Back Hill o’ the Bush, S.R.Crockett and Bothy culture.

By Cally Phillips.

Are bothies a thing of the past in Galloway? They very well might be soon. And I think that’s a shame because the bothies of Galloway provide a tangible link to a past that has otherwise all but disappeared. Yet in Crockett’s day the traveller could expect a welcome at any remote herd’s house or shieling. How times have changed.

The Mountain Bothies Association has done sterling work since its inception in the 1960’s, providing shelter for hillwalkers. They have a network of managed bothies, their aim being ‘to maintain simple shelters in remote country, for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places.’ In Galloway they manage two: Tunskeen to the North and White Laggan to the south west. There are other bothies in the Galloway Forest Park, but of these, only Back Hill o’ the Bush is ‘managed’ to any degree, being under the auspices of the Forestry Commission.

1 a 1 a cally march mark hannay back hill[Picture Back Hill © M.Hannay ]

Tunskeen Bothy features in his Covenanting novel ‘The Men of the Moss Hags.’ It is seen as a place where people can find solace, but also a place of hardship, especially in winter.

White Laggan does not feature by name in Crockett’s fiction, nor does its neighbour the now ruined Black Laggan. But going there can give us a picture of the sorts of places inhabited by characters in his novels. From ‘The Tutor of Curleywee’ to ‘The Last of the Smugglers’ Crockett’s hill-folk lived in places very similar to these. Today they seem remote, but they were home to the indigenous Galloway folk as recently as a century ago.

1 a 1 a cally march mark hannay white laggan[Picture White Laggan © M.Hannay]

White Laggan is a stopping place on the Southern Upland Way and an exemplar of the managed bothy. This is a double edged sword and other nearby bothies/rural dwellings in the area (such as Glenhead of Trool and Caldons) have been adversely affected as a result. But surely we should appreciate that bothies and rural dwellings have more to offer us than simply being a staging post on a long-distance route. Not only people travelling the Southern Upland way love ‘wild and lonely places’ and if we used a bit of imagination we might find other ways to conserve our rural cultural heritage – perhaps by paying a bit more attention to Galloway’s rural bothies. There are all kinds of ways they could be brought back into use – all that’s required is the vision and the prioritising of funds. Of course they are not as ‘aspirational’ as Castles and Stately Homes, but if we don’t do something to address this situation, soon the only way to experience the rural past of the ordinary person will be through fiction. And this will be a shame.

1 a 1 a cally march s reid back hill[Picture Back Hill o’ the Bush © S.Reid ]

The Bothy of most personal interest to me is The Back Hill o’ the Bush. While writing the first in a series of books ‘Discovering Crockett’s Galloway’: Crockett Country, I have been immersed (from the armchair) in the Galloway Hills, most especially the Dungeon Range. And Back Hill o’ the Bush nestles near to this Eastern Range. It was part of a network of dwellings: Back Garrary, Mid Garrary and Fore Hill o’ the Bush are the ones I know of. There are most likely more. But you have to delve into history (or fiction) to find them.

Crockett wrote several novels and stories about the travails of tenant farmers in Galloway – stories which give the lie to his detractors claims that he is a ‘kailyard’ author. His stories many not resonate with the urban majority other than as escapism, but to rural dwellers there is a poignancy and immediacy in the realism of his stories.
Back Hill o’ the Bush offers us the best chance to see ‘for real’ the setting of Crockett’s novel ‘Rose of the Wilderness,’ The novel tells the story of a young girl, Rose Gordon who aged 17 has never seen a lighted streetlamp. But it is far more than a light romance.

The Gordon family are tenant farmers and the novel depicts (among other things) their struggle on the land and the difficulties they face holding on to their tenancy in the face of unscrupulous landowners. Even if you are not a fan of 19th century fiction, this is a good book to read if you have an interest in Land Reform or the rural past of Galloway. It tells, through the voices of ordinary people, the story of change in rural life. If you make any kind of judgement on the past based on the state of Back Hill o’ the Bush today, you will be making an error. Yes life was harsh back then, but it also had its joy and beauty.

1 a 1 a cally march s reid back hill 2[Picture Back Hill o’ Bush 2 © S.Reid ]

Back Hill o’ the Bush is hanging on. Just. People do visit it. People do stay there. Sadly, it’s not remote enough to prevent the occasional vandalism, which threatens to bring about its final demise. In my opinion Crockett has suffered a similar fate to Galloway’s rural dwellings over the past fifty years. Both have been neglected, vandalised and undervalued. Their worth as a vital part of the cultural heritage of the ordinary rural dweller have been ignored. They have not been seen fit for purpose by those who would like to impose a vision of our contemporary world which seems unable to allow the ‘reality’ of the lives of those whose roots are in the countryside.

I’d like to think that it’s not that most people don’t care about the past but simply that they have fallen unwittingly into the trap of having it mediated for them by aspirational television programmes. Instead of getting out there and connecting with their own rural past, they fall prey to a fiction which has been created by those whose concern is primarily to drive ‘the new’ and to marginalise or air-brush out ‘the old ways.’ Maybe it’s true that the old ways are gone – but it seems to me we should have, if not pride, at least some interest in them.

‘They tell you that nobody is really alive to the beauty of their birthplace. Well, perhaps not for some time after. But in the long run, it depends on the person. For me, Rose Gordon of the Dungeon in the uplands of Galloway, from my earliest years I was glad of the large freshness of every breath I drew.’ (Rose of the Wilderness.)

If this resonates with you in any way, I suggest you get out into the Hills, locate a bothy or rural dwelling and while you’re there, read some Crockett and connect with the past.

[Rose of the Wilderness is Volume 28 of the 32 volume ‘The Galloway Collection’ available in paperback or digital format from The Galloway Raiders online store.
‘Discovering Crockett’s Galloway : Crockett Country’ will be launched at the Newton Stewart Walking Festival on 9th May – on May 10th walk 3:2 ends at ‘Back Hill o’ the Bush, offering a great opportunity to take in much of Crockett Country along the way.

For more information about the Newton Stewart Walking Festival go to their website

To find out more information or join The Galloway Raiders free go to the website: http://www.gallowayraiders.co.uk ]

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