‘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.
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.