Monday, September 28, 2020

Travelling gently. Simon Schama, Nostalgia and the Scottish Borders

 I enjoyed Part III of Simon Schama’s ‘The Romantics and Us’ (BBC2 on Friday). It’s about nostalgia, the ‘songs of our homeland’ and ancestry.

Early on, Schama approaches Smailholm Tower with the words, “There was a fear that authentic Scottish culture would dwindle away or simply disappear” – echoing Sir Walter Scott’s stated reason for collecting local ballads: "to contribute to the history of my native country, the peculiar features of whose manners and character are daily melting and dissolving into those of her sister and ally”.

How lucky we are, here in the Scottish Borders, that our own authentic culture has not dissolved! It is preserved in Scott’s ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’, in our stories of the reivers, in the myths and legends of these valleys. Also, in our Common Ridings – authentic local festivals, each unique to its own town, the sounds and smells unchanged in 300 years. Driven by Nostalgia, ‘exiles’ return home for these celebrations each year.

Our culture has not dissolved, but it is also not celebrated! Despite much of Highland heritage being preserved in Gaelic, stories of the Highland clans resonate internationally in a way that our stories do not. And the Borders is overlooked by most international tourists.

If we don’t know and celebrate our native culture, we can’t make it interesting and attractive to others. VisitScotland research today suggests that “visitors are expected to shift focus from ticking off large events and busy city attractions for a gentler pace of travel”. That's us! Surely! But we must offer something more than fine landscapes if more people are to travel gently here.

The newly formed South of Scotland Destination Alliance (SSDA) is now responsible for the strategic marketing of the South of Scotland. 

In my view, their most important challenge is to present, loudly and consistently, a picture of who we are. Arising from this beautiful landscape are ballads, stories, music, paintings, history and festivals. But these don’t currently present as a distinctive culture.

There are some disconnected spots of light: amongst them the restoration of Gilnockie Tower as the Clan Armstrong Centre, the reprinting of Wilson’s Tales of the Borders, The Hawick Reivers Festival, and The Twelve Towers of Rule – a project to explain the purposeful burning of towers, mills and abbeys in 1545. But we need a coordinated picture.

The SSDA has a steep road to climb. Scott is the towering cultural figure of the Borders but there is no Scott Trail, linking his life with the places that appear in his poems and novels. The ‘Borders Historic Route’ slices through the Borders, but far from encouraging travellers to pause and explore, it speeds them from Carlisle straight to Edinburgh - not even any brown signs for Caerlenrig, The Borders Distillery or Melrose Abbey (to mention just a few).

Nostalgia is the longing to go back and stay where you come from. As a tour guide, specialising in ancestral tours, I regularly witnessed the emotion of North Americans touching the stones of a ‘clan castle’, perhaps never even seen by their ancestors. But it’s as close as they will get to a homeland; it's an anchorage and it’s powerful stuff. For those seeking out their Border roots, the Hawick Heritage Hub is an exceptional facility, but its potential is poorly exploited. Few people know what’s in there, and rural B&Bs are often unaware of their local history and its power to attract (and detain) ancestral tourists.

All power to the SSDA as it gears itself up. But please recognise the enormous potential of Nostalgia, the ‘songs of our homeland’ and ancestry. If we do not  sing loudly with the voice of our own people we are no more than a hotchpotch of interesting places and nice things to do. The audio trails created by The Reivers Road are a step towards making our native culture more readily available, but much more is needed.

Simon Schama’s ‘Romantics and Us’ is available on iPlayer. I recommend it.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead

It fell about Martinmas tyde,
When border steeds get corn and hay
The Captain of Bewcastle hath bound him to ryde
And he's ower to Tividale to drive a prey.

The opening lines of 'Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead' set the scene for a rollicking good reiving story (Bewcastle is ten miles across the border, Tividale is Teviotdale). It's one of the ballads set down by Sir Walter Scott (helped by James Hogg, 'The Ettrick Shepherd') in his 'Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border' - braveing the wrath of Hogg's mother, Margaret Laidlaw, who scolded him for getting it all wrong...

"There were never ane o' my songs prentit till ye prentit them yoursel an' ye hae spoiled them awthegither. They were made for singing an' no for reading; but ye hae broken the charm now, an' they'll never be sung mair. An' the worst thing of a', they're nouther right spelled nor right setten doon!"

But we're very fortunate that he did so. Doubtless the English Borderlands had just as many good stories; few survive.

Like all ballads, there are variations: in Scott's version the heroes are, of course, the Scotts and the Elliots are untrustworthy. In the Elliot version it's reversed. The Elliot version is called Jamie Telfer IN the Fair Dodhead, implying that he was a tenant and not the proprietor - seems more likely.

Remains of the Fair Dodhead, Ruberslaw in the background.

Jamie Telfer's tower by the 'Thieves Road' at the top of the Dod Burn is still there, very ruinous. The castle at Bewcastle, once home to the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, is now an impressive ruin. It was a military outpost in the 16th century, designed to deter Scottish reivers. Whether the Captain of Bewcastle really initiated raids into Teviotdale, we don't know. Fake news perhaps.

Bewcastle Churchyard and Castle

But the story rings true. Jamie Telfer, a simple farmer in an isolated tower house, is robbed of his ten cows. He manages to get a 'hot trod' (hot pursuit) going and they overtake the stolen beasts on the road back to England. The raiders turn and fight. Skulls are split, riders hit the ground, blood stains the snow and the kye (cattle) are recovered. The aggressor has relatives in Liddesdale. A reprisal raid heads off down there and these kye are driven back to Dodhead ...

When they cam to the fair Dodhead,
They were a wellcum sight to see!
For instead of his ain ten milk kye,
Jamie Telfer has gotten thirty and three.


'Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead' is a theme along our Hermitage Trail. We follow the action, hear verses sung, and get the lowdown on life in reiving times from Jamie Telfer himself. 

Download the app to find out more!

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Lord Dacre, Flodden and the Borders

Lockdown has delayed the launch of our first audio trail (Hermitage), but it's been a useful window to move forward with the others. The focus now is on Flodden (launching in a few weeks time). Writing this, I keep coming up against Lord Dacre - specifically Thomas Dacre 2nd Baron of Gillsland (1467 - 1525) -  a perpetual thorn in the side of the Scots.

Firstly, a few years before Flodden, Dacre, as English Lord Warden of the Marches, Dacre met Sir Robert Kerr of Cessford Castle, Scottish Warden of the Middle March. It was a ‘Truce Day’ –  a day for the peaceful settlement of grievances. However, there was an argument, then a scuffle which ended up with Sir Robert being killed by three Englishmen: Lilburn, Starhead and the memorably named Heron the Bastard of Ford. The Scots managed to grab Lilburn, Starhead was tracked to a house in York, murdered, and the head brought back to Cessford; The ‘Bastard Heron’ escaped. Dacre's role in all this is unclear.

At Flodden, Dacre commanded the English Border Horse. Initially held in reserve, they then played a major role arriving in strength when Edmund Howard, son of the English commander Lord Surrey, was surrounded and so nearly captured by Lord Home's Borderers.

The Battle of Flodden 1513

Next morning, Dacre is the man who identified the stripped body of the Scottish king, James IV (with whom he had played cards!) and took it off the field. 

Two months after Flodden, Dacre was raiding in Teviotdale. He reports to his king...

On Thursday past I assembled your subjects in Northumberland to the number of a thousand horsemen and rode in at Gallespeth, and so to the Water of Kale, two miles within Scotland and there set forth two forays; my brother Philip Dacre with three hundred, who burnt and destroyed the the town of Ruecastle with all the corn in the same and there-about, and took two towers in it and burnt both roof and floors; and Sir Roger Fenwick with three hundred men burnt the town of Lanton, and destroyed all the corn therein.

He was at it again in 1514. But after raiding up the Ale Water some of his men were ambushed by the callants of Hawick at Hornshole and lost their flag - now the symbol of Hawick and its Common Riding.

Finally, Dacre was back in 1523. "In the morning of the day which was yesterday, we set forward and we went to Kelso where we not only burned and destroyed the whole town that would burn by any labour but also cast down the Gatehouse of the Abbey." 
Yes. We have him to blame.

So who was this swashbuckling destroyer?
Arms of Thomas, 2nd Lord Dacre

Born at Gillsland on Hadrian's Wall, son of a West March Warden and Governor of Carlisle, he was very much a Borderer. 

Aged 18 he was at the Battle of Bosworth Field, fighting for the House of York against the victorious House of Lancaster. But he quickly made his peace with the new King Henry VII, who later made him a Knight of the Bath.

Later that year (still 18!) he became Deputy Lord Warden of the Marches, then five years later in 1490, Warden of the West March .

Aged 21 he fell in love with  Elizabeth Greystoke, 17 year old ward of the powerful Lord Clifford. He abducted her by night from Brougham Castle in Westmorland. Somehow he got away with it, married her and they had eight children.

He seems to have been quite a friend of James IV, whose wedding he attended. When James visited Dumfries in 1504 he played cards against Dacre, who reportedly took him for £2 6s 8d!

From 1509 to 1525 he was Henry VIII's Lord Warden of the Marches, responsible for the entire border. And so it was that whilst he held this position, created to ensure peace along the Border, he was leading these various raids into Teviotdale.

He was clearly a warrior; he also knew how to have others do his dirty work for him. George MacDonald Fraser in 'Steel Bonnets' puts it like this...

"As a stirrer-up of mischief on the Scottish side of the frontier, intriguing among factions, enlisting Scots outlaws to harry their countrymen and promoting his monarch's policy of confusion and harm, he had few equals.

Dacre was in the saddle to the end, dying when he fell from his horse in 1525. He is buried in the family vault at Lanercost Priory. His son William succeeded him as Warden of the West March. 

Lanercost Priory near Brampton