THE POETRY HIGHWAY
Local poet Hugh McMillan (hughmcmillanwriter.co.uk) lives in Nithsdale and, thanks to a commission from the Wigtown Book Festival has written a sequel to the notorious Gallovidian Encyclopaedia published in 1824, a hilarious and partly slanderous work which was withdrawn from publication as a result of the furore it caused at the time. Hugh tells us there is much to celebrate in the cultural life of Nithsdale and he is particularly fond of Upper Nithsdale. He has written the following piece for this guide.
Thomas Carlyle once told Queen Victoria that the most inspirational road in Scotland was the road from Carsluith to Creetown. This is not true. For inspiration and exotic insights into life, that road, lovely though it is when the tide’s in and the sun is shining silver on the waters of the Solway and on the battlements of romantic ruined castles, pales into insignificance when compared to the A76 trunk road from Holywood to Kirkconnel.
The A76 actually has a historical poet at each end of it. It passes Ellisland where Burns lived for a while and produced a massive number of songs and poems, and Friars Carse where his poem ‘The Whistle’ recalls a gigantic drinking competition.
Six bottles a-piece had well wore out the night,
When gallant Sir Robert, to finish the fight,
Turn’d o’er in one bumper a bottle of red,
And swore ’twas the way that their ancestor did.
At the other terminus we have the railwayman poet Alexander Anderson, born in Kirkconnel in 1845.
Langsyne, when life was bonnie,
An’ a’ the warld was fair,
The leaves were green wi’ simmer,
For autumn wasna there.
But listen hoo they rustle,
Wi’ an eerie, weary soun’,
For noo, alas, –’tis winter
That gangs a twalmonth roun’.
Anderson was a surfaceman who later became Chief Librarian at Edinburgh University. His poems, in Scots and English, are often gently sad reflections on the passage of time, on the dampening of the fire.
Love, turn thy gentle feet away,
How can I be thy lover?
A low wind grieves among the leaves,
And the time of the rose is over.
Drink, weather and the death of love, all on the A76.
A bendy bus used to operate on this road, before they were outlawed, and the back of the bus, past the so called ‘Disney seats’ where the bus bent, was generally full of colourful characters who, out of the driver’s sight, often engaged in a range of creative activities, though seldom poetry. I have written many poems, or parts of poems, on the bus, though usually in the front part. I find it best when the bus has broken down, and your hand doesn’t shake, but sometimes it’s enough just to watch and listen, writing it down when things get less dangerous.
A little crow in his shiny suit
but he has a voice like something put
on metal to scratch cars,
and a good half inch of Vladivar
left between his knees.
In front, old ladies squeeze
against their seats like paste.
He’s not out of his face,
it’s just that Big Ted
bounced a brick off his head
the other day,
and now his girlfriend wants his DNA.
He takes a swig. Outside, the valley
where we both were born sways
in shades of green and brilliant yellows.
It’s summer and it follows
the plot we’ve long since lost.
His mobile goes off:
No Da, I’m sober and I’m dressed.
Aye. I really am. Honest.
The little box goes dead.
He sits and gravely nods his head,
then stares quite sadly up at us,
as he lobs his bottle up the bus.
‘Another Lost Boy on the Cumnock Bus’
It is the blend of the beautiful and the inevitable detritus of living that makes the Upper Nith Valley so appealing. It’s a lived in landscape and that’s where poetry is best born.
Known for its distinctive pattern and style, Sanquhar knitwear first developed in the 18th century when the local wool trade was gaining traction. It’s a specialist art practised by relatively few people, one such being Alison Thomson. She was interviewed for the first edition of this guide by Anne Foley, who at that time was Manager of the delightful A’ The Airts Arts Centre in Sanquhar, who has kindly given permission for her resulting article to be published here.
Alison Thomson has lived in Sanquhar since the 1980s but her interest in the historic Sanquhar pattern began long before that. Alison was raised in Midlothian, where she showed a talent for sewing and knitting from an early age, having learned these skills from her mother. During the war, when there was only low quality wool available she knitted her first scarf for her father, who wore it with great pride. That was when her passion for knitting started. In the 1950s Alison moved to Shetland with her husband Kenneth, who was a minister in the Church of Scotland.
It was while in Shetland that Alison mastered Fair Isle knitting (the technique is very similar to Sanquhar knitting) and witnessed how women in Shetland gained some financial independence through their knitting. Alison became increasingly interested in the history of knitting. As her family grew up, she bought her first knitting machine and started producing jerseys for the family. After a spell on the Scottish mainland, Alison and family moved to the Orkney island of Sanday. There she became one of the directors of the Isle of Sanday Knitters, where she influenced some of the designs.
When she moved to the Borders in the 1970s Alison set up ‘Eildon Designs’, supported by a group of hand knitters. A friend showed her a pair of Sanquhar gloves, which she had never seen before, and she started to research the history of the Sanquhar Pattern. She discovered that no-one had developed the pattern into larger items, as the Fair Isle knitters had done, and was inspired to start designing them herself.
It was a happy coincidence when in 1984 her husband was offered a ministerial charge at St Bride’s Church in Sanquhar. Alison opened a shop specialising in Sanquhar designs and recruited a group of local ladies to produce garments under her label ‘Original Sanquhar Jerseys’. The shop closed when Alison retired but she is still actively producing these lovely high-quality items of knitwear in her home to this day.
Built 1731-35 to replace an older building, the stone came from the ruins of Sanquhar Castle. At ground level the central passageway was used as the exercise yard during the years that the Tolbooth housed the local jail. On the outside of the building at street level can be seen the ‘jougs’, iron collars which were fixed around the neck of those who had committed minor crimes. The culprits would be left to stand in the street for hours at a time while those who wished could hurl at them insults, abuse, bad eggs and anything else that came to hand. They were last used in the 1820s.
James Crichton (1560–82) is one of several notable figures who are commemorated in the museum. Born at nearby Eliock House, so prolific were his talents that he spawned the term ‘The Admirable Crichton’ (not to be confused with the J M Barrie play of the same name).
On the right-hand side of the street as you head south, away from the Tolbooth, look out for the slightly curious barometer, enclosed within the wall behind glass, dating from 1863 and given to the town by the first Baron Glendyne of Sanquhar, Robert Nivison, who was born the son of a local colliery manager and, after joining the local branch of the British Linen Bank at the age of 15, went on to enjoy a stellar career in finance in London. There’s nothing to record his interest in the matters barometric, but at least you’ll always be able to get a weather forecast in Sanquhar.
Continuing along the street, keep an eye open on the right-hand side for a couple of oddities, within a short distance of each other. Both are paving slabs, the first showing a mix of what we take to be peat-cutting utensils (on Castle Street, near the traffic lights at Deerpark Avenue) and the second, just a little further along, showing a selection of fleas, midges and flies. Quirky and not unattractive, we have no idea why these are here and haven’t been able to find out, so if anyone can shed any light please let us know!
It was home first to the Edgars then the Rosses, cadets of the ancient Earls of Ross, Lords of the Isles of Scotland, before passing into the Crichton family by marriage.
The mines here were started in the 18th century by the London Quaker Company and workers enjoyed better conditions thanks to humanitarian Quaker principles than workers elsewhere in the country. One result was the opening of the miner’s library, the second oldest subscription library in the country (the oldest is at nearby Leadhills), though this one has the distinction of being opened by the miners themselves and, instituted in November 1756, also being the first to admit ladies – of whom there was one!
The author’s mother tells a tale of a cycling holiday in 1954, from Kinross north of the Forth to Peebles in the Scottish Borders and then over to Wanlockhead, on a bike with just three gears (her friend’s didn’t have any!) with a girlfriend that saw them battle their way up to Wanlockhead in thick mists, strong winds and torrential rain. No doubt you will be driving there, so spare them a thought on their ‘sit up and begs’ with barely a gear between them to assist with the climb.
The museum has a mix of changing and permanent displays, the latter including an explanation – and display samples of – gold in Scotland.
Looking at the wrong end of a horse
There is a story which we have heard from several different sources about how the residents of Thornhill took their revenge on the Duke of Queensberry. One year, at some time in the late 1800s, obviously feeling the pinch, the duke raised the rents on his properties. At around the same time, the statue of Pegasus was to be moved and re-erected in its current position. The local labour force was duly drafted in for the job and Pegasus was moved to its new home. The only snag was that somehow in the process, the ducal emblem was turned around so no longer was the fiery steed’s head looking in the direction of Drumlanrig, but instead it was presenting its rear end. And that’s the way it has stayed ever since.
CRAIGDARROCH HOUSE, MONIAIVE
Country living at its most gracious is epitomised by the elegant and distinctively pink Craigdarroch, one of Mid Nithsdale’s most striking private properties which is open to the public by apppointment as part of the Historic Houses Association scheme (www.historichouses.org/houses/house-listing/craigdarroch). The Sykes family has owned the 2,500-acre estate since 1962, but its origins go back to a strong tower of the 1300s on land which it is believed may have been gifted by Robert the Bruce. Parts of the original tower can still be seen, notably in the massive, thick walls that separate the original structure from the later additions of celebrated Scottish architect William Adam in 1729, and from the Victorian extensions of the mid-1800s.
A visit to Craigdarroch is one of those rare but delightful glimpses into the annals of dynastic and domestic life behind doors which are normally closed to all but a few. The house was owned by one family, the Fergussons, for over 600 years until being sold in the 1920s. A succession of different owners then followed before it became the home of the Sykes. ‘It’s a very liveable house’ says Danish-born Carin Sykes, and visitors do, indeed, get a clear sense of how very liveable it is during a visit. Despite its apparent size from the outside, there are comparatively few rooms, though each of the rooms that visitors see is, of course, a striking expression of architectural refinement and well informed personal taste. With William Adam’s involvement and a collection of furniture and paintings from across the centuries, one wouldn’t expect it to be anything other.
Carin is usually on hand to meet visitors and to explain the Craigdarroch family histories, which make for fascinating stories. Old photographs, copies of bills, and tales of love affairs lost and marriages gained are all part of the narrative, none more so than that of Anna Laurie, who in 1710 married Alexander Fergusson and subsequently spent her entire married life as mistress of Craigdarroch.
There are too many stories to tell here, but if you get the chance to visit, then ask about the ‘Craigdarroch curse’ and its origins in the famous Battle of Killicrankie, and also the 17th-century whistle won from one of Anne of Denmark’s retinue in a drinking game. Outside, look out for the quirky minister’s changing room near the chapel, the wedding stones embedded in the walls of the house, and also the grand trees, notably a particularly fine copper beech and, along the drive, an impressive sequoia.
Known as ‘The Garden of Cosmic Speculation’, the garden covers thirty acres and, according to Jencks, ‘uses nature to celebrate nature, both intellectually and through the senses, including the sense of humour.’ This is a garden with a difference and anyone who has visited the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, where Jencks designed the landform at the front, will recognise the terraced swirls that make up part of the garden here. The whole thing encompasses forty major areas, including bridges, sculptures and architectural works, as well as a water cascade that tells the story of the universe and a terrace showing the distortion of space and time caused by a black hole! Jencks was originally from Maryland and New England but moved to the UK in the mid-1960s. He married Maggie Keswick and with her founded the Maggie’s Cancer Centres before her death from cancer in 1995. He died in 2019.