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.
'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.
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.
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.
Dogs appear in many of Crockett’s Galloway novels and he writes about them with humour and deep understanding. He is clearly a dog-lover and appreciates the significant relationship between dog and man in the farming community. How a man treats a dog, and how he relates to a dog, is seen to be indicative of his character. That said, Crockett is not sentimental in his portrayal of dogs even though there is much humour to be had when a dog is in the scene. Like the human characters Crockett writes about, the dogs often have hard lives and come to sticky ends.
In The Black Douglas we encounter what might be a wolfhound, but is presented as a werewolf. Another ‘big’ dog that we come across is in The Raiders and is Silver Sand’s own wolfhound, known as Quharrie. This dog may well have been the template for Crockett’s contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle’s own Hound of the Baskervilles.
The young Patrick Heron describes his meeting with Silver Sand’s dog:
‘Silver Sand introduced me to Quharrie— that terrible dog—making him tender me a great paw in a manner absurdly solemn, which made me kin and blood-brother to him all the days of my life. And I have received many a gift which I have found less useful, as you shall hear.’
Most often the dogs found in Crockett’s stories are collies, ranging from pure sheep dogs to those of more dubious parentage. They are usually given familiar names and we encounter a number of incarnations of Tweed, Trusty, Tyke, Yarrow and Royal in various stories.
In Rose of the Wilderness, Tweed and Tusker show their skills as sheepdogs. In The Loves of Miss Anne, Dan Weir’s sheepdogs Talla and Kilter stand guard during the storm when he abandons the flock and get struck by lightening for their pains. It is a poignant description:
‘They were still and stiff—both of them stricken by the lightning. But first they had brought in the ewes and the lambs— when the shepherd himself had deserted them, brought them where they would be safe from the storm, from the torrents that seamed the mountains every way and from the terror that would have scattered them hither and thither over the waste.’
In The Moss Troopers the aptly named collie Whitefoot is skilled far beyond that of a sheepdog and is central to the subterfuge. He carries messages between Stair Garland and Patsy, and is faithful unto death.
In The Banner of Blue, Anton Macmillan’s dogs are described with humour for their wisdom, and the descriptions ring true for anyone who has owned a collie (or two).
‘When Anton appeared in the little yard where were his thatched byre and the tiny ‘office houses’ which his own hands had built out of the granite boulders of Bennangour there in the midst were his collies Tod and Tyke—with Messan the novice aforesaid, now grown wiser and vacuating the hearth of his own proper initiative without application of the force majeure…
...Is he going to the kirk or is he not going to the kirk? Tyke and Tod cocked their wise heads and thought. You can easily see a good collie think. No professor does it more obviously when asked a question in class.’
Crockett shows dogs to be a vital part of the working rural community and as valued companions to his boy heroes. For example: ‘Kit Kennedy admired his mother above anything on earth—and loved her too, almost as much as his red dog Trusty.’
‘... as surely as the Wednesday and Saturday came round Kit would be found at play on the heights of the Craigs, rolling heathery wildernesses with the most fascinating nooks and corners, hiding-places and rocky watch-towers, that could possibly be imagined by the mind of boy. Here with Royal and Tweed, his satellite dogs. Kit kept his vigil, and was always the first to discern, far down the dusty road, the advent of Heather Jock and his donkey. ‘ Kit Kennedy has a whole chapter devoted to Kit and Royal playing truant which is an absolute tour de force of Crockett’s writing skills.
Crockett writes about real dogs from real experience, with a compelling humour. Dogs especially play a large part in the anarchy and chaos of the life of a boy. Crazy, the collie in The Dew of Their Youth is companion to Duncan and described as ‘our rough, red house-collie Crazy’ His shortcomings are ably described when Duncan and his grandmother go to visit ‘The Great House.’
‘After she had duly lectured the Widow Tolmie, she bade her in all amity ‘Good-day,’ and started to reform Crazy, who had been gyrating furiously across her path, trying apparently to bite his tail out by the roots. Crazy was, it appeared, a useless, good-for-nothing beast, a disgrace to a decent Elder’s house, and I was ordered to stone him home.’
The boy narrator sees it differently and continues:
‘ Crazy was my friend, my companion, my joy. Stone Crazy! It was not to be thought of. He would certainly consider it some new kind of game and run barking after the missiles.’
Crockett’s dogs are familiars in the kirk and the schoolroom as well as out on the hills. In The Stickit Minister, schoolmaster Duncan Duncanson is himself a victim of the figurative ‘black dog’ of depression. This manifests itself in violence at the arrival of Andrew Tait’s dog who: ‘in the height of the turmoil a great brown head presented itself at the door. It was the head of big red 'Trusty' the half-collie half-St.Bernard which sometimes accompanied Andrew Tait to the school, and played about outside till that youth got free of his bondage, when the pair went joyously homewards…
Trusty never was much of a scholar, in spite of so long frequenting the village academy.’
Another Royal features in ‘A Minister’s Day’. The young Wattie debates the question of whether dog’s have souls with the minister Richard Cameron, and makes a good account of himself.
‘Well,’ continued the minister, ‘would you not like to be a herd like Him, and look after men and not sheep?’
‘Sheep need to be lookit after as weel,’ said Walter.
‘But sheep have no souls to be saved!’ said Richard Cameron.
‘Dowgs hae!’ asserted Walter stoutly.
‘What makes you say so?’ said the minister indulgently. He was out for a holiday.
‘Because, if my dowg Royal hasna a soul, there's a heap o' fowk gangs to the kirk withoot!’
‘What does Royal do that makes you think that he has a soul?’ asked the minister.
‘Weel, for ae thing, he gangs to the kirk every Sabbath, and lies in the passage, an' he'll no as muckle as snack at a flee that lichts on his nose—a thing he's verra fond o' on a week day. An' if it's no' yersel' that's preachin', my gran'faither says that he'll rise an' gang oot till the sermon's by.’
The minister felt keenly the implied compliment.’
This story is re-told and expanded upon in A Galloway Herd where as well as Royal we are introduced to Yarrow and Donald the sheep. Donald also features in Kit Kennedy especially in the famous ‘roup’ scene. Another Yarrow features in Love Idylls in the story ‘Fitting of the Peats’ where he is Bell McLurg’s trusted but half-blind collie.
Generally dogs are regarded as important by Crockett’s characters, but in Lads’ Love we see a darker side. Rab Anderson’s poaching dogs are called ‘You’ and ‘You there’ which evidences how little importance he gives them, despite the fact that without them he wouldn’t be in business. But there is worse to come. Rab Anderson is also known to steal dogs, holding them to ransom and drowning them if their owners do not cough up. As Wattie Anderson finds out in A Galloway Herd, kidnapping is not just reserved for people.
Dick, the terrier in Cinderella is less likeable than collies. He belongs to Hester’s cousin Tom and is a manifestation of the cruelty visited by the boy on his cousin. Tom sets Dick on Hester’s cat Fluffy. It is a shocking scene:
‘Catch her — this way — at her, Dick! You've got her! Hist —good dog! Sick her then!’
... Hester, with a wild fear suddenly taking possession of her soul, ran at full speed round the greenhouse, past the sun-dial, and there on the narrow ledge of a fence to which she had sprung from the window-sill of the potting-house stood Fluffy her own Fluffy, every hair on end with pain and anger, and her tail well-nigh as thick as her body. She was mewing piteously and flicking an ear that had been bitten through by the yapping fox-terrier which still leaped and snapped below. A drop or two of blood had distilled down and flecked Fluffy's delicate pearl-coloured fur.’
Despite this one act of cruelty, if you love dogs you will find many in Crockett’s stories to entertain you. His descriptions are accurate, funny and sometimes painfully poignant.