Lochwinnoch Online

Renfrewshire, Scotland

The Shepherd Of Calder Glen

A favourite song at ceilidhs is the Shepherd of Glencoe. Its haunting melody reminds me of Lochwinnoch's Shepherd of Calder Glen.

No one deserves that accolade more than Quentin McKellar who lived for most of his long life in various farms and cottages in the picturesque valley of that name.   This climbs four miles and 1000 feet from the village to Muirshiel Country Park where I worked for several years.  The glen comprises hill-tops and hollows rounded and gouged by melting glaciers at the end of the Ice Ages around 10,000 years ago.

Quentin's father, Archie McKellar, was a sheep-farmer at Heathfield between the two world wars on Baron Howard of Glossop's Muirshiel estate. Although now in ruins, Heathfield was the highest-inhabited house in Renfrewshire at the time.
One of Quentin's fondest memories of these days was when his father presented one of Baron Howard's sons with a quaich to commemorate his 21st birthday at Muirshiel in July, 1936.

The recipient, Lord Miles Howard, later became the Duke of Norfolk and organised royal events across the United Kingdom for years to come.  As a boy, Quentin learned all about the life of a sheep-farmer so he would be equipped for looking after Heathfield and its sheep when his father retired. Working through cold, starlit-nights on snow-swept moors, rising long before dawn, helping to deliver lambs or protecting the flocks from predatory foxes were all part of his education.

The McKellar hirsel (shepherd's beat) was immense because it stretched from Kaim Dam up past Muirshiel House and Calder Dam to the barytes mines and Hill of Stake (1712 ft.) which is the highest peak in Renfrewshire.

It was a healthy life and Quentin nurtured happy memories of beautiful moorland birds like curlews, lapwings, golden plovers, short-eared owls and skylarks nesting among the heather. But the lonely moors and conifer-crested hillsides beyond Muirshiel and Heathfield could be terrifying places. One dark night during the Second World War, his father was narrowly missed by a Swordfish aircraft which skimmed across the summit of Windy Hill where he'd been looking after some sheep.

Three airmen were killed when the plane impacted.

Quentin later helped with the recovery of the bodies which he transported back across the moors by horse-drawn sledge to Heathfield where they awaited collection by ambulance for deliverance to a mortuary.  He was still very young at the time so anyone aware of the bleakness and loneliness of the landscape at the head of the Calder Glen will realise how frightening the journey back must have been with the death cargo of human corpses following a few feet behind him.

On another occasion, he met a young woman trudging across Queenside Hill on a foggy, winter afternoon. He discovered the woman was the sweetheart of an airman killed on the hill when his aircraft crashed into the ground during the war. 

Another time, he noticed that heather on a moor turned white every year. This may have been because the vegetation was discoloured by oil dripping from an aircraft. But the explanation became eerier when Quentin remembered the plane crash had resulted in the death of its young pilot.

Quentin himself had narrow escapes during the war.  Calder Glen was used extensively by tank regiments from across Europe for shell-firing practice. So flags were raised to warn military authorities and farming communities to be vigilant because live ammunition was being fired across the River Calder and Muirshiel road towards their targets.  Some livestock was accidentally killed during the salvoes. And Quentin himself avoided serious injury or worse as lethal explosives detonated close to him on some occasions.

In later life, Quentin and his wife, Betty, moved down the Calder Glen to live in places like East Tandlemuir and Clovenstone Farms where he continued to tend the sheep with the aid of son-in-law Iain Lamont.

I shall always remember cycling and walking up to Muirshiel on early mornings, listening to him calling his flocks together, far up on the hills while grey mist and night-time blackness veiled the landscape in sable shrouds.

Quentin enjoyed a long semi-retirement at Clovenstone where he encouraged Betty in the inspirational poetry-writing which she took up as a retirement hobby following a teaching career in Lochwinnoch Primary School. 

He passed away in 2005 but his memory lives on in the hills and moors where he lived and worked in an upland landscape that was as close to heaven as it was to earth.

Derek Parker
Derek Parker worked as a countryside ranger at Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park from 1985 to 1999