‘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.’