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Sketch Book of the North
Among the Galloway Becks


It rained heavily at intervals all night, and, though it has cleared a little since daybreak, there is not a patch of blue to be seen yet in the sky, and the torn skirts of the clouds are still trailing low among the hills. The day can hardly brighten now before twelve o’clock, and as the woods, at anyrate, will be rain-laden and weeping for hours, the walk through "fair Kirkconnel lea" is not to be thought of. The lawn, too, is out of condition for tennis. But see! the burn, brown with peat and flecked with foam, is running like ale under the bridge, and though the spate is too heavy for much hope of catching trout down here, there will be good sport for the trouble higher up among the moorland becks. Bring out the fishing-baskets, some small Stewart tacklings, and a canister of bait. Put up, too, a substantial sandwich and a flask; for the air among the hills is keen, and the mists are sometimes chilly.

Wet and heavy the roads are, and there will be more rain yet, for the pools in the ruts are not clear. That slender larch on the edge of the wood has put on a greener kirtle in the night, and stands forward like a young bride glad amid her tears. If a glint of sunshine came to kiss her there, she would glitter with a hundred rain-jewels. The still, heavy air is aromatic with the scent of the pines. By the roadside the ripening oats are bending their graceful heads after the rain, like Danae, with their golden burden, though the warrior hosts of the barley beyond still hold their spiky crests green and erect. The long, springing step natural on the heather shortens the road to the hills; and already a tempting burn or two have been crossed by the way. But nothing can be done without rods; and these have first to be called for at the shepherd’s. A quiet, far-off place it is, this shieling upon the moors, with the drone of bees about and the bleating of sheep. The shepherd himself is away to the "big house" about some "hogs," but his wife, a weather-grey woman of sixty, with rough hospitable hands and kindly eyes, says that "maybe Jeanie will take a rod to the becks." Jeanie, by her dark glance, is pleased with the liberty; and indeed this lithe, handsome girl of fifteen will not be the least pleasant of guides, with her hair like the raven’s wing, and on her clear features the thoughtful look of the hills. Here are the rods, straight ash saplings of convenient length, with thin brown lines.

"Ye’ll come back and take a cup o’ tea; and dinna stay up there if it rains," says the goodwife, by way of parting.

Jeanie is frank and interesting in speech, and with a gentle breeding little to be expected in so lonely a place. She has the step of a deer, and seems to know every tuft of grass upon the hills. There is not so much heather in Galloway as in the Highlands. A long grey bent takes its place, and on mossy ground the white tufts of the cotton grass appear.

But here is a chance for a trial cast. A small burn comes down a side glen, and, just before it joins the main stream, runs foaming into a deeper pool. Keep well back from the bank, adjust a tempting worm on the hook, and drop it in just where the water runs over the stones. Let the line go: the stream carries it down into the pool. There! the bait is held. Strike quickly down stream: the trout all swim against the current. But it is not a fish; the hook has only caught on a stone. Disentangle it, and try again. This time there is no mistaking the wriggle at the end of the rod; with a jerk the hungry nibbler is whipped into the air, and alights among the grass, a dozen yards from his native pool. A plump little fish he is, his pretty brown sides spotted with scarlet, as he gasps and kicks on terra firma. Not another trout, however, can be tempted to bite in that eddy; the fish are too well fed by the spate, or too timid. "There will be more to catch higher up the becks," says Jeanie. She is right. Perhaps the trout in these narrow streamlets are less sophisticated than their kind lower down, for in rivulets so narrow as almost to be hidden by the bent-grass there seem plenty of fish eager to take the bait. They are darker in colour than those in the river, taking their shade from the peat, and, though small, of course, averaging about a quarter of a pound in weight, are plump, and make merry enough rivalry in the whipping of them out.

But the mists droop lower overhead, and a small smirring rain has been falling for some time; so, as Jeanie, at least, has a fair basketful, it will be best to put up the lines, discuss a sandwich under the shelter of the birches close by, and hold a council of war. Desolate and silent are these grey hillsides! Hardly a sheep is to be seen; the far-off cry of the curlew is the only sound heard; and as the white mists come down and shroud the mountains, there is an eerie, solemn feeling, as at the near presence of the Infinite. This, however, will never do. The rain is every moment coming down more heavily, and the small leaves of the birches are but scant protection. Off, then; home as fast as possible! The mountain maid knows a shorter way over the hill; and lightly and swiftly she leads the Indian file along the narrow sheep-path. Over there, through the grey mist and rain, appear the stone walls of a lonely sheepfold; and just below, in the channel of the beck, is the deep pool, swirling now with peaty water and foam, where every year they wash the flocks.

The shepherd’s wife appears at her door. Her goodman is home. There is a great peat fire glowing on the warm hearth, and she is "masking the tea." "Ye’ll find a basin of soft water in the little bedroom there, and ye’ll change ye’re coats and socks, and get them dried," says the kindly woman. This is real hospitality. The rough coats and thick dry socks bespeak warm-hearted thoughtfulness; and a wash in clean water after the discomforts of fishing is no mean luxury. The small, low-raftered bedroom, with quaintly-papered walls and little window looking out upon the moors, is comfortably furnished; and the stone-floored kitchen, clean and bright and warm, with geraniums flowering in the window, has as pleasant a fireside seat as could be desired. Why should ambition seek more than this, and why are so many hopeless hearts cooped up in the squalid city?

Here comes Jeanie down from the "loft," looking fresher and prettier than ever in her dry wincey dress, with a little bit of blue ribbon at the throat. The tea is ready; her mother has fried some of the trout, and the snowy table is loaded with thick white scones, thin oatmeal cakes, homemade bramble jelly, and the freshest butter. Kings may be blest; but what hungry man needs more than this? The shepherd, too, is well-read, for is not Steele and Addison’s "Spectator" there on the shelf along with Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and the Bible? With fare like this for body and mind, Man may indeed become "the noblest work of God."

But an hour has passed too quickly; the rain has cleared at last, and away to the south and west the clouds are lifting in the sunset. Yonder, under the clear green sky, glistens the treacherous silver of the Solway, and as far again beyond it in the evening light rises the dark side of Skiddaw, in Cumberland. The gravel at the door is glistening after the shower, the yellow marigolds in the little plot are bright and opening, and the moorland air is perfumed with flint and bog-myrtle. A hearty handshake, then, from the shepherd, a warm pressing to return soon from his goodwife, a pleasant smile from Jeanie, and the road must be taken down hill with a swinging step.


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