I am reading Willie Gavin Crofter Man, A Portrait of a Vanished Lifestyle by David Kerr Cameron, who writes partially in Doric and with a wonderful understanding of the crofters and their love of the land. In the first few pages, as he introduces Willie Gavin, (a crofter-born stone mason who chiseled stone by very long days and then came home to tend his croft), he refers to the draw that America had for the stone masons. Many of the Scottish stone cutters came to the States for work, and having completed the project, returned to their crofts with enough money to last them through a year or two. Some of them stayed in the States; others returned for their families and began a new life over here. My Great-grandfather was one of them.
The records list William M Cowie as being born at Cowferds, Strichen, in 1862 and my Great-grandmother born in Dalbeatie (known for its granite quarry) in either 1870 or 1871. I know that William Cowie came to the States to work on Grants Tomb, and then returned with his family and settled in Maine (and later Vermont). The registry lists Elizabeth Kirkpatrick Cowie’s parents, both born in Scotland, as residing in South Thomaston, Maine at the time of their deaths, so perhaps they came over at the same time. Family lore has it that William had returned to Scotland with the idea of unions in his head, and, having tried to educate his fellow Aberdeenshire stone cutters about them, needed to beat a hasty retreat. He set his sight on the granite quarries of Maine.
Another bit of family lore was told to me by my Grandfather, who was also the story’s main protagonist. We were standing in front of the house where he lived when his family had moved to South Ryegate, VT. Coming down from the porch on each side of the steps were wide granite railings, and the end of which were sculpted balls as adornment. Except that the one on the left wasn’t there. According to Grandpa, at a very young age he decided to hone his stone cutting skills, and used his dad’s tools to cut the ball off!
As I read about Willie Gavin, I am drawn in by the rich detail Cameron writes. He takes the reader through each bit of a crofter’s life so deftly that as I read, I can feel it in my soul. Cameron writes of the planned “farmtouns” and I remember seeing “a planned community (1764)” on the sign at the edge of the town of Strichen, but that is more for Alexander Fraser’s linen/ textile manufacturing than as a farmtoun, I gather. Wherever Cowferds was, I imagine it as a small farm, or smaller still, a croft.
My grandfather and father showed me how to be close to the land by their example. It ran in their blood, I am sure. Driving anywhere with either of them often meant a turn off to follow a country road instead of staying on the highway. Even at the height of his upper-echelon executive position at a large paper company’s division in Philadelphia, Grandpa’s favorite place to be was in his garden in suburban Wallingford. My father followed suit as he would also come home from his office in Manhattan and unwind from the long drive up the Hudson River Valley by working in the large expanse of yard that surrounded our house. Weekends would find him clearing the leaves and dead branches from the pools of the waterfall a few hundred yards behind the house, placing rocks along the creek bed, or filling in ruts in the dirt road that was our driveway and building the borders/ planning trees along its quarter-mile length. All summer long, there would be the cutting of fire wood for the winter. My job was to sit on the branches of the fallen tree and counterbalance so the saw could move smoothly and not be pinched in the wood. In their own ways, and in their own lives, Dad and Grandpa carried forward the crofter’s love and caring for the land.
Caring for the land, the Earth, has been a part of my life for so long I honestly cannot remember it ever not being important to me. It is a part of how I was raised as much as anything else, and comes particularly from my Grandpa and Father the way good manners and the love of Scrabble did.
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