirk building curiously has three outside staircases to allow it to be emptied within a matter of minutes. The reason for this is infact neither quaint nor parochial, but rather sinister: dating from the eponymous "Killing Time", the congregation was that of Covenanters, who were persecuted and slaughtered. We may take gathering as a given, or even a right, but this was a time when there was no right of assembly, and their 'seditious' Conventicles were brutally suppressed. Thus the staircases prevented slaughter.
Ainslie's 1821 map of southern Scotland shows the major settlements in the area as being 'Dalzerf', Stonehouse, 'Glasford'; the modern-day Larkhall, which we will treat later, is but an italicised road-end on the map. Strangely there was a "Mauchan" at Pleasance (Larkhall), in Dalserf parish also, but the locals held in 1855 that the name derived from the scots maukin, a hare.
It is said that the Hamilton Lairds of Dalserf contributed to the shrinking of the town, which had 112 inhabitants in 1846. Until the Garrion (or Garrionhaugh) Bridge was built in 1817*, a ferry operated across the Clyde. The Lairds used to complain about the sound of those waiting all-hours for the ferry. Further, being the landowners, when property leases came up for renewal close to Dalserf House, the Lairds simply did not get any new tenants. Instead, they encouraged closer properties to lapse into ruin, hence the small size of modern Dalserf. Or, so it is said.
"There was a ferry at Dalserf, connecting the two banks of the river, and which caused considerable stir in the village. Standing close to the mansion-house of Dalserf, the proprietors for a good while past have felt a natural desire to have it wholly removed, and it bids fair very soon to disappear altogether from the landscape. Nothing but the presence of the parish church, which cannot be so easily removed, saves the few remaining houses from destruction"
(1840 Statistical Account, p. 748).
The shrinkage may actually be in real terms due to the growth of Larkhall and the mines along the Cander Water and the Avon. The rocks were chiefly carboniferous, and in the 19th Century coal was extensively mined at Ashgill and Canderside leading down on the east side of the Cander from the Cander Toll (turnpike, where the bridge dates from 1821) towards Kirkmuirhill (north of Lesmahagow), i.e. successively, Canderside, Candermill, Cander Mains, Dovesdale, Overwood, Whitehill and Canderwater farms. Larkhall, originally a small village dating from the 1780s, rapidly expanded from 1800 to take up miners from the neighbouring collieries, bleachers, and handloom weavers. Growing into a town of 1,609 inhabitants by 1846, it soon became a quoad sacra parish (i.e. an administrative district in its own right), and swallowed up smaller hamlets such as Pleasance and Birkenshaw. Modern-day Stonehouse, actually in a different parish, is now considered to be a part of Larkhall postally.
Dalserf House, traditional seat of the lairds, had to be demolished around 1912, due to subsidence caused by the underground coal mining at nearby Ashgill. This ironically, or rather tragically, mirrors the demise of the Hamilton Palace, formerly one of the most spectacular non-royal residences in Scotland. The Dukes of Hamilton, relations of the lairds of Dalserf, had come to almost entirely rely on coal mining for income by the early 20th Century. Here they sold off mining rights to the extent that the resultant subsidence cause the Palace to demolished in 1921. Today Châtelherault Country Park is all that remains of it.
In the tranquil graveyard there, nestled in that dip down from the road, can be found the gravestone my great-great-great-grandfather John Muter erected in 1861 "in memory of his father Thomas, his mother Margaret Weir and his brother Thomas". John had been the Gas Manager at Larkhall in the 19th Century, his father a farmer of 3½ acres at Pleasance. My own great-grandmother traced this line back to the Dovesdale farm on the Cander Water in 1764, stating that sometime before then "four brothers came over from France". The 1694 Hearth Tax records a Robert Muter "in Candersyd there" (Canderside). I'm sure they are ours too, but I have yet to prove the connexion.
* that bridge, together with the new bridge built in 2002, actually creates a roundabout, suspended over the Clyde. Something to be seen!