BY ALAN TAIT 

In an extract from his new book Making For Home, Alan Tait surveys the landscape that inspired one of James Hogg's most famous stories

AT the head of St Mary’s Loch, there is a statue to James Hogg, "The Ettrick Shepherd". It was carved in 1860 by the Borders sculptor and antiquary, Andrew Currie of Darnick, who made a successful career in recreating characters from the works of both James Hogg and Walter Scott. Hogg is shown seated, larger than life, and in the familiar costume of his portraits with his dog Hector, a singing collie and his "towzy, trusty friend", neatly carved at his feet. He faces westwards and looks over the loch to the distant hills where his shepherding days had begun.

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Hogg’s working life had been spent in the area around the loch, as had his father’s, and he had a deep sympathy with the people and an understanding of their traditions. His short novel, The Brownie Of Bodebeck, was set largely in this eastern end of the valley that had changed remarkably little since the later 17th century. The farms remained the same, as did the family names of their tenants, and so did the harsh weather that shaped the strange story.

The Bodebeck of the title was the farm now known as Bodesbeck, where the possible Brownie cave remains, and where the events, correctly pinpointed by Hogg to September, 1685 took place. It was at this time that a sharp and bloody campaign was conducted by the royalist Colonel Graham of Claverhouse to root out the fugitive Covenanters from the remoter hills around Birkhill to which they had escaped after defeat at the minor battle of Bothwell Bridge. Hogg had no liking for Claverhouse, the professional soldier, committed to the destruction of the Covenanters and intolerant of the local community’s tradition for justice and generosity. In the tale, Claverhouse was contrasted with the equally independent, shepherd hero, Walter Linton of Chapelhope, and both were given the familiar Hogg brush with the supernatural – after all his grandfather had apparently seen and spoken to the fairies. Claverhouse was described as "galloping over precipices, and cheering on his dragoons, that all the country people who beheld him believed him to be a devil, or at least mounted on one". For his part, Linton was able to take the frightening antics of the Brownie fairy in his stride and cope just as easily with a haunted room in his own farmhouse at Chapelhope.

Hogg admired the independence and determination of both shepherd and soldier that seemed to match "by many degrees the wildest and most rugged, and inaccessible [landscape] in the south of Scotland". He was at pains to make clear the isolation of the shepherding community beside the loch where "we never hear ony o’ the news, unless it be twice a-year frae the Moffat fairs", and so deepen the intensity of his drama.

In their opposite ways, both Hogg and Claverhouse saw the eastern end of the valley as a place of refuge and isolation. The farms from Capplegill to Chapelhope at either end provided various hidden valleys or hopes that were criss-crossed by the spread of the haggs – marshy hollows on the flat moors – where sheep and men could hide safely for long periods of supreme discomfort. Hogg moved his story from a historical drama in the style of Scott to something more exciting with the overlay of the legend of the Brownie, who was traditionally described as a "benevolent household sprite, usually shaggy and of peculiar shape, who haunted houses, particularly farmhouses".

Most of the farmhouses mentioned by Hogg have remained as sheep farms though on a much reduced scale. He could easily find his way from one to the other, for superficially they look much as they did in his day. However, the hills where he shepherded are not the same: forestry has seen to that. A few cottages have appeared along the road – notably Birkhill – which are absent from Hogg’s account of the late 17th-century topography and probably appeared in the following century. Like the farmhouse, they have also moved on and are now slated rather than thatched and are cleaner, bigger, and dryer as well as painted a demanding white.

All such changes were part of a much greater one that saw the horse and its stable replaced by tractor and garage, which in their turn have given way to the agrocat, the Land Rover, and the equipment for spraying and dosing. The circular stells and holding fields of intense shepherding have been abandoned, and the shepherds themselves become a dying breed along with the working collie. The walled lambing enclosures and those for dipping and branding are now redundant and the surrounding stone dykes largely in disrepair: the landscape itself has regained something of the open and wild character so feelingly described by Hogg before the agricultural revolution rolled up the valley.

Today, Birkhill cottage door opens abruptly onto the newer roads with a view at once over the smaller hills of heather and grass, stacked one behind the other, each of a different colour and shape. Behind the cottage, a small stone mound marks the site of its predecessor, visible no doubt in the past to any traveller struggling through the hills to a journey’s end at St Mary’s Loch. But looking in the other direction, west from the door, the eye follows the road spiralling downwards to the valley bottom and along the river to a distant halo of trees that encircle Polmoodie. Both river and this stretch of the road mark out what was a kingdom of sheep with Polmoodie as its old capital and the cottage at Birkhill as an outpost on the eastern frontier. In such an interpretation, the sheepish inhabitants have the place to themselves mostly and switch nationality from Blackface to Cheviot to deal with food and weather and the ground beneath their feet. Still staring from the Birkhill door but looking west along hills topped by the glacier and carved by erosion, the broken strata of rocks forms a gigantic measuring stick marking time as well as recording the graveyard of Lapworth’s graptolite inhabitants. Just below the top of the pass – above the present road – lies the thick turf of its predecessor that took Walter Scott, limping behind his coach, downhill to the west in search of local colour, copy and the hospitality of his patrons at Drumlanrig Castle.

Before this view fades, Bodesbeck can be glimpsed on a good day and the route seen that the Brownie and his refugees followed along the hilltops to safety amongst the sodden, peat haggs around Loch Skene.

Having lived here for some time, it should not be difficult to explain what is the genius or spirit of the place. It is easily the landscape – a harsh one, often elemental or brutal and with little that is soft or pretty in any way. The immediate impression is of emptiness too, a valley of overpowering symmetry, at times even majestic in its simplicity, but always formidable and lonely. Self-sufficiency is the key to both landscape and inhabitants: the genius neither speaks nor listens but points a finger. In all of this the fickle element – the demon – is weather that sets the pace for what can be undertaken and done and appears at times almost to repeat in miniature the arrival and departure of the glacier.

It is the character of struggle that touches everything here and challenges the growth of trees and sheep, the maintenance of fences and dykes and river banks, the profitability of farming. Much of this might of course be written of many remote, northern places but this one is outstanding in the compactness and surprise of the location, as if a handful of the Highlands had been picked up and flung south. And 40 years since I made my home in Polmoodie, the descent from the sheep grid to the house along the old Birkhill Path still provides a shock and that must surely be the real genius of the place – the shock of the past.

This is an edited extract from Making For Home: A Tale Of The Scottish Borders by Alan Tait, with photographs by Andrea Jones, published by Pimpernel Press, £30

*This article has been amended to clarify that the statue of James Hogg was carved by Borders sculptor, Andrew Currie of Darnick