From the late 18th century, new thinking, and demand from England for wool and food, encouraged landowners to “improve” their land so that it would be more productive and profitable. The traditional ways in which the townships worked the land were considered inefficient and an obstacle to progress. Over the course of about 100 years almost of them were swept away in a process that changed the social order, culture, economy and landscape, and created rural Scotland as we know it today. In some areas, people were relocated to new crofting townships, where everyone shared the grazing but each family rented its own piece of land. This was not large enough to support a family, so people had to work elsewhere, typically in industries that would profit the landowner. In others, townships were absorbed into large farms let to a single tenant for whom others worked. Elsewhere, townships were removed entirely and the land used to graze large numbers of sheep in the care of a few shepherds employed by tyhe landowner. In some places, although not generally in Argyll, some townships were turned into private sporting estates . From the 1830s a combination of economics, population pressure and famine led to whole communities being removed from the land altogether. This sequence of events is usually known as the Highland Clearances.
By the 1860s only a few joint tenancy townships remained. Although all had adopted some of the principles of agricultural improvement, one by one they were modernised or abandoned. In 1875, when Queen Victoria was staying at Inveraray Castle, she visited what she called the “primitive villages” of Auchindrain and nearby Achnagoul. Her host the Duke of Argyll – who owned most of the land in this area – believed these to be the last two surviving townships, although that may not have been the case. Achnagoul was subsequently abandoned, leaving Auchindrain as the Last Township. By the time the last tenant retired in 1963, the site’s historical significance was understood and it was preserved.
The oldest surviving map of Auchindrain, shown above, is from 1789, perhaps 300 years after the township was established. It sets out a plan to divide the township into crofts. Underneath the red lines marking out the proposed new fields, and three rows of houses, the surveyor recorded the buildings and fields as they were. This improvement plan was not carried through, and to a large extent the layout of Auchindrain today remains as it was in 1789.
The next map is the First Edition of the Ordnance Survey from 1871, produced after the main period of agricultural improvement. The layout had changed little since 1789 although there were some new buildings.
Between 1790 and 1840, there was a major rebuilding of the township, and the existing buildings almost all date to this period. Probably in the 1840s, sheep replaced cattle as the township’s main source of income. The old runrig system was also abandoned, and the land for growing crops was divided into small fields allocated to individual families. This photograph, taken in the 1880s, shows harvest in one of the McCallum family’s fields.
The track through the township was once part of the main road between Inveraray and Campbeltown, but Auchindrain was bypassed in the 18th century. Auchindrain was also a “stance”, or overnight stopping place, for the cattle drovers who came over the hills from Kilmartin Glen and Loch Awe.