The 'Gowk Tree' and the Pouch Tree

The Reverend John Walker, or the `Mad Minister of Moffat" as he was known, was minister in Moffat from 1762 - 1783.
His reputation for eccentricity stemmed from the fact that he carried seedlings in a pouch on his person and, wherever he went, planted them by the wayside and in other suitable spots.
He planted an Umbrella Fir near an existing oak tree, which stood at the bottom of the hillside on the west side of the River Annan, near the bridge at the Station Park. And because of the way it was transported, the Umbrella Fir became known as the Pouch Tree.
As the Rev. John planted his young fir, he remarked to the mature oak tree - the Gowk tree - that it would still be standing after his Umbrella Fir was long gone. His words rang true as the Gowk Tree can still be seen over two centuries later.
The Gowk Tree was so called because it was a favoured calling post for the summer residing cuckoo (gowk is an old Scots word for cuckoo).


The Gowk Tree

The Oak apparently stood in full view of the Kirk Manse and was noted as always being the tree where the Cuckoo was first heard calling each year and it is from this that the tree gained its name. Legend has it that, when the other trees were being felled, the Gowk Tree was individually bought by Rev.Walker to preserve it. A good investment as still survives well over two centuries later!

Some further details have come to light -
From the Dumfries & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society annals of 1891-1892, it would appear that the Gowk Tree was measured as having a girth of 12ft 5in at a height of 1ft 3in above ground level and a girth of 10ft 4in at a height of 5ft 9in above ground. It was then estimated as being 230-250 years old. These annals also mention the Pouch Tree (see below).

As you leave Moffat on the road towards the motorway, look into the field on your right just after crossing the bridge at Station Park. The 'Gowk Tree' still stands there in all its splendour. If, as mentioned above, it was a 'mature' oak in Reverend Walker's time, then it must be some 300 years (or more) old by now. Oh, the sights it has seen and the tales it could tell!

Jock Dicerbo has kindly made available some photographs of the Gowk Tree in each of the four seasons -

the oak is later than most incoming into leaf

sheep appreciating the cool shade from the sun

a glorious display of autumn colours

a wonderfully tranquil snow scene

And there is an old, emotive poem written about it -

The Auld ' Gowk 'Tree'

Thou rare auld oak with massive trunk and arms thrown out around
Thy bushy head with foliage dense o'ershades a rood of ground
Thy heart within is sound and tight as heart of oak should be
And the landscape's pride and boast is just, the Auld Gowk Tree.

The oldest residenter whose boyish lore began
When the auld kirk was a building and the 'Roaring Dilly' ran
Marks scarce a change upon thee and as twice as old as he
Would have found thee still at memory's dawn, the Auld Gowk Tree

When a century syne the bank was cleared on which thou stand'st alone
And lots of kin and neighbours fell, their fate had been thine own.
But Dr. Walker, good old soul, true friend and worth of thee,
Shell' d out to save from axe and saw, the Auld Gowk Tree.

Some say the ransom was a pound, some say 'twas half-a-crown
But gold or silver, sure enough, his reverence paid it down
And like the green bay flourishing and fresh his memory be
Who saved our richest sylvan gem, the Auld Gowk Tree.

Tho' now thou'rt standing all alone 'tis princely solitude,
With glorious sylvan guard at hand, the choice of Scottish wood.
They grace the broad hill's swelling side in line and column free
And shield from tattering wild west winds, the Auld Gowk Tree.

Thou monarch of our woodland hosts, where shall we find thy peer?
The Umbrella Fir, though rare and grand, and verdant a' the year
'Twas but a twig about as big as thistle on the lea
When thou as now, vast trunk and bow, the Auld Gowk Tree.

It's now some twenty winters sin' the wind wi' deadly twist
Tore off a stately branch of thine, the goodliest on the list.
Though stock enough to furnish out a grove of fair degree
Ye wad scarce jalouse the loss o't in the Auld Gowk Tree.

The gentle ' Annan' murmurs near in summer's limpid flow
And Moffat roofs and, spires shine out in noon's resplendent glow
The lounger on the brig below for a' that tak' s his e'e,
Has aye a sidelong glance to send the Auld Gowk Tree.

When woods are buskit fresh in a' the flush of leafy june
And thickets ring with gleesome birds the leelang afternoon
While's like a ranting chorus to the jovial minstrelsie,
The 'gowk' himsel' comes in 'Cuckoo'; f'rae his ain auld tree.

In Moffat walks there's ash and elm and mony a glossy beech
Their whispering leaves just sound at eve like kindly, hamely speech
But which o' them, though tall and fair can stir the heart like thee
Or wake such tender memories, as the Auld Gowk Tree.

Long may'st thou stand in veteran might unscathed by bolt or blast
The emblem of a grand old age, still glorious to the last
And Moffat's bards a century hence rejoice to sing of thee
The chieftain of her sylvan race, her Auld 'Gowk Tree'....

Notes -
1) the 'Roaring Dilly' mentioned in the second verse was a stagecoach
2) the 'auld kirk' was demolished circa 1790


The Pouch Tree

The Pouch Tree is well documented circa 1891/92. It was planted by Rev.Walker in the 'Glebe' (just opposite Station Park) during his tenure 1763-1783. Rev.Walker is reputed to have brought it down from Edinburgh in his pouch, hence the name. There is no tree commonly known as an Umbrella Fir - but there is one called an Umbrella Pine. However, the 1891/92 records name it as a Scots Fir which we now know as Scots Pine. We can no longer be certain of which it actually was.
At that time, at an age of about 130 years, it was in a rather poor state of decay with many dead branches It was apparently quite a substantial tree, quoted as having a girth of 10ft at a height of 1ft above ground and girth of8ft 9in at a height of 5ft above ground. Efforts to preserve it had not been successful so it seems likely that it died soon thereafter. There is no trace of it today.


Rev. John Walker

Born in 1731 he became the minister in Moffat from 1762 until 1783. He was also a professor of Natural History at Edinburgh Universary. His interest in natural history took him throughout much of Scotland and he diligently recorded many fine old trees on his travels. He noted the dimensions of many old oak trees including others locally that we can no longer identify. He was reputed to frequently carry seeds or saplings with him in his pouch and to plant them on the way so the Pouch Tree in Moffat, although perhaps the only documented one, is but one of many he must have planted. From minister in Moffat he went on to be elected as Moderator of the Church of Scotland in 1790. He died in 1803.