Witch Wood, by John Buchan


Time, my grandfather used to say, stood still in that glen of his. But the truth of the saying did not survive his death, and the first daisies had scarcely withered on his grave before a new world was knocking at the gate. That was thirty years ago, and to-day the revolution is complete. The parish name has been changed; the white box of a kirk which served the glen for more than two centuries has been rebuilt in red suburban gothic; a main railway line now runs down the Aller, and the excellent summer service brings holiday-makers from a hundred miles distant: houses and shops have clustered under the Hill of Deer; there may be found a well-reputed boarding school for youth, two inns — both of them reformed — a garage, and a bank agent. The centre of importance has moved from the old village to the new town by the station, and even the old village is no more a clachan of thatched roofs straggling by a burnside. Some enemy of the human race has taught the burn to run straight like a sewer, and has spanned it with a concrete bridge, while the thatch of the houses has been replaced by slates of a metallic green. Only the ruins of the old kirkton have not been meddled with; these stand as I remember them, knee-deep in docks and nettles, defended by a crumbling dry-stone dyke against inquisitive cattle from Crossbasket.

The old folk are gone, too, and their very names are passing from the countryside. Long before my day the Hawkshaws had disappeared from Calidon, but there was a respectable Edinburgh burgess family who had come there in the seventeenth century; now these have given place to a rawer burgess graft from the West. The farmers are mostly new men, and even the peasant, who should be the enduring stock, has shifted his slow bones. I learned from the postman that in Woodilee to-day there was no Monfries, no Sprot, but one Pennecuik, and only two bearers of the names of Ritchie and Shillinglaw, which had once been plentiful as ragwort. In such a renovated world it was idle to hope to find surviving the tales which had perplexed my childhood. No one could tell me when or why the kirk by the Crossbasket march became a ruin, and its gravestones lay buried in weeds. Most did not even know that it had been a kirk.

I was not greatly surprised by this, for the kirk of Woodilee had not been used for the better part of three centuries; and even as a child I could not find many to tell me of its last minister. The thing had sunk from a tale to an “owercome,” a form of words which every one knew but which few could interpret. It was Jess Blane, the grieve’s daughter, who first stirred my curiosity. In a whirl of wrath at some of my doings she prayed that the fate of the minister of Woodilee might be mine — a fate which she expounded as to be “claught by the Deil and awa’ wi’.” A little scared, I carried the affair to my nurse, who was gravely scandalized, and denounced Jess as a “shamefu’ tawpie, fyling the wean’s mind wi’ her black lees.” “Dinna you be feared, dearie,” she reassured me. “It wasna the Deil that cam’ for the minister o’ Woodilee. I’ve aye heard tell that he was a guid man and a kind man. It was the Fairies, hinny. And he leev’d happy wi’ them and dee’d happy, and never drank out o’ an empty cup.” I took my information, I remember, to the clan of children who were my playmates, and they spread it among their households and came back with confirmation or contradiction. Some held for the Devil, some for the Fairies — a proof that tradition spoke with two voices. The Fairy school slightly outnumbered the others, and in a battle one April evening close to the ruined kirk we routed the diabolists and established our version as the canon. But save for that solitary fact — that the minister of Woodilee had gone off with the Fairies — the canon remained bare.

Years later I got the tale out of many books and places: a folio in the library of a Dutch college, the muniment-room of a Catholic family in Lancashire, notes in a copy of the second Latin edition of Wishart’s Montrose, the diaries of a captain of Hebron’s and of a London glove-maker, the exercise book of a seventeenth-century Welsh schoolgirl. I could piece the story together well enough, but at first I found it hard to fit it to the Woodilee that I knew — that decorous landscape, prim, determinate, without a hint of mystery; the bare hilltops, bleak at seasons, but commonly of a friendly Pickwickian baldness, skirted with methodically-planned woods of selected conifers, and girdled with mathematical stone dykes; the even, ruled fields of the valley bottom; the studied moderation of the burns in a land meticulously drained; the dapper glass and stone and metal of the village. Two miles off, it was true, ran the noble untamed streams of Aller; beyond them the hills rose in dark fields to mid-sky, with the glen of the Rood making a sword-cut into their heart. But Woodilee itself — whither had fled the savour? Once, I knew from the books, the great wood of Melanudrigill had descended from the heights and flowed in black waves to the village brink. But I could not re-create the picture out of glistening asphalted highway, singing telegraph wires, spruce dwellings, model pastures, and manicured woodlands.

Then one evening from the Hill of Deer I saw with other eyes. There was a curious leaden sky, with a blue break about sunset, so that the shadows lay oddly. My first thought, as I looked at the familiar scene, was that, had I been a general in a campaign, I should have taken special note of Woodilee, for it was a point of vantage. It lay right in the pass between the Scottish midlands and the south — the pass of road and water — yes, and — shall I say? — of spirit, for it was in the throat of the hills, on the march between the sown and the desert. I was looking east, and to my left and behind me the open downs, farmed to their last decimal of capacity, were the ancient land of Manann, the capital province of Pictdom. The colliery headgear on the horizon, the trivial moorish hilltops, the dambrod-pattern fields, could never tame wholly for me that land’s romance, and on this evening I seemed to be gazing at a thing antique and wolfish, tricked out for the moment with a sheep’s coat. . . . To my right rose the huddle of great hills which cradle all our rivers. To them time and weather bring little change, yet in that eerie light, which revealed in hard outline while it obscured in detail, they seemed too remote and awful to be the kindly giants with whose glens I daily conversed. . . . At my feet lay Woodilee, and a miracle had been wrought, for a gloom like the shadow of an eclipse seemed to have crept over the parish. I saw an illusion, which I knew to be such, but which my mind accepted, for it gave me the vision I had been seeking.

It was the Woodilee of three hundred years ago. And my mind, once given the cue, set out things not presented by the illuded eye. . . . There were no highways — only tracks, miry in the bogs and stony on the braes, which led to Edinburgh on one hand and to Carlisle on the other. I saw few houses, and these were brown as peat, but on the knowe of the old kirkton I saw the four grey walls of the kirk, and the manse beside it among elders and young ashes. Woodilee was not now a parish lying open to the eye of sun and wind. It was no more than a tiny jumble of crofts, bounded and pressed in upon by something vast and dark, which clothed the tops of all but the highest hills, muffled the ridges, choked the glens and overflowed almost to the edge of the waters — which lay on the landscape like a shaggy fur cast loosely down. My mouth shaped the word “Melanudrigill,” and I knew that I saw Woodilee as no eye had seen it for three centuries, when, as its name tells, it still lay in the shadow of a remnant of the Wood of Caledon, that most ancient forest where once Merlin harped and Arthur mustered his men. . . .

An engine whistled in the valley, a signal-box sprang into light, and my vision passed. But as I picked my way down the hillside in the growing dusk I realized that all memory of the encircling forest had not gone from Woodilee in my childhood, though the name of Melanudrigill had been forgotten. I could hear old Jock Dodds, who had been keeper on Calidon for fifty years, telling tales for my delectation as he sat and smoked on the big stone beside the smithy. He would speak of his father, and his father’s father, and the latter had been a great hero with his flintlock gun. “He would lie in the moss or three on the winter mornin’s, and him an auld man, and get the wild swans and the grey geese when they cam’ ower frae Clyde to Aller. Ay, and mony’s the deer he would kill.” And when I pointed out that there were no deer in the countryside, Jock shook his head and said that in his grandfather’s day the Black Wood was not all destroyed. “There was a muckle lump on Windyways, and anither this side o’ Reiverslaw.” But if I asked for more about the Wood, Jock was vague. Some said it had been first set by the Romans, others by Auld Michael Scott himself. . . . “A grand hidy-hole for beasts and an unco bit for warlocks.” . . . Its downfall had begun long ago in the Dear Years, and the last of it had been burnt for firewood in his father’s day, in the winter of the Sixteen Drifty Days. . . .

I remembered, too, that there had been places still sacrosanct and feared. To Mary Cross, a shapeless stone in a field of bracken, no one would go in the spring or summer gloaming, but the girls decked it with wild flowers at high noon of Midsummer Day. There was a stretch of Woodilee burn, between the village and the now-drained Fennan Moss, where trout, it was believed, were never found. Above all, right in the heart of Reiverslaw’s best field of turnips was a spring, which we children knew as Katie Thirsty, but which the old folk called the Minister’s Well, and mentioned always with a shake of the head or a sigh, for it was there, they said, that the minister of Woodilee had left the earth for Fairyland.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50