Its origins can be traced back to early Norse settlers and the name itself derives from the Norse word Mjor-aker which means ‘the narrow acre’. However, it is likely that there was a settlement before this (a skeleton from the Bronze Age was found on Muker Common early in the 20th Century) and its origins are both Old English and Norse.
It is set in one of the most beautiful and remote dales in Yorkshire, surrounded by steep-sided hills with, on their lower sides, meadows demarcated by the stone walls common throughout the Yorkshire Dales. These Swaledale meadows are particularly distinctive in that in most of them there is also a barn. These barns date back to the late 18th and 19th century when there were more cattle and farms were much smaller often with only one field. Over the winter period, the cows were kept inside the barns (hence known as cowhouses) and visited each day by the farmer to muck out, milk and feed. The barns also provided a place to store the hay harvested every summer from the surrounding meadow – convenient for the winter feeding of the cattle.
At that time many households in Muker would have had at least one field and a cow which provided milk for both daily use and for making butter and cheese; farming would have been one source of livelihood in a household alongside others. Indeed, many houses still have stone shelves originally used for storing the cheese. Over time, farming became more specialised and today the village of Muker has only one full-time farmer compared to 8 in the 1950s. Though some beef cows are still kept, sheep are now the main livestock and the farming year is marked by different sheep-related activities. Farming has changed over the last fifty years particularly with the replacement of horses by tractors and quad bikes. However the timing of the activities, such as lambing and hay-making hasn’t changed and some activities are timeless – such as the use of sheep dogs, still the most efficient way to gather sheep from a steep hillside.
Many of the farming terms are special to this part of the country – such as Tups (male sheep or rams) and indeed counting until recently was done using a set of numbers said to have derived from Norse days.
Interest in the Dales has also been heightened by the film All Creatures Great and Small and the TV series based on the books by James Herriott about veterinary practice in the Dales. Some of the filming was done in the area. Muker’s status as a village on the route of the 2014 Tour de France is also an important factor in its popularity as a tourist destination and its Silver Band has featured in a number of television documentaries and travel programmes. Famous visitors have included Prince Charles who has visited Muker more than once. He unveiled a plaque celebrating the Swaledale Woollens 30th anniversary and indeed, played dominoes in The Farmers Arms.
Early summer is particularly busy with visitors coming to see the famous Muker hay meadows – seven linked meadows between the village and the River Swale which have an abundance of wild flowers.
Two hundred years ago, Muker was much more populated with around 300 residents. This reflected the importance then of lead mining as an economic activity in the area – remains of which can still be seen in the surrounding area. Indeed Muker was known as a township. Though some houses have disappeared since this time, there were about the same number of buildings then as today. Today there are approximately 50 permanent inhabitants, with a number of guest cottages being occupied, particularly at peak times, by visitors. At the height of the lead mining era, the number of people living in each house was much greater than today. The reduction in numbers has inevitably meant a number of changes to the way of life in the village.