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.