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The Wigtownshire Pages


Ghosts in My Past
by Olive McDonald
 
  photo “ Minnigaff! That’s a silly name to call a place!” So said I with the wisdom of an eleven-year-old newcomer to Scotland. I would later find that the name evolved over many centuries from the Gaelic or Irish moine gamf, Moss of the storm, or perhaps from the old Scots language meaning The Smith’s Wood. Either way, through the years the name has been Monigaffe, Monigow and Moniegov. The Parish Church uses an old spelling and has always been Monigaff Parish Church.

This ancient village, whatever it wants to be called, meanders along the East bank of the River Cree in Kirkcudbrightshire in South West Scotland, while directly opposite, on the West bank of the river in Wigtownshire,is Newton Stewart; a much newer town. The history of Minnigaff goes back hundreds of years; something that I found to my delight when I moved there from Winnipeg in 1936. I didn't believe that any place could be so old, especially coming from a new city like Winnipeg.
 
As children we loved to play near the Church. The ‘new’ Church was built in 1836, high on a hill, or motte, beside the ruins of the Auld Kirk, where tombstones in the recesses are dated the eleventh century. The Auld Kirk was built on the site of an even older medieval Church. photo Two pillar stones have recently been placed inside the Church to preserve them; these stones dating from around the eighth century and are believed to relate to Irish Missionary activity.

We played on this hallowed ground! I can still smell the musty odour of damp, mouldy grass and soil, and can sense again the terror when one of the other children jumped out from behind a gravestone, shrieking like a banshee. It was easy to imagine that ghosts could be hiding in this spooky, creepy, wonderful glimpse of the past, but a hard initiation into the different world to which I had come. Nothing that I knew in Winnipeg was so old or so much fun, and nothing that I had seen in Winnipeg was half as scary!
From high up on the motte the Cree can be seen flowing slowly along The Ghyll o’ Cree. On the other side is the Penkiln Burn, which flows down from the Galloway Hills, fed by many smaller burns, or streams. In spring when the burn is in spate, the banks can overflow without warning, and many of the low-lying areas in the village are flooded. In 1961 The Penkiln came down suddenly and washed away the historic Queen Mary’s Bridge at Cumloden Mill, a woollen mill which, many years ago was worked by a water wheel which is still there. Below Queen Mary’s Bridge was, and I think still is, a wishing well. Many a hopeful wish went into this hole in the rocks below with three pebbles for lack of three pennies.
Our Saturday penny didn’t stretch far enough for that! All three pebbles had to fall in the well or your wish was not granted. A new footbridge was built, but does not have the character of the old one which seemed to grow right out of the side of the Mill. After all, Mary Queen of Scots had not walked across this new one as she had the old.
One of my favourite walks on a Sunday afternoon was ‘Round Queen Mary’s’. st. mary Down the village we took the road that circles the motte* and climbs up to Monnigaff Church. From there it was a short walk to Queen Mary’s where we would have a bit of fun with the wishing well, and then walk down the Cumloden Road which led back to the village again. This was a fair hike in Sunday shoes, and the cause of many a blister. On long summer days we would go upstream from the bridge to swim in a deep pool in the rocks; called, what else, The Rocks. Still farther upstream is The Black Rocks. I was afraid that I’d be washed down the burn and never seen again if I went in the deep, dark, cold water. I don’t think my friends listened to me when I muttered,” We had proper swimming pools in Winnipeg.”
Nearby is Cumloden House; which for many years has been the home of the Earls of Galloway and their families, and was originally used as a shooting lodge. As a large estate at that time many people were employed there; gamekeepers, gardeners, a chauffeur, and the ever important housekeeper, along with housemaids and scivvies. To be ‘in service’ in a big house was an important way of life, now long gone.
Carrying on up the Cumloden Road we were into moorland covered with heather and gorse; with sphagnum moss growing in the marshes, gulls eggs in season, pheasants and deer, bluebells, thistles and bracken, to a place called the Deerpark. Across this lonely moor is the historic home of the Earls of Galloway, Garlies Castle. Now in ruins, it still stands guard over the bleak countryside. It was said to have a dungeon and a ghost. I did not go to find out!
All of this never ceased to amaze me. As girls we were usually a gang of six, with some boys if we were lucky, so we wandered at will anywhere we chose, knowing that nothing would happen to us in these carefree days.
Then came the war, and this is where we went to gather sphagnum moss for dressing the soldier’s wounds. After pulling up the oddly absorbing moss and sloshing around in the bog thoroughly soaked and miserable, we trooped off to the Red Cross Hall where the moss was cleaned and dried. Later it was packed into little bags to be taken to wherever it was needed to help to absorb blood from wounds. We were stinking of disinfectant for days, but proud to help the War effort.
This story covers only the few miles within walking distance of Minnigaff, which is the way we got around then. Nothing prepared me for the distance that could be travelled when we all got bicycles! The seashore was never far away so a twenty mile ride was nothing to us. We had a pick of the beaches. Mossyard, Monrieth and The Rocks of Garheugh to name but a few. During the war, fearing an attack by the Germans, some were surrounded by barbed wire, so these were off limits to us.
We had the Minnigaff Hills to climb, most often Merrick and Cairnsmore. A German plane crashed on Cairnsmore and we all trooped up to see the wreckage. The scars left by the burning plane can still be seen on the hillside.
There were numerous Castles to be visited before they were swanked up for tourists, smugglers caves to be searched for, and Biddy Kane’s for home made toffee, when she could get the sugar. Every Sunday we had something exciting to do.
Was there a War on? It made little difference to our gang. We just slung our gas masks on our shoulder and cycled into the distance with whatever food we could get for a picnic. Maybe we were deprived, but we didn’t know it. Life meant having a good time in spite of the rationing and restrictions. The war had to end one day, and it did. Perhaps when the enemy heard that our gang had joined the Home Guard, (once called the LDV, or Local Defense Volunteers.) they were filled with fear. After all, having us up in the Minnigaff hills in the dark, with lamps flashing out the Morse code for miles around, would scare anyone, including ourselves! Fortunately we were never needed. The Home Guard was often called ‘Britain’s Last Hope.’ Looking back on it now and remembering our little troup of signallers, they had a point!
This was the countyside in which I grew up. The beauty and the history was there for me but I had to travel miles away and live many years to appreciate this. Now the wheels have turned. With my books on Galloway History and access to the Internet to remind me of this wonderful place, I can relive so much, and remember those ghosts from my past with awe and wonder.
* Motte - A mound or a small group of trees; site of an ancient fortification.
Olive McDonald

Vancouver, 2000.