Sunday, 16 February 2014

Raiderland by SR Crockett reviewed by Julia Jones

S.R. Crockett describes  Raiderland as “a garrulous literary companion for Galloway lovers and Galloway travellers.” It was first published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1904 by which time Crockett had been a best seller for ten years. He'd already produced eleven of the novels that will soon be re-published in Ayton Publishing's Galloway Collection  and there would be a further fourteen before his death in France in April 1914. "Bear in mind," says series editor Cally Phillips, "that he was writing professionally in magazines for some ten years before he became published in book form and you will see that [Raiderland] is indeed no more than a snapshot of his work . But a beautiful and valuable snapshot it is."

The bare bones of Crockett's biography are fascinating. He was born in Balmaghie 1859, the illegitimate son of a dairy maid. For the first eight years of his life he was brought up by his maternal grandparents at their farm in Duchrae and was then educated in the small town of Castle Douglas. In 1876 he gained a Galloway Bursary to Edinburgh University where he began writing as a way of supporting himself as he studied. This seems to be an impressive educational trajectory and I rather wonder whether it could have been replicated in England at the same period? It's certainly a tribute to the moral and serious approach to life fostered by rural Scottish Presbyterianism. Crockett's grandparents were Cameronians - a section of the Scottish Covenanters who became a separate church after the religions settlement of 1690, refusing to take oaths of allegiance and continuing to object to the union between England and Scotland.  Scottish religious dissent and factionalism forms a major part of Crockett's fiction – especially where it's aligned with political resistance to the age-old enemy, England. It may be that there is a current political message in the republication of Crockett's oeuvre at a time when the Union is again under scrutiny. Whether or not this is so, Raiderland offers a wonderful opportunity to glimpse dissent from the inside. After his time at Edinburgh Crockett spent the best part of ten years as a Free Church minister himself, resigning in 1895 to concentrate on his writing.

Much of the early part of Raiderland is autobiography through landscape. Crockett recreates his childhood self (“the Boy-who-Was”) in a somewhat Wordsworthian way, mentally revisiting the landscape of his childhood and using it to rekindle memories of “those bright days when the sun had not long risen and the feeling of morning was in the blood.” 

Here's his introduction to his grandparents' Duchrae farmhouse: "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 pine woods once stood ranked and ready like battalions clad in indigo and Lincoln green against the rising sun – that is until one fell year when the woodmen swarmed all over 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 as she and her brothers gathered kindling among the yet unfallen giants.”

His first indoor memory is of lying in his cradle in the farmhouse kitchen aware of his grandmother “padding softly about in her list slippers (or houshens), baking farles of cake on the girdle, the round plate of iron described by Foissart. The doors and windows were open and without there spread that silence in comparison with which the hush of kirkyard is almost company – the silence of a Scottish farmyard in the first burst of harvest.” 

There is no sense that Crockett suffered any stigma for his illegitimacy or that he was anything other than a loved and cherished (though lonely) child experiencing a particular rural mixture of freedom and discipline. Raiderland proves that his senses remained wide open to natural beauty throughout his life and his imagination ranged freely backwards and forwards in historical time. That small detail of the girdle being “as described by Foissart” is indicative of Crockett's awareness of the living history that surrounded him.

The Galloway novels are set variously from the 15th century onwards and Crockett finds many of his characters within his native landscape. Sometimes he is explicit, linking the solitariness of his childhood to his development of imaginary people – who were often  not imaginary at all but based on the adults around him, as in the following passage: “Chiefly 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 on Winsome Charteris – also a certain Maisie Lennox, with many and many another. By the fireside night after night sat the original of Silver Sand, relating stories with that shrewd and becoming twinkle in his eye which told of humour and experience as deep as a draw-well and wide as the brown-backed moors over which he had come.” 

At other places in the book Crockett simply segues into a relevant passage from one or other of his novels, usually with the briefest of historical notes. (I am assuming that the helpful titles in brackets have been added by the editor, Cally Phillips.) He tramps the hills and gazes down into the lochs of both East and West Galloway and takes the reader with him, delightfully. All of this is accessible to the English reader with no prior knowledge of the area or of Crockett's fiction. There are occasional moments when one reaches for a glossary or when he delves a little too deep for the ignorant southerner. I admit that my eyes glazed over the c18th century diary of landowner William Cunninghame but I apologise for this as a sign of my own English weakness.  Raiderland must be supremely rich for those with the relevant knowledge and I look forward to being able to access the original illustrations by Joseph Pennell on the Galloway Raiders website. I hope Raiderland will be carried in backpacks as an explorers' field guide as well as providing an oblique and fascinating glimpse into the hinterland of a prolific, confident and successful novelist. Ayton Publishing are clearly right to put Raiderland as the final volume, number 32, of their forthcoming collection yet it also serves as an introduction to whet the appetite for the fiction that has made Crockett's name.        

For more information about S.R.Crockett and his books click HERE or to join 'The Galloway Raiders' click HERE