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.