Posts Tagged ‘history’

This is something I wrote about the influence of the Glenkens has on my writing.  I feel very lucky to live somewhere with so much to give a writer!

The Land Of My Voice

I live in an old part of an old country.  The sky is wide, trimmed by low hills that are fragments of the towering mountains they used to be.  Worn and rounded by ice, wind and time, they enclose a broad glen that has sheltered thousands of years of human life.  Here, in the craggy reaches of the Ken basin, the bones of extinct villages protrude through bare patches of the Spruce Forestry that superseded them.  

Landscape has always impressed itself upon me.  As a very small child, I recall walking along a long, straight country road near my home that ended abruptly at the feet of the Campsie Fells.  The hills towered over me  in a way that made me dizzy with vertigo, a sensation I still recall quite clearly as I write.   Later, I lived in the outskirt hinterland of Paisley, in a crumbling concrete block of flats on the side of a motte-like hill.  The thin and ageing metal framed windows in the living room opened onto a broad vista of those same Campsie Fells.  The profile of The Sleeping Giant dominated the skyline, dwarfing the petty achievements of the urban sprawl that separated me from her.  On the long summer nights of the heatwave of ‘83, the sunset would paint her garments scarlett while the sky turned gold. I would perch on the sofa back to watch and daydreamed other worlds while the colours melted into night.

Later, we came to Galloway. The landscape captured me immediately.  With my collie dog, I roamed free through our glen, always seeking the summits that would grant me views in every direction.  South, the Solway coast would shimmer in the sun.  North, the rolling green fields of Ayrshire could be glimpsed on a clear day.  East, the hills tumbled slowly down to the Nith Valley and Dumfries.  West, the Rhins of Kells loomed, still clinging to winter even late into spring.

This landscape fired my eleven-year-old imagination.  I daydreamed as I walked, stocking the high hillsides with dragons, the green woods with elves and the many chattering burns with fairies.  I wandered in a fantastical world of my own, transported from my awkward, nomadic childhood.  

At my new school, we walked the hills to learn from them.  Our History teacher led us on the trail of the Killing Times, showing us the savage nature of religious struggle right beneath our feet.  She led us to the places where people had once gathered in secret to worship, where the roar of a waterfall drowned out their voices and the hills hid them from sight as they prayed. I felt their ghosts flicker at the edges of my perceptions. She led us to the place in our quiet village street where a public torturing had sparked an armed rebellion.  In the silence of my imagination, I could still hear the screams.

Myth makes a land as much as history. We followed our English teacher along the flight of Adam Forrester​. Down the main street from the Inn of Lucky Hare, to the kirkyard where he spied her dancing with witches, revellers and the devil himself.  The stormy night conjured itself in my mind, the wind echoing with Auld Nick’s wild reels on the fiddle, the air thick with smoke and brimstone, light making spectral shapes through the windows of the old kirk.  We fled then as Adam did, across the ford and up into the hills to the spot where Lucky Hare pulled the tail from Adam’s horse.  I wondered then if Robert Burns had felt the same thrill of inspiration as he reshaped the tale to the landscape of his own youth.

When you climb to the summit of one of our hills, you can see clearly the connections that criss-cross the land below.  You can follow the path of the river and see how it formed the shape and configurations of the villages and farms on it’s banks.  You can see from the patterns of the roads how they have sustained those places that remain, but you can also see the disconnected ruins of the places that died. You can see, simultaneously, how the land lies now and how it lay in the past.

The old pack road that winds down into the glen from the  seaport of Portpatrick is one of the marks left by the past.  Maintained now for tourists as the Southern Upland Way, it once brought vital trade to our glen.  I’ve stood in one of the ruined villages on it’s route. My feet planted on that old pack road, my hands on the tumbled stones of the former Inn, I pictured the drunken revellers stumbling away from the door in the moonlight, and heard horses nickering warily in the ruined stable opposite at the noise.  It’s just feet away from where the miller’s wife once hid Robert the Bruce from the English and her husband.  Somewhere in the surrounding hills hides an ancient cave that birthed a famous tale of a stubborn spider.  

That closeness to such potent history grew in me, fed my sense of ‘scottishness’, built my inner voice. As I have dug deeper into the landscape’s past, it has fed me characters that have added nuance to my inner voice. I’ve found them first as names on the pages of the books in the library, then I’ve walked their paths like my teachers taught me to do, then I’ve opened myself to their voices.

I followed the Bruce throughout our hills, stood where he watched the Battle of Glentrool unfold, slept in a bunk on a spot he once slept. I’ve followed him where countless others have too, seeking to relive the history of our country.   But I’ve followed others too, others whose paths are much less well trodden.  I followed the  Covenanter ‘Black’ James McMichael from the spot where he murdered a turncoat minister, through the landscape in which he hid from the King’s forces, to the bitter end of his life in an unmarked grave.  His passing became a secret hidden in  leather bound history books.  He was brave but reckless, a savage man with a passionate belief, a compelling character who also repelled me. His voice was harsh, his tenor righteous, his passion driven by zeal. So different from me, but yet, his voice I understood. Sometimes when I stand in front of our Town Hall and close my eyes, I can still hear the creak of the gibbet where they hung him.  I try not to imagine the rank smell that must have accompanied his corpse.

I dug deeper again into the secret histories of our glen and found the Old Wife of Bogha, a woman who fell victim to the hysteria of Witchcraft, a woman suspected on account of her literacy.  Each time we drive to our weekly shop, we pass the site of her home. In the Kirkyard, at the session house, I can pause and hear her staunchly vow her innocence, and I think I can hear scorn in her voice.  I can follow the road they took her to Kirkcudbright, I can stand outside the cell where they starved, tortured and harried her for two long years to confess to crimes I know she did not believe in.  I can close my eyes and marvel at the strength of character it took her to resist.  I can feel my heart break as she did at last, begging for death. Her voice is persistent, her suffering vivid through it, and all too easily I understand it.   

In my journal, the landscape is a main character. I’ve painted it with many colours, but none reflects it’s true darkness than a  chill  autumn  evening. One such night, I went for a walk past sunset.  The sky was still awash with the golden glow of the sun’s passing.  The clouds were inky and lined silver.  The moon appeared in a disclike wrent of cloud, a sliver of celestial magic framed against a backdrop of cosmic luminescence.  Venus lingered below, peeking at the night. A mere pinprick of brilliance, she was dwarfed by an  ominous bank of cloud as she skimmed low over the dark spine of the Rhins.  Beneath it all, lay the quieted glen, smudged by swirling tendrils of mist rising from the shrouded river.  The riot of autumn colour that cladded the hillsides was muted in the gloaming, faded to soft, indistinct browns.  The village appeared as brief splashes of white light while night crept over it with dewy fingers.  Bennan Hill rose in the background, conical and sinister as Mount Doom in the last bloody light of the set sun, its sides smeared with haze and the murk of encroaching night.  I committed​ each tone to memory, savoured the drama of this old part of this old country and imagined​ a thousand different sunsets  that have gilded these old hills before.