David McVey

David McVey

The Black Burn

The Black Burn’s origins were dark and mysterious. It emerged ten feet broad and several inches deep from between two hedges of scruffy hawthorn near a row of shops, and disappeared into a culvert beneath the road. The twin hawthorn hedges fringed an estate of new houses and ran on to border the playing fields of what would, in time, become my secondary school. There was no burn visible at that end, so where did it come from? The Black Burn was a playground, but it was also a mystery of nature.

Nature, though, looked like the loser where the burn passed the parade of shops; the water oozed between dumped bicycle frames, car wings and shopping trolleys and seemed to reach the culvert – itself choked by discarded paper bags and sweet wrappers – with some relief. On the other side of the road the Black Burn flanked a children’s playpark and then ran through some flat green haughs where we often played football. On the right-hand side rose a steep grassy scarp with, at the top, a street of those three-storey post-war council flats you find everywhere in Scotland.

Further along, the scarp was shaggy with small bushes, a popular playground for war games, cowboys and Indians, and hide and seek. A worn, sandy gully split the scarp and offered either a challenging climb or a dizzying bumslide. Either way, you ended up covered in rich-red earth like a tennis player taking a tumble at the French Open.

At this end, the grassy haughs were wet and marshy. Here, your footfalls brought forth wheezing, bronchial gasps, worsening to slurping squelches in the wettest sections. Your shoes filled with dank muddy water and a sense of panic set in; if you took a quick bunny-hop to the side the watery sinking feeling just began all over again.

The burn slipped under another culvert below Redbrae Road, a busy road that dropped steeply through a gap in the scarp. Across the road, the burn ran only for two hundred yards more before losing itself in a greater river, the Luggie Water, a fast broad brown stream. There never seemed to be any animal life in the burn before this culvert, but downstream it had undercut, grassy sides, deeper water and was connected to a large river so offered much more wildlife interest. We often went there in summer, armed with jam-jars and plastic nets on sticks.

Just before it entered the Luggie, the Black Burn did something that summoned images of pirates and shipwrecks and castaways and cannibals; it split in two and formed an island. The island, which we named Abbotsford Island after our street, was roughly triangular, its sides formed by the east bank of the Luggie and by the left- and right-hand branches of the Black Burn. Actually, the right-hand branch was only part-time, a muddy ditch that might just fill with water after very wet weather.

When the late autumn sun flared before dying the town glowed gold and there was a magic in it. The pale fire transfigured pebble-dashed council houses into things of myth and cast cold shadows that lengthened and reached out and clawed away the light. There was a hush, a Sunday silence broken only by the odd car growling past on Redbrae Road, which was now used as a rat run by people in the new private houses far beyond the Black Burn. This drowsy quiet lasted until six; and then a tremulous chiming began to shimmer across town, with a slow, uneven beat and a doleful melody that spoke of cold stone monasteries and fasting monks and murmured Latin, even though it was clearly a recording, rather than something struck from living metal.

Once, a crowd of us were playing down at the burn as the shadow-dark began its slow creep and we made up our minds to sneak home as quietly as possible (we were already late for tea). And then the chimes came, their sad melody breaking over the fields and woods and the gleaming mud-brown waters of the burn. When they stopped, their memory hung over the town. Tam Brannan said ‘That’s the Angelus.’

     ‘Eh?’ said one of the Protestants. Me, perhaps.

     ‘It means the angel Gabriel telling Mary that Our Lord is gonnae be born.’

     ‘Should they no be a wee bit happier, then?’ said someone.

We all went home to a walloping for missing tea. Tam and the other Catholics got hustled off to Mass before they were even allowed bread and jam to make up for the burnt meal.

Every weeknight, every Saturday, every Sunday we were outside; in good weather we spent long hours down at the Black Burn. Our mothers hated us going there because our jeans and jumpers usually ended up thick with mud. We built dams with mud and turf and stones and dangled nets in the water for sticklebacks and minnows and jumped from bank to bank across the narrower bits, usually just clearing the water, and looked for water beetles and pond skaters and water snails in the quieter pools.

There was a sense of adventure in dipping our minnow nets in the Luggie rather than in the Black Burn. The bigger river held greater beasts, trout and enormous sticklebacks with red breasts like bullfinches. The books we looked at suggested that minnows and sticklebacks collected in jam-jars and put into fishbowls would die in days since they needed running water. All the same, I caught and kept one that lasted over a month and only died after it appeared to choke on a small worm I dropped in as food. Water crickets, small pond snails and the like were added to give our bowls some variety, and I was disturbed once to see a water beetle attack one of my sticklebacks. We backed up these practical lessons with frequent re-readings of The Observer’s Book of Pond Life. I was very proud when I first identified a water cricket from its pages. The author was John Clegg; I wondered if he was the John Clegg who played la-di-dah Gunner Graham in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. He wasn’t.

Within our memories, cows had grazed in the rough ground beyond the Black Burn. The barbed wire fences survived (the Luggie itself formed another part of the field edge) but the ground now was simply rough and tussocky with patches of nettles and thistles. There had been cows there when, aged four, I had been marched down Redbrae Road with the rest of my family to line Waterside Road and stand waving flags as a motorcade swept by. Somewhere in one of those opulent cars had been the late Queen, presumably doing her celebrated waving thing, as they sped away from her only ever visit to our town. I don’t remember having seen her, but I do remember marvelling at the grazing cows, and at their tangy smell, on the walk there and back.

By the time I reached adulthood, most of these former fields had been transformed into a park, the tussocky grass tamed into rolling and rather dull lawns. Paths were laid, and incredibly a footbridge crossed the Luggie just where we used to wade across. The construction of the footbridge obliterated Abbotsford Island. A stile and a flight of steps now led you from Redbrae Road to the Black Burn, itself now rather sterile and canalised.

Upstream and across the road, the haughs by the burn have gone and an executive (it’s probably called) housing estate has appeared there, cutting off public access to the burn from the Redbrae Road side. I wonder if the houses in the formerly boggy bits ever have flooding problems? The burn still creeps under the street at the parade of shops further upstream and public behaviour seems to have improved as it is nowhere near as rubbish-strewn as it once was.

The ragged remains of the hawthorn hedges are still there, squeezed between the houses and my old secondary school (now itself rebuilt). Somewhere, in some inaccessible corner it still has its birth. I must track it down sometime. I wonder why we didn’t try to do that as boys.

I do hope, however, that small boys and girls still play in late autumn evenings by the Black Burn and are still transfixed by the glint of sunlight on water and perhaps by the slow echo of the Angelus calling across town.





Header Image Credit: Elaine Morrison

David McVey
David McVey

David McVey lectures at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 140 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.