‘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.
'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.