I’ve been reading a lot of books while researching People Make Glasgow, and one of my favourite recent reads is Ian R Mitchell’s This City Now (reissued as Walking through Glasgow’s Industrial Past in 2015) which offers a brilliant walker’s guide to the city’s industrial history. The book mentions one of Mitchell’s peripatetic-literary Glasgow forbears – Hugh Macdonald – a working class poet, editor of Glasgow newspaper The Citizen, and author of Rambles around Glasgow (1858).
Macdonald’s parents came to Glasgow from the Isle of Mull, and Hugh was born in Bridgeton in 1817, the eldest of eleven children. Beginning factory work at the age of 7, Macdonald loved books, read all he could and educated himself with the help of local libraries. When he later found work as a calico block printer at Colinslee in Paisley, he would walk 8 miles to work, complete his 10 hour shift, then walk the 8 mile return route home again. By anybody’s standards, Macdonald was an indefatigable pedestrian, who clearly loved walking for its own sake, as well as for the opportunities it brought to learn about local places and their history, talk to interesting people, and absorb the inspiring details about his surrounding landscape which he later brought to life in his essays and poems.
I thought I’d like to read Macdonald’s Rambles, and a search turned up a beautiful and inexpensive copy of the 1860 edition. The first thing I did when the book arrived was to turn to Macdonald’s 18th ramble – to Milngavie and Strathblane – my neck of the woods and a landscape I know very well, having walked here almost every day for the 7 years I’ve lived here. I was intrigued by Macdonald’s account of a local landmark:
“About midway between the little bridge along which the road crosses the Blane and Carbeth, the table-land of Craigaillan comes to an abrupt termination in a precipitous and wooded promontory which is locally denominated The Pillar Craig . . . so called from a magnificent range of basaltic columns with which the summit is crowned.”
I knew exactly where Macdonald meant –I often walk in these woods — but I had honestly never noticed any such basalt columns. The area is a mix of modern forestry and well-established old deciduous woodland, very dense and overgrown. There are several steep paths, which overlook some equally steep cliff edges: could one of these edges, hidden among the woods, feature Macdonald’s Pillar Craig? I showed the description to Tom. He hadn’t noticed any basalt columns either. We examined our local OS map. There were 3 places we felt that basalt columns matching Macdonald’s description might be located, so we set out to have a look.
Deep into the woods, there’s a rocky edge ahead, and we start to climb up . . .
. . . Bruce, Bobby, are we getting close?
Oh! I think we found it!
Here’s more from Hugh Macdonald:
“After scrambling with some difficulty and occasionally, we are afraid, in rather ungraceful attitudes, up the rugged acclivity, we are certainly abundantly rewarded for our pains by the spectacle . . . present[ed] to our gaze . . .
“Let the reader imagine a steep precipice, thirty or perhaps forty feet in height, composed of immense columns of basalt . . . regular in outline as if they had been the work of the chisel rather than the produce of a material law. . .
“most of these columns are in firm juxtaposition with each other but in various instances, the pillars stand erect and almost isolated while one broken column has fallen from its original position and projects perpendicularly . . .from the debris below, just as if it had been erected by an antedulivan sculptor to the memory of some distinguished individual among the ‘world’s grey fathers’ . . .”
Well, I don’t know about the world’s grey fathers, but the 36th Forth Valley Scouts had visited Pillar Craig before us, and left a message
It’s always interesting finding something new, or seeing something afresh, in a place you thought you knew quite well.
I’m looking forward to finding out more about my local landscape in the entertaining company of Hugh Macdonald.