Open Country with Erica Hume Niven

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Possibly in the late 1980s or early 1990s my brother and I ended up in Strathclyde University’s Union. We were at first a bit disappointed to discover that instead of a DJ there was a band. The band was called The Pearlfishers. I was surprised to discover a current website for them – I thought they would have dispersed and given up.

The legacy they left for me was the audio cassette that I bought at that serendipitous gig. With only six songs on it, the woman selling it told me there was a Robert Burns song, Ca’ the Ewes tae the Knowes, on it. I had not heard of it. I grew to love that song. I found its sentiment romantic – the words speaking from another time long ago.

When my Uncle David married many years later it was sung at his wedding. I had a strong emotional response to it, I cried because a certain shepherd was again unable to attend a celebration. I happened to be sitting beside Rev Ruth Scott, Anglican priest, author and broadcaster. She put her arms around me and did not even ask why I cried.

Again, a spontaneous moment overtook me involving Burn’s song as I leant against my car at the head of the Manor Valley. I had paused just before setting off on my guided walk.

Really, I should have stopped myself because I cannot sing. However, after explaining that knowe is equivalent to the English knoll I broke into song.

“Ca’ the ewes tae the knowes, ca’ them where the heather grows, ca’ them where the burnie rowes, my bonnie dearie.

“Fair and lovely as thou art, thou hast stolen my very heart, I can die but canna part, wi’ my bonnie dearie.”

Thankfully Margaret joined in to help me along and we took the song with us up the hill. There are no less than seven knowes around Dollar Law which would be our first hill that day. I had been reading about knowes in Peter Drummond’s Scottish Hill Names book and he claims that there are seven around Dollar Law. Trusting in his excellent study I searched for these on the map.

I found Long Grain Knowe to the north, which has a pronounced southern shoulder littered with cairns and lesser cairns described as piles of stones. Then west of Dollar Law is Lairdside Knowe which has a flat shoulder steepening down into Stone Grain Hope. Just south sits Fifescar Knowe: with an impressive height of 811m it is a Donald top, quite different from England’s knolls.

Farther to the west is Brown Knowe which is actually just north of Broad Law; a round summit at the end of a broad marshy moorland. Tods Knowe and Lamb Knowe sit almost 6km south of Dollar Law, below Cramalt Craig, making twin summits on another huge moorland. I found another two, Pykestone Knowe and Lair Knowe, giving a total of eight. However, I am not sure what Peter’s geographical boundary was.

Unsure of how long these tops and shoulders have had these names I cannot make any definite discussion as to why they are named as such.

Sometimes the names refer specifically to topographical detail.

However, it is clear that some refer to the hill sheep farming practices of the pioneers, the first shepherds, who worked the patchwork of moors, cleuchs, rigs, knowes and hill tops. Included in this group is a Hogg Hill, a name found in several areas around the region.

There is even a Porridge Cairn. This could refer to the way the cairn looks, but it is possible that this was a rest spot where the shepherd or a huntsman ate his oatmeal.

Also interesting is the Bitch Craig. This is a stunning collection of rocky faces which the sheep have made smooth and green at the top from grazing. A commonly-used phrase is “that’s a bitch”, referring to something that is awkward and creates a difficulty.

There were no such difficulties on our walk. The sun shone (the midges were biting part of the way up) and the most glorious display of brilliant white clouds filled the sky.

Not until we reached the Bitch Craig did the heavens deposit the heaviest rain shower upon us.