‘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.’
Crockett is a powerful writer of the Galloway landscape. Especially evocative are his scenes set amongst caves, and during winter. While the most famous Crockett cave is the fictional Rathan cave (on Hestan Island) there are many caves among the Galloway hills and Crockett combines fiction and reality as he utilises these for his stories of gypsies, smugglers and kidnapping. At Mullwharchar, also known as Hill of the Star, ‘The great clouds were topping the black and terrible ramparts opposite to me. Along the long cliff line, scarred and broken with the thunderbolt, the clouds lay piled, making the Merrick, the Star, the Dungeon, and the other hills of that centre boss of the hill country look twice their proper height.
In The Raiders this is the site for the Auchty Cave, where Patrick Heron and Silver Sand spend ‘The Sixteen Drifty days’, in a snowstorm. Its dangers are described thus:
‘In a step we had lost one another. We were blinded, deafened, blown away. I stood and shouted my loudest. When I got my eyes open I saw a fearsome sight. The darkness was white—above, around, beneath—all was a livid, solid, white darkness. So fierce were the flakes, driven by the wind, that neither the black of the earth nor the dun of the sky shone through. I shouted my best, standing with outstretched arms. My cry was shut in my mouth. It never reached my own ears.’
But of course no storm lasts forever, and then there is a vista to behold: ‘It was a clear, bright morning when we put aside the mat and looked out. The brightness was like the kingdom of heaven. There was a chill thin air blowing, and the snow was already hard bound with frost. We looked down into the Dungeon of Buchan. Its mighty cauldron that had the three lochs at the bottom, was nearly full of snow. The lochs were not. The Wolf's Slock was not. The night before we had only seen a whirling chaos of hurrying flakes of infinite deepness. The morning showed us the great valley almost levelled up with snow, from Breesha and the Snibe to the Range of Kells.’
My personal favourite cave is on the Dungeon Hill. Crockett calls it the ‘Shiel of the Dungeon of Buchan’. For me, the opening of The Dark of the Moon shows a place which more than any other, captures my imagination. It possibly only ever lived in Crockett’s imagination. The Shiel is ‘A strange place half natural cavern, the rest a rickle of rude masonry plastered like a swallow’s nest on the face of the cliff among the wildest of southern hills’
The description of Joyce Faa looking down over the Glenkens from this place offers a brilliant perspective: looking out of the four-square aperture which served the Shiel of the Dungeon for a window...it stood open, and, as the light of the evening sun slanted along the precipice front, the head of a young girl was set in it as a picture is set in a dark frame.’’
For me this offers an evocative description of truly being in nature:
‘Immediately below was the wide gulf of space, sinking away so sharply as to turn a stranger giddy; but Joyce Faa straightened herself and stood erect, with the grace and strength of a young birk-tree rooted in the clefts of the rock.’
Crockett writes of caves as temporary homes for Covenanting outlaws and as places gypsies carry their kidnap victims to. They are also shelters from the storm for those unwise enough to go out in the hills in winter. But the harshness of winter can be felt in the lowlands too.
At the fictional Loch Spellanderie (Loch Skerrow) the young Kit Kennedy feels the full force of the weather:
‘The moon, getting old, and yawning in the middle as if tired of being out so late, set a crumbly horn past the edge of his little skylight. Her straggling, pallid rays fell on something white on Kit's bed. He put out his hand, and it went into a cold wreath of snow up to the wrist.
‘Ouch!’ said Kit Kennedy.’
‘Kit took the corner of the scanty coverlet, and, with a well-accustomed arm-sweep, sent the whole swirl of snow over the end of his bed, getting across the side at the same time himself. He did not complain. All he said, as he blew upon his hands and slapped them against his sides, was, ‘Michty, it'll be cauld at the turnip pits this mornin'!’
It had been snowing in the night since Kit lay down, and the snow had sifted in through the open tiles of the farmhouse of Loch Spellanderie. That was nothing. It often did that, but sometimes it rained, and that was worse. Yet Kit Kennedy did not much mind even that. He had a cunning arrangement in old umbrellas and corn-sacks that could beat the rain any day. Snow, in his own words, he did not give a ‘buckie’ for.’
In Crockett’s youth, his childhood home Little Duchrae was single story and ‘the boys’ slept up in the attic. This description from Kit Kennedy is quite likely drawn from personal experience.
There is much to be learned from the fictional domestic pictures Crockett draws of rural life in the mid 19th century. And humour.
‘He crossed over to the cattle-sheds. The snow was crisp under foot. His feet went through the light drift which had fallen during the night, and crackled frostily upon the older and harder undercrust. At the barn door Kit paused to put fresh straw in his iron-shod clogs. Fresh straw every morning in the bottom of one's clogs is a great luxury. It keeps the feet warm. Who can afford a new sole of fleecy wool every morning to his shoe? Kit could, for straw is cheap, and even his mistress did not grudge a handful. Not that it would have mattered if she had...
...The lantern threw dancing reflections on the snow. Tyke grovelled and rolled in the light drift, barking loudly. He bit at his own tail. Kit set down the lantern, and fell upon him for a tussle. The two of them had rolled one another into a snow-drift in exactly ten seconds, from which they rose glowing with heat — the heat of young things when the blood runs fast.’
Snow is just a part of life in a Galloway winter. Rose of the Wilderness also poignantly describes the last journey of a dead young woman from the remote house (near Back Hill o’ the Bush) ‘the black of the coffin made a sombre dash on the first snow of the winter...
...I shall ever feel that her real funeral, from amidst those who loved her, was when I saw that little dark burden dwindle and vanish into the swirls of bleak November snow, upheld by the shoulders of four strong men, my father, tall and a little stooping, in front, and Muckle Tamson tramping steadily alongside waiting his turn, his eyes far away and the snow in his beard.
Then darkness came. The storm swept up the glen.’
The first person narrator perspective gives an added sense of realism and pathos.
In Rose of the Wilderness the dangers of being out working in the snow are closely observed. The boy, nicknamed ‘Stoor’ comes in to report on the men who have gone to gather the sheep:
‘I saw a queer little face, the snow frozen and clinging about the shaggy tags of hair, wild eyes dark as sloes, and a mouth that cried words that were instantly swept away by the tempest without.
It was ‘Stoor.’
I helped him in—indeed, I may say I dragged him in. He had seen the light and had come straight for it, climbing the snow-wreaths on his way.
The boys go out again to rescue both sheep and men. It is a perilous quest:
‘once out of the shelter of the square of farm buildings, the breath was blown right out of me. I was dashed this way and that... I could not hear my own voice when I shouted. On the mountains the snow raged onward like sea-billows’,
The value of sheep and the domestic disaster of a snowstorm are explained, reminding us that snow can be as deadly as it is picturesque:
‘spring rent day was coming on, and what should have gone to Wallet's or Lichtbody's mart lay rotting under the still frozen snow… so wide was the Wilderness, and so curious the ways of sheep, that a flock of them would collect in the only place where they must assuredly find Death—perhaps in a hollow shaped like the palm of one's hand, where they were immediately snowed over to the depth of thirty or forty feet, not to be found till the spring winds and rains had cleared the land, sometime in the early days of May.’
There are many snow-storms in Crockett’s work, which can enjoyable to read about when one is facing (hopefully from indoors) our own winters. There is winter adventure as in the ‘ice-running’ scene in The Raiders, but I prefer the more domestic, rural realism of Rose of the Wilderness and Kit Kennedy.
Whether you are a fan of snow or not, this February, reading Crockett can make you thankful you’re not stuck out in a cave or on the hills in a Scottish snowstorm.