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Author: Fiona Gifford

It rains a lot in the Doon Valley, so a day of baby-blue sky, dotted with powder-puff clouds, is a rare and precious thing. The Bogton Loch below the village shines like grey-green glass, with flecks of gold on modest ripples. From the Loch, you can see the village of Bellsbank. It is one of the highest places in Ayrshire; exposed to the elements and surrounded by rough grazing on one side and dense forest on the other. The forest hides the River Doon that connects the famous “banks and braes” with the Bogton water. All around are scrubby hills, sheep grazing and a constant choir of birdsong.
The village was a grey affair in the seventies; rows of council-built, grey-harled terraces. It was built after World War II to house the miners’ families decanted from Benquhat; now a ghost village on the eponymous hill a mile or so to the west. My grandparents were amongst the displaced families who carted their children and meagre belongings from that high hilltop of miners-rows. Leaving behind vegetable patches and middens and empty grates, for the luxury of indoor toilets.
Over the years, the mines closed and their poetic names, Pennyvenie and Minnivey, were lost in time. The village declined and the pit bings were reclaimed by nature, to eventually blend in with the wrap of mossy hills surrounding the village.
In recent times, the council decided to paint all the houses different colours. Inspired by Tobermory and other colourful fishing villages around the coast. They thought it would cheer the place up, re-invigorate the community. Opinion is divided; quaint and pretty, or trying-too-hard-drag-queen.
Ness Glen Road, where my grandparents lived, is probably the longest road in Bellsbank. It curves and winds downhill from a small parade of essential shops, until it reaches a dead-end. From here a network of rough paths meander through woodland down to the River Doon and eventually Bogton Loch.
These woods were our playground. I’d leave home with my sister after our daily porridge and tea, collecting friends all the way until the whole tribe assembled at the dead-end. All ages, all sizes, friends and foe. A ramshackle collective of bairns sent out, to stay out until hunger got the better of us. Even then, there was no need to go home for the staple lunch of a slab of orange cheese between two slices of Mother’s Pride plain loaf. We randomly invaded each other’s homes in manageable numbers, stuffed our faces and ran back to the woods, fearful of missing some great adventure.
Our games were fuelled by our collective imaginations. The woods were a magical kingdom one day, and Sherwood Forest the next. We made dens, paddled in the icy water on the few shallow river beaches and threw stones in the water; counting who could make the most ripples. Occasionally, someone would fall in the river. Once, the older children had to create a chain of linked arms to rescue one of the wee ones. Afterwards we all trailed home, anoraks dripping and feet squelching in sodden black “gutties”.
Our signal to join the tribal assembly at the dead-end was Philip’s appearance at our front gate. Philip was eight, two years older than me. He lived two doors up with his mum, dad and rough collie, Meg. Philip’s mum was always well dressed, wore make-up and would never be seen with curlers in or stocking-less. She insisted we call her son “Philip”, no shortening or nicknaming allowed. This was considered “posh” amongst the “Tams”, “Dougies” and “Billys”.
My sister and I would be living with our grandparents for almost six months. Their home was our sanctuary after a tumultuous year during which we watched our parent’s marriage dissolve. But that’s another story, and one I was relatively unaware of at age six. My sister, then aged seven, was my constant, and the unconditional love of my grandparents led me to a casual acceptance of this temporary separation from my parents.
The only adventure more exciting than the woods and water games, was the “burning of the muirs”. I learnt many, many years later that this is a common practice amongst sheep farmers. Come spring-time, they set fires on the hillsides to burn the rough grasses and mature gorse and heathers. This makes way for fresh grazing for the black-faced sheep that polka-dot the landscape.
To my six-year-old eyes, the burning of the muirs was like some kind of entrancing pagan ritual. Of course, Gran warned us to stay away, she’d know if we had defied her by the smoky smell of our clothes, there’d be serious punishment awaiting any one of us who did not obey her. Naturally, this just made the ritual more attractive.
No-one wondered how watching a farmer burn some old vegetation could be more dangerous than running around the woods close to a fast-flowing river.
When Philip arrived at our gate that morning, we set off towards the woods as usual. Only today, we turned up at Glen Mount and circled back to where we could see the plumes of smoke, like tribal signals, rising from the distant fields. We ran across the shrubland using the smoke as our compass until we reached the infernos.
The side of the hill was lit with dozens of fires that brought to mind the story of Moses and the Burning Bush we’d learnt at Sunday School. But these fires were no act of God, these were the camps of our enemy-tribe, and their smoke had led us to them. All morning we played out our fantasy tribal-war, getting as near as we dared to the flames, daring each other to take a bigger chance.
By the time hunger turned us homeward, our clothes were stinking with acrid smoke and our faces sooty. “We’re in for it now.” Philip scuffed his way down the hill. “I’ll no be at the gate tomorrow.”