‘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.
While Loch Ken is perhaps the best known body of inland water in the Glenkens, Crockett’s writing favours Woodhall Loch. This he refers to by its older name, Loch Grenoch. Of it he writes: ‘Half its beauty is in the seeing eye. Yet not only the educated or intellectual may see.’ This is the loch of his boyhood. It lies alongside what is now the A762, which he used to walk to school in Laurieston each day, from his home at Little Duchrae.
And Grenoch Loch features heavily in his semi-autobiographical novel Kit Kennedy. In it, on a high June day, we are treated to a description of the young Kit being tempted into swimming (instead of going to school) by his collie dog Royal. In a long passage he notes: ‘It was a glorious day in June, and the water of Loch Grenoch basked blue and warm in the eighteen hour long sunshine.’
Finally, Kit cannot resist the urge to plunge into that water ‘It looked so cool that in a trice Kit had off his clothes and he and Royal were tumbling hither and thither in a wild wrestle about the sandy shallows. The crystal drops flew every way. Laughter and splashings were mingled with joyous barkings. The sun shone down with a broad grin upon the pleasant saturnalia’.
Stand by Woodhall Loch on a warm June day and I challenge you not to envy Kit his pleasure.
There is much more to be enjoyed along the banks of Woodhall/Loch Grenoch. Of all parts of the Glenkens, this near five mile stretch from the Duchrae to Laurieston is perhaps best and most beautifully evoked by Crockett. He describes ‘the first mile to the beginning of the loch itself’ (from Laurieston) as: ‘through scenery curiously reminiscent of some parts of central France – the valley of the Creuse for instance – or some of the lower tributaries of the tarn. The tall poplars in front of the ruined smithy, the burn that trips and ambles for a few hundred paces… all these are more French than Scottish. Myriads of wild flowers throng on every side, at all seasons of the year when wild flowers can be found in Scotland.’
These days, if you take this journey it is probably by car and you miss much of what Crockett describes. I would encourage exploring along the side of Grenoch/Woodhall loch using a slower form of transport to share Crockett’s appreciation for the detail of the landscape along the way.
Other lochs in Crockett’s novels include Loch Skerrow, fictionalised as Loch Spellanderie in Cleg Kelly. Crockett describes it (for an English readership) thus: ‘Like most Scottish lakes, Loch Spellanderie is not wide.’ In contrast to Kit’s frolics, Cleg swims across the loch with a purpose, escaping from the MacWalter family (with whom Kit Kennedy is lodged).
Crockett writes: ‘without giving himself a moment for reflection, he wheeled about on his heels, balanced a moment on the brink over the deep water, bent his arms with the fingers touching into a beautiful bow, and sprang far out into the black lake… Cleg Kelly swam nearly as easily in his clothes as without them. For he had cast his coat at the beginning of the fray, and, as to his trousers, they were loose and especially well ventilated. So that the water gushed in and out of the holes as he swam, much as though they had been the gills of a fish. Indeed, they rather helped his progress than otherwise.’
As he comes to the other side of the Loch, Cleg is surprised by: ‘a curiously shaped piece of wood, moved, as it seemed, by some mysterious power from the shore... in a minute more he felt his feet rest upon the shelving gravel of the lake shore. Instinctively Cleg brought the wedge-shaped piece of wood with him. He found, upon holding it close to his eyes in the dim light, that a double row of hooks was attached to it beneath, and that there were half a dozen good loch trout leaping and squirming upon different sides of it.
Cleg had no notion of the nature of the instrument he had captured. Nor indeed had he the least idea that he had disturbed certain very honest men in a wholly illegal operation.
He only shook himself like a water-dog and proceeded to run through the wood at an easy trot for the purpose of getting back some heat into his chilled limbs. He carried his trout with him.’
Crockett’s Galloway novels are suffused with many such fascinating, closely observed details, evidencing the customs and landscape of the Glenkens in former times.
Deeper into the Galloway hills, we find descriptions of many of the lochs, most notably the remote Neldricken and Enoch. Crockett takes a fictional Murder Hole from its location further north and places it at Loch Neldricken in The Raiders. And Loch Enoch is the setting for gypsy romance in Silver Sand.
Crockett reserves some of his best writing for his descriptions of Loch Enoch. He observes it as ‘literally a lake in cloudland’ and ‘so truly another world’. For him, Enoch is ‘an intricate tangle of bays and promontaries’ which on a ‘still evening...glows like a glittering silver rimmed pearl’ and which boasts ‘dainty white beaches of silver sand’. This sand was collected loose and used for sharpening in days long before sandpaper existed.
According to Crockett, while ‘it is pleasant to be on Enochside when the sun shines – not so marvellous, indeed, as to see its surges through the drifting snow-swirls as the short, fierce afternoons of winter close in.’ As ever, Crockett bears witness to the landscape at all times of year with equal veracity.
While many places in the Glenkens are easy for us to access, Enoch is not. For those who cannot make the journey to this most magnificent of landscapes, we can be grateful that Crockett has painted such beautiful word pictures to allow us to experience this natural beauty in the heart of Galloway. Whether it be June or December, Galloway has much to recommend it for the lover of nature.
'Now the moons of the months are wondrously different...The moon of May is the loveliest in all the year, for with its brightness comes the scent of flower-buds, and of young green leaves breaking from the quick and breathing earth.’ (The Raiders)
At the start of his most famous work Crockett observes: ‘It was ever my custom to walk in the full of the moon at all times of the year.’ While he waxes lyrical about the specific features of each monthly moon, he is also interested in describing its absence, that time known as the dark of the moon. Indeed, this was initially his preferred title for The Raiders but he was dissuaded by his publisher who thought it would be too obscure to engage potential readers. The dark o’ the moon refers to the period just after the new moon each month, when the skies are darkest. These were the best times for smugglers to be abroad. And smugglers are key to many of Crockett’s works. By 1902 when his fame assured massive readerships, he published the sequel to The Raiders and his title The Dark o’ the Moon went unchallenged.
Smuggling, kidnapping and gypsies feature in both novels. In The Raiders, the kidnapping of heroine May Mischief takes place under the full moon, while her rescue and the escape takes place on a moonless night.
‘It was indeed an uncanny night. The wind shrieked overhead, passing above us in a constant screaming yell, that sometimes sharpened like a whistle and anon dulled into a roar. There was no moon, but the storm-clouds had thinned and anon the mists lifted.’
In The Dark o’ the Moon there is another kidnap, and another escape. This time hero Maxwell Heron (son of the hero and heroine of The Raiders), also escapes from the Dungeon hills led by Blind Harry in the black of the night. The stumbling, dangerous journey is described in great detail until – ‘the first breaking of the blackness -not dawn, but the false dawn that looks out of the windows of the east for a moment to see what kind of morning it is and then forthwith goes back to bed again.’ …
They finally arrive, at daybreak at a place ‘out of the very heart of the wilds… where… the heather grew right up to the door on all sides. The name of the place was Craigencailzie and there was a well-marked trace from it across the waste to the great Irish drove road which runs by the New Town of Galloway to Dumfries.’ Crockett’s natural description of the Galloway hills is equally powerful during day and night, whether the moon is full or absent.
Some of us are night owls and some of us early birds. Crockett’s writing features descriptions of day, night and the transition between, of which he writes: ‘ I never miss a sunrise, if I can help it - though, truth to tell, I would hardly go across the room to see a sunset. Which, of course, is a matter of temperament - and partly temper.’
As well as describing the times of the day, he is masterful in his descriptions of the Galloway weather. Anyone who knows the Glenkens is well aware of how quickly the weather can change, and how extreme it can be. The Loves of Miss Anne is an example where his powerful description of a thunderstorm matches the event itself. Nothing and no one is spared, as shepherd Dan Mowatt, his dogs and sheep are caught out in a terrible storm:
‘And at that very moment, the whole world beneath them, hitherto shrouded in the milky bluish mist, lighted up into flame. Fire circled them—enclosed them. A white jagged bomb, from which ran streams of infinite brightness, seemed to burst within a few yards... The universe was filled with the astonishing clangour of the thunder, as if the mountains were indeed falling upon one another in anger…
... the rain descended. Not in drops as in the lower world, but as it falls upon the utmost hills, where the rivers are bred, and in storm-time the streams thunder down, gaining as they go, till ere they reach the valleys they have become mighty torrents.
It ‘rained hale water,’ as they say vigorously in Scotland. It fell as if the very windows of heaven, shut since the days of Noah, had been set wide open on purpose.’
Crockett stays with this storm, right to the (in this case) bitter end.
‘The thunder growled gradually farther and farther away. The bluish glimmer faded out of the air. The lightning came less frequently. The ewes began to rise and shake themselves, bleating questioningly, as they did when they wanted to be let out of the ‘ree’ in the mornings. As the thunder sank into silence Dan could hear, nearer and more powerful, the roar of the many waters tearing the sides of the mountain into gullies and ravines.
Beneath him the clouds sank away, trailing themselves to this side and that in long banks of woolly vapour. A glint of sunshine, sole wandering in the void of whirling mist, lighted the dismal scene.’
In this story the shepherd has lost more than sheep. Crockett is a nature writer, invariably writes of the power of nature and he appreciates all its colours and moods. While he evokes romance, he always balances it with a realism that allows us even all these years afterwards, to gain a true picture of the landscape of Galloway, and especially, his heartland, the Glenkens.
‘Now the Dungeon of Buchan is a wide place, and many men can be safely accommodated there, not to be found even if a regiment should come searching them—that is, not without someone to guide them.’
Crockett knew the Galloway hills well. His friend and guide John Macmillan of Glenhead knew them even better. Their adventures together are used to great effect in The Raiders and Men of the Moss Hags. He subsequently drew on his time in the hills in many of his Galloway novels. Anyone who loves being out in these hills – or anyone who can only dream of it – will find Crockett’s natural descriptions paint pictures of a landscape that is difficult to access, beyond any beaten track, and all the more beautiful for that.
The tallest hill in the area, the Merrick, sits at the boundary of the Glenkens and while Crockett pays it respect:‘any chiel can write a buik, but it tak’s a man tae herd the Merrick’ it is seldom the focus of his fiction. He prefers being deep in the Dungeon of Buchan.
‘ I never remember to have looked into Buchan's Dungeon without seeing something brewing there. As soon as the sun begins to wester on the finest day of summer, with the first shadows, the cloud drifts and mist spume begin to weave a veil over the huge cauldron. The herds are used to call this phenomenon ‘the boiling of the pot.’
Crockett makes it plain that the Dungeon Hills is not a place to be taken lightly, especially in winter. He often focuses on the area known as ‘The Range of the Awful Hand’. However, an OS map is not all you need to fully explore Crockett’s hills. Many place names are different from those given on the map, which encourages the adventurous (and fit) to match place to name for themselves. Chief of these are: The Nick o’ the Dungeon and The Wolf’s Slock. Crockett claims to have invented the name Nick o’ the Dungeon in The Raiders. Patrick Heron faced a difficult night climb up it. Standing at Backhill o’ the Bush (a bothy which is in the area Crockett set Rose of the Wilderness) you can see it ahead and understand the name.
Further up, beyond the Nick, The Wolf’s Slock is more difficult to pinpoint. In Silver Sand, Crockett writes: ‘They reached the Dungeon of Buchan on a stubbornly bitter forenoon of blowing snow from the east, which came up out of the open jaws of the Wolf's Slock in a solid headlong push—like the fall of a wave on a deck, it swept the gorge from end to end.’
In Raiderland he describes it further: ‘Across a wilderness of tangled ridge-boulder and morass is the Long Hill of the Dungeon, depressed to the south into the ‘Wolf's Slock’ —or throat…. We may peer down for a moment into the misty depths of the Dungeon of Buchan. A scramble among the screes, a climb among the boulders, and we are on the edge of the Wolf’s Slock—the appropriately named wide throat up which so many marauding expeditions have come and gone.’
The actual physical location of the Wolf’s Slock caused debate for many years from a range of writers about the Galloway hills. McBain, Dick, and McCormick all have differing (sometimes contradictory ideas) and this is not helped by maps which over time have changed the stated position. I’m happy enough to go with Crockett’s descriptions – it builds a clear enough picture in my mind. And for any who are able to venture into the Galloway hills, they will be able to make up their own minds.
Anyone who does go into the Galloway hills should know that while they are smaller than Highland hills, they are every bit as dangerous, at any time of year. Crockett writes:
‘even in the clear warm August night the wind has a shrewd edge to it at these altitudes. Buchan's Dungeon swims beneath us, blue with misty vapour. We can see two of the three lochs of the Dungeon. It seems as if we could almost dive into the abyss, and swim gently downwards to that level plain, across which the Cooran Lane, the Sauch Burn, and the Shiel Burn are winding through ‘fozy’ mosses and dangerous sands.’
In The Raiders he expands on this view: ‘more than a thousand feet beneath him, he saw little lochs gleaming no bigger than so much water held in the palm of his hand, with streams that wimpled and meandered no thicker than a fine thread. This is the great cirque of the Dungeon of Buchan, the like of which is not in all Scotland, with the rocks falling away in purple precipices all about it, and only the one way out, which is shut by the bottomless green ‘well-eyes’ and sleechy quicksands of the ill-omened moss of Cooran.’
So while there is much beauty: ‘From horizon to horizon the heather glowed red as wine on the lees ’ there is also much danger. For example, at Craignairny: ‘A ridge that goes along from Dungeon Hill and on the eastern side overlooks Loch Enoch’ Crockett observes:
‘it was as chill up there as it is an hour before a March snowstorm. I got me on my feet and went stumbling forward, feeling all the time with my pike for the stones and hollows. Sometimes I fell over a lump of heather. Sometimes my foot skated on a slippery granite slab and down I came my length’.
Which should be warning enough to anyone planning to walk these hills.
The Galloway hills may not have the size of Highland hills, so that Patrick Heron says: ‘I was astonished at their height and greenness, never having in my life seen a green hill before, and supposing that all mountains were as rugged and purple with heather or else as grey with boulder as our own Screel and Ben Gairn by the Balcary shore.’
Still, he observes: ‘on the smooth side of the furthest spur of Millyea, the last of the Kells Range, which pushed its wide shoulders on into the north, heave behind heave, like a school of pellocks in the Firth.’
The smoothness of the Galloway hills is a feature Crockett writes about humorously:
‘It was always counted a Divine judgment on the people of the Glenkens that their hills are so smooth that the comings and goings of men and horses upon them can be seen afar, and the smoke of a still tracked for a summer day's journey…’
Yet Crockett’s imagination gives the Galloway hills a majesty which is not validated based on their height but in geological features, offering a more visceral perspective:
‘Nature has got down here to her pristine elements, and so old is the country, that we seem to see the whole turmoil of ‘taps and tourocks’—very much as they were when the last of the Galloway glaciers melted slowly away and left the long ice-vexed land at rest under the blow of the winds and the open heaven.’
In all weathers, the Galloway hills are a jewel in the Glenkens crown. Until relatively recently the area was known as ‘Crockett country’ and just as these days recognition is given to Nan Shepherd for her writing about the Cairngorms, so should Crockett be given credit for his writing of the Galloway hills. Crockett’s love letter to the Galloway hills is
more extensive, more expansive and melds fact with fiction’ and like the hills themselves, is a treasure still largely hidden, but no less a treasure for that.
Time and again he gives us Galloway in all its finest. All the while appreciating the personal relationship man can have with nature.
Oh! These early crisp mornings up there at the Dungeon, when the hoarfrost lay for the better part of an hour grey on the heather, and then was lifted away with such an elation of golden sunbeams set aslant from over the edge of the world, and such brisk whirrings of muirbirds.. such inexpressible freshness of the clean high air, such nearness of the sky – which nevertheless, when you lay on your back and looked upward at it became instantly infinitely removed. Will such good days come again? I wot not. We have grown old.
For one cannot run the wheels back upon the tracks of life, nor again be two-and-twenty, and out on the hills with a maid whose hand meets yours by instinct at each steepy turn of the brae.’
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.