When caught up in fiction it's often easy to forget the real life people surrounding the stories. Here is a a particularly interesting letter (written in Gallovidian Scots) from S.R.Crockett to his friend John Macmillan of Glenhead, from 125 years ago... planning his sojourn in Galloway:
August 6th 1894
My Dear Friends at the Bonegill, I have been wearying to hear from you. We are still at home and have been ever since I saw you. I am about half through with the big Covenanting book, an have to work hard at it in order to get the matter in to Good Words in time, but I am not going to do much when I come to you… but lie on my back in the sun and kick my heels in the air. Sometimes I shall arise for the purpose of following the Mistress to the milkhouse on the lookout for buttermilk – like a suckle calf. Sometimes I shall take the hill with the guidman, and sometimes I shall bide at home and read the papers… all according to the freedom of my own will as the Quastion Buik says. I never put in as muckle hard work in my life as I hae dune thae last months an’ I am gye weel sure that I deserve a holiday…
Dear sirce, but I’m wearyen’ to speak a word or twa or the rale Gallowa’ that I get nae bit sae weel as at Glenhead. But I gie the Guidman (falsely so called for he was a Badman that day whatever) fair warnin’ that gin he gies me siccan a travel as I got gaun to Cove MacKitterick, I’ll e’en gar him gang screevin’ hame ‘without the breeks’ like Gibbie Macallister o’ the Langbarns in the tale o’ Mad Sir Uchtred.
I am sendin’ ye that same wi’ this post, an I howp that ye’ll like it. Ye’ll hae to let the travellers see whaur Sir Uchtred made the puir bit whutterick play whush ower the Clints o’ Clashdaan.
There’ll be a man up wi’ yin o’ thae nasty photographin’ things, sae see that ye hae a’ the lees ready for him. It’s no the truth they’re seekin’ onyway.
There was a callant her the ither day wi’ sicklike, an’ I tried to tell him the truth as best I could, though I am a minister. An’ haith, but the body just gaed awa’ an pat doon a pack o’ lees. So I hae done wi’ the truth noo. Yer minister loon wrate to me to want me till preach, but when I come away, fegs, but I’ll neyther preach nor pray for six weeks!
Dear sirce me… Glenhead, I wunner to hear ye, you for you wi’ your crappen fu’ o guid meal, to misoaa’ a puir man for talkin’ balderdash! It’s juist afore supper-time, an’ wha can talk sense when they are bein’ keepit waitin’ for their parritch?
The wife sends her guid w ull, an’ ye maun tell us gin it is per-pately convenient to hae us on the first o’ September
Wi’ a’ guidwull frae maysel’
I think this is a powerful letter, in respect of putting Crockett into a really human context. Amidst all the unpleasantness of the literary press, he was able to relax (and write Scots) to his rural friends. It shows (to me at least) that he was managing to keep a sense of proportion about things. We also see his weariness, both in terms of his job and in terms of the criticism he’s receiving. The plan to go to Glenhead for the month of September was, fortunately, followed through. It's just sad that 125 years on, Glenhead itself has been a victim of 're-development' which essentially means it no longer exists. This is the danger of not recognising the value of literary houses... even if they don't crumble, (Glenhead was a substantial, if a bit ugly, granite building) they can be pulled down. It was impossible to 'save' Glenhead - believe me, we tried.
Above, as it was 125 years ago and below 5 years ago
Now it is just a shell... in the name of 'progress'?! It is supposed to be being redeveloped into a 'bunkhouse' but all that seems to have happened is that it has been razed to the ground (it's the roofless building centre left) and a couple of temporary buildings thrown up. After the event there was quite a stooshie, but the result is that instead of preserved as the valuable cultural legacy it might have been it is now just a memory in fiction and photograph. Shame on all those who let this happen.
From 'Kit Kennedy' first serialised in 1898 and published in 1899.
Kit Kennedy was playing truant. The fact is sad, but it must not be blinked. It was a glorious day in June, and the water of Loch Grenoch basked blue and warm in the eighteen-hour-long sunshine. Also Royal was with him, his great red collie, whose left-hand connection with the laird of Craes Newfoundland was suspected on strong presumptive and circumstantial evidence. Royal, however, like most mixed races, was of a joyous disposition, and questions of pedigree did not trouble him. That he should have a blue-blooded Newfoundland or another to his father was all the same to Royal. He had even been known to ‘down’ his putative parent on the open street of Whinnyliggate and to take unfilial toll of his ear, for the first commandment with promise is not of any canine acceptation.
This day, however, he had assuredly led Kit Kennedy astray. The boy had left the cottage in the wood in the most meek and obedient frame of mind. He even ran over the multiplication table as far as nine times nine so quickly that it sounded like the gurring of a sewing-machine in rapid action. It was no use going further, for ten, eleven, and twelve times are too easy to be required seriously of babes, while thirteen times is impossible even to chartered accountants.
Kit proceeded as far as the road end of Crae before letting his good intentions falter. This was the precise distance that Betty Landsborough's sugar ‘piece’ lasted him.
Mistress Armour did not approve of spoiling boys, and would have sent Kit off empty-handed. But Betty thought otherwise. She continued the plan of Kit's mother on his first day of school, and her foolish extravagance was connived at by Matthew the Elder.
So every morning when Kit set out for Whinnyliggate —that is, every day except Saturday and Sunday—Betty spread a scone with butter, and upon the butter, with no illiberal hand, she showered a coating of sugar, thick, brown, and gritty as the desert of Sahara. To Kit's unsophisticated palate the combination constituted the food on which angels grew their wings.
But at the end of the little straight avenue, which led from the cottage door to the pine-edged road, the tempter was lying in wait. Royal, whose position in the family was now purely supernumerary, had vanished from the green in front upon the first appearance of Kit Kennedy at the door with Betty, who was concealing the sugar piece under her apron from Mistress Armour, while that shrewd lady occupied a position of observation in the rear.
So at the end of the road Royal waited on his prey.
Kit caught sight of him and whistled joyously. The dog curved his tail and came bounding up to the boy to beg for ‘scone.’ He had had his breakfast, and he privately despised sugar, except perhaps in lumps and of the best white quality.
But he wanted Kit Kennedy to come down and play with him on the lochside. And so, as Kit himself would have said, Royal ‘let on’ to like it.
The tempter gambolled in front, barking joyously. He said as plain as print, ‘Now then, we're off! Hurrah for the water!’
But for awhile—for at least as much as a quarter of an hour—Kit manfully resisted. By that time a considerable distance had been put between the cottage and the wayfarers. The loch was very blue beneath. The little waves sparkled distractingly. The wind waved the yellow broom in a way it really ought not to. The universe was ill-arranged for a small boy attending school that day.
Kit thought of the hot and breathless schoolroom at Whinnyliggate, of Duncan Duncanson and his leathern taws (not that he cared much for those—he would back his granny's palm against them any day), the smell of spilled ink, the mussy, gritty slates and smutty copy-books, the bouquet of crowded and perspiring village childhood, the buzz of flies, the infrequency of so much as a wasp in a girl's class by way of entertainment. And—well, he followed Royal down to the edge of the loch.
He would stay just a minute—not more. He could easily make it up. He knew he could. He had started early that morning. And Royal would be so disappointed. See how he ran on before, saying ‘Come along. I want a swim. And I know where there is a lovely stick for you to throw in!’
And so Kit succumbed to temptation, telling himself (like certain wiser and older people who shall be nameless) that it was only this once, and just to see what it was like.
‘Splash,’ went Royal into the water, his eyes fixed on the stick, his head rising and falling steadily with the power of his mighty chest - strokes and the lift of the little incoming waves. 'Jerk,’ he had it, with a snap of the jaws and a snort to clear his windpipe of the water he could not swallow. He was coming back hand over hand. Now he touched ground, and his back appeared above the loch. Royal scorned to pretend he was swimming when his feet were upon the bottom. Kit respected him for this. He was not always so conscientious himself. Who is, at the age of eleven, if it comes to that?
Stand clear all! Shake! The crystal drops flashed every way as Royal dropped the stick and stood ready again. Head a little forward, legs fixed on hair springs, eyes intently watching Kit's hand as he lifted the wet branch, tail switching a little nervily—it was high summer time with Royal Armour.
‘Ouch! Get on,’ he said in his own language, ‘don't keep me waiting. I can't bear it. If you knew how nice it was in the water, you wouldn't like to stop out here either.’
Kit swung the branch over his head, but instead of throwing it far into the water, he flung it up the green back with a great heave into the waving broom on the slope. Then he laughed heartlessly.
Royal gave him one look—contempt mingled with a most painful surprise.
‘Et tu, Brute!’ he remarked, plain as Caesar at the foot of Pompey's statue.
‘Ha! ha! ha!’ laughed Kit.
‘Ouch!’ snorted Royal, in quite a different key, with his nose in the air, as who would say, ‘Ha! ha! Aren't you funny?’
Then he went slowly and without joyousness up the hill. With a grave submission he brought the branch back and dropped it in dejected fashion at Kit's feet.
‘I wouldn't have expected this from you,’ he said, reproachfully. ‘You treat me as if I were not more than half a water dog. And the nicest half of me, too, on a day like this!’
Whereat being shame-stricken, Kit again cast the branch into the clear brown water of the loch—clear, that is, but with a little amber in its depths decocted from the peat bogs at its upper end and from the green water meadows of Dornal and Crae.
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 barking. The sun shown down with a broad grin upon the pleasant saturnalia.
Kit could swim a little. Geordie Elphinstone had taught him the breast stroke, but it was pleasanter and more interesting to wrestle near the shore with Royal, because at swimming he had no chance, whereas near the beach he was on more equal terms. The sun poured down upon his white glistening body. He shouted aloud in the young gladness of his heart. Duty, school-masters, lesson-books hid under broad stones, hours of exits and entrances, leathern taws and the moral law, were all alike forgotten.
‘Ouch —let's have another!’ barked Royal, lumbering outwards like a great pot-walloping elephant through the shallows to become instantly perfectly graceful in the amber deeps, 'come and have another!’ And Kit went. The water was still chillish, for it was early in the year. But the violence of the exercise and the racing of the young blood through his veins kept Kit warm for the better part of an hour.
Then he began to think of putting on his clothes. He waded ashore, feeling as the water fell away from him and the fanning wind blew, as if he had left part of himself behind in the water. He wished he had kept his sugar piece till now.
‘Ouff ouff!’ barked Royal behind him, ‘call yourself a swimmer and going out already—look at me!’
And the doubtful Newfoundland pushed right across the loch for the woods on the farther side.
‘Oh, no doubt,’ said Kit in reply, turning to watch him, ‘it's very easy for you, staying in the water with all that hair on. Try it in your bare skin and see how you like it.’
Then he held up his foot to try how it felt to have the water run between his toes. This proved interesting with the right foot, so Kit repeated the operation on the left. A little shiver of cold began to strike downward along his spine. He would put on his clothes. Where were they? Oh, yes, he remembered, behind that broom bush on the bank. He sprang up the short turf and rounded the waving green and gold of the obstacle.
There sat his mother beside them.
Kit is one of many iterations of Crockett's fictional self. For a particularly interesting comparison, five years earlier, read the following chapter about Andra Kissock in 'The Lilac Sunbonnet.'
meet the authors
Introducing some unco Scots writers and their works. Our featured author is S.R.Crockett (it's his 160th anniversary this year)