Andrew Young was born in 1885 in Elgin, on the north coast of Scotland, and brought up in Edinburgh, where he studied art and was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church. From 1920 onwards, he lived and worked in Sussex on the south coast of England, first as a Presbyterian Minister, and then as an Anglican priest. All the while he maintained a keen interest in Botany, a subject on which he wrote, and built a respectable reputation as a poet. (Topical side question for British readers: isn’t poetry and botany, as opposed to banking and crystal meth, just the kind of thing that ordained ministers should be doing on the side?)
This poem of his caught my eye some time back for two reasons. First, it’s about Teesdale. That is not in his native Scotland, nor anywhere near Sussex, but roughly in between. It’s not a million miles away from where I live, and this is the first time I remember reading of a poem set in Teesdale (although apparently, Walter Scott wrote one too). Parochial old me. But second, it captures perfectly that time of the year when, particularly for those of us living at high latitudes, night becomes that little bit more night-like – cold and dark and threatening.
No, not tonight
Not by this fading light,
Not by those high fells where the forces
Fall from the mist like the white tails of horses.
From the dark slack
Where peat-hags gape too black
I turn to where the lighted farm
Holds out through the open door a golden arm.
No, not tonight,
Tomorrow by daylight;
Tonight I fear the fabulous horses
Whose white tails flash down the steep watercourses.
In the poem, Young seems to be answering the question ‘Shall we go for an evening stroll out on the hills there?’ as asked by a rather over-keen fellow walker on a trip up to the north of England. Perhaps Young posed the question to himself. He answers, anyway, in a way that evokes the particular landscape of the area.
A few notes on Teesdale might be in order… The Tees was, traditionally, the boundary between County Durham and Yorkshire, although the 1976 redrawing of county boundaries (damn it) messed up that a bit. Teesdale, inland from the large industrial town of Middlesbrough, is a pleasant green land of large ancestral estates and pleasant villages with stone and whitewashed cottages; west towards the Pennines, it gets higher and wilder. At one point Pennine landscape is interrupted by an outbreak of black igneous rock – of the very same seam that again erupts again further north and on which both Hadrian’s Wall and Bamburgh Castle are built – making the landscape more dramatic still.
High Force, falling over that black igneous rock, is the most fearsome waterfall in the area, and one of Britain’s most impressive waterfalls. It’s not the only one – there is a Low Force too, and a Cauldron Snout. The horse imagery, however, brings to mind another of Britain’s waterfalls – the Grey Mare’s Tail in Southern Scotland; it also brings to mind the Kelpies of old Scots folklore. Young seems to bring some of this Caledonian imagery into his description of Teesdale. Those ‘peat hags’ sound sinister too, don’t they – and Young is surely aware of the witchy feeling of the word hag, but a peat hag is actually a geographical term for the bog or pit left after peat cutting – there are plenty in the upland areas of England and Scotland. The hint of the supernatural is, in fact, a little mild – and perhaps ironic: the landscape itself, bold and dark, presents enough of a menace without bringing witches or kelpies on the scene. Young’s dread in the face of nature is perfectly rational. Who wouldn’t prefer a warm homestead to the bottom of a big black pit?
Photo Credit: tripadvisor.co.uk