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.
We went up through a green archway to a hill-top which had been kept clear of trees when the woods were planted. From it we looked away across the loch and the cultivated lands, with the peat-reek of the village rising blue from its whitewashed ‘lums’ between us and the far north hills. (The Loves of Miss Anne)
When we look at a natural landscape, we often assume it has always looked this way. In the case of trees and forests of course, this is seldom the case. While trees can live hundreds of years, plantations come and go and forests are ‘managed’. The Glenkens is no different. Crockett mentions trees frequently in his novels and stories and draws pictures for the imagination of how the landscape looked in the area, throughout history.
‘There are many woods of pine and oak about the Duchrae; and we went through one of them to an ancient moat-hill or place of defence on a hillside, with a ditch about it of three or four yards wideness, which overlooked the narrow pack road by the water's edge.’ (Men of the Moss Hags)
Inevitably, Crockett describes the landscape as he experienced it himself, so that in some of his historic novels he is speculative. However, in his Covenanting novel Men of the Moss Hags he singles out a tree you can still find today at Earlstoun Castle. The Earlstoun Oak is sanctuary for Sandy Gordon. Crockett tells us:
‘Sandy has betaken himself to his great oak on the border of the policies, where with his skill in forest craft he had built himself a platform among the solidest masses of the leaves. There he abode during the day, with a watch set on the Tod Hill and another on the White Hill above the wood of Barskeoch. Only at the even, when all things were quiet, would he venture to slip down and mix with us about the fire. But he swung himself swiftly back again to his tree by a rope, if any of the dragoons were to be heard of in the neighbourhood…
...My mother stood on the step and waved me off with no tear in her eye; and even poor Jean Hamilton, from the window whence she could see the great oak where my brother, her husband, was in hiding, caused a kerchief to show white against the grey wall of Earlstoun.’
Through his description of historic trees, Crockett helps us reach back into the past.
In his 18th century novel The Loves of Miss Anne, Crockett draws us a picture of the age of ‘improvement’. Here he takes a controversial position, suggesting that the cutting down of trees constitutes an act of vandalism against nature.
‘once when Sir Tempest had need of money and called on my father to mark the worth of a thousand pounds of trees the forester cried out, ‘I canna! Oh, I canna! It wad break my heart to see them comin' doon! And to ken that it was me that had condemned them to dee!’
But when Sir Tempest took council with another, even the Cairn Edward [Castle Douglas] wood-merchant, and when the two went to and fro with a pot of red paint among my father's choicest growths, it is said that the old man wept aloud.
‘Rayther than that should happen,’ he declared, breaking in upon them, ‘I will e'en mark them mysel’. But send that man awa' or I will no be responsible for the bill-hook in my richt hand!’
The man was sent away, and when he came back my father had marked (as the wood-merchant said) ‘a lot of rubbage hardly worth burnin', though guid eneuch doubtless for pit props.’
...so complete did the tyranny of my father over the Grennoch woods become, that the nominal master thereof in his later years hardly dared to step aside from the path to cut himself a walking-stick, without asking permission of his chief forester!’
Crockett’s use of Galloway dialect here supports his sympathetic position, poignantly illustrating the relationship between the local man and his natural world - threatened by the man of commerce and money. In the process he reveals many small but fascinating details of social history.
Above all we see that MacTaggart knows trees as his friends and nurtures them thus:
‘In the woods my father talked all the time to himself in quick runs of soliloquy, thus: ‘He will no do, this yin! He's no drivin' his roots far eneuch under! The first big wind frae the west, a pickle snaw on his airms, and he'll be whammelt—ay, sirs, whammelt! I'm speakin'. Even though he's whisperin' in pride of leaves and spreadin' himsel' like a green bay-tree!’
Crockett reminds us of the transience of all natural things:
‘Perhaps it was of a fine young fir he was thus delivering himself, shaped like a graceful pyramid. But sure enough the wind came, and the snow, and together they beat upon that fir, and the place that knew it once now knows it no more for ever. It underwent the whirring saw years before its time, even as my father had said.
I think Crockett more than gives Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders a run for its money in The Loves of Miss Anne. His figurative conclusion: ‘A man is like a tree,' says I, ‘and the heart o' man is deceitfu' abune everything and desperately rotten!' Man, I could smell yon yin a mile aff!’ strikes home clearly in the context of the story. Equally powerful is: ‘he would none of my sympathy, shaking off my hand as if it had been a leaf fallen from a tree.’
We hear Crockett’s own voice most clearly through his narrative voice:
‘There was the world of birds and shy wild tree-dwellers, of rustling leaves also, of far-descending roots steeped in moisture and hidden in the rich red earth, of tall clean trunks, smooth all round save on the north side, where the moss clings and the lichen protects it from the winter blast—and then above, high in the garish sunshine, the final coronal of leaves. In such a world I loved to dream, sitting hushed, immovable as one of the grey oak stems.’
In ‘EPILOGUE: In Praise of Galloway’ (Bog Myrtle and Peat, 1894) Crockett removes man entirely from the story, focussing instead on the relationship between the birds and the woodland as the world transforms from night to dawn. It is poignant and humorous in equal measure.
Crockett’s many descriptions of the Duchrae woods allow us to see the area accurately as it was in his own childhood. An inveterate climber – he boasted of climbing the walls of Threave and in later life he climbed in the Swiss Alps - his descriptions of climbing trees in his works always ring true. In the story ‘Love Among the Beech Leaves’ from Love Idylls a young Rab Christie (surely a version of Crockett) indulges in some youthful lovemaking – and reading – up a tree.
‘’There were three great beeches standing in the old courtyard, making a dream of rustling leaves, and sprinkling a pleasant shade over the great iron bar to which the horses were yoked when the mill was to be set agoing. As she passed under the trees something fell at her feet, narrowly missing her head. Bess MacAndrew sprang her own length aside, with a shrill cry. There was something moving among the leaves, and that which had fallen at her feet was a book.
From overhead came the voice of the new loon.
‘Lassie fetch me up that book. It'll save me comin' doom’
‘I daresay,’ said Bess. ‘Come doon and get the book. It'll save me comin' up.’
‘Verra weel,’ said crafty Rab, ‘I can do withoot it; but it's juist graund up here!’
‘What are ye doin' there?’ continued Bess, standing on tiptoe and peering up. She could see nothing, however, except a pair of legs waving in the air. It was certainly very mysterious and attractive.
'I can see Criffel an' the three Cairnsmores, an' the dominie at the schule, an' a' the boys playin' 'Steal the Bonnets'! Oh, it's graund!’
‘I wish I could see!’ said Bess MacAndrew wistfully.
‘There's made a bonny seat up here where ye can sit and swing, and the wind rocks ye, an' the leaves birl aboot ye and tell ye stories, an' ye can sit an' read—splendid stories—ghosts and murders and fairies an'…’
‘I'm comin' up,’ said Bess.
‘Wi, than!’ said the invisible in the tree; ‘fetch the book wi ye!
Soon Rab and Bess were seated side by side far up in the great beech tree. Rab had fixed a slate in a curious but perfectly safe position between two thick branches.
The trees of Crockett’s Glenkens are beeches, oaks and hazel rather than the fir plantations we are more familiar with today. They evoke nature’s majesty rather than commercial possibility. Yet we are reminded of the transience of the natural world through mention of The Bogle Thorn. The tree fell victim to the road straightening alongside of the A762. A photograph exists, but it is also immortalised in fiction through ‘The Little Green Man’ (Sweethearts At Home).
Crockett valued the trees and woodlands of the Glenkens and his writing allows us to see nature as it was in times gone by. What the eye cannot see, the imagination can still enjoy.