Parable of the good shepherds
* Photos of a walk up Lairside Hill thanks to kevin mckell
The crumbling ruins of Cockmalaine Cottage high in the hills above the rugged Calder Glen (pictured) are often shrouded in eerie palls of mist.
Towering gables are stony survivors of what was once Renfrewshire's loneliest dwelling. Yet once these dilapidated walls echoed to the sound of laughter and were silent witness to the changing fortunes of a humble family who lived there. These long-dead rustics have vanished into the mists of time but memories of their presence linger on at the desolate cottage which was the scene of their earthly sojourns.
Cockmalaine Cottage was accessed by a three-mile long track leading from Auchenhean on the Ladyland road then snaking up past Maich Dam and through pine woods on to the crest of the hill. It was built in 1812 by wealthy James Adam, who owned land at Burnfoot, Barr, Garpel, Barr Loch and Laigh Hole in Lochwinnoch parish. It was the home of his shepherd, Matthew Meikle, along with his wife and six children, who lived there until between 1817 and 1820 when they emigrated to Canada.
The cottage is situated on the summit of Lairdside Hill more than 1000 feet above sea level. It was regularly buffeted by raging winds and driving rains howling mournfully across bleak Ladyland Moor. Frequently wreathed with grey, swirling mists, Cockmalaine provided quick access to the lonely hills and glens when the shepherd tended his flocks. Working in all weathers from early morning till late at night, he regularly diced with death as he climbed down cliff faces and waded into muddy morasses to rescue trapped sheep.
Since time immemorial, the shepherd's work has been imbued with a sacred aura. The tradition dates back thousands of years to Biblical times when parables featuring sheep and the dedicated shepherds who cared for them provided important teaching roles in Judaeo-Christianity. The psalmist, David, and Old Testament prophets like Amos were shepherds who experienced the Divine Presence as they watched over their flocks. Their divine messages, gleaned from their spiritual sojourns in the hills, still inspire millions of people across the world today.
It's remarkable to realise that – up until the advent of all-terrain motorised vehicles about 30 years ago – Calder Glen shepherds like Quintin McKellar of Conveth and Archie Robertson of Linthills tended their sheep in much the same way as the patriarchal pastors of the Holy Land. In my imagination, I still see and hear Quintin and Archie trekking the moorland hills with their long wooden staffs and shouting out commands to their sheep dogs.
Matthew Meikle wasn't the only shepherd to be associated with the lonely dwelling at the summit of Lairdside Hill. He and his family were also part of a flock – a congregational one whose pastor was the Reverend Robert Smith, minister of Lochwinnoch Parish Church. Inducted to the village charge in 1815, Mr Smith remained in office for more than 50 years. Deeply immersed in the lives of his parishioners, he made it his mission to visit every household in the vast Lochwinnoch parish as quickly as possible.
He accomplished the task in less than a year. It was an exceptional achievement because each visit had to be made on foot or horseback at a time when Lochwinnoch parish extended from the Misty Law to its boundaries with Paisley, Beith, Neilston, Kilmacolm and Kilbarchan parishes. Mr Smith's visit to the Meikle family is well documented. The cottage itself was immortalised in a poem printed by John Neilson in Paisley in 1814. It's thought to have been written by a Lochwinnoch poet named Samuel Brown.
Cockmalaine Cottage was sometimes known as Todmoor – the name deriving from 'tod', a Scots word for fox. Because of its isolation, Mr Smith called it Todmoor in the Wildernesss. As far as is known, the Meikles were the only family to live at Cockmalaine. After their departure, it became derelict. It was replaced by another cottage nearby in 1871 but it, too, was abandoned within a few years because of its isolation. Today Matthew Meikle and his family are buried in Canada thousands of miles away from their native land. The Reverend Robert Smith is interred in the churchyard at the Auld Kirk at Johnshill.
When I worked as a ranger at Muirshiel country park, I often visited the old cottage. More usually, I saw its ruins on the skyline every day I walked or cycled up and down the road to the park. I always regarded Cockmalaine as more than a habitation. I saw it as a place where ordinary people just like us were born and where they worked, lived, played and died at the end of their earthly pilgrimages.
Amidst the crumbling rocks of what was once their home, I felt their spectral presence and sensed their ghostly voices
whispering the age-old refrain:
"Pause, stranger, as thou goest by.
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, you one day will be.
So walk with God and follow me."
That's the pastoral parable of good shepherds down through the ages. It reminds each and every one of us to brighten our own little corners with kind deeds and words while we still have the time to make and leave this world a better place than we found it.
Derek Parker worked as a countryside ranger at Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park, Lochwinnoch, from 1985 to 1999.