A member brought my attention to a recent article in the Glenkens Gazette titled ‘The More things change the More they stay the same’ in which Professor Ted Cowan wrote: ‘Ironically as folk were fleeing the countryside urban dwellers were increasingly sentimentalising it. There had long been an assumption that rurality equated with healthy living, innocence, nature and love of landscape while the cities were smoky dens of crime, temptation and brutality. One writer who nurtured such notions was our own S.R.Crockett, an accomplished novelist, but one who shamelessly romanticised Galloway, and the Glenkens in particular.’
I take issue with this view (though I’m happy to discuss it!) My response is as follows: It’s good to see S.R.Crockett acknowledged as ‘an accomplished writer’ but the suggestion that he ‘nurtured’ the erroneous views of urban dwellers by ‘shamelessly romanticising Galloway and the Glenkens in particular’ is something of a simplification.
I know I am not alone in finding in Crockett’s Galloway works realistic portrayals of rural community life, ‘warts and all’ as well as an abundance of Scots humour through which he delivers some insightful and quite biting criticisms of hierarchy, power and privilege within Scottish society.
Perhaps Professor Cowan has not read Strong Mac, The Moss Troopers or Silver Sand recently? Or perhaps I am a shameless romantic myself? To my reading these (and other) works offer quite insightful commentaries about a number of the country/rural issues Prof Cowan raises.
Writing in the Scots Romance style may be described as ‘romanticising’ but I find no shame in his masterly use of it. There is more than enough rural realism in Crockett if the reader cares to find it. If we claim Crockett as ‘our own’, perhaps it’s about time we started reading him more deeply and taking pride in his achievements rather than following a well worn path which in essence regurgitates the erroneous views of the city towards the countryside – in which respect, sadly, the more things change the more they indeed stay the same.
I know that Crockett himself was well able to counter (with humour) such criticisms - his preface to Lad's Love amply shows that - and perhaps I can do no better than leave him to speak up for himself in the face of unwarranted criticism.
CLICK HERE. But since he's 'won awa'' I do feel it's worth those of us who value him, to defend him now he is no longer here to do so - at the very least by encouraging his disparagers to read his work with more clarity and open-mindedness.
‘Above Dee Water is a Kirk; and about that again there is a dearer kirkyard. It is a lonesome spot, at least for those who love not to look down upon broad water meadows in which the Lammas floods spread wide, or who cannot be content with the sough of the leaves for company about the old Manse.’
An evocative place, Balmaghie Kirk has a long history. The current building was completed in 1794. It was renovated in 1894. But long before that, it was the kirk of John Macmillan – ordained minister of Balmaghie in 1701. He was a covenanter. He is buried in the kirkyard.
The Kirk of Balmaghie is situated on the very edge of the parish, most inconveniently for pastoral work, though to the advantage of the minister's quiet when preparing his sermon. All who would know more of the truth about Balmaghie Kirk must get Professor Reid's very excellent little book, ‘The Kirk above Dee Water.’ It tells of the Kirk, its ministers, of the martyrs also, and the many saintly folk who lie buried in that solitude.
The local writer S.R.Crockett wrote the introduction to Reid’s book. He is also buried in the Kirkyard.
The life of Macmillan, its famous minister, has been for the first time worthily written by Dr. Reid. ‘The Cameronian Apostle’ cannot be recommended too often or too highly. It is, in my humble opinion, one of the most successful pieces of sympathetic biography ever written. And having made an attempt of the same kind in fiction, I know of what I do speak. I will return to plunder Dr. Reid's book presently. Meantime I give the words of Macmillan as they were imagined with regard to his parish.
‘Balmaghie was a parish greatly to my mind (so he is represented as writing). It lies, as everyone knows, in the very heart of Galloway, between the slow, placid, sylvan stretches of the Ken and the roaring, turbulent mill-race of the Black Water of Dee.
‘From a worldly point of view the parish is most desirable; for though the income in money and grain is not great, nevertheless the whole amount is equal to the income of most of the smaller lairds in the neighbourhood. So at last I was settled in my parish, which was indeed a good and desirable one as times went. The manse had recently been put in order. It was a pleasant stone house, which sat in the bieldy hollow beneath the Kirk Knowe of Balmaghie. Snug and sheltered it lay, an encampment of great beeches sheltering it from the northerly blasts, and the green-bosomed hills looking down upon it with kindly tolerant silence.
Crockett wrote poignantly of Balmaghie.
‘Close by the highway is an unforgotten little elbow of road. The loaning runs straight up and down now, but you can still see the bend of the old path and the green bank—nay, only I know where to look for that—the bank on which my mother sat and sang me ‘The Lord's my Shepherd’ on Sabbath afternoons.
For of all those who were a part of these things, only one now remains upon the earth. The rest are over the hill yonder, in the Balmaghie kirkyard, the sweetest and the sunniest God's Acre in Scotland, and since such things must needs be, doubtless a right desirable place for any tired wanderer's resting-grave.’
‘To some among us Balmaghie Church appeals more nearly still. Dear dust lies in that kirkyard, and as the years pass by, for many of us, more and more of it gathers under the kirk on the hill. The tides of the world, its compulsions, its needs, and its must be's, lead me up the loaning but seldom. Indeed I am not often there, save when the beat of the passing bell calls another to the long quiet rest.
But when the years are over, many or few, and our Galloway requiem, ‘Sae he's won awa',’ is said of me—that is the bell I should like rung. And there, in the high corner, I should like to lie, if so the fates allot it, among the dear and simple folk I knew and loved in youth. Let them lay me not far from the martyrs, where one can hear the birds crying in the minister's lilac-bushes, and Dee kissing the river grasses, as he lingers a little wistfully about the bonny green kirk-knowe of Balmaghie.’
Crockett also revisited history in his fictional work ‘The Standard Bearer’ which gives a fictional version of the life of John Macmillan.
Balmaghie Kirk was closed in 2015. The Church of Scotland are looking to sell it off, along with the hall. In 1703 the locals under John Macmillan put up a fight for Balmaghie Kirk. S.R.Crockett fictionalised this in ‘The Standard Bearer’
Is history destined to repeat itself? Surely a more fitting tribute to the rich cultural contribution of people and places (including S.R.Crockett) would be keeping these buildings in community ownership. I hope the Church of Scotland sees sense and does the right thing this time around.
Crockett is still vastly underappreciated even in his native parish. Perhaps if we were better at paying tribute to our own and appreciating our local culture and heritage a value would be placed on Balmaghie Kirk over and above that of its sale price. I can think of no better place to keep the Crockett archive and ‘stories’ alive than here right next to where he is buried.
If you want to find out more about Balmaghie Kirk in fact and fiction you can download 3 free ebooks (in pdf format) as ‘The Balmaghie Bundle’ from the unco store. HERE
My Favourite Crockett Novel – Until the Next One:
Thanks to the unflagging efforts of a feisty lady by the name of Cally Phillips, who has almost singlehandedly resurrected the work and reputation of the much-neglected and unfairly scorned nineteenth century Scottish novelist, Samuel Rutherford Crockett, I am a big fan of that wonderful writer. Having read a good number of his sixty-odd works so far, I’m often asked, “What is your favourite Crockett novel?” My answer always is, “The one I’m reading.”
And that is so true. I’ve just finished reading “The Cherry Ribband”. Needless to say, it is my current favourite. It is set during The Killing Times of the late seventeenth century, when a deadly game of cat and mouse between the King’s Men and the Covenanters was played out across the hills and moors of South-West Scotland. While the story begins in Crockett’s beloved Galloway, much of the action takes place on the East Coast of Scotland, a territory that is certainly more familiar to this Edinburgh laddie.
To be honest, though, I’m never much bothered about the historical context and geographical settings of Crockett’s novels. It’s the writing that interests me. There are Crockett’s superb trademark descriptions of the landscape for a start. From blushing dawns over the moorland to velvety black forests at night, those descriptions never fail to move me.
Then there are the characters he brings to life. Heroes and heroines, of course. But of more interest to me are his secondary characters. In “The Cherry Ribband”, he presents us with an array of memorable players. There’s Rantin’ Rab Grier, scourge of the Covenanters. And there are the two East Coast fishermen: wily, scheming Prayerful Peter and his nephew, honest and laconic Long-bodied John. These are characters who will stay with me for a long time to come.
As will the Countess of Liddesdale, a loud, brash, courageous giant of a woman. And it’s her words that serve to illustrate a third and not less important reason why I love Crockett’s work – his masterly command of the Scots tongue. This outburst from the big lady almost had me in tears: “And what for then should I be afraid o’ wee Steevie Houston, daft or wise, guid or ill – me that could grip three Steevies in my left hand and shake them till their very banes played castanets!” So vivid. So Scottish. So perfect.
So there you have it. “The Cherry Ribband” is my current Crockett favourite. But I’m off now to peruse the great man’s catalogue for my next favourite!
Check out more about The Cherry Ribband, including the link to purchase directly from www.unco.scot in the Crockett Collection HERE
This month we’ve heard from a new member Peter Carolin looking for Wilson connections. He writes:
My great grandfather, James Burns, was born by Loch Trool, at The Stroan, in 1855 and later became a bank manager in the Argentine. His father, also James, a herder, was born in the area in 1825 and married Janet Wilson. The Wilsons were also herders and lived in Culsharg, apparently for many generations. Sometime in the 1960s, my grandfather, also James Burns, a shipping manager in Brazil, mentioned Crockett in some notes on the family – of which the following is an extract:
Sadly, my great-grandfather’s scrap book has not survived.
I particularly like the part where the relative writes: 'my grandmother did not consider them truthful'. It reminds us both that in former days people struggled with accepting historical fiction as a genre, and how personally people can take tales of their own ancestry!
From the extract it seemed to me the most likely book being referred to was ‘Men of the Moss Hags’ since the ‘Buchan’ connection seems to link with Glenhead, thus the MacMillans, thus time spent there in 1894/5. And there are Wilsons in that book (including the Wigtown Martyr Margaret Wilson) But if anyone else has other suggestions or knowledge, please do email us or comment below and we’ll pass the information on to Peter.
Although we cannot be in Galloway this year to celebrate Crockett's birthday, it will not go unmarked. Sunday 24th September will see the Bog Myrtle Golf event held at the Himalayas course (Ladies Putting Green) St Andrews. If you plan to attend, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
And we'll also be launching the latest in the 'Discovering Crockett's' series: Discovering Crockett's Edinburgh on Sept 24th. This is the third in the series and does what it says on the tin - helps the reader 'discover' Edinburgh through Crockett 'fact and fiction.' It's a whistle stop tour through seven centuries of Auld Reekie, Crockett style.
You can buy a pre-publication copy HERE if you can't wait (or can't come) on the day.
Of course it doesn't look exactly like this any more - but the eagle eyed among you will instantly recognise Little Duchrae. It went up for sale at the beginning of the year and we are happy to announce that the new owners have just moved in.
I'll let Paul introduce himself:
Good morning from Little Duchrae. My wife and I have just recently moved into our new home after spending the last six years in Aberdeenshire.
Viewing Little Duchrae came about more by accident rather than design. We had initially dismissed the house from a shortlist, not least because we thought the advertising didn't show it in the best light.
Time was limited for viewing the shortlist of houses and had to be completed in one day. We had 9 houses in 10 hours in a route that took us grom Kirkcudbright, up through Laurieston, New Galloway and out past St John's Town of Dalry. In the middle of the day we had a time gap and I added Little Duchrae to pass the time.
When we arrived at the house, even without entering, we knew there was something special about the place. It was the dreariest of days but this didn't squash our enthusiasm.
On entering, we found the house to be in good order with no damp smells, even though it had been empty throughout the winter. More importantly, there were no signs of little visitors and our keen nosed Cairn Terrier, Raasay, showed no signs of excitement either.
We spent so much time at Little Duchrae we were late for the next appointment.
Our hearts were set on the house and by the evening and a few glasses of wine later, everything else paled into insignificance. However, during the night my wife had a series of disturbing dreams, probably due to some of the horrors we had seen during our viewings. There was only one thing for it. We would have to go back and look again. Obviously we wouldn't get into the house but we could look around the outside before heading back to Aberdeenshire. This we did and on a morning with the sun shining and our Collie, Skye chasing the birds around the paddock, we made up our minds that we had to have Little Duchrae.
One thing the estate agency advertising did succeed in was to spark my interest in an author I had not heard of before. I love old, well loved books and love their smell. I have a number of early edition copies of HV Morton, Black's Guide, Sir Walter Scott etc. I now have an ebay alert set up and aim to collect and read as many SR Crockett as possible. I have just started on "The Men of the Moss Hags."
We have a few teething problems with the house, including a problem with ph balance and turbidity in the water supply but even after day one it felt we had come like home. Little Duchrae is a small piece of paradise in a hectic world. We love it and long may it continue.
We wish Paul and his wife (and dogs) all the best in their new home and look forward to sharing Crockett stories with them in the months and years to come!
To Long Lost Family... This month we're putting out a call on behalf of Norma Crockett. Norma is the granddaughter of William Alfred Crocket. Does anyone else have a connection or could help Norma track other living relatives?
If so, please email us at email@example.com
to let us know.
Norma has donated an author signed copy of Dulce Cor to the Galloway Raiders library/archive. If you know the Laurie's or can shed any light on why Crockett gave them a signed copy, we'd love to know.
She is now reading through the remaining Crockett books left her by an aunt. Happy reading!!
If you want to find out more about Crockett’s early life and ancestry, we have put some information on the website. Our Honorary President Richard D.Jackson commenced a biography of Crockett in the 1990s, which has never been published. The project was never completed but we have the initial six chapters in our archive (which take us up until just before Crockett became ‘famous.’) This month, the first chapter is available on the website for members to read. Further information may have come to light in the intervening years, so please do feel free to add comment or updated information – email firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are not yet a member of the Galloway Raiders, it's still free to join, just head on over to the website.
If you are a member - the password is changing this month so be sure to open your Raiders News, which will drop into your email inbox on 16th, to get the new password.
‘The strength of evidence is not in the separate links but in your ability to form a chain’ (S.R.Crockett, The Azure Hand)
A century ago today the First World War was in full swing. Crockett had been dead for some three years. These are but two of the contextual reasons why The Azure Hand was published with more of a whimper than a bang’ by Hodder & Stoughton.
Today, Ayton Publishing brings out a new centenary edition of this long out of print work, offering the reader the opportunity to draw their own conclusions and explore the mystery for themselves. There’s a number of ways to do this. One, of course, is to read the book.
You can order the paperback edition right now, with the click of a mouse HERE
for a mere £9.99 plus p&p
But if you want to ‘try before you buy’ you can read all about it
In a guest post on Martin Edwards (Crime Writers Association) blog HERE
and in the Alliance of Literary Societies 2017 Journal HERE
And perhaps you might like to consider the importance of context both in narrative and in publishing. Here's a wee bit of detective work undertaken regarding The Azure Hand's original publication:
Advertisements for the novel came out on Thursday 26th July in The Scotsman
Which stated: The Azure Hand S.R.Crockett’s last novel. A thrilling mystery story. Price 5 shillings.
And the The Globe which added that it was a Masterpiece of sustained mystery.
The reviews took a bit longer to come in.
Even The Bookman, which a decade ago was Crockett country, dragged its heels till September before offering a half-hearted review:
This is advertised as ‘S.R.Crockett’s Last Novel’ and it is very different from the fiction with which that author began his literary career. ‘The Azure Hand’ is a murder-tale. It opens with a murder, which leads to another, and is flanked by three love-stories which relieve the plot. The murder mystery is well contrived. It is somewhat drawn out, but that is inevitable in tales of this nature, and Mr Crockett knows how to beguile his readers with minor characters and their by-play, from Sue Sim, the housemaid, to Mrs. Hampden Jones, the wife of the Chief Constable. Perhaps more than English readers will wonder what Mrs Hampden Jones did when she ‘harcelled her daughters collectively and individually till they wished they were dead’; but if the last verb is obscure, the meaning is plain. There is plenty of love-making in the novel, a certain amount of humour and fun, some character-sketching which is interesting, and, over all, the enigma of the murders. The scene is set in the Lowlands of Scotland, but the tale is not aggressively Scotch. The main characters move in circles where local dialect is unknown, and for this and other reasons the tale is distinctly readable, even exciting. The detective is not too clever. The hero is not immaculate. All of which makes for freshness in the handling of a familiar theme.
And other papers struggled to know what to make of it.
The Northern Whig of 25th September 2017 seems perplexed that it isn’t like his earliest novels from some 20 years before, still they accept that ‘the book is full of cleverly drawn characters.’
How unusual is it that a writer’s work changes over a thirty year career? Is this something to damn him with?
The Scotsman on the 17th September 2017 writes:
We have a posthumous story from the pen of the late S.R.Crockett, which marks the gulf between its author’s earlier, and later work. The story is ingeniously constructed, and it has a number of exciting moments; but the atmosphere is that of the ordinary sensational romance, and does not even distantly recall the exquisite charm of ‘the Raiders.’
The plot is complicated enough and the secret is well kept, while the romantic interest is skilfully interwoven; but the style lacks the charm and distinction of Mr Crockett at his best.
We see here what was already and has remained ever since, the petard upon which Crockett was hoist – it’s not ‘The Raiders’
It’s risible to suggest a writer should have spent 30 years reworking the same story and blame him for not so doing. To find it impossible that a writer cannot write a variety of styles and genres says more about the reviewer than the writer surely? But Crockett was dead and the judges pronounce. And people remember him for nothing but ‘The Raiders’ which, while a fine book, is not by any means either the limit or the apogee of his creative talent.
The contemporary Globe review is just as puzzled as the others, claiming that:
Mr S.R.Crockett’s last novel The Azure Hand is a curious combination. In its main outline it is a mystery of two murders worked upon refined detective lines with a finesse which displays French influences… Involved in it is a double love story with the Galloway humour characteristic of the author practically run riot, so that the serious interest of a detective problem is practically submerged by an element which is almost farcical, with an effect which is certainly unusual.
We should remember that this book, written probably a decade before, was published in the context of the First World War with all the constraints and predilictions that involved. We should also always remember that publishing is a business.
Crockett’s widow had to press the publishers to bring the book into the public, and they had little incentive to ‘puff’ it. Few books have much of a shelf life and it’s neither a surprise nor a reflection on the book or the author that The Azure Hand silently sank without trace. It has long remained of value only to those who collect Crockett, and then only because it is very rare. While alive, his work was published in hundreds of thousands of copies, many of which can still be picked up for under £10.
But now, a century on, we hopefully have the maturity to look back from a different context and re-appraise. With this new edition the reader at least has the chance to do that. The introduction is written by Crockett scholar Cally Phillips, with an endorsement by Martin Edwards of the Crime Writers’ Association. The former knows her Crockett, the latter knows his detective fiction. Both rate the work. But it's up to you to do some detective work and draw your own conclusions.
Follow the Sweetheart Trail
If you're out and about in Galloway this Easter, why not get on your bike and follow the Sweetheart Trail. Download the 'Get on your bike' free Pdf HERE to guide you.