Bretherdale is today as it was in MacGregor’s time, a remote valley in the county of Westmoreland. It is served by a single road which enters at the east and peters out into a rough track passing over the fells to the neighbouring Borrowdale and is watered by Bretherdale Beck. The name means ‘valley of the brother’ but it is not known who the brother may have been or whether it was originally the name of a single family. The lower parts of the valley are divided into walled fields while the upper slopes and surroundings fells are open moorland.
Though remote, in MacGregor’s time the valley was surprisingly populous with a number of farming families with their servants living in large stone houses built along the single road. Today many of these are derelict or converted into expensive country houses owned by businessmen and professionals working in industrial Yorkshire.
MacGregor visited Bretherdale while staying at the house of the poet Samuel Blessed in Kendal. Blessed had once been the leading member of the so-called ‘Lakeland Poets’ and was now their sole-surviving member. His early poetry now unfashionable – as was MacGregor’s – he had taken to opposing the spread of railroads and textile mills and “all other manifestations of corruption and unnaturalness” as he wrote in a letter to The Manchester echo in 1847.
Given their similar concerns it might be thought MacGregor and Blessed had much in common but MacGregor’s journals reveal he could barely stand the older gentleman, calling him:
…a glum versifier of human misery who values the shepherd for his picturesque qualities and believes the poor must suffer necessarily for the excitement of charitable concern among their betters.
Journal entry June 17th 1850
It is not clear whether this was MacGregor’s opinion before he elected to visit Blessed or not. He knew Blessed by reputation and they had met at social functions in Edenborough and Carlisle but he had not spent any great time in his company. It is possible MacGregor sought out Blessed having become increasingly at odds with the rapid industrialisation of Glasgow and parts of Edenborough; but while there was a similarity of concern there was no understanding between them on what might be done. Blessed had retreated to the Lakes while MacGregor wished to do battle and effect, if not change, at least recognition of what was being lost. This is the sentiment that ultimately would find expression in Acts of the Servant and its sequels.
The character of George Huck owed his existence to the antipathy between MacGregor and Blessed for while at Kendal MacGregor, unable for politeness to break company with Blessed but wishing a respite from it, embarked on a number of lengthy rides about the district noting that:
…it is picturesque certainly, and wild in relation to much of Anglia; yet it is also so much more proportioned to mankind than the highlands of Scotland which dwarf us by comparison. This is a wildness any man might countenance without trepidation, whether born to it or not.
MacGregor Archive box ix 1850-51 King James University, Edenborough.
One such ride took him through the valley of Borrowdale and then by an upland track into Bretherdale where:
My guide, a well-made farmer’s son by name of George Hugh took me to a curious stone which he said marked the boundary between this parish and the one next. It was much broken, as though cleft by lightning, and he described it as a Cloven Stone and said that as no one parish had whole claim to it it belonged to none and hence the devil had taken it and would sit there at night. He then remarked that in older times any deceased person not thought fit for Christian burial was buried about the stone and that the sodden ground preserved their bodies. I begged him not to show me these corpses but to continue on our way.
Having given the matter study, I believe any association with the devil arises from the stone resembling the devil’s cloven hoof.
Plainly the description by George Hugh struck a chord with MacGregor and a decade later would give rise to the character of George Huck and his affair with the tragic Elisabet.