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. 

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