RIDDLINGS OF CREATION"
THE Hinterland of this
Paradise of cave and arch and grotto is the parish of Colvend, or as the
Galloway folk like to say. lovingly softening their voices to the sound of a
dove cooing (even as Patrick Heron heard them), "Co'en "–they call it “the
Co'en shore" quite forgetting the big wild parish which lies behind that
narrow fringe of white foam and blue sea.
High on Criffel.
The last time I set eyes
on Colvend (this seaboard parish which looks across to Cumberland) was when,
dreaming over the writing of "The Raiders," I stood alone on the hoary scalp
of Criffel. The whaups circled about me as I looked towards the more fertile
holms of the North.
"Troqueer! " they cried, "Troqueer!,
Troqueer! We were better there than here." And yet I am not sure that the
whaups were right. For nobler is the wild red deer of the mountains, braying
his challenge from hilltop to hIlltop through the mist, than the lowing of
myriads of kine knee-deep in fat pasture-lands.
As I stood thus,
correcting my boyish memories of twenty years before, the phrase which
stands at the head of this chapter rose into my mind–" The Riddlings of
"That's it," said I; "the
Other places and parishes
have been so called, I know, but here in Co'en surely the Almighty made a
bigger bing and used a wider mesh to His riddle. Some indeed there be who
say that here the "boddom fell oot o' the wecht a'thegither!" Whether they
are right or no, I cannot say.
There is, for example,
Minnigalf–crowned king of all the moor parishes of Galloway, and, as I
think, of Scotland. There is, truth to tell, routh of "riddlings" in
Minnigalf. Yet Kells also runs it hard. Girthon is green with bracken and
purple with heather for many a mile, but for varied wildness and a certain
saucy defiance, characteristic also of its maidens, Co'en cowes them at.
I cannot, indeed, write
about Colvend, or indeed about any of the "Ten Parishes" east of the Water
of Urr, as I can of my own country, being by birth and breeding a lad of the
Dee. But for five or six years it was my lot to spend a considerable part of
every summer there. I stayed sometimes at the house of a distant family
connection, who was the farmer of a place which I shall call the Bourtree
Buss. Robert Armstrong (that was not his name either) was already an old man
when I knew him, but he was still fresh and hearty, with a stalwart family
scattered allover the world. His wife was master, however–a tall, gaunt
woman, apparently clothed in old com sacks, and with a poke bonnet you could
have stabled a horse in–a woman terrible to me as Fate. For in those days,
strange as it may seem now, I had in me not infrequently the conscience of
"Sic a laddie for earin'
as I never saw. The only thing he has nae stammock for, that I ken o'–is
This was spoken of one of
her own grandsons, my companion, hut I knew well that I was under the same
ban. I shall not soon forget how she used to roust us out of our warm beds
about half-past four in the morning, and set us to carry water from the
well–"to give us an appetite." She need not have troubled.
"Are ye weel?" she would
say in a pipe like that of a boatswain, at the foot of the stable ladder.
" Then rise."
That she "likit the beds
made an' a' things trig by breakfast-time" was a favourite phrase of hers.
At Bourtree Buss breakfast was at six, dinner at twelve, so there was plenty
of time between to "fin' the grunds o' your stammock." By noon that organ
seemed as vast and as empty as the blue vault of heaven.
The guidman used to lend
me his great three-decker spyglass with" Dollond, 1771, London," engraved on
it in quaint italics, cautioning me to "slip oot at the back and no let the
mistress see ye. She disna like things ta'en frae 'boot the hoose."
Then, it is sad to have to
relate, if by any process whatsoever, not excluding actual breach of the
eighth commandment, we could obtain a "soda scone" or two, and a whang of
cheese, we were supremely happy. The reader may, he very sure that, having
located the "auld woman," we kept the bieldy side of a dyke till well out of
More than once, however,
the mistress of Bourtree Buss caught us redhanded, when, as a natural
consequence, the sides of our heads rang for ten minutes.
Nevertheless her bark was
a good deal worse then her bite, for I never remember that she took the
stolen provender away from us.
"Be guid bairns," was ever
her parting salute, "and dinna bide awa' late, haein' us seekin' the hill
for ye, an' thinkin' ye hae faten over the heuchs aboot the Coo's Snoot! "
Once free of the farm
buildings and across the narrow crofts, we came out suddenly upon the great
heathery hill-sides, or we went farther afield til we would find ourselves
among the tall headlands, with the wind whistling in our teeth and the
telescope laid accurately on some sloop or schooner beating up the Solway or
making a long tack to avoid the deadly pea-soup of Bamhourie Sands, while
above we watched the mists lift off the Cumberland hills.
The whole coast grew
familiar to me in those warm days of highest summer. I cannot remember ever
having been tired. Yet from the heuchs above Port-o'-Warren, I can recall
walking as far as Sattemess and back in a day, no doubt ranging all the time
up hill and down dale like a questing collie, and making the road three
times as long as it need have been. We had, of course, no stiver of silver
in any of our pockets, but that was no "newance." We had still, however,
some" mullins" in our jacket" pooches "–and we discovered that soorocks to
suck are but a moderate relief when one is hungry.
On the beach of the Scaur
we found a gruff-looking old salt painting a boat, and, boy-like, fell into
talk with him. He called us, I remember, "idle, regairdless loons," and
asked us if we had ever done a good honest day's work in our lives.
"If he had us on his boat
he would learn us to gillravage athort the kintra screevin' the verra soles
off our boots! ..
Then after this prelude he
commanded us to follow him. We did follow, as it were, afar off, for we knew
not to what fate he was conducting us. It might be to durance vile as
vagrants, or even to the rope's end he had so frequently promised us.
But the kindly tar only
threw open his cottage door with a "Hey, guidwife, here's twa lads that hat
walkit frae the Bourtree Buss ower the Heuchs. Hae ye ocht ye can gie them
to fill their kytes?"
Ah, good Captain Wullie o'
the Scaur–I ken not whether ye be in the land of the living or wandering in
the shades of the dead. But if the latter, I pray that some kind spirit may
meet you by the way and throw open as friendly a door and as handsomely
welcome you in to eternal light and rest.
Mostly, however, it was to
the deep gullet of Port-o'-Warren and the wider surf-beaten rift of Portling
that we confined ourselves. And though I have not set eyes on either of
these for five and twenty years, I can see in my mind's eye every turn and
twist of the coast-line, every clean-bitten gap in the brown rocks, every
tangle of green weed and purple tress of dulse between Port-o'-Warren and
Douglas Hall. And if there be finer and more varied coast scenery within
the same space anywhere, I, for one, have yet to see it. The dancing sea–out
and in of which we were all day dipping like gulls, never very wet and never
very dry–the white towns of the English North Country with their smoke
blowing out over the Solway, the hoarse roar of the tide swiftly covering
the Satterness Sands, the clean, hard beaches at the Needle's E'e and the
Piper's Cove, these are worth many provinces in Cathay–to me, at least, as a
Gallovidian and a romancer.
Of the black deeps of the
Piper's Cove I have a tale to tell. Once upon a day my co-rapscallion and I,
questing from Bourtree Buss, entered it. Brave was not the word for us–we
were heroes. Others had been "feared." We would never be. It was all
nonsense about the devil being up there. Ghosts did not exist, We would show
them if they meddled us.
Cautiously, and hand in
hand, we advanced.
Soon after we had left the
light behind us, and the walls had closed in solid as the centre of the
earth, Rob thought he heard a noise.
" Only the water," said I
to reassure him.
"Suppose the tide comes in
in a hurry!" he suggested, " it micht be that."
I laughed at the idea. The
tide only came in once in twelve hours, half-an-hour later each time. It
said so in the geography, or at least something like that.
But, all the same, there
was a sound–a low,heart-chilling murmur–and it was decidedly growing louder
as we advanced .
"Strike a match!" cried
We bad been keeping these
for the inner depths of the cave, but all plans must give way in the face of
The first one sputtered
and went out.
The second showed all too
plainly the veritable lineaments of Satan: burning eyes, black facet horns
and all–yes, horns black and curly.
At the sight of the light
something flew at us with a hoarse grunt.
The match went out, and my
companion rushed past me down the passage, crying out with all his might,
"It's him! It's the de'il! If I win aff this time, as sure as daith I'll
never steal my granny's sody-scones again."
Yet, after all, it was no
more than a black-faced "tip" which had wandered down from the heuchs and
had got tangled and bemazed in the cave-mouth. I rallied my comrade bravely
on his terror–though, Heaven knows, I was as frightened as ever he could
"Did ye think I was feart?"
Bob asked in great indignation.. "Man, I was juist lead in' him oot to get a
whack at him in the open."
It will be no astonishment
to those who read this story that my early friend of the Piper's Cove
succeeded in business. There is nothing like having an excuse ready.
It was long after this
day, when I was a lad of fifteen, that I spent two of the happiest months of
my life at Roughfirth with the only thorough comrade I have ever had. Our
paths have diverged very wide and far, but I doubt not at the day's ending
we shall meet again at the braefoot, and stroll
quietly home together in the
gloaming as we used to do of yore. Loyal, generous, brave, open· hearted
Andrew-not many had such a friendt and what he was then he is
The story of our
adventures (with some additions) you may read in the island chapters of "The
Raiders." Even thus we lived and fought and "dooked," and made incursions
and excursions in search of provisions–being chronically "on the rocks,"
alike for the sinews of war and as to a daily supply of the staff of life.
" With additions," say I.
Yes, and with "substractions" too, as we used to call them at school. For I
have another confession to make. In the interests of art I deliberately
libelled a good and kind friend. It was not May Mischief who brought us the
noble beef-steak pie to Isle Rathan–though there were two or three girl
cousins not far off, as mischievous and almost as pretty as May. (I wonder
if certain staid mothers of families remember how they and we used to race
down Mark Hill behind the little hamlet of Roughfirth, which was then our
temporary home! But this is a manifest digression.)
A Friend in Need.
It was not May Mischief, I
say, who brought us the pie. It was my friend's lady mother, who, in the
hour of our need, one sad Saturday when our credit was completely exhausted
at the "shop," brought us the delight her bonny face and comfortable figure,
and–what I regret to say seemed even better–the noblest pie that hungry
teeth ever crumped the paste of.
Nor did she pursue us all
over the Isle with threats and alarms of war. On the contrary, she sat down
on a chair and said, with her hands on her knees–
"Oh, that waggonette! I
declare, I'm a' shooken sindry! Noo, hoo muckle siller can ye laddies be
doin' wi'? "
Andrew and I looked at each
other. We could have "dune" with about a hundred pounds, but we compromised
for thirty shillings. Even this was a stretch.
"And I dinna ken what I'll
say to your faither when I get hame!" she said as she handed over the
Blessed thought, we were
solvent again, and could look even the "shop" in the face!
Good friend and kind,
across the years I salute you. Your "other son" has not forgotten you, and
hereby sends his love to you, and makes his all too belated apology.