The Duchrae of Balmaghie
The farm I know best is also the loveliest for situation. It lies nestled in green holm crofts. The purple moors ring it half round, north and south. To the eastward pinewoods once stood ranked and ready like battalions clad in indigo and Lincoln green against the rising sun—that is, till one fell year when the woodmen swarmed all along the slopes and the ring of axes was heard everywhere. The earliest scent I can remember is that of fresh pine chips, among which my mother laid me while she and her brothers gathered ‘kindling’ among the yet unfallen giants. Too young to walk, I had to be carried pick-a-back to the wood. But I can remember with a strange clearness the broad spread of the moor beneath over which we had come, the warmth of the shawl in which I was wrapped, the dreamy scent of the newly cut fir-chips in which they had left me nested—above all, I recall a certain bit of blue sky that looked down at me with so friendly a wink, as a white racing cloud passed high overhead.
Such is the first beginning that I remember of that outdoor life, to which ever since my eyes have kept themselves wide-open. Of indoor things one only is earlier.
It was a warm harvest day—early September, most likely —all the family out at the oats, following the slow sweep of the scythe or the crisper crop of the reaping-hook. Silence in the little kitchen of the Duchrae! Only my grandmother padding softly about in her list slippers (or hoshens), baking farles of cake on the ‘girdle,’ the round plate of iron described by Froissart. The door and windows were open, and without there spread that silence in comparison with which the hush of a kirkyard is almost company—the silence of a Scottish farmyard in the first burst of harvest.
And I—what was I doing? I know not, but this I do know — that I came to myself lying under the hood of an old worm-eaten cradle of a worn plum-colour, staring at my own bare toes which I had set up on the bar at the cradle-foot!
These two memories, out-door and in-door, have stood out clear and distinct all my life, and do so now. Nor could I have been told of them afterwards, for there was nothing in either which concerns any but myself.
The Loch came after. It lay beneath, at what seemed a Sabbath day's journey from the house of Duchrae, down a wonderful loaning, full of infinite marvels. Beyond a little stile there was a group of oak trees, from one of which a swing depended. There was also a sugar-plum tree, under which I first learned the difference which exists between meum and tuum, a little brook that rippled across the road (now, I fear, ignominiously conveyed in a drain-pipe), at which the horses were watered night and morning, and where I gat myself muddied and soaking—but afterwards, upon discovery, also well warmed.
Then close by the highway is an unforgotten little elbow of road. The loaning runs straight up and down now, but you can still see the bend of the old path and the green bank—nay, only I know where to look for that—the bank on which my mother sat and sang me ‘The Lord's my Shepherd’ on Sabbath afternoons.
For of all those who were a part of these things, only one now remains upon the earth. The rest are over the hill yonder, in the Balmaghie kirkyard, the sweetest and the sunniest God's Acre in Scotland, and since such things must needs be, doubtless a right desirable place for any tired wanderer's resting-grave.
Then through the gate—no, the yett—and you are on the road to New Galloway. But keep straight forward a little way, and 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!
The water-meadows, rich with long deep grass that one could hide in standing erect, bog-myrtle bushes, hazel-nuts, and brambles big as prize gooseberries and black as—well, as our mouths when we had done eating them. Woods of tall Scotch firs stood up on one hand, oak and ash on the other. Out in the wimpling fairway of the Black Lane, the Hollan Isle lay anchored. Such a place for nuts! You could get back-loads and back-loads of them to break your teeth upon in the winter forenights. You could ferry across a raft laden with them. Also, and most likely, you could fall off the raft yourself and be well-nigh drowned. You might play hide-and-seek about the Camp, which (though marked ‘probably Roman’ in the Survey Map) is no Roman camp at all, but instead only the last fortification of the Levellers in Galloway— those brave but benighted cottiers and crofters who rose in belated rebellion because the lairds shut them out from their poor moorland pasturages and peat-mosses.
Their story is told in that more recent supplement to ‘The Raiders’ entitled ‘The Dark o' the Moon.’ There the record of their deliberations and exploits is in the main truthfully enough given, and the fact is undoubted that they finished their course within their entrenched camp upon the Duchrae bank, defying the king's troops with their home-made pikes and rusty old Covenanting swords.
‘There is a ford (says this chronicle) over the Lane of Grennoch, near where the clear brown stream detaches itself from the narrows of the loch, and a full mile before it unites its slow-moving lily-fringed stream with the Black Water o' Dee rushing down from its granite moorlands.’
The Lane of Grennoch seemed to that comfortable English drover, Mr. Job Brown, like a bit of Warwickshire let into the moory boggish desolations of Galloway. But even as he lifted his eyes from the lily-pools where the broad leaves were already browning and turning up at the edges, lo! there, above him, peeping through the russet heather of a Scottish October, was a boulder of the native rock of the province, lichened and water-worn, of which the poet sings--
‘See yonder on the hillside scaur, Up amang the heather near and far, Wha but Granny Granite, auld Granny Granite, Girnin' wi' her grey teeth.’
If the traveller will be at the pains to cross the Lane of Grennoch, or, as it is now more commonly called, the Duchrae Lane, a couple of hundred yards north of the bridge, he will find a way past an old cottage, embowered pleasure-house of many a boyish dream, out upon the craggy face of the Crae Hill. Then over the trees and hazel bushes of the Hollan Isle, he will have (like Captain Austin Tredennis) a view of the entire defences of the Levellers and of the way by which most of them escaped across the fords of the Dee Water, before the final assault by the king's forces.
‘The situation was naturally a strong one—that is, if, as was at the time most likely, it had to be attacked solely by cavalry, or by an irregular force acting without artillery.
‘In front the 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.’ (Dark o’the Moon)
Such about the year 1723 was the place where the poor, brave, ignorant cottiers of Galloway made their last stand against the edict which (doubtless in the interests of social progress and the new order of things) drove them from their hillside holdings, their trim patches of cleared land, their scanty rigs of corn high in lirks of the mountain, or in blind ‘hopes’ still more sheltered from the blast.
Opposite Glenhead, at the uppermost end of the Trool valley, you can see when the sun is setting over western Loch Moan and his rays run level as an ocean floor, the trace of walled enclosures, the outer rings of farm-steadings, the dyke-ridges that enclosed the home-crofts, small as pocket-handkerchiefs; and higher still, ascending the mountain-side, regular as the stripes on corduroy, you can trace the ancient rigs where the corn once bloomed bonny even in these wildest and most remote recesses of the hills. All is now passed away and matter for romance—but it is truth all the same, and one may tell it without fear and without favour.
From the Crae Hill, especially if one continues a little to the south till you reach the summit cairn above the farmhouse of Nether Crae, you can see many things. For one thing you are in the heart of the Covenant Country.
‘He pointed north to where on Auchencloy Moor the slender shaft of the Martyrs' Monument gleamed white among the darker heather—south to where on Kirkconnel the hillside Grier of Lag found six living men and left six corpses— west towards Wigton Bay, where they drowned two of the bravest of womankind, tied like dogs to a stake—east to the kirkyards of Balmaghie and Crossmichael, where under the trees the martyrs of Scotland lie thick as gowans on the lea.’ (The Stickit Minister.)
Save by general direction you cannot take in all these by the seeing of the eye from the Crae Hill. But you are in the midst of them, and the hollows of the hills where the men died for their ‘thocht,’ and the quiet God's Acres where they lie buried, are as much of the essence of Scotland as the red flushing of the heather in autumn and the hill tarns and ‘Dhu Lochs’ scattered like dark liquid eyes over the face of the wilds.
Chiefly, however, I love the Crae Hill because from there you get the best view of the Duchrae, where for years a certain lonely child played, and about which in after years, so many poor imaginings have worked themselves out. Here lived and loved one Winsome Charteris—also a certain Maisie Lennox, with many and many another. By that fireside sat night after night the original of Silver Sand, relating stories with that shrewd beaconing twinkle in the eye which told of humour and experience deep as a draw-well and wide as the brown-backed moors over which he had come.
From these low-lying craigs in front of the farm buildings, one Kit Kennedy saw the sun raise its bleared winter-red eye over the snows of Ben Gairn as he hied him homewards after feeding the sheep. Cleg Kelly turned somersaults by the side of that crumbling wall, and a score of boys have played out their life games among the hazels of that tangled waterside plantation which is still today the Duchrae Bank.
There is indeed little difference about the house since the place was really Craig Ronald—a new porch to the door, new roofs to the farm buildings, the pleasant front garden quite abolished. These make the sum of the differences you will find when you go up the loaning and look for a moment at the white cottage-farm, where once on a time some of the earth's excellent ones were passing rich on a good deal less than forty pounds a year. The farm by the waterside is at its best in harvest, or perhaps--
‘About the Lammas-tide, When the moor men win their hay.’
Then you may chance to find something like this: ‘Silence deep as that of yesterday wrapped about the farmhouse of Craig Ronald. The hens were all down under the lee of the orchard hedge, chuckling and chunnering low to themselves, and nestling with their feathers spread balloon-wise, while they flirted the hot summer dust over them. It fell upon their droopy and flaccid combs. Down where the grass was in shadow a mower was sharpening his blade. The clear metallic sound of the ' strake' or sharpening strop, covered with pure white Loch Skerrow sand set in grease, cut through the slumberous hum of the noonday air as the blade itself cuts through the meadow grass. The bees in the purple flowers beneath the window boomed a mellow bass, and the grasshoppers made love by millions in the couch grass, chirring in a thousand fleeting raptures.’ (The Stickit Minister)
Coming down the Crae Hill, let us return, not by the bridge, but by the front of the deserted cottage. On your right, as you descend through the pinewood, is a tiny islet, crowded standing-room for half-a-dozen grown men, but an entire continent for a boy to explore in the long days of the blanket-washing, when all the women-folk of the farm were down there boiling their great pots, rubbing and scrubbing and rinsing till for twenty yards the brown loch water was tinged with a strange misty blue. Some years ago, Sweetheart and I found it still covered as of yore with All-heal and Willow-herb; while 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.
There, straight before us, at Dan's Ford, is the most practical and delightsome set of stepping-stones in the world, just tall enough for one to slip off and splash unexpectedly into the coolness of the water. Or you can sit, as Sweetheart and I used to do, upon the big central one and eat your lunch, as much isolated as Crusoe upon his island, the purl of the leaves and the murmur of the ford the only sounds in that sweet still place. Looking down, you can see at the bottom of the water long feathery streamers of moss and a little green starry water-plant (I do not know its name), which I can remember to have tickled my toes, as I waded there, when as yet neither the dignity nor the inconvenience of trousers were mine.
If the day be hot, and you would have water of the finest to drink, there is the wayside well a little farther on the road towards New Galloway Station. Just underneath the bank you will find it. It has been a little cribbed, cabined, and confined by the official roadmen, but still there are some cupfuls of water, cool and delicious, in the deepest shadow. And if you have no cup—why, take the joined palms of your hands, as Sweetheart and I did in the Long-Time-Ago.
Going towards New Galloway Station you keep your face northward, and the road winds between lilied waters and the steep tangle of the wood. On those fair green braes above the birches Will Gordon and Maisie Lennox played at Wanderers and King's Men. And we, like these two, may easily (that is, if we go at the right season) find the dales and holms pranked with hawthorn and broad gowans, and in the woodland hiding-places frail little wild-flowers lurking like hunted Covenanters or escaping Levellers.
Sabbath at the Farm
Ah, that was another matter. Still—still with a great stillness, peaceful with an exceeding peace broke the morning of the Sabbath Day over our Galloway farm. The birds did not sing the same. The cocks crowed with a clearer, a more worshipful note. There was a something in the very sunshine as it lay on the grass that was not of the weekday. A mellower, more restful hush breathed abroad in the Sabbath air.
Necessary duties and services were earlier and more quietly gone about, so that nothing might interfere with the after solemnities. Yet Sunday was by no means a day of privation or discouragement for the boy. For not only was his path strewn with ‘let ups’ from too much gravity by sympathising seniors, but he even discovered ‘let ups’ for himself, in everything that ran or swam or flew, in heaven or earth or the waters under.
‘Usually when the boy awoke, the sun had long been up, and already all sounds of labour, generally so loud, were hushed about the farm. There was a breathless silence, and the boy knew even in his sleep that it was the Sabbath morning. He arose, and, unassisted, arrayed himself for the day. Then he stole forth, hoping that he would get his porridge before the ‘buik’ came on. Through the little end window he could see his grandfather moving up and down outside, leaning on his staff—his tall, stooping figure very clear against the background of oaks. As he went he looked upward, often in self-communion, and sometimes groaned aloud in the instancy of his unspoken prayer. His brow rose like the wall of a fortress. A stray white lock on his bare head stirred in the crisp air. The boy was about to omit his prayers in his eagerness for porridge, but the sight of his grandfather induced him to change his mind. He knelt reverently down, and was so found when his mother came in. She stood for a moment on the threshold, and silently beckoned the good mistress of the house forward to share the sight. But neither of the women knew how near the boy's prayers came to being entirely omitted that morning. And what is more, they would not have believed it had they been informed of it by the angel Gabriel. For this is the manner of women—the way that mothers are made.’ (Bog-Myrtle and Peat.)
To the breakfast so nearly unblessed, followed the solemn service of the ‘Buik’—the ‘Taking of the Book,’ a kind of consecration and thanksgiving in one—a consecration of the coming week, a thanksgiving for that which had been left behind. The ‘Buik’ was the key to the life, simple, austere, clear-eyed, forth-looking, yet not unjoyous, of that Cameronian household —in some wise also the key to Scotland and to its history for three hundred years.
The family gathered without spoken summons or stroke of bell. No one was absent, or could be absent for any purpose whatsoever. The great Bible, clad rough-coated in the hairy hide of a calf, was brought down from the press and laid at the table-end. The head of the house sat down before it and bowed himself. In all the world there was a silence that could be felt. It was at this time every Sabbath morning that Walter resolved to be a good boy for the entire week. The psalm was reverently given out, two lines at a time.
‘They in the Lord that firmly trust, Shall be like Zion hill.’
It was sung to the high wistful strains of ‘Coleshill,’ garnished with endless quavers and grace-notes. Followed the reading of the Word—according to the portion. The priest of the family read, as he had sung, ‘in his ordinary.’ That is to say, he read the Bible straight through, morning and evening, even as he sang the Psalms of David (Paraphrases and mere human hymns being anathema) from the first to the hundred-and-fiftieth.
To this succeeded the prayer, when as with one motion all reverently knelt. When the minister came of an afternoon and ‘offered up a prayer,’ that was a regular ‘service’ and all stood. But when a man prayed in his own house or asked a stranger to conduct family worship for him, the household knelt. This last was the highest compliment that could be paid in the waterside farm to any son of Adam, and to one man only was it ever paid in my recollection—to the venerable ruling elder of the Cameronian Kirk of Castle-Douglas, Matthew Craig of Airieland.
The prayer was like the singing—full of unexpected grace-notes. But there was no liturgy, no repetition of phrases such as men less spiritual make for themselves. It was full, as it dropped unconsciously from the speaker's lips, of an unconscious poetry. It was steeped in mysticism, and a-dream with yearnings and anticipations, with wistful hopes and painful confessions—all expressed in the simplest and strongest Biblical words and imagery.
Then the Buik being over, the red farm cart rattled sedately away down the loaning on its nine-mile journey, passing on its way Kirks Free and Kirks Established, to deposit its passengers at the Cameronian Kirk on the Hill, where their ancestors had listened going, to the preached Word throughout their generations, ever since the foundations thereof were laid stone upon his stone.
The red cart was reserved for the aged and the women. Also sometimes it carried a certain boy, more or less willing to endure hardness, but, at any rate, not consulted in the matter. The men folk, uncles long-legged and strapping, with mayhap a friend or two, cut through by the Water o' Dee, passing Balmaghie Kirk, and so reached the Kirk on the Hill an hour before the red cart rattled up the street—so prompt to its time that the dwellers in streets averse from the town clock set their watches by it.
More often, however, the boy remained gratefully behind, and after a careful survey of the premises, he usually went behind the barn to relieve his mind in a rough-and-tumble with the collie dogs, which, wearing like himself accurately Sunday faces, had been present at the worship, but now the red cart once out of the way, were very willing to relapse into such mundane scufflings, grippings, and scourings of the countryside as to prove them no right Cameronians of the blue.
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)