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!