When Galloway poet Doug Curran, originally from Monreith, was asked by Carolyn Yates, of Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association, to read at a recent exhibition of Sheila Mullen paintings, he could never have guessed at the eventual outcome.
The paintings on display were all inspired by Scots poems written by some of the country’s best known poets, including Hugh MacDairmid, Sorley MacLean, William Soutar and Willie Neill. At the end of the evening, Sheila took the time to tell Doug how much she had enjoyed his reading, and then astonished him by speaking in detail of some of his own poems.
“I had no idea she had ever heard of me, far less that she would be familiar with my poetry,” said Doug.
But an even greater surprise was in store. A few days later, Sheila telephoned to tell him that, having heard the readings, she had felt compelled to get out her brushes, and do a painting inspired by his poem entitled Ina, which tells the moving story of a day in the life of Ina Chesney, a mentally handicapped young woman, who, in the 1940s, lived with her mother in the remote shepherd’s cottage at Drigmorn, in the hills above Minnigaff.
At that time Doug lived at Barncaughla Farm, just off the New Galloway road, and, together with his parents, often used to visit Ina’s lonely home.
“Ina was unable to speak,” said Doug, “and, although it was clear to all who knew her that she was far from unintelligent, she received no assistance with her difficulties, and had simply been abandoned to her mother’s care. She never left Drigmorn, spending all her days sitting by the kitchen window, looking out over the empty moor, and down the long, winding track that led to her home.”
In later years, the harsh realities of Ina’s situation began to haunt Doug, as he recalled his childhood visits to Drigmorn. His abiding memory was seeing her sitting at her window on the world, where she would invariably spot any visitors approaching. As Doug explained: “I don’t recall ever reaching the house unannounced. As we crested the Crab Tree Brae, Ina would draw her mother’s attention to our approach, and the pair would quickly don the white aprons hung behind the kitchen door, and sally forth across the ford in the burn to meet us on the track.”
Indeed, memories of the pair approaching down the track, aprons billowing in the wind, would be the lasting impression that Doug would retain in his mind’s eye. Although he would make many return visits to Drigmorn in the years following Ina’s death, he eventually found he was quite unable to recall anything of Ina’s facial features
“When I first saw the painting,” said Doug, “I found it a hugely moving experience. Sheila had chosen to depict Ina framed by the window that played such an important part in her life. Sheila captured the essence of Ina’s plight so wonderfully well that I was reduced to tears. After all those years, Ina had a face again.”
But another surprise was to follow.
“The painting was valued well beyond my pocket,” said Doug, “but when Sheila saw how much I liked it, she said, ‘Take it away – it’s yours. Leave it to me in your will one day!’ I was overwhelmed by her kindness.”
The painting is now on display in A’ The Airts, 8-12 High Street, Sanquhar, together with details of Ina’s story, where it is attracting a great deal of attention.
Doug’s initial interest in poetry was sparked by the redoubtable Mrs McCracken of Knock Primary School, Monreith, and continued through his years at the Douglas Ewart High School, Newton Stewart. He currently lives at Crawick, in Upper Nithsdale, and has had poetry published in two anthologies, Chuckies Fir The Cairn and Sanquhar Patterns, as well as in Lallans magazine. He has made a number of broadcasts for BBC Radio Ulster’s Ulster-Scots Language programme, A Kist o Wurds, and has had poetry archived by the Scots Language Centre in Perth. He can also be heard on the Scots Language website Aye Can reading an introduction to his poem The Basket Makers.
His interest in Drigmorn and the Chesney family continues, and he would be happy to hear from anyone who has information to relate.