This time last year I went for one of my many wee jaunts along the old road that takes you south from Gifford into the Lammermuirs on the way to Longformacus.

I had no particular destination in mind, I just wanted to soak up the atmosphere of the road as it rose into the moorland and carved its way towards the Borders. Soon after Gifford the road took on a wild and an off-the-beaten-track atmosphere. Then there was a fork in the road and I took the right turn.

I love this route, for although it was once busy it is now tranquil and remote. And on that day last year we were looking for a good place for a picnic. We found it at Fasney Bridge. A wee parking area allowed us to stop there and we scrambled down to the rocky edges of the Fasney Water. It was dry enough for us to pass under the bridge and we sat by the running water and had a picnic on the banks of the river.

Only one car went by while we had our picnic below the bridge. We were still in East Lothian, but the moorland, the hills, the sheep and the heather made it feel like we were in the Highlands. It was one of those days you remember, not because of anything spectacular, but because the whole day was full of the essence of life. I remember my thoughts as I ate my sandwiches, drank my coffee brewed on a camping stove and watched my children play by the river in the balmy autumn sunshine; life, I felt at that moment, really doesn’t get any better.

Then, last week, I was searching through some old records at the John Gray Centre in Haddington and I came across an account of someone who had travelled the same route, more than a hundred years before, and had also stopped at Fasney Bridge for a picnic lunch.

His name was William Cuthbertson and his account of his journey in 1910 made me remember that wonderful day last year. He tells us he walked the road from Gifford, and then sat by the bridge over the Fasney and had his lunch, just as I had done more than 100 years later with my family. He had no coffee from a stove, however, but instead his lunch was “washed down by a draught from the river”.

He then “climbed the long rise above the bridge” and turned to view “the wild moorland stretching away for miles to the far horizon…and the road winding through it that led to Gifford”. It was here, on the edge of the wildest part of East Lothian, that William saw a woman sitting on the verge of the road. Next to her was a boy about four years old, lying on the grass.

His attention was at first on the boy. He was in deep sleep on the verge of the roadside, and his poverty was clear to see.

“His hair was unkempt and matted, his face unwashed and his skin showing through more than one rent in his clothes,” explained Cuthbertson. The woman’s clothes consisted of a “bedraggled and travel worn dress” and she held a baby in her arms.

It was a rather curious sight, so Cuthbertson sat by them and asked if she’d come far.

“Aye,” was her reply, “Haddington, an I’m gaun tae Duns”.

She let out what Cuthbertson described as a “bitter laugh” before explaining the reason for her journey.

“Ma man got jailed for poachin, an ma folk bide in Duns so I’ll leeve wi them till he comes oot,” she said.

William nodded his head in acknowledgement and said he was sorry to hear that.

“Ye needna be sorry for him, it’s no the first time he’s been jailed,” she replied. “He disnae mind it, nae mair div I, except it pairts us.” She continued: “If he’d been born wi a silver spoon in his mouth he’d bin a poacher just the same, only he wadna hae been jailed for it.” She smiled at the thought of her husband and raised her head, looking William in the eye.

“He never taks a dram, an’ he never said a wrang word to me a’ his days. There’s no many folk like ma Peter,” she said.

William once again nodded and thought for a moment. Then he had an idea.

“Does your husband never think of applying for a gamekeeper’s place?” he asked.

“Aye, that wud fit him fine,” said the woman, “but wha wad hae him? He’s ower weel kent for onybody to tak him hereabouts, an whaur they dinnae ken him they’d want a reference, and who wad gie a reference tae ma Peter?” Then the woman’s head rose, and her eyes lit up: “Do ye ken onybody who wants a richt guid man as a keeper, sir?” Her voice was full of desperate hope.

But Cuthbertson was unable to help her.

“I am sorry,” he said, “I have no such connections as I am from the city. I only once met a man of some noble birth, and he borrowed some money from me and didn’t pay it back.” The woman nodded and let out another bitter laugh. The two sat a while saying nothing. Birdsong and the bleating of sheep filled the silence, which was finally broken with the woman’s now angry words.

“And why should he no poach?” she said.

William shrugged his shoulders, searching for a reply, but she then supplied it for him.

“Wha made the paitricks an’ the grouse an’ hares? It wasna’ the laird! If a poor body wants tae fill his stomach, he can eat grass if he likes, but dare no even look at a rabbit!” she said.

William again nodded.

“And, er, what will your husband do when he comes out?” he hesitantly asked.

The woman straightened her back, while making sure she didn’t wake her sleeping baby, then spoke with pride.

“Oh, he’ll find plenty o’ work, he’s a gey handy man an’ can turn his haun tae onything. But then he’ll get nabbit again as like as no,” she siad.

William couldn’t hide his disapproval. “But the children, what a terrible example!” he said.

This was like a red rag to a bull. The face of the woman scowled in defensive anger and she wanted to stand and point at him, but the baby sleeping in her arms meant she had to deliver her broadside sitting down without the aid of arm gestures.

“Hoots awa wi your example! If they’re half as good as their faither they’ll no be far wrang. He’s no daein’ ony ill when he’s poaching! He’s only sinning agin the laws other folk made, folk nae better than himself, aiblings nae as guid if we only kent it. He’s no breakin ony o’ Gods laws, div ye see, sir?” she said.

Her passion was clear. “The only thing that ails ma Peter when he’s jailed is that he’s awa frae his bairns, and me,” she said and held her baby closer, holding back tears.

William had no answer, at least not one he thought appropriate. Her valiant defence of her husband, her powerful loyalty and love for her Peter was impressive.

He slowly stood to indicate he would continue his journey. He stared at her for a moment, her torn dress, worn broken shoes and her tired yet still bonny face. It was a sight William would never forget, for as he said, “that lonely, grey, bedraggled figure on the bare hills was ennobled”. Her nobility was of a greater worth than those who had titles.

“You’ve a long road before you,” said William.

“Aye,” she said, then cheerfully added “but we’ve ha’en a grand rest an wee Peter here has hud a fine sleep. We’ll warstle on fine. We’ll get a dish of tea frae a frien’ in Longformacus, an maybe if it’s late we’ll get a bed somewhere.” So she carefully rose and gently woke up the sleeping boy. “Peter ma darling, wake up. We’ll hae tae tak tae the road ma wee lamb,” she said.

The young boy woke and sat up. He looked at William, but said nothing. Rubbing his eyes he stood and held out his hand for his mother. She said no more. She bade farewell with her eyes and continued on her way.

William watched her go: “She threw her shawl over her shoulder, binding her baby to her breast, and, taking the young Peter by the hand, she then drifted over the shoulder of the hill and out of my life.” This short and poignant tale of a brief encounter more than 100 years ago on one of East Lothian’s roads is like a match lit in a dark chamber that reveals for a split moment just enough to fascinate, but no more.

Why did Cuthbertson not ask her name? Who was this Peter, the well-known poacher from Haddington? And what was the origin of the powerful love that seemed to bind this desperate woman to her husband? And what happened to her and her children?

I could hardly imagine having to walk all that way with a baby and four-year-old, hungry, tired and badly clothed. I am in awe of her, and her defiant analysis of unjust laws and the lot of the poor.

Next time I travel that road I will most certainly stop at the bridge again, and then walk up the hill to the point where the woman sat, literally on the boundary of our county. I know I will feel her presence and hear her words: “We’ll warstle on fine. We’ll get a dish of tea frae a frien’ in Longformacus, an maybe if it’s late we’ll get a bed somewhere.” I hope they did, and that it was, ultimately, a happy ending.