SR Crockett: Galloway's 'forgotten' bestseller writer

By Giancarlo Rinaldi
South Scotland reporter, BBC Scotland news website

media captionS R Crockett wrote bestsellers in his time but his works have declined in popularity since his death

He enjoyed the kind of sales most writers could only dream about.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Samuel Rutherford Crockett - published as SR Crockett - was a hugely successful novelist.

His works sold hundreds of thousands of copies and regularly featured on the bestseller list.

And yet now, 100 years from his death on 16 April 1914, his profile is extremely low.

"If Galloway is Scotland's best kept secret, surely SR Crockett is Galloway's best kept secret," said former Dumfries and Galloway writer in residence Cally Phillips.

"I think the main reason he is forgotten is because you can't read something that isn't in print and you can't enjoy something you don't know exists.

"He fell out of favour I think after World War One when modernism came in and styles of publishing changed."

image captionCrockett was born in Galloway in 1859 and the region was the backdrop to many of his novels

Novelist Margaret Elphinstone agreed that he was a victim of how tastes in fiction had altered over the years.

"His kind of writing has been very out of fashion - it is associated with a very retrospective, nostalgic view of Scotland," she said.

"There are, undeniably, some moments that these days we would find sentimental.

"But I think he can write a really good adventure story so rooted in place and he can be very sensitive about the people he knows and the land he knows."

Indeed, Scots historian, Prof Ted Cowan, reckoned Crockett did much the same job for Galloway as Walter Scott did for the Borders.

"In my view Crockett really, whether he meant to or not to begin with, accomplished the feat of kind of creating the modern Galloway - partly historical, partly imaginary - through his own books," he said.

"He published some 32 books which were about Galloway and that was about half of his output and they're probably his best books in the view of most of us."

On the back of his best-known book, The Raiders, people started to seek out and promote the spots in the region he mentioned in his books.

However, Prof Cowan said that the timing of Crockett's death, on the eve of World War One, meant the popularity of his novels declined outside his native region and he was dismissed as a "nostalgic, sentimental writer".

image captionCally Phillips has edited and republished 32 of Crockett's works on the centenary of his death
image captionA commemoration will be held at the memorial to Crockett in Laurieston

It is hoped that is set to change with a series of events being held to mark the centenary of his death.

Most notably, Ms Phillips has edited and republished the 32 books which are set in Galloway.

They are being launched in Wigtown and she hopes it will "mark a major step in bringing a forgotten bestselling writer back into the popular consciousness".

Crockett was born at Balmaghie in south west Scotland in 1859 and brought up on a farm in the area.

He graduated from Edinburgh University in 1879 and became a minister for Penicuik in Midlothian seven years later.

However, the success of novels like The Stickit Minister and The Lilac Sunbonnet saw him abandon the ministry for writing.

He published dozens of books, mainly novels, and as the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes, enjoyed success "following the vogue for novels in Scots dialect set by James M Barrie."

Ms Phillips believes that the quality of his writing deserves renewed recognition.

"I think he's a very strong and very varied writer - he writes history, adventure and romance which I would say very much picks up the mantle from Robert Louis Stevenson," she said.

"Walter Scott is supposedly our greatest Scottish writer - I find Crockett much more readable than I've ever found Walter Scott.

"His stories were really for ordinary people rather than literature for people who had lots of money to buy books.

"They came out in penny magazines and cheap hardback editions."

'Inform and inspire'

He was also something of a pioneer, with an innovation many modern film-goers might thank him for.

He wrote what Ms Phillips reckons was one of the first car chases to appear in fiction - on the route from Dalmellington to Newton Stewart.

A website and membership group, The Galloway Raiders, has been set up to "enthuse, inform and inspire people to find out more about Crockett and to read his work".

A series of events is also taking place in the region.

Central to those will be a commemoration at the Laurieston memorial on the 100th anniversary of his death, followed by a launch of The Galloway Collection at Wigtown County Buildings.

By the end of that, perhaps, the name of SR Crockett could be back on a few more people's lips.

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