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.