'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.
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.