In which Henry and I dine at the Courie Inn, Killin

When I returned to the table, Henry Morton was deep in conversation. “What are you up to H V?”, I ask. “Just speaking in Greek with Elleeni”, he replies.”Do you know, I haven’t had such an opportunity since researching ‘In the Steps of St Paul’ (Rich & Cowan October 1936), in which I retraced Paul’s journey from Tarsus, via the Areopagus sermon, to the scene of his martyrdom in Rome?”. “And brushing up my rusty Greek is made better by the fact that our waitress Elleeni is so young and beautiful”, he adds with a devastating 20th century smile, causing both her, and me, to blush.

It was H V’s idea to venture out to the Courie Inn in Killin in the heart of Perthshire. “I want to taste true Scotland again”, he asserted, “and somewhere different from those drafty old hotels I encountered in 1929 Dumfries and Galloway”.

‘Courie’ - Scots for ‘snuggle or nestle’, describes this place to perfection. I could see immediately its fascination for Henry. Hotel, bar and restaurant snuggling to the east edge of Sron a’ Chlachain just a little way from the Falls of Dochart at the head of Loch Tay. To get there we have hired a 1920 bullnose Morris (that Henry insists on calling ‘Maud’ for some reason) which we park at the village hall, and walk down to the inn.

Ms Jinny, Courie’s young manageress, had reserved a window table to allow H V to observe the comings and goings, and, as he is wont to do, to make the odd jotting in his notebook.

At Henry’s insistence we share a ‘Wee Tasty’ - haggis, Stornoway black pudding and a wee tattie scone. “This is Scotland in perfect parcels”, announces H V as he pours creamy whisky and chive sauce.  Our main dish is succulent, tender Lamb rump on a bed of mash, peas and roasted vegetables.

“All good inns should possess a boast”, he asserts as he scribbles in his notebook, “and Courie Inn’s boast is the most divine food served by two angels”. “When you write about it, remember to tell them I said so”, he adds wistfully. And so, faithfully, I do.

Replete, we depart Courie Inn through the public bar and its lively group of locals and visitors chatting to the sound of draft beer being pulled from the cask. Outside, low cloud has descended in the darkness, and mizzle drifts sideways across pavement flags.

“Tomorrow, if it is fine, we shall need to walk off our supper”, reflects HV, “now, which of the Munros should we scale?”, he continues, “Ben Lawers or Beinn Ghlas?”.

“Let’s find the car and leave tomorrow to take care of itself”, I reply, as we splash our way out along the Main Street in the direction of Fingal Stone and the loch.

In which Henry takes me to Wigtown for a book

“Before we head up to Ayr we should take the bus to Wigtown”, says H V, “and I will educate you ‘twenty first century www’s’ on exactly what you are missing”. “They are things called ‘books’, and I insist that you do not leave Galloway without owning one; or at least feeling one in your hand”.

To emphasise the point Henry points to the letters FRSL after his name. “Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature”, he whispers discretely. “Order of the Phoenix Greece, and Order of Merit of the Italian Republic too”, he adds, “although I don’t speak about the latter since Italy became so liberal”. “And if you are a good student, I will treat you to a half of best bitter in the ‘Galloway Bar’ in the Main Street of Scotland’s Book Town”.

To see a country, you have to put on your boots, cut a stout walking stick from the hedge, brave the elements, and tramp with the feet of the curious. Alternatively, you wave down a bus. So that is precisely what H V and I did, taking window seats towards the back to afford a better view of the Galloway countryside. It is rich and lush. Rainfall ensures that it is washed and verdant. From our perch we look east to the blue sea and west into the low lying green hills of Wigtownshire.

Shortly after crossing the River Bladnoch (with its new distillery bearing the sign ‘Closed to the Public’), we enter Wigtown from the south and alight by the inn. Ahead is a seriously elegant town boasting a huge Main Street. Here, no matter what the shop, it features books. Henry smiles. “It is like stepping back to 1933”, he says as he leads me to ‘The Book Shop’ - the largest for second hand books in Scotland. 


Within moments I loose H V amongst a thousand dusty tomes, later to see him holding a wooden ladder on which a young girl is doing his bidding to retrieve a lost 1929 first edition of  ‘In Search of Scotland’. 


Beltie Books comes next, where tea, scones and jam delaying our desire for a pint. And then we descend towards the ancient Parish Church of Machutus. “Solitary penance; prayer and mortification; let us leave St Machutus to his fate and go cheer ourselves by the bay”, remarks H V as he closes the old oak door, turning to his left and ignoring two commemorative marbles bearing the names ‘Margaret’.

There was a dispute in the 17th century between the Church and the Monarchy.  It is 1685. The King, now ruling over both England and Scotland, forced Episcopalianism on Scotland;  the people who refused this imposition, having signed a Covenant together to do so, became known as Covenanters. The campaign against the Covenanters escalated, with rulings, legislation, and sanctions such as fines, banishment and finally the execution of ‘The Wigtown Martyrs’.

Margaret and Agnes Wilson were the daughters of Gilbert Wilson, a prosperous farmer. Gilbert and his wife conformed, and attended Episcopalian services in the parish church. Their children  refused, so their father was fined by the Courts, and had soldiers billeted upon him. They stole his stock and possessions leaving him all but ruined.

With the death of Charles II in February 1685, there was hope for a lull in persecution.  The young Wilson girls, Margaret and Agnes, came down from the hills to live with Margaret McLachlan, a 63 year old widow.  A local man betrayed them when they came into Wigtown, and the two girls were taken prisoner.  At the same time, Margaret McLachlan was seized while at prayer in her own home.  The women were required to take the Oath of Abjuration which, a year earlier on the order of the Privy Council, had been administered to everyone in the County over the age of 13 years.  

Refusal to swear the Oath allowed execution without trial;  men could be hanged or shot;  a new sentence had been introduced for women:  death by drowning.  The women refused the Oath and were brought before the Commission.  The Commissioners, described as ‘five of the most vicious scoundrels in Scotland’ found the three women guilty on all charges and they sentenced them  ‘to be tyed to palisadoes and fixed in the sand, within the flood mark, at the mouth of the Blednoch stream, and there to stand till the flood over flowed them, and [they] drowned”. Agnes (aged only thirteen at the time) was reprieved when her father promised to pay a huge bond of £100.

On 30 April 1685, a pardon was issued in Edinburgh for the two Margarets.  It mysteriously disappeared.  The women were taken out and tied to stakes in the waters of the Bladnoch on 11 May 1685.  The older woman was tied deeper in the river channel forcing 18 year old Margaret to witness her death, in the hope that she would relent.  Instead, she seemed to take strength from the older woman’s fate, singing a psalm, and quoting scripture.

The Penninghame parish records say that Margaret Wilson’s head was held up from the water, beseaching her to pray for the King.  She answered that she wished the salvation of all men, but the damnation of none.

The Kirkinner records state that Margaret McLachan’s head had been “held down within the water by one of the town officers by his halberd at her throat, til she died”.  A popular account adds that the officer said “then tak’ another drink o’t my hearty”.  Legend has it that for the rest of his life the man had an unquenchable thirst, and had to stop and drink from every ditch, stream, or tap he passed, and he was deserted by his friends.

Henry and I gaze out across the now boggy marsh beyone the cross marking the place of execution. Gulls rise in the distance and two black crows cawk from a nearby ash. A chill breeze blows through the willows. 

“We had better go for that earlier bus”, says HV. “Somehow, I no longer have the desire for a pint in the Galloway Inn”, he continues, pulling down his felt fedora and knocking the bowl of his pipe against the wooden rail.

In which Henry tells me about McGuffog

Overnight a sharp, wild wind cuts through the gorse and briars where we camp, and rain lashes the roof of the Tracker making a thundering sound, reminding Henry of the night in 1929 that he was blown into Kirkcudbright. Then, he recounts,  the wind shuddered at windows and doors of the little town, sweeping round corners with the fury of an invading army.

This morning, here, the same gorse and briars are decorated with finches harvesting blackberries. Quiet in warm sunshine, ahead of us ripples the Bay of Galloway, and afar side, rise the hills beyond Auchenmaig on the Whithorn peninsula.

H V (as Henry insists that I call him) takes a long draw on his pipe emitting a cloud of tobacco smoke to disperse a column of Scottish midges. He squints out over the bay. “Pass me the binoculars, would you please”, he calls as he gazes out to the little fishing skiffs hunting mackerel. “I wonder, can we see the Merrick from here?”, he questions.“We should be able to do so on such a clear day. It is the highest hill in the south of Scotland, and is generally observed dozing in a white cloud like an old man asleep under a handkerchief. Sometimes, when he awakes with his head in the light of the sun, foolish people like myself think to outwit the old gentleman and so, grasping our sticks, we set off in his direction with great dispatch and vigour, but lo, in the twinkling of an eye the Merrick whistles towards the Atlantic and up comes a cloud which he promptly assumes”. 

“Did you know that the meaning of Galloway is ‘Land of the Stranger Gaels?”, he continues,  “It comes from Gall, a stranger, and Gaidhel, the Gaels.”

“I believe over there, south and deep inland lies the little town of Wigtown?”, he muses. “Was it Wigtown - or another Galloway town where I saw the name of ‘McGuffog’ written over a shop? I made enquiries about what was to me, an unknown clan; but no-one seemed to think it at all interesting or remarkable”.  “At the time I even looked it up in the local telephone directory. Do such things still exist, I wonder?” 

“Give me a moment, HV; I will check that name out on the internet”, I reply as I turn back to the wifi zone of the campervan. “Internet? That’s a truly ugly word if you don’t mind me saying”, calls H V. “All the more reason for us to take the road to Wigtown”, he adds. “Isn’t it now the book-town of Scotland?”

I leave HV with his thoughts of books and Wigtown, and search for ‘McGuffog’ on the ipad.

Recorded in the spellings of MacGuffog, MacGuffie and MacCuffie, but more generally in the short forms McGuffog, McGuffolk, McGuffie and McCaffie, this is an early Scottish surname. It is unclear as to the origin, which may be locational from an estate called Guffokland, believed to have been near Stewarton in Argylshire, or possibly a patronymic from the early Gaelic name MacDabhog, which translates as the son of David. It is said that the family of McGuffok were once very powerful in Central Galloway, with Patrik McGuffok being a herald on behalf of Sir Robert Bruce, and making statements on his behalf in the year 1291. It was probably his son as Richard McCuffok, who in 1329 was confirmed as the owner of lands in "Kelinsture and Cloentes" for services to King Robert, The Bruce (1306 - 1329). Other recordings from that period showing an early spread of the name through the country include: John McCoffot, the rector of Gewilston in Galloway in 1347, Ellen McGuffok in Aberdeen in 1376, and Thomas M'Guffok, who is recorded as being secretary to Margaret, the countess of Douglas, in 1429. The name spelling as McGuffie is apparently first recorded in 1513 when Colonel John McGuffie, was one of the list of Scottish officers killed at the battle of Flodden in 1513, whilst in 1570 a Provost M'Guffie was recorded in Wigtown, and John M'Kuffie in yet another variation of the spelling, was a councillor at Kircudbright’.

HV glances over my shoulder. “Now you have the information; but unless you write it down for posterity, your efforts and thoughts will be little more memorable than those of Devorgilla”, he chides.

In which Henry and I arrive in Galloway at the World’s End

As we arrive Henry observes, “The Mull of Galloway is, in a sense, the Land’s End of Scotland. It is the extremity of a long slender strip about thirty miles in length that, but for the narrow neck of land between Glenluce and Stranraer, would be a little island of the coast of Wigtownshire. It has, like all out-of-the-way places, an island atmosphere”.

We are here in Galloway - me and Henry. It is our third visit to Scotland. Henry’s followers will know that he, then aged 37 years, came first to Scotland in 1929 and last visited in 1933. Readers of my blog will recall that 2018 is my third consecutive year here. Whilst previously, I have contrasted Henry Volam Morton’s accounts with my own, this time, I thought it would be fun to invite Henry to travel with me and to chat about our experiences. Henry was good enough to accept.

“Look over there! Just as I remember it from 1929”, he recalls, “a soft, gentle land of woods and broad fields continually swept by sea winds”. “Yes”, I retort, “the same fields and sea, but the some of those secluded little lanes and the lonely white farms have been replaced by B class roads and pink houses with satelite dishes”. 

HV looks thoughtful and lapses into an unusual silence, which within moments he breaks with the words, “Stephen, dear boy,  the secret is to see this landscape through my eyes; and before me through those of King Alan, John Balliol and Devorgilla. It is your task to find and recount the romance of true Galloway”. 

“Shall we take the high road by Glen Trool and the Merrick?”, he suggests. “ Where the road reaches its highest point is a magnificent view of the loch lying below, trees creeping down the flank of the opposite hills, little islands of tall dark firs near the shore, and on a piece of high ground overlooking Loch Trool an immense boulder poised upon a plinth?”

“Let’s leave that as a memory of yesteryear”, I reply, “unless you are keen to visit the cosy little cafe at the visitors’ centre? How about taking the coast road from Port Logan to Ayr?”

And so we agree.

Henry settles down in the passenger seat, observing the power and girth of the Fiat Ducato Enduro 5 compared with his bull-nosed Morris. “Not only do you not have to double clutch, but the whole process is automatic”, he observes as we descend towards the sea. 

Below us, the bay spreads with small foamy waves whilst gulls circle on a high wind. As we approach we notice the tinder gorse dressed with late summer red campion and purple vetch. Crows staking out the cropped fields rise to chase a raptor as it  cythes the ash branches in its bid to escape. 

Tonight will be spent at New England Bay.