The First of All My Landscapes - Jim Crumley*

I have no earlier memory of a specific landscape than the Balgay Hill. My first living journey was the two miles or so from the Clement Park Nursing Home in Lochee, where I was born, to my parents’ corporation prefab in Glamis Road that stood in the Balgay’s shadow. It was – it remains – synonymous with the word “home”.

The Balgay Hill was a constant and intimate presence throughout the first 20 years of my life. Even when the family finally moved out of the prefab when I was 13, we only flitted to the far side of the hill, to a new top flat in the topmost block in Saggar Street, perched high on the Balgay’s eastern flank, as high as any house ever perched on the Balgay, and with a view to the Bell Rock. The street itself had been superimposed on the line of an old green lane between two steep fields, and known to my father’s generation of Lochee folk as “the Cooie Roadie”, that being the way a rough-and-ready species of urban-fringe farmer routinely drove his coos up from City Road to graze on the hillside.

Finally, when I was 20, and the hill and the stairs had begun to defeat my father’s bronchitis, my parents moved to Barnhill, and the Balgay became in our eyes what it must have been for thousands of years – a low hill on a seafarer’s horizon. In the intervening 40-something years, I developed a characteristic restlessness. I climbed and wandered Scotland from coast to coast and top to bottom, and scratched the surface of other mountain lands – Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Alaska – and I have never lost that habit. But neither have I lost the need to return periodically to the first of all my landscapes.

Something primitive and profound embraces me there, and while I have no name for that something, I will be grateful to it forever, for the awareness it confers on me of a great earth-stillness beneath my feet, the required antidote for the restlessness I took away with me. 

As a child in the 1950s, I, and my fellow prefab-dwelling bairns, called the Balgay hill “The Hully”. We roamed its woody acres as pirates roamed their seas (albeit pirates that came home for their tea) in search of adventure and spoils. The spoils were modest, usually birds’ eggs. We had been “taught” by the older lads that you could only take one egg and then only if there were at least four in the nest, or if the eggs were already cold. God knows who arrived at that mindless equation but we regarded it as binding, and solemnly obeyed.  I was never much of a collector of anything, and at its height my collection consisted of six blahckie – blackbird – eggs, one of which I swapped for a chaffinch egg, the whole thing comfortably contained in a small Milk Tray box lined with cotton wool. I was, you might say, the Hully blahckie eggy laddie. Nevertheless, from such beginnings, I forged bonds with nature that have lasted me a lifetime and now determine the way I live my life.

The burial ground – “The Gravey” – was curiously affecting. We never walked across graves because of the vague knowledge of what lay there. But we were fascinated by the stones. For me, they symbolised “them” and “us”, and among the lowliest of the low was my grandmother’s, an ankle-high plaque showing only her name and dates and the words, “a token of respect from a few friends”. Nothing else. I would learn much later that it symbolised a fault-line in the family. Then there was what we used to call “the Irish King’s grave”, although when I sought it out more recently I was intrigued to discover that it was erected by a Dundee professor a few generations down the line from the “King of All Ireland” it commemorated.  My poor granny and an Irish king – the democracy of the dead. 

My parents and two more of my grandparents also lie in the Balgay, so there is and always will be a lot that calls me back. But mostly, when I think about the place from afar, I think of them all when they lived. The hill itself effortlessly eases memories back into place of that time when we shared its embrace. And in truth, this is a landscape where, as a family, we shared infinitely more happiness than sorrows. It is an unqualified blessing to have been born in its shadow.

*Jim Crumley is a well-known Dundee nature writer and campaigning journalist on behalf of wildlife and wild landscape.