Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Quest in Scottish Borders

Entry 25 Feb 2007:

Last weekend we spent 3 day visiting the Scottish Borders, the southern part of Scotland that borders on England. This is Elliott country, especially the Liddesdale and Teviotdale areas, that is, the valleys of the Liddel Water and the River Teviot.

Instead of going by way of Carlisle in Northern England, as we did last summer, this time we travelled by way of Edinburgh. Either way, it doesn’t seem to take much more than 2 hours to get there from Glasgow. Unlike America, you can go a long ways in a relatively small amount of time, because everything is on a smaller scale and somehow geographically and historically dense.

I love the soft, rolling hills of the Borders, which remind me of the California Coast Range in winter or autumn, after the rains have come. Windy roads, wide fields, livestock grazing (mostly sheep rather than cattle), small valleys with streams running through them. After Glasgow, the Borders feels peaceful and spacious, while at the same small-scale.

In Selkirk, we sought out the Elliot Woollen Mill, which we had visited 20 years ago. There we met Robin Elliot, with whom we had a very interesting discussion about the economic difficulties of Borders communities like Selkirk, which are off the main highway and train routes and now struggle to maintain themselves. Among other things, we came away with two boxes of Elliot tartan mugs for various family members and a toy fox in Elliot plaid trousers.

Hawick (pronounced Hoik by the locals) was our first major destination. My mom has daily dialogues with my dad, who as I have noted previously, died last year. This process has many possible interpretations, from spiritual/mediumship/shamanism to hallucination, but I prefer to see it as a special kind of Empty Chair Work, which has proven to be enormously important for her since over the past 11 months and which has helped her develop new direction in her life. (For more, see her blog at: .) Through this process, she developed a project of travelling to Elliott clan country in the Borders in order to try to heal a piece of the its violent, lawless history. Hawick was one of three points forming an equilaterial triangle that were the target of this work, where we placed a laminated medallion of the Murray Creek Labyrinth in a place overlooking the town.

Then, we went onto the eastern point of the triangle, in the Wauchope Forest, not far from the Burns Bothy. This is a pine plantation, really a big harvest crop of pine trees, with patches of dense mono-culture separated by barren wastes of tree stumps where the crop has been logged off. This land seem violated to us, Diane and I felt as we walked up into it on a muddy logging road, having left my mom and sister by the Bothy. After a couple of miles, we came to what we later determined was a ruin of a stone sheep shelter, about 60 feet in diameter, with walls maybe 4 feet tall. In the middle were tree stumps and boggy vegetation; it had been abandoned for a long time, but revealed that the land had been used for sheep herding before being turned into a forest plantation. We placed the second medallion inside the stone wall, and walked back to the car.

The next day, we drove down to Hermitage Castle, the southern point of the triangle. The castle, a ruin with a nasty history, is deep in Elliott territory, not far from Newcastleton. The castle was closed but Anna managed to leave the third medallion in a modern dry stone wall.

The fourth point was supposed to be on or near Wyndburgh Hill, located in the middle of the triangle, but turned out to be the most difficult to get to. We ended up building a tiny cairn by the side of a logging road in the forest, about 3 miles away (it would have been 7 kilometers each way), in sight of the Wig Knowe transmitter tower, which at the time we had mistaken for Wyndburgh Hill. We decided that this was good enough for now, but that Kenneth and I would have to try to tackle Wyndburgh Hill next summer, when we have more time and better weather.

Having completed the pattern, we returned the next day to the hill above Hawick to place our last medallion with the first. Then we drove down south to Burgh Hill (pronounced “Bruff” a local woman told us). After a vigorous climb in the rain and wind, we reached a small stone circle, about 60 feet across, with a marshy area in the middle. Further up the hill was an extensive megalithic hill fort, with walls and rampants crumbled and now covered smoothly with grass. We tried to imagine who lived here and how long. I loved the energy of this wild and desolate place.

Then we drove south along the River Teviot, stopping for lunch at Langholm, a quaint and quiet town on the river. There I sampled haggis pizza, which was interesting but rather more of both haggis and pizza than I wanted. At least I can say now that I have tried it!

We returned, tired and relieved to be home again, my mom’s task largely complete. She began this quest with only a general sense that something needed healing in the area we explored, but we ended up with a deeper understanding of the Borders. The past in which the Elliotts and the Armstrongs and other border clans fought each other and the English seem long gone to me, but what remains is the sense of economic dislocation from having been left out or behind, which I got from talking to Robin Elliot at the woollen mill in Selkirk, and the ecological injury brought about by the pine plantation system. While I appreciate the importance of her quest for my mom, for me the quest was to gain a better understanding of the people who still live in Scottish Borders. I’m looking forward to another visit and the opportunity to get to know this part of Scotland, the home of my ancestors, better.

1 comment:

peter edwards said...

Reading your blog was evocative in many ways for me Robert. I worked for 4 years in Reiver country - mainly Tweeddale, Lauderdale and Berwickshire and loved the rolling countryside too. My wife Nadine lived in Selkirk as a girl and our first was born in Galashiels. My daughter Wennie is moving back just over the border to Heriot on the young Galawater.I found Hermitage Castle to be lonely and evocative place -first time there was introduced to the lovely sound of the Northumbrian pipes (expertly played these days by Kathleen Tickell).
Mainly writing to say that I have read a number of your blogs and enjoy and appreciate them