Hefting is a traditional method of managing flocks of sheep particularly hill-sheep. Initially achieved by constant shepherding, over time it becomes learned behaviour, passed from ewe to lamb over succeeding generations. My use of the phrase reflects the deep relationship between Crockett and Glenkens and the numerous ways in which he might be considered a Galloway ‘Herd’.
Of particular interest is Balmaghie, where Crockett was laid to rest in April 1914.
‘I have been most successful when I have ‘lee’d at lairge’… ‘truth to tell,many of my ‘lees’ were grounded in this parish.’
Because Crockett fictionalised names and places many people are unaware of the relationship between him and the Glenkens. But once you can read his ‘map’, you are brought into a different world, one where fiction illuminates rather than obscures fact.
In The Standard Bearer Crockett writes from the (relative) safety of the narrator’s voice: ‘There’s as many minds in Balmaghie as there’s folks in it.’ Writing about Balmaghie with the dry humour only a native son could get away with, The Standard Bearer is a fictionalised account of the life of late 17th century minister John Macmillan (not to be confused with Crockett’s friend the 19th century farmer John Macmillan of Glenhead). In the novel, the locals speak with an authentic dialect and the descriptions of place are equally authentic, if not to the early 18th century of the novel’s setting, then at least to the mid 19th century of Crockett’s youth.
Beyond his expose of the local people and customs, in his writings of Balmaghie we see signs of Crockett’s ‘hefted’ nature. Despite an adult life lived away from the Glenkens, it was always close to Crockett’s heart. He stated as much at a dinner held in his honour in 1906 at Dalbeattie… ‘if I forget Galloway, my little fatherland, may my right hand forget its cunning’ (Crockett was actually left handed. But we allow him his ‘lees’ in the pursuit of a good story!). He wanted to write stories about the area exclusively in dialect, but understood that in order to sell books and earn ‘siller’ he had to compromise. So compromise he did, but he never compromised on the clarity and accuracy of his natural descriptions, even when he fictionalised them. Crockett reveals the Glenkens as beautiful, and harsh, because it is beautiful and harsh. He knows the land. He loves it. And he draws beautiful, honest pictures of it in the words of his novels.
While Crockett’s family were Cameronians and did not worship at Balmaghie, still he observed it as ‘the sweetest and the sunniest God’s acre in Scotland’ and it was where he chose to be buried, among generations of his family gone before. He was well aware of its natural features ‘a lonesome spot, at least for those who love not to look down upon broad water meadows in which the Lammas floods spread wide, or who cannot be content with the sough of the leaves for company’ . Crockett firmly sides himself with those who do not find such landscapes ‘lonely’. For him Balmaghie kirk is where ‘one can hear the birds crying in the Minister’s lilac-bushes, and Dee kissing the river grasses.’ His close relationship with the place is visceral.
In The Standard Bearer, the hero sees the parish through Crockett’s eyes when ‘on a clear night in early June’… he makes his way… ‘across the rugged fells and dark heathery fastnesses to the manse of Balmaghie. The mist was rising above the waterside. It lingered in pools and drifts in every meadowy hollow, but the purpling hilltops were clear and bare in the long, soft, June twilight.’
He describes it again in the depth of winter when, ‘I wandered by the bank of the river, where the sedges rustled lonely and dry by the marge… a ‘smurr’ of rain had begun to fall at the hour of dusk, and the slight ice of the morning had long since broken up. The water lisped and sobbed as the wind of winter lapped at the ripples and the brown-peat of the hills took its sluggish way to the sea.’
In The Standard Bearer the change of the seasons reflects the change in fortunes of the hero. But the poignancy of Crockett’s description is such that the fiction can fall away as we simply ‘see’ Balmaghie through the eyes of one who knew and loved it well. The fictional Quentin MacClellan describes Balmaghie as ‘the very heart of Galloway, between the slow, placid, sylvan stretches of the Ken and the roaring, turbulent mill-race of the Black Water of Dee’. Of course, this is Balmaghie seen through the proud eyes of her son, S.R.Crockett.
Crockett knows the topography of the Glenkens intimately. His personal relationship with the water-meadows is revealed in many of his stories and he writes of the local people, ploughers and mowers and how they respond to both the seasons and the incursions of those who seek to change their way of life. More of this in months to come!
The parish of Balmaghie also has historic significance during the Covenanting period, and Crockett takes what these days might be called a ‘revisionist’ approach to the history of the Covenanters. In Covenanting novels such as Men of the Moss Hags and Lochinvar, both largely set in the Glenkens, there are many fine descriptions of the local landscape to be enjoyed, whatever your view of the historical period.
While he may ‘lee’ about Galloway in his fiction, the lies are simply fictionalising real people, places and scenes. The romance is less nostalgia and more reflective of the level of deep appreciation of nature which we might expect from poets. Crockett is not a Galloway poet, (Stevenson encouraged him to quit youthful poetry for prose) but he was definitely a careful observer, a deep lover of the landscape and, I contend, hefted to it. For anyone else who loves the Glenkens, Crockett should be seen, and read as a brother in arms.