The Moss Mulloch Horse

 
‘Jimmy Struthers working the hay-rake 1940s; moorland beyond’. Photo: John Struthers from  From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest  by Ruth Tittensor.

‘Jimmy Struthers working the hay-rake 1940s; moorland beyond’. Photo: John Struthers from From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest by Ruth Tittensor.

I’ve been dipping, once again, into Ruth Tittensor’s book on the creation of Whitelee Forest in Scotland (see previous post). It’s such a fascinating collection of stories and oral histories, and is really helping me step back and absorb the wider story of the Forestry Commission from a century-long perspective.

This poem was inspired by a story from Jim Kennedy, a farm worker who grew up hearing about a dangerous patch of moorland nearby called Moss Mulloch. These kinds of bogland areas were so soft and wet that workers would sometimes only visit in pairs, in case they fell into the moor. Being such a poor area for farming, it was marked out by the Forestry Commission as a potential plot for growing a new forest, just after the Forestry Commission’s post-war formation when most of our timber and woodlands had been used for trenches and warfare.

The story told by Jim Kennedy took place just before 1920, handed down by an elderly farm worker who was just a boy at the time. One morning, the farmer and his neighbours had all gone to the local ‘Sheeps Sale’ and left the boy alone on the farm. The boy noticed that one of their heifers had fallen into one of the Moss Mulloch ditches, and when he couldn’t get her out himself, he fetched their Clydesdale horse and some rope with which to pull her out. Panicked by the soft ground, the heavy horse sunk into the bog, and by the time the other workers returned home, the heifer had freed herself but the horse was irretrievable and had to be shot.

In 1980, sixty years after the incident, new workers were ploughing the same stretch of moor as part of the Whitelee plantation project - and they ploughed up the horse’s skeleton. It had been lying there all that time, bones preserved in the bog, and I couldn’t resist immortalising it further in this short poem.

THE MOSS MULLOCH HORSE

Blackened sheets of acid peat
lay painted on the moor,
where a heifer dropped into
the dark, decaying floor,
and when the horse was called to
pull her panicked body out,
his leaden feet were downward
dragged and never came back out,
and there he lay in slumber
until sixty years had passed,
soft and silent, rotting ‘neath
the threads of cottongrass.
In time, the planters came and
ploughed up sphagnum moss and stone,
and there he lay, the sleeping
horse, bone by silent bone.