On the far side of a bad hill

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A lonely grave

Out on the hills above Carsphairn, and lit by a low and sinking sun. I went up that way ten years ago, but that’s not long in the language of peat and granite. Nothing has changed in that time, but I’m a different person altogether and that alone is humbling.

It was fine to pound away through the deep grass and gain some altitude, hunting again for the gravestone of a man who has been dead for three centuries. When I last came to this place, I was spellbound by tales of the Covenanters. It’s a wild old piece of history, but it was doubly fascinating to me because it belongs to Galloway and most people have no idea it ever happened. The war between cavaliers and roundheads came up to Scotland and we made it a fight for the soul of the church. It became a guerrilla conflict – mounted dragoons hunting for desperate rebels. There’s no end of grim tales from that time, and they appeal to anybody with a love for adventure.

One of the Covenanters was hunted to his death by wolfhounds, and the dogs were driven on to kill the man as he ran for safety. They caught him on the far side of a bad hill in the depths of a distant horizon – the ridge between Cooran of Portmark and the Meaul of Garryhorn; there’s nothing to see or do out there but wonder. His grave is marked by a simple stone, but the story’s enough to make your hair stand on end. I used to think of him and stretch out a hand of sympathy, but then I realised that while my ancestors were bound up in this conflict, we were never Whigs. And it’s a curdling burr to picture a man like me among the King’s dragoons, sneering to see the outlaw slain. And in truth it makes no difference either way; these hills are filled with bones and you can pick a side as you please.

And as I walked, the dogs pushed up a clatter of blackgame before us; the cocks trailed their curling tails in a bitter wind, and greyhens came up like a din in the haggs. Of course my heart broke to see them go; fine birds coursing away like geese towards Ayrshire and the hump of Ailsa Craig. There were red grouse gurning too, and golden plovers, and a humpy old hare with his back all blue with frost and winterwear.

I tell myself that there will be time in my life to do all the projects I’m planning, but sometimes I wonder. I’ve often played with the idea of a painting project devoted to the hill fox. That’s not to say the tough, mouse-hunting moorland bodie – I mean the fullblood hillman, with a red mane and a brush like a dyker’s arm. That would be a thing worth working on; following him to the den in some black screebank and watching for his coming at dawn on the back of Clashdaan. Yes, he’s some man the hill fox, and what a job it would be to find him in all seasons and pin down every flex and ding of his bone-cold world on the high tops.

Because it was just such a fellow I found at two thousand feet in the craigs and knowes above Loch Doon. And he came by me like a shambling bear with his tongue over his shoulder as if it were a scarf. The dogs took after him, and he soared above the white grass and reached for every step and hardly took himself out of second gear to be away. And somehow it was in me to howl, and I threw my hat and ran behind him yelling Ho! and laughing. You might see a true hill fox half a dozen times in a year, so make the best of him when you can. And then I thought of the man and the dogs behind him all those years ago; that dulled me down again.

I found the grave in the dying moments of daylight, and I sat for a moment with the old bones and saw the light turn over the Firth of Clyde. I get het up and worried for Galloway, and perhaps it tells in this blog and elsewhere. Things are not as they should be, and I think that’s more than just my own opinion. But there are days when the land and the memories blur into wild beasts and birds. Find me on a good day in the hills and no man on this earth is more contented.

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