Transport changed significantly during Crockett's lifetime and this is reflected in his writing. As I have written elsewhere, he was born in the age of the railways, with which he had strong family connections.
Yet he excels in showing us the slower pace of life. In his youth he walked, and rode in carts. His characters roam the hills and glens over many a mile no matter the weather or the ground underfoot.
Sweetheart Travellers describes several cycling adventures in the Glenkens which the adult Crockett took with his firstborn daughter Maisie (Sweetheart) on a Humber Beeston Tricycle. And later in Sweethearts at Home he observes the passage of time noting that his daughter ‘is now ‘nineteen and tall. She would be the death of her poor father (and of the machine) at the very first hill. Now she rides a ‘free-wheel’ of her own’.
If his childhood was marked by the coming of railways, his adulthood was marked by the advent of the car. Crockett writes extensively about the perils of the new fangled motorised transport in Sweethearts at Home, reminiscing about ‘When the Roads Were Sweet, Safe and Silent.’ He observes:
‘Then we had the world to ourselves, save for a red farm cart or so. Then there were no motor-cars, no motor-buses, no clappering insolent monocycles! It was in some wise the rider's age of gold. The country still lay waste and sweet and silent about him. The ignoble ‘toot-toot’ and rhinoceros snort of the pursuing monster was unknown...
...Get out of the way, all you mean little people!’ was not yet the commonest of highway sounds. The green hedgerows were not hidden under a grey dust veil. The Trossachs, the Highlands, the English lakes, and our own fair Galloway roads were not splashed with the iridescent fragrance of petrol. Ah, we took Time by the forelock... in those old days when the hawthorn was untainted and the wayside honeysuckles still gave forth a good smell.’
It’s safe to say Crockett is not a fan of the car. He concludes:
‘I love my friends who are tied to these chariot wheels. But I fear for them. Temptation is great. Easy is the descent of Avernus, aided by a smart chauffeur, who wants to give you ‘the value of your money’ in speed and the survival of the fittest: id est, of himself and you!
Better, far better, to take pack on back, pilgrim staff in hand, and then—to the woods and the hills with Sweetheart and me, where never ‘teuf-teuf’ can be heard, nor petrol perfume the land.’
Despite (or perhaps because of) his aversion to this mode of transport, Crockett writes the first car chase in fiction. His 1907 novel Vida– The Iron Laird of Kirktown, features a chase from St John’s Town of Dalry to Newton Stewart across the Galloway moors. It precedes Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps chase (over remarkably similar ground) by a decade. Buchan’s chase is better known simply because The Thirty Nine Steps is better known than Vida. But if you want a great Galloway car chase – turn to Crockett. He evokes the wonder and danger of the motor car in the Galloway landscape thus:
‘I ran the Mercedes at his, as if to pass, and I could see his head already ducking low to avoid the bullet. Then I manoeuvered to take him behind at full speed, in which case I would have thrown him high in the air even if I had not exploded both cars. But the Mercedes ran little risk because of its great size and weight. So pleased was I with this play that the solitary house called Clatteringshaws came too soon in sight. He looked anxiously at the dyke, at the little garden, at the shark backs of purplish-grey rock. But no one came out at the noise of our racing wheels. With a yell I rushed him, and in a moment we were past and out on the moor again. ‘Yes, I played with him as a cat does with a mouse, now surging along as if to end him, and anon drawing slowly off. But a mile or two further there is a curious dip in the road down which we raced. A tall obelisk doubtless set there in memory of some great fighter of times long past-perhaps the Black George of Galloway-crowned a little heather mount to the right...
...‘I could see the yellow French car slacken speed as it took the hill opposite. On the contrary the weight of my Mercedes carried her to the top with unabated force. He needed fuel, too, and was beginning to know it. Before me I saw the wide country spread to a horizon of low whale-backed ridges with the rocks I have spoken of (called 'clints'), all about-a dreary place, but fit for my work-that which the little cold hands of Katarina on my wrists called me to do. There was also a long ditch showing black among the turfy heather, all gashed into deep cracks and proper for my purpose as if it had been made so...
...‘Then because it was time to end I caused the heavy Mercedes to sweep up abreast of the lighter French car, from the right side. It was a narrow way. Fair on the chassis a little before the rear wheel I struck, and our weight and force turned the yellow car over into a little ravine.’
In Crockett’s childhood it was the red farm cart that provided transport for his family as they travelled from Duchrae to the Cameronian Kirk in Castle Douglas on Sundays. He describes it in In A Galloway Herd:
‘The ‘Buik’ being over, the red cart rattled to the door to convey such of the church-goers as were not able to walk all the weary miles to the Cameronian kirk in Cairn Edward. The stalwart, long-legged sons had cut across a shorter way by the Big Hoose and the Deeside kirk… The clean red farm cart rattled into the town of Cairn Edward at five minutes past eleven… Times had not been good of late, and for some years, indeed, ever since the imposition of the tax on light-wheeled vehicles, the ‘tax-cart’ had slumbered wheelless in the back of the peat-shed, and the Drumquhat folk had driven a well-cleaned, heavy wheeled cart both to kirk and market.’
The young Walter, and we assume the young Sam Crockett, ‘nominally accompanied the cart, and occasionally he had seated himself on the clean straw which filled its bottom; but most of the time this was far too fatiguing an occupation for him. On the plea of walking up the hills, he ranged about on either side of the highway, scenting the ground like a young collie. He even gathered flowers when his ‘grandfather’ was not looking,’
Walking long distances was common in Crockett’s day. He observes: ‘As characters, I do not think that any in all Galloway impressed my boyish mind so much as the three Laurieston old maids, Mary, Jennie, and Jean M'Haffie. I have written of them time and again.
... They trudged fourteen miles every Sabbath day, with their dresses ‘feat and snod’ and their linen like the very snow, to listen to the gospel preached according to their consciences. They were all the smallest of women, but their hearts were great.’
If you are interested in the history (and history of transport) in the Glenkens there is much to be gleaned about turnpikes and farm carts in A Galloway Herd. Saunders M’Quhirr, brings Wattie’s mother back from London on the red cart in a chapter titled ‘The Serpent in Paradise’ where he describes the drive back to Laurieston in some detail.
‘One of the turnpikes led westward to the ferry over the Dee Water, through rocky glens and by gleaming hill tarns, while the other continued over the moors and by the loch-side to the village of Whinnyliggate. A stone's throw before the meeting of the roads was a little bridge over an insignificant but irresponsible brook—a burn which executed the most astonishing cuttings and curves.’
Descriptions of The Green Dook in The Banner of Blue, and road mending in Kit Kennedy offer more insights into the Glenkens of Crockett’s era.
The byways of the Glenkens may seem unremarkable if you whizz past in a car. Look through Crockett’s eyes however and you will see an entirely different place and pace – as he draws you into the Glenkens of a hundred and fifty years ago. While the roads have been upgraded extensively, if you get out in the countryside on foot or by bike, with Crockett as your guide you will have an entirely different experience.
'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.