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.
Dogs appear in many of Crockett’s Galloway novels and he writes about them with humour and deep understanding. He is clearly a dog-lover and appreciates the significant relationship between dog and man in the farming community. How a man treats a dog, and how he relates to a dog, is seen to be indicative of his character. That said, Crockett is not sentimental in his portrayal of dogs even though there is much humour to be had when a dog is in the scene. Like the human characters Crockett writes about, the dogs often have hard lives and come to sticky ends.
In The Black Douglas we encounter what might be a wolfhound, but is presented as a werewolf. Another ‘big’ dog that we come across is in The Raiders and is Silver Sand’s own wolfhound, known as Quharrie. This dog may well have been the template for Crockett’s contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle’s own Hound of the Baskervilles.
The young Patrick Heron describes his meeting with Silver Sand’s dog:
‘Silver Sand introduced me to Quharrie— that terrible dog—making him tender me a great paw in a manner absurdly solemn, which made me kin and blood-brother to him all the days of my life. And I have received many a gift which I have found less useful, as you shall hear.’
Most often the dogs found in Crockett’s stories are collies, ranging from pure sheep dogs to those of more dubious parentage. They are usually given familiar names and we encounter a number of incarnations of Tweed, Trusty, Tyke, Yarrow and Royal in various stories.
In Rose of the Wilderness, Tweed and Tusker show their skills as sheepdogs. In The Loves of Miss Anne, Dan Weir’s sheepdogs Talla and Kilter stand guard during the storm when he abandons the flock and get struck by lightening for their pains. It is a poignant description:
‘They were still and stiff—both of them stricken by the lightning. But first they had brought in the ewes and the lambs— when the shepherd himself had deserted them, brought them where they would be safe from the storm, from the torrents that seamed the mountains every way and from the terror that would have scattered them hither and thither over the waste.’
In The Moss Troopers the aptly named collie Whitefoot is skilled far beyond that of a sheepdog and is central to the subterfuge. He carries messages between Stair Garland and Patsy, and is faithful unto death.
In The Banner of Blue, Anton Macmillan’s dogs are described with humour for their wisdom, and the descriptions ring true for anyone who has owned a collie (or two).
‘When Anton appeared in the little yard where were his thatched byre and the tiny ‘office houses’ which his own hands had built out of the granite boulders of Bennangour there in the midst were his collies Tod and Tyke—with Messan the novice aforesaid, now grown wiser and vacuating the hearth of his own proper initiative without application of the force majeure…
...Is he going to the kirk or is he not going to the kirk? Tyke and Tod cocked their wise heads and thought. You can easily see a good collie think. No professor does it more obviously when asked a question in class.’
Crockett shows dogs to be a vital part of the working rural community and as valued companions to his boy heroes. For example: ‘Kit Kennedy admired his mother above anything on earth—and loved her too, almost as much as his red dog Trusty.’
‘... as surely as the Wednesday and Saturday came round Kit would be found at play on the heights of the Craigs, rolling heathery wildernesses with the most fascinating nooks and corners, hiding-places and rocky watch-towers, that could possibly be imagined by the mind of boy. Here with Royal and Tweed, his satellite dogs. Kit kept his vigil, and was always the first to discern, far down the dusty road, the advent of Heather Jock and his donkey. ‘ Kit Kennedy has a whole chapter devoted to Kit and Royal playing truant which is an absolute tour de force of Crockett’s writing skills.
Crockett writes about real dogs from real experience, with a compelling humour. Dogs especially play a large part in the anarchy and chaos of the life of a boy. Crazy, the collie in The Dew of Their Youth is companion to Duncan and described as ‘our rough, red house-collie Crazy’ His shortcomings are ably described when Duncan and his grandmother go to visit ‘The Great House.’
‘After she had duly lectured the Widow Tolmie, she bade her in all amity ‘Good-day,’ and started to reform Crazy, who had been gyrating furiously across her path, trying apparently to bite his tail out by the roots. Crazy was, it appeared, a useless, good-for-nothing beast, a disgrace to a decent Elder’s house, and I was ordered to stone him home.’
The boy narrator sees it differently and continues:
‘ Crazy was my friend, my companion, my joy. Stone Crazy! It was not to be thought of. He would certainly consider it some new kind of game and run barking after the missiles.’
Crockett’s dogs are familiars in the kirk and the schoolroom as well as out on the hills. In The Stickit Minister, schoolmaster Duncan Duncanson is himself a victim of the figurative ‘black dog’ of depression. This manifests itself in violence at the arrival of Andrew Tait’s dog who: ‘in the height of the turmoil a great brown head presented itself at the door. It was the head of big red 'Trusty' the half-collie half-St.Bernard which sometimes accompanied Andrew Tait to the school, and played about outside till that youth got free of his bondage, when the pair went joyously homewards…
Trusty never was much of a scholar, in spite of so long frequenting the village academy.’
Another Royal features in ‘A Minister’s Day’. The young Wattie debates the question of whether dog’s have souls with the minister Richard Cameron, and makes a good account of himself.
‘Well,’ continued the minister, ‘would you not like to be a herd like Him, and look after men and not sheep?’
‘Sheep need to be lookit after as weel,’ said Walter.
‘But sheep have no souls to be saved!’ said Richard Cameron.
‘Dowgs hae!’ asserted Walter stoutly.
‘What makes you say so?’ said the minister indulgently. He was out for a holiday.
‘Because, if my dowg Royal hasna a soul, there's a heap o' fowk gangs to the kirk withoot!’
‘What does Royal do that makes you think that he has a soul?’ asked the minister.
‘Weel, for ae thing, he gangs to the kirk every Sabbath, and lies in the passage, an' he'll no as muckle as snack at a flee that lichts on his nose—a thing he's verra fond o' on a week day. An' if it's no' yersel' that's preachin', my gran'faither says that he'll rise an' gang oot till the sermon's by.’
The minister felt keenly the implied compliment.’
This story is re-told and expanded upon in A Galloway Herd where as well as Royal we are introduced to Yarrow and Donald the sheep. Donald also features in Kit Kennedy especially in the famous ‘roup’ scene. Another Yarrow features in Love Idylls in the story ‘Fitting of the Peats’ where he is Bell McLurg’s trusted but half-blind collie.
Generally dogs are regarded as important by Crockett’s characters, but in Lads’ Love we see a darker side. Rab Anderson’s poaching dogs are called ‘You’ and ‘You there’ which evidences how little importance he gives them, despite the fact that without them he wouldn’t be in business. But there is worse to come. Rab Anderson is also known to steal dogs, holding them to ransom and drowning them if their owners do not cough up. As Wattie Anderson finds out in A Galloway Herd, kidnapping is not just reserved for people.
Dick, the terrier in Cinderella is less likeable than collies. He belongs to Hester’s cousin Tom and is a manifestation of the cruelty visited by the boy on his cousin. Tom sets Dick on Hester’s cat Fluffy. It is a shocking scene:
‘Catch her — this way — at her, Dick! You've got her! Hist —good dog! Sick her then!’
... Hester, with a wild fear suddenly taking possession of her soul, ran at full speed round the greenhouse, past the sun-dial, and there on the narrow ledge of a fence to which she had sprung from the window-sill of the potting-house stood Fluffy her own Fluffy, every hair on end with pain and anger, and her tail well-nigh as thick as her body. She was mewing piteously and flicking an ear that had been bitten through by the yapping fox-terrier which still leaped and snapped below. A drop or two of blood had distilled down and flecked Fluffy's delicate pearl-coloured fur.’
Despite this one act of cruelty, if you love dogs you will find many in Crockett’s stories to entertain you. His descriptions are accurate, funny and sometimes painfully poignant.