Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Dykers and Levellers

When I was but a beardless youth and beginning my teaching career I worked in Newton Stewart for three months, lodging at a boarding house run by a matronly lady in the town. My intention was of course to become a competent teacher. It was appalling luck therefore to fall, within the first half hour of arriving, under the influence of Galloway's greatest drystane dyker, raconteur and drunkard of modern times, Willie McMeekin. McMeekin, originally of New Luce, ranged through Dumfries and Galloway in the 80s and 90s, sometimes building dykes but often engaged in a range of other activities of the sort that generally gets you recognised as a character by people, and sometimes by the police.

I had wandered into the bar of the Black Horse, a pub I was very pleased to see still in rollicking good shape last weekend, and there he was, drinking whisky. I don't think it was that day he told me of his theory about olive oil and whisky, or the supernatural story of his grandfather's pipe, or his drunken weekend out with the Earl of Stair, or his adventures in the 8th army when, as a Scots Guard and 'D-Day Dodger' he'd fought his way through Italy, Monte Cassino and all. I think, excellent story teller that he was, he drip fed me these stories over the next 20 years just to keep me interested, and of course to keep the whisky coming. Just one story here: Willie was an excellent fisherman though notoriously poor at having permits for it. One day a friend of mine came into a pub in Dumfries and we got talking to Willie, who was obviously a bit depleted of funds, and my friend said he could do with a really good, big salmon and would be prepared to pay for it. He was expecting it the following weekend or something like that. Willie rubbed his  grizzled chin and replied in his Galloway Irish lilt that it was a distinct possibility and could we just wait there? Within ten minutes he was back with a giant salmon in a bin bag, headless and gutted. My friend paid him the money and Willie scarpered to one of his other haunts, leaving us to deal, ten minutes afterwards with the chef of a nearby hotel who had been about to cook it when it had vanished from the kitchen table.

Willie said his dykes would last 200 years and in fact there are dykes out there which survive from the first time the land was enclosed in the 18th Century. I saw some of them in the walk last week along the cliffs to Whithorn. Hard to imagine these beautiful things, strung out across the landscape, as agents of repression but such they were of course.

"The Lords and lairds they drive us out
from mailings where we dwell;
The poor man says where shall we go?
The rich says go to hell"

The enclosures put labourers out of work, caused villages to be deserted, spurred a set of clearances from the south which are less well known but just as destructive as those in the Highlands, caused by change of land-use, change of land ownership and the desire for profit. The men who set out to destroy the dykes, the Levellers, fought with sticks and poles against Dragoons sent into Galloway to suppress them. After a battle at Balmaghie, near Castle Douglas, 200 levellers were taken prisoner. There was obviously some sympathy for them among the soldiers because on the way to Kirkcudbright to be tried, many were allowed to escape but the leaders were tried, some fined, some imprisoned and some transported to the West Indies.Dry Stane Dyke at Stronach Liggat (James Bell) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Though Willie was a dyker, and proud of it.  I can't see him lining up with the oppressors. "The land is ours" Willie would always shout when in his cups, "the land is ours". And somehow it was just possible when he said it, to believe it was true.

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