Avondale from the Kitchen Window
- a landscape and a homage
by Keith Roberts
The soft green slopes of Avondale have been viewed by many over the years. As everything changes the wider view remains the same. A glance through the window today reveals sand quarries and wind turbines yet to reach their first anniversary, but the reality is that the picture is little different to that enjoyed by the reigning monarch when over-nighting at the long gone station some seventy years ago. The line of the railway remains, a reminder to many rueing the demise of steam travel less than a quarter of a century after that Royal visit. A personal favourite is the wider vista from the cairn atop Dungavel, at 1,500 feet twice the elevation of the garden and expanding the range significantly. Over the aeons the same strategic landmarks dominate – to the west the sleeping warrior of Goatfell guards the waters; below lies that craggy plug of Loudoun; to the east stands the highest point of this fine county, Tinto Hill.
A walk up Dungavel can take little time before reaching the upper slopes. Forest tracks make easy passage, but off the track the undergrowth of heather and fern gives a healthy exercise drawing perspiration and rasping breaths from the excess baggage round the waist. Wary of the possibility of an occasional dozy adder the eyes remain cast downwards. A quiet approach can find grazing deer, a stag watching his harem, or a young doe nibbling the lower branches. In time the trees fall away below and the horizons open. A deep and wide cairn offers shelter from the exposure of the elements – a peaceful haven of silence and solitude, for reflection and contentment. Below the Glengavel Water meanders and merges with the Tay Burn, near to where evidence of the Roman occupation was found in the lands of Torfoot, in the form of coins and trinkets, a little over one hundred years ago, and together they head inexorably to their union with the Avon,. The farm had historically been the home of the Brownlie Clan and the steading has stood since the 2nd Earl aided the rout of the King’s troops on the nearby slopes back in the 17th century. To this day his descendants travel the world to pay homage at the ancestral seat.
Above Torfoot stands the kirk. The Royal party would have seen this from the sanctuary of their carriage on that evening stay. The present building dates only from 1912, a successor to the tin cathedral that was dismantled and taken down the valley to become clubhouse to the members of Loudoun Gowf Club, which Peter Alliss continually reminds us when on duty on the coast, is the only club worldwide retaining the spelling of old. The kirkyard now hosts an ancient stone memorial to those men of 1679, led by Hakston of Rathillet, among others. Inside is a replica of the battle flag on the walls above the pews. The tarnished green dome, a most unusual steeple seen across the valley from the kitchen window, hails the flock from far and wide each week, possibly defying the general downturn in attendance across the land.
Whilst the line of the railway remains visible only the remains of the bridges and viaducts stand, rendering it unlikely to ever be reinstated. It does not intrude on the landscape and serves only to remind us of what we have destroyed, and of engineering feats of the age of Telford, and Stephenson, and Stevenson. Over the ages the life of the iron track was short and the landscape is unscarred.
At the fishery there is a jerk on one end of a line, patiently waiting a similar effect on the other. It is witnessed all day, every day, in all weathers. Many of the world’s problems have been solved on the banks of the pond, in a vain quest for respite from the incessant wind and at times the horizontal rain which accompanies it. I guess it takes all sorts.
The wind howls down from the long ridge of Mill Rigg, separating the county from the wastes of the Ayrshire moors, open-cast sites, and mining villages full of the doughty fellows that made up the backbone of many a junior football side. Atop that ridge lies the rusting wreckage of a plane that came down shortly after the last war. These days it is seen only by occasional forays from the 4-by-4 brigade, though the route is still walked in groups from the neighbouring Loudoun Valley Walking Festival each year.
The immediate landscape changes at ground level, as trees and shrubs establish and provide shelter from the prevailing wind that has destroyed French doors on more than one occasion, and left the electricity supply companies powerless in their often vain attempt to provide us with the basic essentials of heat and light, often for several days at a time. That same wind has drifted snow, in those halcyon days before global warming, closing the road for those same endless, powerless, days. That was but a few years ago, but today’s problems bring a landscape changed by water, with increasing volumes causing rising tables and surplus on the surface.
Pastures are puddled, ragwort fights with reeds, fisheries overflow and stock swims over the road. Yet it is that same landscape which has seen men of the covenant bring their pitchforks and sickles to bear and send Claverhouse craving sanctuary in Bothwell; had roads tramped under Roman sandals, better surfaced then than now, and which has seen our ancestors make arrowheads and tools from stone in the age of bronze, two millennia before any Italian blood reached these shores.
So the wind turbines change the view but the landscape survives and thrives. A year or two hence those graceful blades atop Ardochrig will have multiplied threefold as they head towards Darvel above the Eaglesham Moor. Closer to hand smaller groups will rise on Side Hill at Dungavel, and on Bankend Rig. Only the downward slope to the IrvineValley, guarded by that lump of volcano, sister to the Seat of Arthur and the Law of Berwick in the east, will stop a complete encirclement.
Today the roads of Avondale remain unattractive to drivers, being too narrow for trucks and buses, not straight enough for either speed or passing, though some try and fail. These roads are used as originally intended by their Roman creators. They are walked, alone or in groups, with dogs or on horseback. Locals go about their business on quads and tractors, displaying the varied livery of John Deere, Massey, and even Fordson. Numerically the cyclists probably have the edge, and many a yard of lycra can be seen in low gear on the uphill stretches, or into the headwind.
To close your eyes is to allow the wind to sing, hopefully blowing hard enough to take the racket of the dirt bike tracks to disturb the peace of some other innocent. Boys head to the hills to muddy their toys, two or four wheeled. The skies, when clear, carry the puttering of the micro-lite, the roar of the gas burner in a gondola that may even carry Fogg himself, or the steady thump of rotors as the injured are removed from the bike track. I prefer the still days, when the house martins compete with the skylarks, and the buzzard circles with his mate, tormented by crows, or an early rise is rewarded with the ever rarer sight of the blackcock at the lek. The landscape remains.
It is a haven of wildlife, changing with the seasons. In the dark, cold days of winter, the fields gradually lose their colour, the beasts are indoors and only the occasional pony, some without the comfort of a rug, remains to graze the dying fodder. The changing of the seasons is marked by the inevitable return of the house martins from the southern hemisphere at the end of their incredible journey, always the last week in April; by the first boastful cry of the cuckoo across the still valley a few days later; and by the percussion of the woodpecker. In spring life begins again and early lambs bring a joy to all, suckling with tails a-wag and enjoying communal playground games when brave enough to escape Mama’s flanks. Before long those familiar mottled hides of the Friesian are back on view, calves are fattening, and the bull tends to his duties with apparent casual disdain. The black-tailed stoat loses his ermine disguise and rabbits do what rabbits do, providing a plentiful larder for a certain domestic cat, fattening up for his night-long vigils in a neighbouring tractor cab where he seems to have learned the benefits of under-seat heating, and the skills to switch it on. The air fills with the roar of machinery as the farmer works his chopper and a fleet of trailers into the wee small hours for the first cut of silage and the heady scent of fresh cut grass, far beyond the semi-detached flymos of town, fills the air before the slurry tanker brings its own version of fresh country air to the washing flapping on the breeze.
Chickens range freely and widely, tootling down the Roman road to the neighbouring farm, relatively safe from the threat of foxes most of which seem to have fled the countryside where they have to work for their dinner in favour of easier urban pickings. Somewhere around is a large cache of rotten eggs, as the red-combed chickens forego the nesting box to protect their produce from baking bowl and frying pan. It may have been found by one of the airborne predators. Barn owls continue to nest, sharing the dusk skies with the bats. By day the peregrine quarters the ground, and the crows laugh raucously from their vantage points among the topmost branches of the beech trees that surround farm buildings. Climate change is evidenced with the fall of ancient beeches, gaps in the shelter belt appear, and even the plantations of larch and spruce have given the wind inroads leaving behind evidence of its destructive path. New plantings slowly expand their presence. The Rowan boasts a harvest of red berries, the hawthorn blossoms with that unique after-the-rain smell. Today the undergrowth among the hedgerows gets out of control, with council verge cutting reduced to once each year, delayed from June until August. It may harbour more life as a result.
Ancient farm steadings, long since deprived of windows and roofs and laughter, metamorphose, with the consent of the authorities, and buildings become homes once again, usually sharing their grounds with extra houses to maximise the profit at the expense of the amenity. The micro population increases and a rising school roll should preserve the two-room education in the local school. More urban dwellers get the chance to discover the delights of rural life. Despite increased building the landscape remains.
By night there is no light pollution, no orange glow to hide the stars shooting among the satellites rapidly blinking their way to google our earth. We benefit from dark skies, a modern wonder shared with the Romans and arrowhead makers, and now known to so few. Sirius stands sentinel to the south. Moonlight is a concept alien in the metropolis, a marvel in Avondale as a blue sheen limns the beasts and trees standing peacefully in the fields.
In the grounds where the Duke’s daughter, Margaret, entertained a Russian princess, Sofka Dolgourouky, in the aftermath of the extinction of the Romanovs, fences have been raised, originally to contain those guilty of misdemeanour, but now containing the children of those not sure if they will be allowed to enjoy these lands, far from their own ancestral homes. The buildings are the same, and the views unchanged. The politics alone move on.
Across these green slopes lie markers to the deeds and deaths from the killing times as covenanters dispersed across moor and hill to the kirks of Muir and Loudoun, and the King’s troops wreaked havoc after regrouping on the banks of the Clyde where that historic bridge of Bothwell is lost amidst the necessities of modern life. Back here in Avondale there remains an annual conventicle on these same slopes on the first Sunday in June. The modern covenanter will no doubt take his inspiration from a further three hundred years back, and lead his Rosinante and Sancho round the newly laid trails to tilt at the windmills of Ardochrig. The horizon may be peppered with turning blades but the landscape is the same as it was before the first line of pylons raised its ugly heads. Our quest for power continues and the wind has to be harnessed; that same wind that disrupts the supplies. The landscape remains unchanged.
Those tools and arrowheads came to light less than fifty years ago, and now rest for the world to see, among the splendours housed in the museum at Kelvingrove. They came from my own backyard, here at Peelhill, evidence of settlement on this same spot. The views here have been enjoyed by many over the years. The time of any one of us has always been short and some groups have left a greater mark than others. My hope is that in another 3,500 years there will be others appreciating these same landscapes
It is a joy to pass my short time in this ancient vista, among hills and crags that pre-date Creation; amidst those who work the land as others have done in millennia past. The greater joy is to be able to enjoy these lands all day long, to live and to work, escaping the commuter runs to civilisation, in the fields to the west of Strathaven, in Drumclog, at Peelhill, and to do so with friends and loved ones. These views of rural Lanarkshire are splendid and extend to the surrounding lands of Ayrshire, (East and South), of Arran across the water, and to the rest of Lanarkshire on the occasions when I can gain the higher grounds. The landscape remains.