Last week I visited the East Lothian village of Garvald on a wonderfully warm, balmy sunny evening.

The wee place really is a hidden gem, and on such an evening it becomes magical as the setting sun hits the red sandstone and pantiled roofs of the old houses.

And to make it extra special it actually has an old inn as well, where we had a really yummy meal before setting off to explore.

We soon arrived at the kirk on the eastern edge of the village. Garvald Kirk is of ancient origin and its setting almost rivals that of Humbie Kirk for atmosphere and beauty.

I wandered around the forest of gravestones and then took a photo of the kirkyard. It was only later, as I downloaded the photo onto my computer, that I realised I’d caught an image of Robert Neillans’ grave. He was a Cooper in Garvald, and died in 1860.

I once came across him in a short tale. He would travel many miles to sell his wares, and on one occasion he set off for Lauder. It was a journey of 30 miles, and he carried tubs and bickers, which were a kind of bowl, often used for porridge.

It was quite a journey and when he arrived at the Lauder fair, he laid out his goods and began selling. When a local from Lauder discovered he’d travelled all the way from Garvald he said to Robert: “Ye maun be desperate tae mak a sale tae hae travelled a’ that way just tae sell some bowls.” Robert just smiled and replied: “Och no, I’m just from the next parish,” which was, of course, technically true.

I wish I’d noticed his grave, where he now lies with his family, including his wife, who died eight years before him, and his daughter and grandchildren.

I had thought about him as I passed the old cooperage on the way to the Kirk. Although he is not a famous historical character, his brief mention in a tale makes you feel you know him. His life also gives us a glimpse into the Garvald of old. It was then a busy wee place, a home of tradesmen who would service the needs of the travellers who emerged from the mists of the Lammermuirs, and who would themselves travel from their wee community to sell.

But I have an excuse for missing Robert Neillans’ gravestone, as my attention was distracted by the jougs hanging on the wall of the kirk. They looked original and were protected by an iron grill.

The jougs were a metal collar, usually attached to the wall of the kirk by a chain, as they are here. It was a grim reminder of the power that our very own religious fundamentalists once had over the people of Scotland. Those considered sinners or wrongdoers would be chained up like dogs by the church entrance. Standing with the joug collar around their neck, often with their heads shaved, this terrible ritual humiliation was most commonly suffered by women.

The path beyond the kirkyard wall takes you to Stoneypath Tower. It is lush and overgrown at this time of year, but it was once a well-trodden route and heads to the hills of the Lammermuirs beyond. It’s the nearby presence of the wild Lammermuirs that gives Garvald its frontier atmosphere, even today.

The only road directly south from the village is carried by a small bridge over the Papana Water and then vanishes upwards into another world. It was once a major route into the Borders but today is very quiet, perhaps even largely unknown. Soon the trees give way to the heather clad uplands of what I call East Lothian’s highlands. Sheep roam and await you there, as they have done for centuries.

And it is in these hills 200 years ago that our tale is set. The tale is part of John Mackay Wilson’s treasured collection of tales from the early 19th century. He wrote many stories about the Borders and Lothians, and sadly died too young. His tales were a mixture of folklore, history and personal anecdotes, and this one is about two friends who lived by the Lammermuirs.

They were called Walter Laidlaw and Richard Armstrong and were as close as brothers, or maybe we should say thick as thieves. They were likeable rogues in some way, but utterly untrustworthy. You see, they were, amongst other things, sheep thieves. They were well known in the area by their nicknames:Watty O’ the Dykes and Halting Dick. The origin of the names lay in Walter’s previous trade and Richard’s slight limp as he walked.

Usually they would go on a raid together, and share the proceeds, but on one occasion Watty was unable to accompany Dick.

It was a successful night and Dick was herding his ill-gotten wooly acquisitions to his usual hiding place in the hills above Garvald when sunrise arrived, threatening to expose his illegal adventure. Soon the nearby road would bring witnesses, and so he decided to stop off at Watty’s house and keep the sheep there until safe to collect the next day.

“Aye, sure,” said Watty, “I’ll keep them weel hidden and safe fir ye till the morra.” The following evening, Dick returned to collect the sheep.

“Sheep? What sheep, Dicky my man, do ye mean?” said Walter.

Dick was taken aback. He pursed his lips, screwed his eyes and said: “What sheep Watty do I mean? The sheep I left wi you last night!” “The sheep ye left wi me Dicky? The deil a cloot o’ sheep o’ yours I ever saw,” replied Walter Dick was aghast. Then realising he was being had at his own game, he got angry: “Do ye mean to deny that I left a score o’ sheep wi you last night and you promised to keep them safe for me till I came to collect them. Do ye mean to deny that Watty?” “Maist stoutly,” he replied, “I huvnae seen a tail that belongs to you.” Dick stood for a moment, not sure whether to be amazed or angry. He glared at Walter and said: “Ye mean tae stand by that thick and thin, tae deny it?” Walter folded his arms and said firmly: “Aye.” Dick thought for a moment. He knew further argument was pointless – after all, this was a well-rehearsed exchange that both of them would use when confronted by a suspicious farmer looking for his missing sheep. He realised that his gain from last night’s raid was, as they say “gone gear”. He was just angry with himself for trusting Walter, for who better knew how untrustworthy he was than Dick himself, his companion in thieving?

But then Dick’s manner changed. He laughed, and patted Walter on the shoulder. “Very weel, very weel, ye got me my man. Keep the sheep, I dinnae want a quarrel wi you over a few sheep. Keep them, an muckle guid they may dae ye.” This change of attitude surprised Walter, but he was satisfied he had successfully got one over on his friend. After all, all is fair in love, war and sheep lifting. The two men remained friends, and Dick made no further mention of the sheep for a while.

However, a few weeks later there was again a knock at Walter’s door in the early morning. Dick had arrived with another flock of sheep, the exact same number as before. He asked the same favour of Walter, but this time Dick had three assistants with him, who carefully counted the sheep.

“If ye hae a mind fir skulduggery agin just mind this time I hae witnesses,” said Dick. Walter just smiled innocently and replied: “I dinnae ken what ye mean my friend, but I will keep yer animals until ye collect them.” The following evening Dick returned for his sheep. This time Walter handed them all over as he had promised. He wasn’t fool enough to deny them after three witnesses had seen and counted them. He wasn’t going to fall for that one!

Dick went away happily with the sheep, and Walter closed his door, muttering to himself: “Did he really think I’d be fool enough tae put ma heid in a noose an deny them when he had brought witnesses?” The following night there was another knock at the door. It was Dick again.

“I’ve come for my sheep as arranged,” said Dick. Walter stood in amazement.

“But did ye no get all yer sheep last night Dicky, every tail o’ them I gave to you!” he said.

With a dead pan, earnest face, Dick replied: “The sheep ye gave me Watty? The deil a cloot ye gae me last night.” “Come on, you’re jokin Dicky,” said his friend, “dae ye mean tae deny I gied ye all the sheep last night?” “Maist stoutly,” said Dick, “I huvnae seen a tail o’ them. And I have witnesses that I gave you the sheep. What witnesses dae ye have that ye returned them? If ye dinnae return the sheep tae me then I will expose ye and ye’ll lose all credit in the craft.” There was a moment of silence between the two men. Walter knew he had been outwitted. And Dick knew that Walter knew!

“Sae freen,” said Dick, “just gie up another score without mair ado and you and I will be quits and no a bit waur freens than ever we were.” Walter stared at Dick, then burst into laughter. “Aye, aye I’m clean done for, ye hae got me,” he said patting his friend on the shoulder. He returned the sheep to Dick the following day, in front of the witnesses, and the issue was never mentioned between them again, although the tale was told some years later by John Mackay Wilson.

An so if ever you fancy a jaunt into another world, see if you can find Garvald and the road into the Lammermuirs. And when you reach the sheep you’ve reached the world where Watty O’ the Dykes and Halting Dick once tread.