This month our reading challenge focuses on two books, or rather, two versions of one story. In ‘A Galloway Herd’ and ‘Kit Kennedy’ we see two fictionalised versions of the young Sam Crocket, as he was before he ‘became’ Samuel Rutherford Crockett, celebrated novelist.
It might seem odd to read the same story twice, but it is not really the same story, and while there are many similarities, there is much interest in both the points of connection and the differences between the two books.
‘A Galloway Herd’ was probably Crockett’s first attempt at a novel. Episodes from it were published in ‘The Christian Leader’ Magazine in 1891 and subsequently in the 1895 collection ‘Bog Myrtle and Peat’. It was never published as a novel in the UK (until the Galloway Collection anniversary edition of 2014) but in a letter written on Christmas Day 1895 to a Mr McClure, Crockett says:
‘There is, a beast in NY, name Fenno, 5th Avenue, and he has raked up a boyish story of mine and published it without my permission and terribly against my will. It is a story called ‘A Galloway Herd’ and he issues it as ‘Copyright Fenno & Co 1895.’ He never communicated with me, nor did Watt or myself hear of it till we got a copy of the book mailed from America this month. Of course every paper has reviewed it as a new book which I have recently written and published! Now this is bad for the whole show. You might get your quote [unclear]* to Maga (or anybody else) that ‘A Galloway Herd’ was written in my youth simply to fill up the columns of a religious paper to which I had to supply a certain number of columns, and without any idea of republishing it. It is a most damnable thing to [unclear]* up the numbers and reprint, without any note of time – or without consulting the author. Of course it will never be issued on this side, and quite mis represents my work and reduces its value. When the American public knows it is not ‘Copyrighted’ but ‘pirated and stolen’ against my will, they will know what to think of the publishers who would do such a thing.’
[picture 1 Galloway in Crockett’s day]
Why was he so unhappy? It is obviously the work of a young writer. It lacks polish, and sophistication. It has a loose, perhaps too loose, episodic style. Crockett was to develop this over the years into his trademark fast paced serial fiction. It certainly lacked the editing required to turn a successful serial into a complete novel. The story is equally uneven (but still captivating) in that it has some serious Gothic elements as well as a sojourn in Revolutionary France. It is like Crockett is throwing everything he knows into it and trying to see what fits. Many writers of fiction will recognise it as a kind of first (never published) novel syndrome. An embarrassment of youth which, when looked at with the experience of age, somehow offers an experience beyond nostalgia – something more akin to insight. This is the spirit in which to read ‘A Galloway Herd’ and enjoy it.
However, I find the letter above equally interesting, not least as a reminder that we should not pre-judge books by their contents any more than by their cover. There are often stories behind publication we do not know. Significant stories which change the way we view an author. ‘A Galloway Herd’ is a case in point.
The ‘Gothic’ finds its ways into several of Crockett’s other short stories and indeed of the four books he had published in his ‘breakthrough’ year 1894, two of them ‘Mad Sir Uchtred of the Hills’ and ‘The Playactress’ illustrate, separately, the two elements that Crockett wanted to write about at that time. Rather than juxtaposing them, ‘A Galloway Herd’ attempts to marry these two disparate strands together. It’s different, at times strange, but it somehow works. Already Crockett’s trademark natural description is well developed and his perspective of seeing the world through the eyes of a child is also compellingly accurate. Boys live in a world of thrills and, dare one say it, melodrama, and as such ‘A Galloway Herd’ takes the reader back into the world, and mind, of a boy in the 19th century.
[picture 2 Grenoch Loch in Crockett’s day]
‘Kit Kennedy’ is the more mature rendition of Crockett’s childhood. Of course it is fictional but it is clearly also semi-autobiographical. Crockett plundered his childhood memories for his work time and again. Indeed it is this very accuracy of memory that gives his work its honesty credentials. As Crockett himself said in ‘The Lilac Sunbonnet’: ‘A good memory is a fine thing.’ We can’t argue with that.
The story in ‘Kit Kennedy’, first published as a novel in 1899, after being serialised in The Peoples’ Friend, is more coherent and for my money has a lot in common with Dickens’ classic ‘Great Expectations.’ The young Kit’s life is changed when he wins the Galloway Bursary and his journey takes him to Edinburgh. Crockett clearly shows the culture shock and the divide between the rural and urban life at the time. Woven into the story is an element of thriller which may still seem melodramatic to the modern taste, but this is the least part of the story. Far and away the key joy of the novel is the character of Kit and the landscape of his childhood home. And you can visit these places today. The A762 is your destination for the places in the Galloway Section. Black Dornal is the name Crockett gives his childhood home of Little Duchrae. Grenoch Loch is none other than what we now call Woodhall Loch.
[picture 3 Woodhall Loch today]
Cairn Edward, where Crockett sits the bursary, is Castle Douglas. The fictional ‘Cairn Edward Arms’ is the real Douglas Arms and very much still there. I’ve given talks and attended events in the very room Kit (and Crockett) sat their exam.
[picture 4 – Crockett’s Edinburgh]
The Edinburgh sections of ‘Kit Kennedy’ are set in and around the Pleasance, where Crockett himself stayed as a student. And he even travels ‘up north’ to Sandhaven -the only time to my knowledge that the North East of Scotland features in Crockett’s fiction.
But it is for the boyhood memories that ‘Kit Kennedy’ really recommends itself to the lover Galloway (and Galloway stories). The chapters where Kit and his dog Royal truant from school are among my all time favourite Crockett passages. But I’ll leave you to discover them for yourselves!
Whether you read ‘Kit Kennedy’, ‘A Galloway Herd’ or engage in a bit of ‘compare and contrast’, I can heartily recommend either or both as books to read this May.
*Crockett’s handwriting is far from legible at times (as indeed R.L.Stevenson humourously noted in a letter –‘ o’ man I cannae read your name’.
You can buy Galloway Collection editions of these books direct online from www.unco.scot. Just go to the S.R.Crockett collection virtual shelves.
‘A Galloway Herd’ is Volume 16
‘Kit Kennedy’ is Volume 22
‘Bog Myrtle and Peat’ is Volume 15
‘Mad Sir Uchtred of the Hills’ and ‘The Playactress’ are both in Volume 30