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.