I visited the Ettrick Valley with painter Andrew MacKenzie on Easter Monday, April 21 – a field-trip of sorts, as Andrew and I have been talking about a collaboration, and this is a first step.
We drove along the B7009 which runs alongside (more or less) Ettrick Water, through Ettrickbridge, then turned off at Wardlaw / Hopehouse. Leaving the car we follow a path above the river, which snakes between the spruce woods on the hillside and the ‘Ettrick Marshes’ next to the river, as far as a (slightly dilapidated) bird-hide. From there, in the shadow of the spruce-wood, we look down over the pale sunlit marshland and over to the pale spring hillsides opposite.
Back in the car, we stop at the Hogg Memorial, or ‘Monument on Birthplace of James Hogg’, as the OS has it, with its image of Hogg in profile surmounting four well-horned sheep-heads. There’s a dog barking either side: it must be those sheep… While there’s no line from Hogg on the memorial, behind it runs a semi-circular stone bench, where visitors can read lines of their own choosing; perhaps these from The Queen’s Wake, said to be a self-portrait:
The Bard on Ettrick’s mountains green
In Nature’s bosom nursed had been,
And oft had marked in forest lone
Her beauties on her mountain throne;
Had seen her deck the wild-wood tree,
And star with snowy gems the lea;
In loveliest colours paint the plain.
And sow the moor with purple grain;
By golden mead and mountain sheer,
Had viewed the Ettrick waving clear,
Where shadowy flocks of purest snow
Seemed grazing in a world below.
Further on, the road’s mainly used for taking timber from the surrounding hillsides. We park at a locked gate, and walk towards the last house, Potburn, where the Borders historian Walter Elliot grew up, and where the painter William Johnstone lived in the 1960s. It’s been empty for some years now, and while the roof is more or less intact, it is gradually decaying, especially the outhouses.
We continue along the track past a caravan, presumably the residence of a forestry worker – perhaps the one who just passed us on a quad-bike – and make for Over Phawhope Bothy. Andrew made a wall-drawing here a year or two ago, which is still intact, though with a few additions, which he doesn’t seem to mind.
Our last stop is at Ettrick Kirk, where Hogg is buried. It’s an neat little church, the wooden pews inside admitting no disorder; outside I enjoy the combination of spring sunshine and still leafless trees. The graveyard is dominated by the remarkably well-maintained monument of Thomas Boston (1676–1732), an uncompromising but popular minister from the Covenanting tradition. Hogg’s stone is more modest, but has been cleared of the springy green moss spreading over its neighbours.