Meeting Report: Galloway's Landscape and History in the Fiction of S R Crockett

24 March 2017
Margaret Elphinstone

The final lecture of the current season was by Professor Margaret Elphinstone and was titled The History and Landscape of Galloway in the Fiction of S R Crockett.

Margaret introduced her subject by describing how the novels of Samuel Rutherford Crockett (1859–1914) were famous throughout the English-speaking world during his lifetime. Crockett had a prolific output and his books, many of which were set in Galloway, were particularly popular with the Scottish diaspora. Consequently readers across the globe were also familiar with the Galloway landscape. Although other writers such as John Buchan, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about the region, Crockett's prose had a unique resonance, possibly because he was a native.

Crockett's early life coloured his later writing. He was born and brought up on the Mossdale farm of Little Duchrae by his strict Cameronian maternal grandparents. When he was eight the family moved to Castle Douglas and when he was seventeen he gained a bursary to Edinburgh University, where he began writing to support himself through his studies. He became a Free Church minister in Penicuik in 1886, but by 1895 he was obliged to choose between the ministry and his writing, and he decided to see if he could make a living as an author. He wrote books that featured Little Duchrae for the rest of his life, and his stories had their source in the folk tales of the area and the Cameronian religion of his grandparents.

Margaret went on to describe how the reader could build up a comprehensive impression of Galloway through Crockett's many novels, and that she intended to focus on his output during the period 1894–1899 and his descriptions of the farms, coasts and hills of the region.

In The Raiders (1894) Crockett describes with a child's clear focus, a heavenly landscape in which to grow up. In The Lilac Sunbonnet (1894), it is obvious how intensely Crockett recalls the landscape around the farm of his birth. His description of the farm's milking parlour is particularly authentic, even if the clean white dress worn by the milkmaid is not! Perhaps the memory was all the more intense as by now he had moved to Penicuik. Although Crockett would also have been looking at a changing landscape himself, as land enclosure spread, for the 21st-century reader there is the added nostalgia of even more significant change.

Little Ducrae can be seen in The Men of the Moss Hags (1895), a grim record of the 'killing times' written from the Covenanters' perspective. The landscape around the farm also features in Kit Kennedy (1899). James Clarke, one of Crockett's publishers, described this novel as the most autobiographical of all his works, suggesting that the hero of the title is Crockett before he went to Edinburgh. The farmers in the story are real, steadfast in a world of change, and take courage from the land.

Moving on to her second theme, Margaret described how Crockett's knowledge of the coast also went back to his early years, when he spent time at a farm near Boreland, listening to stories of excise officers and a smuggling trade that centred on the Isle of Man. He was a regular visitor to Auchencairn, and this section of coast first appears in The Raiders. The central character of this melodramatic adventure story is Patrick Heron, who grows up on Rathan, a fictional version of Heston Island. Although Heron's mother came from the hills, Heron is by birth a man of the coast, familiar with the smuggling and cattle raiding of the Solway shore. Although The Raiders is a wild adventure story, it is again grounded in the places and stories of Crockett’s childhood.

Unlike with the farms and the coast, Crockett probably became familiar with the hills when he came back to visit Galloway as an adult. He was close friends with a couple from Glenhead near Glen Trool, John and Marion McMillan, and often walked with John. This perhaps inspired him to describe how the holidaying cabinet minister climbs the Kells range in The Tutor of Curlywee, a story from The Sticket Minister (1893). In The Raiders Crockett makes the hills a refuge for fleeing Covenanters, but they are also the dwelling place of bands of wild gypsies. In Silver Sand (1914) the main character comes from the hills. He has something of 'the other' about him, something not quite explained, something dangerous. Like the hills themselves, he is a foreign country. This tenseness might be something Crockett had picked up at his Cameronian grandparents’ fireside.

Margaret concluded by suggesting that despite this, Crockett was no sentimental kailyard author. His descriptions of the Galloway landscape were firmly based in reality. No matter how wild the tale, it was always underpinned by his knowledge of the landscape, right down to the bogginess of the terrain. In Lochinvar (1897) most of the action takes place away from Galloway, but the hero sees Galloway differently when he returns. This may be reminiscent of Crockett himself, who had gained an education, graduated, moved away, married an English woman and become a writer with a bourgeois lifestyle. He could never go back to the Galloway of his childhood, but perhaps this was why he wrote about it so vividly.