Transport changed significantly during Crockett's lifetime and this is reflected in his writing. As I have written elsewhere, he was born in the age of the railways, with which he had strong family connections.
Yet he excels in showing us the slower pace of life. In his youth he walked, and rode in carts. His characters roam the hills and glens over many a mile no matter the weather or the ground underfoot.
Sweetheart Travellers describes several cycling adventures in the Glenkens which the adult Crockett took with his firstborn daughter Maisie (Sweetheart) on a Humber Beeston Tricycle. And later in Sweethearts at Home he observes the passage of time noting that his daughter ‘is now ‘nineteen and tall. She would be the death of her poor father (and of the machine) at the very first hill. Now she rides a ‘free-wheel’ of her own’.
If his childhood was marked by the coming of railways, his adulthood was marked by the advent of the car. Crockett writes extensively about the perils of the new fangled motorised transport in Sweethearts at Home, reminiscing about ‘When the Roads Were Sweet, Safe and Silent.’ He observes:
‘Then we had the world to ourselves, save for a red farm cart or so. Then there were no motor-cars, no motor-buses, no clappering insolent monocycles! It was in some wise the rider's age of gold. The country still lay waste and sweet and silent about him. The ignoble ‘toot-toot’ and rhinoceros snort of the pursuing monster was unknown...
...Get out of the way, all you mean little people!’ was not yet the commonest of highway sounds. The green hedgerows were not hidden under a grey dust veil. The Trossachs, the Highlands, the English lakes, and our own fair Galloway roads were not splashed with the iridescent fragrance of petrol. Ah, we took Time by the forelock... in those old days when the hawthorn was untainted and the wayside honeysuckles still gave forth a good smell.’
It’s safe to say Crockett is not a fan of the car. He concludes:
‘I love my friends who are tied to these chariot wheels. But I fear for them. Temptation is great. Easy is the descent of Avernus, aided by a smart chauffeur, who wants to give you ‘the value of your money’ in speed and the survival of the fittest: id est, of himself and you!
Better, far better, to take pack on back, pilgrim staff in hand, and then—to the woods and the hills with Sweetheart and me, where never ‘teuf-teuf’ can be heard, nor petrol perfume the land.’
Despite (or perhaps because of) his aversion to this mode of transport, Crockett writes the first car chase in fiction. His 1907 novel Vida– The Iron Laird of Kirktown, features a chase from St John’s Town of Dalry to Newton Stewart across the Galloway moors. It precedes Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps chase (over remarkably similar ground) by a decade. Buchan’s chase is better known simply because The Thirty Nine Steps is better known than Vida. But if you want a great Galloway car chase – turn to Crockett. He evokes the wonder and danger of the motor car in the Galloway landscape thus:
‘I ran the Mercedes at his, as if to pass, and I could see his head already ducking low to avoid the bullet. Then I manoeuvered to take him behind at full speed, in which case I would have thrown him high in the air even if I had not exploded both cars. But the Mercedes ran little risk because of its great size and weight. So pleased was I with this play that the solitary house called Clatteringshaws came too soon in sight. He looked anxiously at the dyke, at the little garden, at the shark backs of purplish-grey rock. But no one came out at the noise of our racing wheels. With a yell I rushed him, and in a moment we were past and out on the moor again. ‘Yes, I played with him as a cat does with a mouse, now surging along as if to end him, and anon drawing slowly off. But a mile or two further there is a curious dip in the road down which we raced. A tall obelisk doubtless set there in memory of some great fighter of times long past-perhaps the Black George of Galloway-crowned a little heather mount to the right...
...‘I could see the yellow French car slacken speed as it took the hill opposite. On the contrary the weight of my Mercedes carried her to the top with unabated force. He needed fuel, too, and was beginning to know it. Before me I saw the wide country spread to a horizon of low whale-backed ridges with the rocks I have spoken of (called 'clints'), all about-a dreary place, but fit for my work-that which the little cold hands of Katarina on my wrists called me to do. There was also a long ditch showing black among the turfy heather, all gashed into deep cracks and proper for my purpose as if it had been made so...
...‘Then because it was time to end I caused the heavy Mercedes to sweep up abreast of the lighter French car, from the right side. It was a narrow way. Fair on the chassis a little before the rear wheel I struck, and our weight and force turned the yellow car over into a little ravine.’
In Crockett’s childhood it was the red farm cart that provided transport for his family as they travelled from Duchrae to the Cameronian Kirk in Castle Douglas on Sundays. He describes it in In A Galloway Herd:
‘The ‘Buik’ being over, the red cart rattled to the door to convey such of the church-goers as were not able to walk all the weary miles to the Cameronian kirk in Cairn Edward. The stalwart, long-legged sons had cut across a shorter way by the Big Hoose and the Deeside kirk… The clean red farm cart rattled into the town of Cairn Edward at five minutes past eleven… Times had not been good of late, and for some years, indeed, ever since the imposition of the tax on light-wheeled vehicles, the ‘tax-cart’ had slumbered wheelless in the back of the peat-shed, and the Drumquhat folk had driven a well-cleaned, heavy wheeled cart both to kirk and market.’
The young Walter, and we assume the young Sam Crockett, ‘nominally accompanied the cart, and occasionally he had seated himself on the clean straw which filled its bottom; but most of the time this was far too fatiguing an occupation for him. On the plea of walking up the hills, he ranged about on either side of the highway, scenting the ground like a young collie. He even gathered flowers when his ‘grandfather’ was not looking,’
Walking long distances was common in Crockett’s day. He observes: ‘As characters, I do not think that any in all Galloway impressed my boyish mind so much as the three Laurieston old maids, Mary, Jennie, and Jean M'Haffie. I have written of them time and again.
... They trudged fourteen miles every Sabbath day, with their dresses ‘feat and snod’ and their linen like the very snow, to listen to the gospel preached according to their consciences. They were all the smallest of women, but their hearts were great.’
If you are interested in the history (and history of transport) in the Glenkens there is much to be gleaned about turnpikes and farm carts in A Galloway Herd. Saunders M’Quhirr, brings Wattie’s mother back from London on the red cart in a chapter titled ‘The Serpent in Paradise’ where he describes the drive back to Laurieston in some detail.
‘One of the turnpikes led westward to the ferry over the Dee Water, through rocky glens and by gleaming hill tarns, while the other continued over the moors and by the loch-side to the village of Whinnyliggate. A stone's throw before the meeting of the roads was a little bridge over an insignificant but irresponsible brook—a burn which executed the most astonishing cuttings and curves.’
Descriptions of The Green Dook in The Banner of Blue, and road mending in Kit Kennedy offer more insights into the Glenkens of Crockett’s era.
The byways of the Glenkens may seem unremarkable if you whizz past in a car. Look through Crockett’s eyes however and you will see an entirely different place and pace – as he draws you into the Glenkens of a hundred and fifty years ago. While the roads have been upgraded extensively, if you get out in the countryside on foot or by bike, with Crockett as your guide you will have an entirely different experience.
We went up through a green archway to a hill-top which had been kept clear of trees when the woods were planted. From it we looked away across the loch and the cultivated lands, with the peat-reek of the village rising blue from its whitewashed ‘lums’ between us and the far north hills. (The Loves of Miss Anne)
When we look at a natural landscape, we often assume it has always looked this way. In the case of trees and forests of course, this is seldom the case. While trees can live hundreds of years, plantations come and go and forests are ‘managed’. The Glenkens is no different. Crockett mentions trees frequently in his novels and stories and draws pictures for the imagination of how the landscape looked in the area, throughout history.
‘There are many woods of pine and oak about the Duchrae; and we went through one of them to an ancient moat-hill or place of defence on a hillside, with a ditch about it of three or four yards wideness, which overlooked the narrow pack road by the water's edge.’ (Men of the Moss Hags)
Inevitably, Crockett describes the landscape as he experienced it himself, so that in some of his historic novels he is speculative. However, in his Covenanting novel Men of the Moss Hags he singles out a tree you can still find today at Earlstoun Castle. The Earlstoun Oak is sanctuary for Sandy Gordon. Crockett tells us:
‘Sandy has betaken himself to his great oak on the border of the policies, where with his skill in forest craft he had built himself a platform among the solidest masses of the leaves. There he abode during the day, with a watch set on the Tod Hill and another on the White Hill above the wood of Barskeoch. Only at the even, when all things were quiet, would he venture to slip down and mix with us about the fire. But he swung himself swiftly back again to his tree by a rope, if any of the dragoons were to be heard of in the neighbourhood…
...My mother stood on the step and waved me off with no tear in her eye; and even poor Jean Hamilton, from the window whence she could see the great oak where my brother, her husband, was in hiding, caused a kerchief to show white against the grey wall of Earlstoun.’
Through his description of historic trees, Crockett helps us reach back into the past.
In his 18th century novel The Loves of Miss Anne, Crockett draws us a picture of the age of ‘improvement’. Here he takes a controversial position, suggesting that the cutting down of trees constitutes an act of vandalism against nature.
‘once when Sir Tempest had need of money and called on my father to mark the worth of a thousand pounds of trees the forester cried out, ‘I canna! Oh, I canna! It wad break my heart to see them comin' doon! And to ken that it was me that had condemned them to dee!’
But when Sir Tempest took council with another, even the Cairn Edward [Castle Douglas] wood-merchant, and when the two went to and fro with a pot of red paint among my father's choicest growths, it is said that the old man wept aloud.
‘Rayther than that should happen,’ he declared, breaking in upon them, ‘I will e'en mark them mysel’. But send that man awa' or I will no be responsible for the bill-hook in my richt hand!’
The man was sent away, and when he came back my father had marked (as the wood-merchant said) ‘a lot of rubbage hardly worth burnin', though guid eneuch doubtless for pit props.’
...so complete did the tyranny of my father over the Grennoch woods become, that the nominal master thereof in his later years hardly dared to step aside from the path to cut himself a walking-stick, without asking permission of his chief forester!’
Crockett’s use of Galloway dialect here supports his sympathetic position, poignantly illustrating the relationship between the local man and his natural world - threatened by the man of commerce and money. In the process he reveals many small but fascinating details of social history.
Above all we see that MacTaggart knows trees as his friends and nurtures them thus:
‘In the woods my father talked all the time to himself in quick runs of soliloquy, thus: ‘He will no do, this yin! He's no drivin' his roots far eneuch under! The first big wind frae the west, a pickle snaw on his airms, and he'll be whammelt—ay, sirs, whammelt! I'm speakin'. Even though he's whisperin' in pride of leaves and spreadin' himsel' like a green bay-tree!’
Crockett reminds us of the transience of all natural things:
‘Perhaps it was of a fine young fir he was thus delivering himself, shaped like a graceful pyramid. But sure enough the wind came, and the snow, and together they beat upon that fir, and the place that knew it once now knows it no more for ever. It underwent the whirring saw years before its time, even as my father had said.
I think Crockett more than gives Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders a run for its money in The Loves of Miss Anne. His figurative conclusion: ‘A man is like a tree,' says I, ‘and the heart o' man is deceitfu' abune everything and desperately rotten!' Man, I could smell yon yin a mile aff!’ strikes home clearly in the context of the story. Equally powerful is: ‘he would none of my sympathy, shaking off my hand as if it had been a leaf fallen from a tree.’
We hear Crockett’s own voice most clearly through his narrative voice:
‘There was the world of birds and shy wild tree-dwellers, of rustling leaves also, of far-descending roots steeped in moisture and hidden in the rich red earth, of tall clean trunks, smooth all round save on the north side, where the moss clings and the lichen protects it from the winter blast—and then above, high in the garish sunshine, the final coronal of leaves. In such a world I loved to dream, sitting hushed, immovable as one of the grey oak stems.’
In ‘EPILOGUE: In Praise of Galloway’ (Bog Myrtle and Peat, 1894) Crockett removes man entirely from the story, focussing instead on the relationship between the birds and the woodland as the world transforms from night to dawn. It is poignant and humorous in equal measure.
Crockett’s many descriptions of the Duchrae woods allow us to see the area accurately as it was in his own childhood. An inveterate climber – he boasted of climbing the walls of Threave and in later life he climbed in the Swiss Alps - his descriptions of climbing trees in his works always ring true. In the story ‘Love Among the Beech Leaves’ from Love Idylls a young Rab Christie (surely a version of Crockett) indulges in some youthful lovemaking – and reading – up a tree.
‘’There were three great beeches standing in the old courtyard, making a dream of rustling leaves, and sprinkling a pleasant shade over the great iron bar to which the horses were yoked when the mill was to be set agoing. As she passed under the trees something fell at her feet, narrowly missing her head. Bess MacAndrew sprang her own length aside, with a shrill cry. There was something moving among the leaves, and that which had fallen at her feet was a book.
From overhead came the voice of the new loon.
‘Lassie fetch me up that book. It'll save me comin' doom’
‘I daresay,’ said Bess. ‘Come doon and get the book. It'll save me comin' up.’
‘Verra weel,’ said crafty Rab, ‘I can do withoot it; but it's juist graund up here!’
‘What are ye doin' there?’ continued Bess, standing on tiptoe and peering up. She could see nothing, however, except a pair of legs waving in the air. It was certainly very mysterious and attractive.
'I can see Criffel an' the three Cairnsmores, an' the dominie at the schule, an' a' the boys playin' 'Steal the Bonnets'! Oh, it's graund!’
‘I wish I could see!’ said Bess MacAndrew wistfully.
‘There's made a bonny seat up here where ye can sit and swing, and the wind rocks ye, an' the leaves birl aboot ye and tell ye stories, an' ye can sit an' read—splendid stories—ghosts and murders and fairies an'…’
‘I'm comin' up,’ said Bess.
‘Wi, than!’ said the invisible in the tree; ‘fetch the book wi ye!
Soon Rab and Bess were seated side by side far up in the great beech tree. Rab had fixed a slate in a curious but perfectly safe position between two thick branches.
The trees of Crockett’s Glenkens are beeches, oaks and hazel rather than the fir plantations we are more familiar with today. They evoke nature’s majesty rather than commercial possibility. Yet we are reminded of the transience of the natural world through mention of The Bogle Thorn. The tree fell victim to the road straightening alongside of the A762. A photograph exists, but it is also immortalised in fiction through ‘The Little Green Man’ (Sweethearts At Home).
Crockett valued the trees and woodlands of the Glenkens and his writing allows us to see nature as it was in times gone by. What the eye cannot see, the imagination can still enjoy.
‘They felt the oily swirl of the Dee rising beneath them, and knew that there had been a mighty rain upon the hills.’
Crockett, like all Glenkens natives, knew the firm relationship between the hills and the lowland rivers. He often writes about rivers and lanes, and the floods they carry into communities. For those who are unfamiliar with the term ‘lane’, Crockett describes it thus, in the context of Laurieston (fictionalised as Whinnyliggate) in The Loves of Miss Anne:
‘To this day there is a ‘lane’ which cuts the village in two about the middle. Now in Galloway this is not a woodland walk, but a slow, sleepy, peaty stream’.
The Glenkens lanes Crockett writes about are the Cooran, Eglin, Dee, Duchrae and Grenoch. (Also spelled Grennoch or Grannoch). These all feed into the River Dee.
The Cooran Lane is perhaps the most famous (and dangerous). It sits by the Silver Flowe and plays a large part in The Raiders. The novel’s hero Patrick Heron observes:
‘It is not for any man to venture lightly at nightfall, or even in broad daylight, among the links of the Cooran, as it saunters its way through the silver flow of Buchan. The old royal fastness keeps its secret well.’
The Eglin lane is also described in The Raiders as a waymarker towards Cave Macaterick in the Dungeon hills: ‘As in the days of the Covenant, however, the way to it is still by the side of a burn which they call the Eglin Lane, a long bare water, slow and peaty, but with some trout of size in it.’
While in the non fictional Raiderland Crockett describes Dee lane thus:
‘you will find the quaintest and most delicious bridge across the narrows of Woodhall Loch, just where the Lane of Dee runs down to feed the Black Water of Dee through a paradise of pebbly shallows and reedy pools. Still black stretches they are also, all abloom with the loveliest white water-lilies anchored in lee of beds of blonde meadowsweet and red willow-herb.
Such a heavenly place for a boy to spend his youth in!’
And from childhood memory he also recalls how: ‘the Lane of Duchrae, beginning its course towards the Black Water, went soughing and murmuring over the slippery pebbles just as it had been wont to do a good quarter-century before.’
In the historical Men of the Moss Hags, he gives a clear description of Grenoch Lane:
‘we came to the place that is called the Moat of the Duchrae Bank, and found much people already gathered there. It is a very lonely place on the edge of a beautiful and still water, called the Lane of Grenoch. In the midst of the water, and immediately opposite to the moat, there is an island, called the Hollan Isle, full of coverts and hiding-places among hazel bushes, which grow there in thick matted copses. Beyond that again there are only the moors and the mountains for thirty miles. The country all about is lairy and boggy, impossible for horses to ride; while over to the eastward a little, the main road passes to Kells and Carsphairn, but out of sight behind the shoulder of the hill.’
In The Dark o’ the Moon this is the designated site of the Levellers camp:
‘Grennoch Lane, still and deep with a bottom of treacherous mud swamps, encircled it to the north, while behind was a good mile of broken ground, with frequent marshes and moss-hags. Save where the top of the camp mound was cleared to admit of the scant brushwood tents of the Levellers, the whole position was further covered and defended by a perfect jungle of bramble, whin, thorn, sloe, and hazel, through which paths had been opened in all directions to the best positions of defence.’
More descriptions of the local flora and fauna at Grenoch Lane are found in The Lilac Sunbonnet:
‘Loch Grannoch stretched away three miles to the south, basking in alternate blue and white, as cloud and sky mirrored themselves upon it. The first broad rush of the ling was climbing the slopes of the Crae Hill above — a pale lavender near the loch-side, deepening to crimson on the dryer slopes where the heath-bells grew shorter and thicker together. The wimpling lane slid as silently away from the sleeping loch as though it were eloping and feared to awake an angry parent. The whole range of hill and wood and water was drenched in sunshine. Silence clothed it like a garment — save only for the dark of the shadow under the bridge.’
In this novel, the ploughman Ebie Farrish appreciates his natural surroundings;
‘He stood long looking into the Lane water, which glided beneath the bridge and away down to the Dee without a sound.’Ebie knows that all that water has to go somewhere.
While there is a raw beauty in Crockett’s description of the lanes and lochs, he also knows the perilous power of water in flood. ‘The Lammas Preaching’ (in The Stickit Minister) is a humorous story of a minister from the Machars who sets out to preach in the Glenkens. The narrator sets the scene:
‘The burns were running red with the mighty July rain when Douglas Maclellan started over the meadows and moors to preach his sermon at the farmtown of Cauldshaws. He had thanked the Lord that morning in his opening prayer for 'the bounteous rain wherewith He had seen meet to refresh His weary heritage.'
The minister does not appreciate the ferocity of nature, unlike the character (another) Ebie who is detailed to guide him to his pulpit. On the journey, this Ebie frequently tries to reason with Maclellan, to no avail. At one point, Maclellan
‘stepped into a deep hole, and his text was suddenly shut within him by the gurgle of moss water in his throat. His arms rose above the surface like the black spars of a windmill. But Ebie Kirgan sculled himself swiftly out, swimming with his shoeless feet, and pushed the minister before him to the further bank—the water gushing out of rents in his clothes as easily as out of the gills of a fish.
The minister stood with unshaken confidence on the bank. He ran peat water like a spout in a thunder plump, and black rivulets of dye were trickling from under his hat down his brow and dripping from the end of his nose.’
The minister, confusing pride for trust in his maker, sets himself as greater than nature and refuses to see reason. Crockett clearly mocks him when Ebie,rebuffed time and again observes:
'He canna ken what a ‘Skyreburn warnin'’ is— he'll be thinkin' it's some bit Machars burn that the laddies set their whurlie mills in. But he'll turn richt eneuch when he sees Skyreburn roarin' reed in a Lammas flood, I'm thinkin'!’
Eventually, nature triumphs. Crockett’s story teaches the minister a lesson about the role of nature in the order of things. One might interpret it simply as ‘pride goes before a fall’, though for those with greater knowledge of Biblical texts, Crockett offers a more sophisticated interpretation.
While ‘The Lammas Preaching’ is high on humour, ‘The Two Humorists’ is anything but funny. Although Crockett’s narrator wryly observes: ‘The tale of Nathan and Doog is one which wants not examples in all ages of the earth's history. It is the story of a woman's mistake,’ the moral dilemma faced by Nathan during a terrible stormy night is far from amusing. Crockett uses the weather figuratively, allowing the intensity of the flood to reflect Nathan’s own internal struggle:
‘Leaving a lighted candle on the table, he opened the door and stepped out into the darkness. The wind met him like a wall. The rain assailed his cheeks and stunned his ears like a volley of bullets. For a full minute he stood exposed to the broad fury of the tempest, slashed by the driving sleet, beaten and deafened into bewilderment by a turmoil of buffeting gusts.’
In the process, we are treated to a powerful description of the full force of nature:
‘...ordinarily a clear little rivulet, running lucidly brown and pleasantly at prattle over a pebbly bed... in spite of its apparent innocence, Whinnyliggate Lane was a stream of a dangerous reputation... when the rains descended and the floods came, it sometimes chanced that the inhabitants of the village awoke to find that their prattling babe had become a giant, and that the burn, which the night before had scarce covered the pebbles in its bed, was now roaring wide and strong, thirty feet from bank to bank, crumbling their garden walls, and even threatening with destruction the sacred Midtoon Brig itself.’
As well as the lanes, Crockett frequently writes about The Black Water of Dee, which he knew from childhood. It features in the supernatural story ‘A Cry Across the Black Water’ (Bog Myrtle and Peat). Set around Loch Ken and Rhonehouse, the story is evocative of Tennyson and Millais.
Like the lanes which feed into it, the Dee flows in and out of many of his stories and novels. The significance of this natural feature of the Glenkens landscape can thus be experienced by readers throughout his Galloway works.
'The farm I know best is also the loveliest for situation. It lies nestled in green holm crofts. The purple moors ring it half round, north and south. To the eastward pinewoods once stood ranked and ready like battalions clad in indigo and Lincoln green against the rising sun — that is, till one fell year when the woodmen swarmed all along the slopes and the ring of axes was heard everywhere.’
Sam Crockett was born at Little Duchrae on 24th September 1859. He describes his childhood home: ‘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.’ Historically part of the Hensol estate, the farm tenanted by Crockett’s grandfather William, is still known locally as ‘the wee Duchrae.’ It is situated between Loch Ken (east) and Grennoch (Woodhall) Loch (west). Both are tributaries of the River Dee.
Crockett frequently uses pseudonyms for Little Duchrae. In Kit Kennedy it is known as Black Dornal (Dornal is a name borrowed from a few miles down the road) and in The Lilac Sunbonnet it is known as Craig Ronald (Ronald being an anagram of Dornal). Most centrally it features as Drumquhat in A Galloway Herd, Lads’ Love and a variety of stories in the collections Bog Myrtle and Peat, and Love Idylls. Crockett habitually takes local names, concatenates and conflates them but by looking at the local signposts and place names it is a relatively easy code to crack.
Of the etymology of the Duchrae, Crockett wrote in Sweetheart Travellers: ‘It was the hottest mid-noon when we arrived at the edge of the hillside of heather and rocks popularly called the Duchrae Craigs — which, after all, is only saying the same thing twice over. For, as even Sweetheart knows, ‘Duchrae’ just means Black Crag.’
In a 1904 letter he wrote: ‘Dear Mr Archibold,
I am glad you are so far on with the work which grows upon me as I consider it.
By the way we have always thought Dhu-chrae or Duchrae to be the Dhu- craig = Black craig or carg. There is no ‘clay’ on the farm so far as I know. Indeed I am sure. It is all craggy rough boulder land between the Black water of Dee and Woodhall Loch (Loch Grennoch).’
Crockett repeatedly fictionalises his childhood memories in his stories. He tells us there were many woods of pine and oak about the Duchrae’ and in The Men of the Moss Hags offers a 17th century version of Little Duchrae, little changed from his own time. Since then it has had a storey added and many more ‘improvements’, so that to see it as Crockett knew it you have to look at old photographs or read his stories.
‘It was a long, low house, well thatched, like all the houses in the neighbourhood. And it was sending up a heartsome pew of reek into the air, that told of the stir of breakfast. The tangle of the wood grew right up to the windows of the back, and immediately behind the house there was a little morass with great willow trees growing and many hiding-places about it — as well I knew, for there Maisie Lennox and I had often played the day by the length.’
From his childhood he also recalls things we cannot so easily see today: ‘Beyond a little stile there was a group of oak trees, from one of which a swing depended. There was also a sugar-plum tree... a little brook that rippled across the road (now, I fear, ignominiously conveyed in a drain-pipe), at which the horses were watered night and morning, and where I gat myself muddied and soaking — but afterwards, upon discovery, also well warmed.’
He also offers a perspective from above: ‘I love the Crae Hill because from there you get the best view of the Duchrae, where for years a certain lonely child played, and about which in after years, so many poor imaginings have worked themselves out. Here lived and loved one Winsome Charteris — also a certain Maisie Lennox, with many and many another. By that fireside sat night after night the original of Silver Sand, relating stories with that shrewd beaconing twinkle in the eye which told of humour and experience deep as a draw-well and wide as the brown-backed moors over which he had come.’
He frequently drew from life for his fiction.
‘From these low-lying craigs in front of the farm buildings, one Kit Kennedy saw the sun raise its bleared winter-red eye over the snows of Ben Gairn as he hied him homewards after feeding the sheep. Cleg Kelly turned somersaults by the side of that crumbling wall, and a score of boys have played out their life games among the hazels of that tangled waterside plantation which is still today the Duchrae Bank.’
Crockett’s landscape and characters are found as so many imaginary childhood playfellows which he then recreates fictionally. The McQhuirr family who live at Drumquhat are clearly based on the Crockett family. Beyond this, his descriptions also give us a deep sense of place. For example:
‘Coming down the Crae Hill, let us return, not by the bridge, but by the front of the deserted cottage. On your right, as you descend through the pinewood, is a tiny islet, crowded standing-room for half-a-dozen grown men, but an entire continent for a boy to explore…’
The Crae Bridge is still there: ‘on the road to New Galloway... keep straight forward a little way, and you will find the quaintest and most delicious bridge across the narrows of Woodhall Loch, just where the Lane of Dee runs down to feed the Black Water of Dee through a paradise of pebbly shallows and reedy pools. Still black stretches they are also, all abloom with the loveliest white water-lilies anchored in lee of beds of blonde meadowsweet and red willow-herb.’
Here, though not easily visible today we find: ‘The Crae stepping-stones! Kit had crossed them on his grandfather's back when he was yet too young to stride the glossy interspaces of brown moss water. He had paddled with bare feet between them as he grew older.’
Crockett offers a detailed picture of the spot through Kit Kennedy’s eyes:
‘He knew the green stars of bottom weed, the little peeping whorls of water starwort, the tall rushes on either bank, which grew thickest where the water divides round a little ten-yard square island all overgrown with red purple willow herb. There are just ten stepping-stones big and little. You wade chin deep in the creamy spray of meadow sweet to get to them. Gowans tickle your chin as you turn up your trousers. The trout spurt this way and that as your shadow falls on the water. With what a pleasant sound the wavelets ripple about your legs as you mount Auld Cairnsmore, the big granite bowlder in the middle. On rushes the Crae water with a little silvery water-break and a smooth glide over a stone which it has worn away till its head is beneath the surface. Then with three strides and half a jump you are on the pine-needles, and the resinous smell of the firs stings your nostrils. Verily it is good to be young and to taste these things. They are good to taste even if one is old.’
Later, Crockett brought his own daughter here, offering a different perspective: ‘There, straight before us, at Dan's Ford, is the most practical and delightsome set of stepping-stones in the world, just tall enough for one to slip off and splash unexpectedly into the coolness of the water. Or you can sit, as Sweetheart and I used to do, upon the big central one and eat your lunch, as much isolated as Crusoe upon his island, the purl of the leaves and the murmur of the ford the only sounds in that sweet still place.’
Crockett’s closely observed, detailed landscape descriptions extend along what is now the A762. Today we may drive those few miles between Little Duchrae and The Laurieston Memorial with barely a thought or awareness of either Crockett or the landscape. But read his works and you will travel that road immeasurably richer – thanks to his close observation and his love of the Glenkens.
Coming from a farming family Crockett was no stranger to work in the fields. However, his preferences are shown clearly in a story he tells (more than once) about cutting thistles. In ‘Love among the Beech leaves’ Crockett’s boyhood alter-ego is Rab Christie whereas in the earlier ‘A Minister’s Day’ the boy is Wattie Anderson.
In ‘Beech leaves’ the farmer: ‘looked over the croft dyke to observe how the new loon was conquering the thistles at a penny an hour—and good money. The new loon was reading Measure for Measure at a penny an hour, prone on his face, with his ragged straw hat over his eyes and his feet from the knees flailing in the air to warn off the flies.
In a moment the scene changed to ‘The Tempest,’ and that without warning. William MacAndrew was a decent man and quiet, but this was too much for him.
‘Aye, my man,’ he said, ‘an' what's this o't ye are at? Is this cuttin' my thistles, ye lazy whalp?...
In ‘Minister’s Day’ it is the minister, Mr Cameron, who comes across Wattie unexpectedly: ‘he had nearly leapt on the top of a boy, who lay prone on his face, deeply studying a book. The boy sprang up, startled by the minister's unexpected entrance into his wide world of air, empty of all but the muirfowls' cries.
For a few moments they remained staring at each other—tall, well-attired minister and rough-coated herdboy.
‘You are diligent,’ at last said the minister, looking out of his dark eyes into the blue wondering orbs which met his so squarely and honestly. ‘What is that you are reading?’
In both cases the reading matter is Shakespeare. Pitlarg says ‘I was jaloosin' that it wadna be your Bible. But ye micht read waur.’ The minister asks how many Shakespeare plays Wattie has read: ‘Them a'—mony a time,’ said the boy. The minister marvelled still more.’
Pitlarg changes the terms of the boy’s employment: ‘I am thinking that we'll work by the piece an' no by the hour. I'll pay ye a penny a rig for the thistles, and then ye can read Shakespeare in your ain time.’
In the earlier version, Wattie explains the deal to the Minister: ‘Weel, sir, it's this way, ye see. Gran'faither used to pay me a penny an hour for cuttin' the thistles. He did that till he said I was the slowest worker ever he had, an' that by the time that I was done wi' ae side o' the field, the ither was ready to begin owre again. I said that I was quite willin' to begin again, but he said that to sit doon wi' a book and cut as far roon' ye as the hook could reach, was no' the kind o' wark that he had been accustomed to on the farm o' Drumquhat. So he took me off working by time and put me on piecework. I dinna get as muckle siller, but I like it juist as weel. So I can work and read time aboot.’
The Galloway dialect, which can be hard for the English reader, is used unapologetically by Crockett and read out loud it gives an accurate reflection of the local accent which was Crockett’s own mither tongue.
We might assume that for Crockett harvest was less about scything and more about reading. In ‘The Minister’s Loon’ he describes a barn:
‘an old building with two doors, one very large, of which the upper half opens inwards; and the other gives a cheery look into the orchard when the sugar-plums are ripening. One end was empty, waiting for the harvest, now just changing into yellow, and the other had been filled with meadow hay only the week before.’
Crockett’s first person narrator invites the reader into the immediacy of the scene:
‘...I minded that in his times of distress, after a fight or when he had been in some ploy for which he dared not face his father, Alec had made himself a cave among the hay or corn in the end of the barn. Like all Lowland barns, ours has got a row of three-cornered unglazed windows, called ‘wickets.’ Through one of these I have more than once seen Alec vanish when hard pressed by his mother, and have been amused even under the sober face of parental discipline...’
The narrator observes that the boy Alec is reading not Shakespeare but even more forbidden fruit, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Crockett was brought up in a religious household at a time when any reading other than the Bible was frowned upon, and had to be undertaken secretly. His frustration pours out in ‘Jaimsie’ as we are told of the irritations felt by those who have to put up with an overlong daily ‘reading of the Word’ which ‘was extremely awkward in a busy season when the corn was dry in the stock or when the scythes flashed rhythmically like level silver flames among the lush meadow grass.’
Crockett also writes frequently of the Glenkens water meadows. In The Stickit Minister he observes ‘The water-meadows, rich with long deep grass that one could hide in standing erect, bog-myrtle bushes, hazel-nuts, and brambles big as prize gooseberries and black as — well, as our mouths when we had done eating them. Woods of tall Scotch firs stood up on one hand, oak and ash on the other. Out in the wimpling fairway of the Black Lane, the Hollan Isle lay anchored. Such a place for nuts! You could get back-loads and back-loads of them to break your teeth upon in the winter forenights. You could ferry across a raft laden with them. Also, and most likely, you could fall off the raft yourself and be well-nigh drowned.’
This provides us with natural description of the landscape of his childhood, invaluable to anyone who wants to ‘discover’ the landscape of the Glenkens of old.
Similarly, in ‘Ensamples to the Flock’ we follow Leeb Mclurg on her way back from Whinnyliggate (Laurieston). ‘As soon as she was clear of the village Leeb took to her heels, and glinted light foot through the poplar avenues along the skirts of the bright June meadows, where the hemlock was not yet overtopped by the meadow-sweet, as in a week or two it would be.
She struck across the hill above the loch, which lay below her rippleless and azure as the blue of a jay's wing. The air from off the heather was warm and honey-scented.’
More figuratively, in ‘Three bridegrooms and one bride’ we are told the heroine ‘twined the lads like rushes of the meadows round the least of her fingers’. In ‘Carnation’s Morning Glory’ a character ‘moved his feet on the soft grass of the meadow with a certain embarrassment.’ In ‘The Lammas preaching’ the dangers of the flooded meadow plains are central to the story. This danger, especially at night, is also outlined in ‘The Stickit Minister Wins through’, where ‘The nearest way to the village, by a great deal, was by a narrow foot-track that wound across the meadows and the narrator reports: ‘I have hardly ever been so thankful in my life, as when at last I saw the lights of the village gleam across the little bridge, as we emerged from the water-meadows and felt our feet firm themselves on the turnpike road.’
‘The Little Fair Man’, takes place during ‘The slack between hay and harvest of the Year of Deliverance, 1689’ where we learn that ‘On one side the Cooran burn runs down a deep ravine full of hazel copses feathering to the meadow-edges, where big bumblebees have their bykes, and where I first courted Rachel, sitting behind a cole of hay on the great day of the meadow ingathering.’
And Kit Kennedy gives us yet another evocative and informative description: ‘the alders and willows were swaying their slender stems and silver-grey leaves, sighing over the dreariness of the world. The mist was collecting in white pools down in the hollows of the meadow. The waters of the loch drowsed purple-black under the shadow of the hills.’
However, another danger is exposed during harvest in ‘The Suit of Bottle Green’: ‘The Cholera— the Cholera! Dread word, which we in these times have almost forgot the thrill of in our flesh. Mysteriously and inevitably the curse swept on. It was at Leith— at Glasgow — at Dumfries — at Cairn Edward. It was coming! coming! coming! Nearer, nearer — ever nearer!
And men at the long scythe, sweeping the lush meadow hay aside with that most prideful of all rustic gestures, fell suddenly chill and shuddered to their marrows. The sweat of endeavour dried on them, and left them chill, as if the night wind had stricken them.’
Crockett’s descriptions of the Glenkens meadows offers many an insight into the past. As we read we too can lose ourselves in our current surroundings and become, like Crockett’s many versions of himself, part of the Galloway landscape during harvest.
Dry stane dykes are still a well loved feature of the Glenkens but their historic significance is often overlooked or under appreciated. In Crockett’s writing they often represent barriers; social, emotional and psychological as well as physical. As part of the school board ‘revolution’, in ‘The March Dyke’, Crockett describes the locals who ‘gathered outside and roosted on the dyke by dozens, all with long faces and cutty pipes.’
There is also a dyke at the quoiting green in ‘That Popish parson fellow’ where:
‘Towards sundown Rob...leaned his arms on a dyke and attended to the points of the game with the air of a past master. Tam Galletly was ringing in the clanking disks, each fair on the pin. Then Pate Miller with his next quoit would ‘raise him oot o' that!’ It was a fine level game, point about, and evens between times. At least twenty miners, mostly shankers, were cheering on their favourites, and the noise was like a menagerie at the time of feeding.’
If you are looking for small detail about Galloway’s social history, Crockett has much to offer.
‘...Muckle Rob said never a word. But he slowly took his arms off the dyke and stepped over into the field. He strode forward towards the rinks... went solemnly to the tee, and kicked out the steel pins at the end of the rink to the back of which the signal paper was tucked. He sent the quoits spinning on their rims into the distant hedge.’
And Crockett is master of the humorous delivery.
The historic and socio-political importance of Glenkens dykes is explored in The Dark o’ the Moon, a novel exploring The Galloway Levellers uprising of 1724. The Galloway Glens Landscape Project exemplar dyke at Kelton Hill pays tribute to the Leveller’s revolt. In the chapter ‘The Levellers in Council’, Crockett fictionalises the uprising, siting it further north at ‘The Roman Camp’ in Duchrae Woods; attributing a radical speech to the legendary gypsy ‘Blind’ Harry Polwart. Crockett’s version is presented in good Gallowa’ dialect:
‘We will gang and speak them fair. We will offer to pay ony reasonable sum for the pasturage o' oor kye on the green slopes o' the Bennan, and tell the laird that gin he winna steer us frae the bit plots o' grund that were oor faithers' afore us we will be his faithfu' servants, as in former times.’
After Harry’s rousing speech the plan is set:
‘This very night we will begin our work, and if by the morrow’s morn there remains a stone upon a stone in all the enclosure dykes of Merrick, may I Harry Polwart be hanged for a thief in front o' the Castle o' Kirkcudbright!’
And so: ‘they stood at the place where the campaign was to begin. The Earl's dry-stone dyke stretched away east and west, looming up under the clouded moon vast as the Great Wall of China—though, indeed, it was in no place much more than six feet high.
In silence the Levellers took their places...’
Crockett provides an evocative, closely observed description of the dyke coming down:
‘The huge, sky-mounting ridge of newly built dykes, not yet settled down on its foundations, swayed a moment uncertainly. A few stones toppled over upon the feet of the attacking force, and then with a slow, majestic bend, almost like that of a breaking wave, a furlong of it fell over in one piece, with a far-resounding crash, and lo! the green hill-side again stretched from horizon to horizon unbroken under the moon.’
With the final result achieved: ‘Every obnoxious dyke was flat on all the southern estates, and in many cases the landlords patrolled their policies with armed train-bands of their own raising to keep even their park walls intact.’
Dykes also have a political aspect in the story ‘Vernor the Traitor’ described during: ‘the wildest times that we had ever had in Galloway—sudden marches during the night, moorland houses searched, half a dozen poor, ignorant, praying lads turned out, some to get their quietus at the dyke-back with a charge of powder and a musket-bullet, the rest to go stringing away to Edinburgh on the backs of sorry nags, their feet tied under the bellies of their horses.’
This reference is to ‘The Killing Times’, about which Crockett wrote extensively.
In Crockett’s 19th century Glenkens dykes are also places where poachers leave game and personal disputes are played out. Crockett (in narrative form as one of his finest Glenkens characters, Alec McQuhirr) describes an encounter between Saunders McQuhirr and Peter Chrystie:
‘My father did not answer in words. It was not indeed a time for more words. Instead, he strode forward to the march-dyke and gripped the farmer of Nether Neuk by the neck, who screamed like a throttled hen in the grasp of the executioner… So, with a little jerk of his arm, he sent his opponent flying lightly off the dyke-top, and I heard him fall with a splash into a pool of dirty water on the other side in which the sheep had been washed for months.’
While dykes act as barriers in violent disputes, they have another less obvious, figurative significance in Crockett’s stories. ‘Jumping the dyke’ is an expression still known among Galloway locals. Crockett’s contemporary English readership would miss the sexual reference. On numerous occasions in Crockett’s stories young men and women meet at dykes. This gave him a coded way to write about what was termed ‘backend o’ the byre’ activities.
Lads’ Love offers many examples. The hero, Alec McQuhirr recounts: ‘early one summer evening I leaped cautiously over the march-dyke from the Hill of Drumquhat, where, theoretically at least, I was engaged in ‘looking the sheep’—that is, numbering them and seeing that none had strayed, fallen into moss-holes, ‘gone visiting,’ or been troubled with ‘mawks.’ I had, however, on this occasion committed the entire flock wholesale to a kind Providence, and now I made my way down the dyke-side to the well of Nether Neuk… Here I waited, with my legs hanging down over the kerb.’
Alec’s intention is a love tryst with Nance Chrystie. The orchard dyke affords an appropriate context for the temptation of the lassies. Once again Alec shows off his prowess:
‘Lightly I vaulted over the dyke, without disturbing a single stone (for in those days I was very quick on my feet) and stole like a shadow to the unlicensed entrance.’
But all does not go as he plans as he is confronted by three sisters who tease him.
‘Goodness me,’ said Nance, ‘what are you doing there, Alec? Laddies like you should be in their bed’s hours and hours since.’
‘He's comed to get you to help him wi’ his lessons for the college, Nance!’ said the Hempie.
‘Ahint the orchard-dyke—wi' you for a tutor, mair like,’ retorted Nance.
In Lad’s Love Alec is frequently lurking around dykes with amorous intent. Crockett gives plenty of close detail which works both literally and figuratively: ‘For a long time I stood, fixed and silent, leaning against the rough stones of the dyke, waiting for my love's window to light up… I withdrew quickly over the dyke and slipped down the orchard hedge till I could see the house of Nether Neuk loom up like a fortalice, behind its beech-trees and the few domed haystacks which were all that remained of last year's crop.’
Dykes are part of the history, adventure and definitely the romance of Crockett’s Galloway. In the 18th century Loves of Miss Anne the heroine is described: ‘There was a wildwood grace about my young mistress, and when she moved it was as one who had been used to take the burns in her stride. She gathered her skirts and sprang easily over the crumbling dykes. And if she accepted a hand at a stile, it was for quite another reason than that she needed assistance.’
And in ‘The March Dyke, a romance is played out around a dyke.
‘Duncan looked round. Some one was standing by the rough stone dyke within a dozen yards of his summer-seat. It was Grace Hutchison.
Duncan went towards the dyke, taking off his cap as he went—a new cap.
So they stood there, the wall of rough hill-stones between them, but looking into one another's eyes.’
At first meeting the dyke is between them. But as they kiss: ‘the dyke proved too narrow, and in one swift electric touch their old world flew into flinders.
The stone dyke was not any longer between. Duncan Rowallan had overleaped it and stood by the side of Grace Hutchison.’
Crockett’s skill is in close observation, writing powerful descriptions of the natural landscape of the Glenkens, including its dykes. This allows us to see them as he did, be that as historic sites of violence, neighbour disputes, romance or nostalgic memory: ‘On my daily journeyings I often come across the old man of Nether Neuk... I see him still ambulating querulously about the backs of bieldy dykes and hirpling over the road-side fields. I hear out of the summer woods and spring copses the weary pipe of his ancient refrain.’
I hope that after reading Crockett you may never look (or overlook) a Galloway dyke in the same way again!
While Loch Ken is perhaps the best known body of inland water in the Glenkens, Crockett’s writing favours Woodhall Loch. This he refers to by its older name, Loch Grenoch. Of it he writes: ‘Half its beauty is in the seeing eye. Yet not only the educated or intellectual may see.’ This is the loch of his boyhood. It lies alongside what is now the A762, which he used to walk to school in Laurieston each day, from his home at Little Duchrae.
And Grenoch Loch features heavily in his semi-autobiographical novel Kit Kennedy. In it, on a high June day, we are treated to a description of the young Kit being tempted into swimming (instead of going to school) by his collie dog Royal. In a long passage he notes: ‘It was a glorious day in June, and the water of Loch Grenoch basked blue and warm in the eighteen hour long sunshine.’
Finally, Kit cannot resist the urge to plunge into that water ‘It looked so cool that in a trice Kit had off his clothes and he and Royal were tumbling hither and thither in a wild wrestle about the sandy shallows. The crystal drops flew every way. Laughter and splashings were mingled with joyous barkings. The sun shone down with a broad grin upon the pleasant saturnalia’.
Stand by Woodhall Loch on a warm June day and I challenge you not to envy Kit his pleasure.
There is much more to be enjoyed along the banks of Woodhall/Loch Grenoch. Of all parts of the Glenkens, this near five mile stretch from the Duchrae to Laurieston is perhaps best and most beautifully evoked by Crockett. He describes ‘the first mile to the beginning of the loch itself’ (from Laurieston) as: ‘through scenery curiously reminiscent of some parts of central France – the valley of the Creuse for instance – or some of the lower tributaries of the tarn. The tall poplars in front of the ruined smithy, the burn that trips and ambles for a few hundred paces… all these are more French than Scottish. Myriads of wild flowers throng on every side, at all seasons of the year when wild flowers can be found in Scotland.’
These days, if you take this journey it is probably by car and you miss much of what Crockett describes. I would encourage exploring along the side of Grenoch/Woodhall loch using a slower form of transport to share Crockett’s appreciation for the detail of the landscape along the way.
Other lochs in Crockett’s novels include Loch Skerrow, fictionalised as Loch Spellanderie in Cleg Kelly. Crockett describes it (for an English readership) thus: ‘Like most Scottish lakes, Loch Spellanderie is not wide.’ In contrast to Kit’s frolics, Cleg swims across the loch with a purpose, escaping from the MacWalter family (with whom Kit Kennedy is lodged).
Crockett writes: ‘without giving himself a moment for reflection, he wheeled about on his heels, balanced a moment on the brink over the deep water, bent his arms with the fingers touching into a beautiful bow, and sprang far out into the black lake… Cleg Kelly swam nearly as easily in his clothes as without them. For he had cast his coat at the beginning of the fray, and, as to his trousers, they were loose and especially well ventilated. So that the water gushed in and out of the holes as he swam, much as though they had been the gills of a fish. Indeed, they rather helped his progress than otherwise.’
As he comes to the other side of the Loch, Cleg is surprised by: ‘a curiously shaped piece of wood, moved, as it seemed, by some mysterious power from the shore... in a minute more he felt his feet rest upon the shelving gravel of the lake shore. Instinctively Cleg brought the wedge-shaped piece of wood with him. He found, upon holding it close to his eyes in the dim light, that a double row of hooks was attached to it beneath, and that there were half a dozen good loch trout leaping and squirming upon different sides of it.
Cleg had no notion of the nature of the instrument he had captured. Nor indeed had he the least idea that he had disturbed certain very honest men in a wholly illegal operation.
He only shook himself like a water-dog and proceeded to run through the wood at an easy trot for the purpose of getting back some heat into his chilled limbs. He carried his trout with him.’
Crockett’s Galloway novels are suffused with many such fascinating, closely observed details, evidencing the customs and landscape of the Glenkens in former times.
Deeper into the Galloway hills, we find descriptions of many of the lochs, most notably the remote Neldricken and Enoch. Crockett takes a fictional Murder Hole from its location further north and places it at Loch Neldricken in The Raiders. And Loch Enoch is the setting for gypsy romance in Silver Sand.
Crockett reserves some of his best writing for his descriptions of Loch Enoch. He observes it as ‘literally a lake in cloudland’ and ‘so truly another world’. For him, Enoch is ‘an intricate tangle of bays and promontaries’ which on a ‘still evening...glows like a glittering silver rimmed pearl’ and which boasts ‘dainty white beaches of silver sand’. This sand was collected loose and used for sharpening in days long before sandpaper existed.
According to Crockett, while ‘it is pleasant to be on Enochside when the sun shines – not so marvellous, indeed, as to see its surges through the drifting snow-swirls as the short, fierce afternoons of winter close in.’ As ever, Crockett bears witness to the landscape at all times of year with equal veracity.
While many places in the Glenkens are easy for us to access, Enoch is not. For those who cannot make the journey to this most magnificent of landscapes, we can be grateful that Crockett has painted such beautiful word pictures to allow us to experience this natural beauty in the heart of Galloway. Whether it be June or December, Galloway has much to recommend it for the lover of nature.
'Now the moons of the months are wondrously different...The moon of May is the loveliest in all the year, for with its brightness comes the scent of flower-buds, and of young green leaves breaking from the quick and breathing earth.’ (The Raiders)
At the start of his most famous work Crockett observes: ‘It was ever my custom to walk in the full of the moon at all times of the year.’ While he waxes lyrical about the specific features of each monthly moon, he is also interested in describing its absence, that time known as the dark of the moon. Indeed, this was initially his preferred title for The Raiders but he was dissuaded by his publisher who thought it would be too obscure to engage potential readers. The dark o’ the moon refers to the period just after the new moon each month, when the skies are darkest. These were the best times for smugglers to be abroad. And smugglers are key to many of Crockett’s works. By 1902 when his fame assured massive readerships, he published the sequel to The Raiders and his title The Dark o’ the Moon went unchallenged.
Smuggling, kidnapping and gypsies feature in both novels. In The Raiders, the kidnapping of heroine May Mischief takes place under the full moon, while her rescue and the escape takes place on a moonless night.
‘It was indeed an uncanny night. The wind shrieked overhead, passing above us in a constant screaming yell, that sometimes sharpened like a whistle and anon dulled into a roar. There was no moon, but the storm-clouds had thinned and anon the mists lifted.’
In The Dark o’ the Moon there is another kidnap, and another escape. This time hero Maxwell Heron (son of the hero and heroine of The Raiders), also escapes from the Dungeon hills led by Blind Harry in the black of the night. The stumbling, dangerous journey is described in great detail until – ‘the first breaking of the blackness -not dawn, but the false dawn that looks out of the windows of the east for a moment to see what kind of morning it is and then forthwith goes back to bed again.’ …
They finally arrive, at daybreak at a place ‘out of the very heart of the wilds… where… the heather grew right up to the door on all sides. The name of the place was Craigencailzie and there was a well-marked trace from it across the waste to the great Irish drove road which runs by the New Town of Galloway to Dumfries.’ Crockett’s natural description of the Galloway hills is equally powerful during day and night, whether the moon is full or absent.
Some of us are night owls and some of us early birds. Crockett’s writing features descriptions of day, night and the transition between, of which he writes: ‘ I never miss a sunrise, if I can help it - though, truth to tell, I would hardly go across the room to see a sunset. Which, of course, is a matter of temperament - and partly temper.’
As well as describing the times of the day, he is masterful in his descriptions of the Galloway weather. Anyone who knows the Glenkens is well aware of how quickly the weather can change, and how extreme it can be. The Loves of Miss Anne is an example where his powerful description of a thunderstorm matches the event itself. Nothing and no one is spared, as shepherd Dan Mowatt, his dogs and sheep are caught out in a terrible storm:
‘And at that very moment, the whole world beneath them, hitherto shrouded in the milky bluish mist, lighted up into flame. Fire circled them—enclosed them. A white jagged bomb, from which ran streams of infinite brightness, seemed to burst within a few yards... The universe was filled with the astonishing clangour of the thunder, as if the mountains were indeed falling upon one another in anger…
... the rain descended. Not in drops as in the lower world, but as it falls upon the utmost hills, where the rivers are bred, and in storm-time the streams thunder down, gaining as they go, till ere they reach the valleys they have become mighty torrents.
It ‘rained hale water,’ as they say vigorously in Scotland. It fell as if the very windows of heaven, shut since the days of Noah, had been set wide open on purpose.’
Crockett stays with this storm, right to the (in this case) bitter end.
‘The thunder growled gradually farther and farther away. The bluish glimmer faded out of the air. The lightning came less frequently. The ewes began to rise and shake themselves, bleating questioningly, as they did when they wanted to be let out of the ‘ree’ in the mornings. As the thunder sank into silence Dan could hear, nearer and more powerful, the roar of the many waters tearing the sides of the mountain into gullies and ravines.
Beneath him the clouds sank away, trailing themselves to this side and that in long banks of woolly vapour. A glint of sunshine, sole wandering in the void of whirling mist, lighted the dismal scene.’
In this story the shepherd has lost more than sheep. Crockett is a nature writer, invariably writes of the power of nature and he appreciates all its colours and moods. While he evokes romance, he always balances it with a realism that allows us even all these years afterwards, to gain a true picture of the landscape of Galloway, and especially, his heartland, the Glenkens.
Hefting is a traditional method of managing flocks of sheep particularly hill-sheep. Initially achieved by constant shepherding, over time it becomes learned behaviour, passed from ewe to lamb over succeeding generations. My use of the phrase reflects the deep relationship between Crockett and Glenkens and the numerous ways in which he might be considered a Galloway ‘Herd’.
Of particular interest is Balmaghie, where Crockett was laid to rest in April 1914.
‘I have been most successful when I have ‘lee’d at lairge’… ‘truth to tell,many of my ‘lees’ were grounded in this parish.’
Because Crockett fictionalised names and places many people are unaware of the relationship between him and the Glenkens. But once you can read his ‘map’, you are brought into a different world, one where fiction illuminates rather than obscures fact.
In The Standard Bearer Crockett writes from the (relative) safety of the narrator’s voice: ‘There’s as many minds in Balmaghie as there’s folks in it.’ Writing about Balmaghie with the dry humour only a native son could get away with, The Standard Bearer is a fictionalised account of the life of late 17th century minister John Macmillan (not to be confused with Crockett’s friend the 19th century farmer John Macmillan of Glenhead). In the novel, the locals speak with an authentic dialect and the descriptions of place are equally authentic, if not to the early 18th century of the novel’s setting, then at least to the mid 19th century of Crockett’s youth.
Beyond his expose of the local people and customs, in his writings of Balmaghie we see signs of Crockett’s ‘hefted’ nature. Despite an adult life lived away from the Glenkens, it was always close to Crockett’s heart. He stated as much at a dinner held in his honour in 1906 at Dalbeattie… ‘if I forget Galloway, my little fatherland, may my right hand forget its cunning’ (Crockett was actually left handed. But we allow him his ‘lees’ in the pursuit of a good story!). He wanted to write stories about the area exclusively in dialect, but understood that in order to sell books and earn ‘siller’ he had to compromise. So compromise he did, but he never compromised on the clarity and accuracy of his natural descriptions, even when he fictionalised them. Crockett reveals the Glenkens as beautiful, and harsh, because it is beautiful and harsh. He knows the land. He loves it. And he draws beautiful, honest pictures of it in the words of his novels.
While Crockett’s family were Cameronians and did not worship at Balmaghie, still he observed it as ‘the sweetest and the sunniest God’s acre in Scotland’ and it was where he chose to be buried, among generations of his family gone before. He was well aware of its natural features ‘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’ . Crockett firmly sides himself with those who do not find such landscapes ‘lonely’. For him Balmaghie kirk is where ‘one can hear the birds crying in the Minister’s lilac-bushes, and Dee kissing the river grasses.’ His close relationship with the place is visceral.
In The Standard Bearer, the hero sees the parish through Crockett’s eyes when ‘on a clear night in early June’… he makes his way… ‘across the rugged fells and dark heathery fastnesses to the manse of Balmaghie. The mist was rising above the waterside. It lingered in pools and drifts in every meadowy hollow, but the purpling hilltops were clear and bare in the long, soft, June twilight.’
He describes it again in the depth of winter when, ‘I wandered by the bank of the river, where the sedges rustled lonely and dry by the marge… a ‘smurr’ of rain had begun to fall at the hour of dusk, and the slight ice of the morning had long since broken up. The water lisped and sobbed as the wind of winter lapped at the ripples and the brown-peat of the hills took its sluggish way to the sea.’
In The Standard Bearer the change of the seasons reflects the change in fortunes of the hero. But the poignancy of Crockett’s description is such that the fiction can fall away as we simply ‘see’ Balmaghie through the eyes of one who knew and loved it well. The fictional Quentin MacClellan describes Balmaghie as ‘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’. Of course, this is Balmaghie seen through the proud eyes of her son, S.R.Crockett.
Crockett knows the topography of the Glenkens intimately. His personal relationship with the water-meadows is revealed in many of his stories and he writes of the local people, ploughers and mowers and how they respond to both the seasons and the incursions of those who seek to change their way of life. More of this in months to come!
The parish of Balmaghie also has historic significance during the Covenanting period, and Crockett takes what these days might be called a ‘revisionist’ approach to the history of the Covenanters. In Covenanting novels such as Men of the Moss Hags and Lochinvar, both largely set in the Glenkens, there are many fine descriptions of the local landscape to be enjoyed, whatever your view of the historical period.
While he may ‘lee’ about Galloway in his fiction, the lies are simply fictionalising real people, places and scenes. The romance is less nostalgia and more reflective of the level of deep appreciation of nature which we might expect from poets. Crockett is not a Galloway poet, (Stevenson encouraged him to quit youthful poetry for prose) but he was definitely a careful observer, a deep lover of the landscape and, I contend, hefted to it. For anyone else who loves the Glenkens, Crockett should be seen, and read as a brother in arms.
‘Now the Dungeon of Buchan is a wide place, and many men can be safely accommodated there, not to be found even if a regiment should come searching them—that is, not without someone to guide them.’
Crockett knew the Galloway hills well. His friend and guide John Macmillan of Glenhead knew them even better. Their adventures together are used to great effect in The Raiders and Men of the Moss Hags. He subsequently drew on his time in the hills in many of his Galloway novels. Anyone who loves being out in these hills – or anyone who can only dream of it – will find Crockett’s natural descriptions paint pictures of a landscape that is difficult to access, beyond any beaten track, and all the more beautiful for that.
The tallest hill in the area, the Merrick, sits at the boundary of the Glenkens and while Crockett pays it respect:‘any chiel can write a buik, but it tak’s a man tae herd the Merrick’ it is seldom the focus of his fiction. He prefers being deep in the Dungeon of Buchan.
‘ I never remember to have looked into Buchan's Dungeon without seeing something brewing there. As soon as the sun begins to wester on the finest day of summer, with the first shadows, the cloud drifts and mist spume begin to weave a veil over the huge cauldron. The herds are used to call this phenomenon ‘the boiling of the pot.’
Crockett makes it plain that the Dungeon Hills is not a place to be taken lightly, especially in winter. He often focuses on the area known as ‘The Range of the Awful Hand’. However, an OS map is not all you need to fully explore Crockett’s hills. Many place names are different from those given on the map, which encourages the adventurous (and fit) to match place to name for themselves. Chief of these are: The Nick o’ the Dungeon and The Wolf’s Slock. Crockett claims to have invented the name Nick o’ the Dungeon in The Raiders. Patrick Heron faced a difficult night climb up it. Standing at Backhill o’ the Bush (a bothy which is in the area Crockett set Rose of the Wilderness) you can see it ahead and understand the name.
Further up, beyond the Nick, The Wolf’s Slock is more difficult to pinpoint. In Silver Sand, Crockett writes: ‘They reached the Dungeon of Buchan on a stubbornly bitter forenoon of blowing snow from the east, which came up out of the open jaws of the Wolf's Slock in a solid headlong push—like the fall of a wave on a deck, it swept the gorge from end to end.’
In Raiderland he describes it further: ‘Across a wilderness of tangled ridge-boulder and morass is the Long Hill of the Dungeon, depressed to the south into the ‘Wolf's Slock’ —or throat…. We may peer down for a moment into the misty depths of the Dungeon of Buchan. A scramble among the screes, a climb among the boulders, and we are on the edge of the Wolf’s Slock—the appropriately named wide throat up which so many marauding expeditions have come and gone.’
The actual physical location of the Wolf’s Slock caused debate for many years from a range of writers about the Galloway hills. McBain, Dick, and McCormick all have differing (sometimes contradictory ideas) and this is not helped by maps which over time have changed the stated position. I’m happy enough to go with Crockett’s descriptions – it builds a clear enough picture in my mind. And for any who are able to venture into the Galloway hills, they will be able to make up their own minds.
Anyone who does go into the Galloway hills should know that while they are smaller than Highland hills, they are every bit as dangerous, at any time of year. Crockett writes:
‘even in the clear warm August night the wind has a shrewd edge to it at these altitudes. Buchan's Dungeon swims beneath us, blue with misty vapour. We can see two of the three lochs of the Dungeon. It seems as if we could almost dive into the abyss, and swim gently downwards to that level plain, across which the Cooran Lane, the Sauch Burn, and the Shiel Burn are winding through ‘fozy’ mosses and dangerous sands.’
In The Raiders he expands on this view: ‘more than a thousand feet beneath him, he saw little lochs gleaming no bigger than so much water held in the palm of his hand, with streams that wimpled and meandered no thicker than a fine thread. This is the great cirque of the Dungeon of Buchan, the like of which is not in all Scotland, with the rocks falling away in purple precipices all about it, and only the one way out, which is shut by the bottomless green ‘well-eyes’ and sleechy quicksands of the ill-omened moss of Cooran.’
So while there is much beauty: ‘From horizon to horizon the heather glowed red as wine on the lees ’ there is also much danger. For example, at Craignairny: ‘A ridge that goes along from Dungeon Hill and on the eastern side overlooks Loch Enoch’ Crockett observes:
‘it was as chill up there as it is an hour before a March snowstorm. I got me on my feet and went stumbling forward, feeling all the time with my pike for the stones and hollows. Sometimes I fell over a lump of heather. Sometimes my foot skated on a slippery granite slab and down I came my length’.
Which should be warning enough to anyone planning to walk these hills.
The Galloway hills may not have the size of Highland hills, so that Patrick Heron says: ‘I was astonished at their height and greenness, never having in my life seen a green hill before, and supposing that all mountains were as rugged and purple with heather or else as grey with boulder as our own Screel and Ben Gairn by the Balcary shore.’
Still, he observes: ‘on the smooth side of the furthest spur of Millyea, the last of the Kells Range, which pushed its wide shoulders on into the north, heave behind heave, like a school of pellocks in the Firth.’
The smoothness of the Galloway hills is a feature Crockett writes about humorously:
‘It was always counted a Divine judgment on the people of the Glenkens that their hills are so smooth that the comings and goings of men and horses upon them can be seen afar, and the smoke of a still tracked for a summer day's journey…’
Yet Crockett’s imagination gives the Galloway hills a majesty which is not validated based on their height but in geological features, offering a more visceral perspective:
‘Nature has got down here to her pristine elements, and so old is the country, that we seem to see the whole turmoil of ‘taps and tourocks’—very much as they were when the last of the Galloway glaciers melted slowly away and left the long ice-vexed land at rest under the blow of the winds and the open heaven.’
In all weathers, the Galloway hills are a jewel in the Glenkens crown. Until relatively recently the area was known as ‘Crockett country’ and just as these days recognition is given to Nan Shepherd for her writing about the Cairngorms, so should Crockett be given credit for his writing of the Galloway hills. Crockett’s love letter to the Galloway hills is
more extensive, more expansive and melds fact with fiction’ and like the hills themselves, is a treasure still largely hidden, but no less a treasure for that.
Time and again he gives us Galloway in all its finest. All the while appreciating the personal relationship man can have with nature.
Oh! These early crisp mornings up there at the Dungeon, when the hoarfrost lay for the better part of an hour grey on the heather, and then was lifted away with such an elation of golden sunbeams set aslant from over the edge of the world, and such brisk whirrings of muirbirds.. such inexpressible freshness of the clean high air, such nearness of the sky – which nevertheless, when you lay on your back and looked upward at it became instantly infinitely removed. Will such good days come again? I wot not. We have grown old.
For one cannot run the wheels back upon the tracks of life, nor again be two-and-twenty, and out on the hills with a maid whose hand meets yours by instinct at each steepy turn of the brae.’