Category Archives: History

Friars Carse

A twenty-four hour break seemed just enough to charge our memories because there was once a time, when my son was learning his trade, when we needed to drive along the A76 three or four times a month. Except I’m hardly a glutton for nostalgia and had almost forgotten the compelling beauty of this landscape, its low rolling hills and broadleaf forests, the few snatched glimpses of the glistening River Nith. The ancient road links Dumfries to Sanquhar and beyond, and its sense of history is compelling as it weaves through places that recall times past. And November is a time for remembrance.

Being Border Country the land was once dotted with castles. Proper castles, with sheer stone walls that fail to radiate warmth and hospitality. Castles undoubtedly occupied by ruthless nobles who jealously guarded their patch. Many were destroyed to fulfil a treaty with the English back in the 1300’s. Poor King David II was being held hostage in London and the price of his freedom was utter humiliation. But being Border Country the nobles were quick to rebuild.

After leaving Dumfries the first place of note is Thornhill, a perfect example of a traditional Scottish town. Neat stone houses line boulevard wide streets and shops provide essentials like oil lamps, hearth tools and treacle licks. There is a sense that time is marked differently in this corner of Scotland except yellow coated contractors are busy installing super-fast broadband cables beneath the sandstone slabbed pavements. Not even a mobile signal today!

The weather was becoming increasingly dreich so we dived inside a café for lunch. Soup of the Day was broth – just like my grandmother used to make, a thick kaleidoscope of root vegetables jewelled with beads of barley, inviting any spoon to take root. Soup that braves the elements. Except we didn’t.

Friars Carse, the hotel where we were staying, owns an exceptionally long history. On a small rise near the entrance archaeologists discovered the remains of an Iron Age Fort which was later occupied by Romans. Grey Friars brought their form of Christianity here but the ecclesiastical buildings they founded were enclosed inside a fortified building that was later extended to make a comfortable home. If I had my pick of the land I’d choose this very same plot because the stately sandstone house sits atop a raised peninsula overlooking the beautiful River Nith framed in majestic trees bright with autumn colour. Some native trees possess girths which suggest a very long lifespan, no doubt charmed by their setting.

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In 1809 the house became the home of Dr James Crichton, the Admirable Crichton, being renamed Friars Carse in 1895. In 1938 it became a hotel and attracts its regular clientele of anglers keen to nab salmon and trout. Our prize was to rest but first we’d anticipated taking a slow walk through the grounds before settling into our suite. Unfortunately the weather proved un-obliging and so we fell to appreciating the bottle of chilled champagne waiting in our room. The afternoon was spent reading and relaxing and dinner was divine, every morsel perfectly sumptuous. We retired entirely mollycoddled.

For me the most enigmatic attraction of Friars Carse is the tiny shed-like outbuilding called the Hermitage. Etched into one of the window panes are the following words:

Thou whom Chance may hither lead,

Be thou clad in russet weed

Be thou deckt in silken stole

Grave these counsels on thy soul.

Life is but a day at most

Sprung from night – in darkness lost;

Hope not sunshine every hour

Fear not clouds will always lour.

The person who scribed these famous lines lived less than a mile south of Friars Carse and should you follow the fast-flowing Nith for about half a mile you reach his former home, Ellisland Farm. Historians say he chose the site because he was particularly inspired by this stretch of river. However it cannot be denied the poet also enjoyed its proximity to Friars Carse. Robert Burns even wrote a poem called The Whistle to commemorate a drinking contest which took place there on 16th October 1789. Participants had to drink each other under the table. You might guess what form of trophy was awarded to the winner.

Should you be tempted: http://www.friarscarse.co.uk

 

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Filed under Autumn, Culture, Experience, fiction, Friendship, History, Life, Nostalgia, Past, Scotland, Wishes, Writing

Loaded Secrets

So here’s the reason why my friend’s dad spent the last two years of the 2nd World War in a Scottish internment camp. And why he earned a Russian medal.

During the war he was seconded from the merchant navy to serve on a US built ship re-named HMS Dasher. Adapted as an aircraft carrier she was given to the Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease scheme and had quickly earned a reputation for being difficult to handle. So much so the RN needed experienced mariners to maintain her engines.

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The Russian Gold Star was awarded to all personnel who served with Arctic Convoys sent to break the German embargo on Murmansk. Dasher was one of 26 Royal Navy ships that left Loch Ewe on 15th February 1943 but that month the North Atlantic suffered some of the worst storms ever recorded, bringing huge waves and gale force winds. Six ships turned back and Dasher reported a 60 foot hole in her side. She limped into shelter in Iceland where she was declared ‘unfit for duty’ and was quickly escorted back to Dundee for extensive repairs to be carried out.

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HMS Dasher on Convoy Duty in the North Atlantic, picture from the collection of Sub-Lieutenant (A) John Vallely RNVR.

On 27th March 1943 Dasher was fit to carry out training manoeuvres following her crucial repairs. A new captain had recently taken over the ship and he was determined to improve her safety record so that day was to be spent practising aircraft take-off and landings. However, as usual, the engines kept stalling and instead of steaming out into the Atlantic she was ordered to remain in the Firth of Clyde, chugging between the islands of Little Cumbrae and Arran. The mood on board would have been cheerful because all non-duty crew were due to go on leave as soon as she returned to shore at 1800 hrs.

At 1630 hrs some of the aircraft were refuelling in the hangar while another waited on deck. Suddenly, at 1640 hrs, a huge explosion ripped through the aircraft lift, shooting the whole thing into the air. While all personnel on the flight deck were toppled into the sea a plume of smoke and flames shot out of the hole and the wooden flight deck folded ‘like the lid on a tin of sardines’. Almost immediately the ship began to list backwards and the bow lifted out of the water.

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Few of the 527 men on-board survived, despite being within sight of shore and having immediate assistance from the many boats present in the Firth. Of those who managed to abandon ship only 149 men were rescued, every attempt at pulling them out of the freezing water being hampered by the quantity of oil discharged. Dasher’s fuel tanks had contained 75,000 gallons of aviation fuel. Thick and slippery it floated on the surface of the water, covering survivors. And then it caught fire. Several ships involved in the recovery were given commendations for ploughing through flames to rescue seamen.

By 16.48 the HMS Dasher had sunk.

The sinking of HMS Dasher

All survivors, and those who took part in the rescue, were warned they must never talk about the disaster. It still bares little mention in official records. The reason given at the time was that morale was low and the RN still had other US ships in service. Many sailors were already calling these ships ‘floating bombs’ because the aviation fuel tanks were placed too near the ammunition stores. Whatever the truth my friend’s dad was held in an internment camp because he was a merchant seaman and not Royal Navy, therefore deemed a civilian.

But the story doesn’t end there. Recent research has led to a different reason for the secrecy – Operation Mincemeat. One of the sailors who drowned in the Dasher disaster was apparently used for the deception that played a key role in diverting German intelligence from the Allied landings at Normandy.

Whatever the truth the story is a strange one. If the navy was so short of able men it seems absolutely ridiculous to keep experienced sailors under lock and key. Having trawled the internet I’ve found many stories written by descendants of Dasher’s survivors but not one ‘first-hand’ report. It seems nobody broke their oath to keep the whole affair secret.

There is a memorial to HMS Dasher and all who were lost on the fore-shore at Ardrossan.

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Filed under Disaster, endurance, Family, History, Memories, Past, Scotland

Roaming

It’s good to be back. I’ve been away since mid-September and although I generally thrive on travel the last few weeks I’ve been homesick to such an extent I couldn’t bare to access the internet or even check my e-mails.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

It didn’t used to be such a wrench. I’ve been globe-trotting since child-hood. Dad was a civil engineer and most of his ‘projects’ were based overseas. We hardly lived anywhere longer than a couple of years so rarely put down roots. Home never meant belonging and I grew up believing that mine was a ‘gypsy’ soul. Friends were always few as I itched to move on, to discover just what lay beyond the next horizon. What ties I owned were weak and unsentimental. Yet I was always jealous of people who ‘belonged’ and wished I could claim one place as home. And I suppose that’s why I’ve always loved history. While the present world is always in flux there is a sense of permanence about things past. History exists in the mind’s eye and therefore can’t disappoint or betray expectations. Anyway, that’s my excuse, or perhaps it’s more an apology?

With that in mind our latest round of travels began in Italy, in the Bay of Naples to be exact, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. We opted for an eight-day tour because we’ve learned from recent experience that popular sites are virtually impossible to enter without serious forward planning (of which we are incapable) and specialist companies secure priority tickets over individual tourists.

On first arrival I did begin to question that logic, especially when caught-up in rush-hour traffic along the Bay of Naples. Then we enter a series of tunnels culminating in a seven kilometre run which ejects us dramatically onto the rim of cliffs hovering above Sorrento and images of 1950’s movies starring Audrey Hepburn or Sophie Loren transpose my view. Azure seas lap beneath an undulating conurbation of white-washed villas clinging, rather haphazardly, to the cliff-tops; of course it’s entirely breath-taking.

Sorrento

It takes another airless hour to reach our hotel, crawling through narrow lanes packed with traffic, negotiating hair-pin bends not designed for cars never-mind tour buses. We drop fellow passengers at city-centre hotels and wish our destination was closer. However our choice of accommodation proves worth the wait, we have the best view in Sorrento, high above the bay and tucked amongst high-staked vines and olive groves. Our home for the next week is the traditional, family-run Hotel Vue d’Or, and within minutes of our arrival we are flopped, like jetsam, on the marble-tiled balcony, sipping cold beer and expiring in the heat like true Anglophiles.

Hotel Vue d'Or

Next morning, after a solid night’s sleep, our first day unwinds slowly. I sit on the balcony, writing down my thoughts and impressions. Although not yet nine o clock heat seeps down the mountains, crimping at the shade. Sunlight, unleashed, breaks with utter force, smothering, impaling, disturbing, discomforting. A distant mountain is ablaze. Soft grey smoke gathers, suspended like a balloon above the red glow of flames. The smoke sits slovenly and impassive. There isn’t a breath of wind.

Fire mountain

By mid-day the northern horizon hangs grey while small, bee-like planes skim across the smoke dropping buckets of water onto the flames. They seem an ineffectual nuisance. The sun’s brilliance filters through a smothering haze. But far below me sits a turquoise pool, shimmering invitingly. The hotel is clamped onto the mountain-side like a concrete rock, surrounded by red-tiled roofs poking through the dark green mantel of ancient olive groves. The air smells potently of charcoal smoke and hot-house herbs.

The week holds a fast-paced itinerary. There’s no more time to sit and stare as the bus arrives to take us to our first destination. Worse, except for one other day, we have to be ready to leave by 7am. No leisurely breakfasts, no sitting by the pool and wondering if the fires will be subdued, we have an agenda to pursue. I begrudge the means but this is modern tourism, I can’t afford the time, never mind the wider elements of a true ‘grand tour’.

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Coming into Pompeii for the first time it was mind-blowing to think this city was seven centuries old before the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Seven hundred years of trading with the known world, of ambitious families accumulating wealth and substance in a city perfectly situated for growth and expansion. Even though it now lies in ruins it still possesses an arrogant beauty. No wonder its citizens were reluctant to abandon their hopes when a series of earthquakes shook Pompeii’s foundations to the core ten years before the final destruction came.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

Of course those with real money were able to leave, to abandon their villas by the sea. There is evidence they packed up their riches and left slaves to guard their properties. In fact one of the earliest finds, during the excavations of 1748, were the skeletons of several men who’d been trying to tunnel into the city not long after its annihilation. More recent archaeology has proved they were attempting to recover a large chest containing the combined household silver of a wealthy aristocrat. Historians think it quite possible there was the offer of a generous ransom but poisonous gases still pervaded the site, sealing the treasure-hunters’ demise. And they probably weren’t the only victims because local legend proclaimed the site not merely dangerous but ‘damned’.

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

So Pompeii was largely forgotten. While boiling mud extinguished its existence, the massive eruption diverted the river which bound its wealth and subsequent lava-flows changed the lay of the land until the sea fell back from its harbours and the surrounding marshes became mosquito laden backlands where few dared to linger.

To be continued…

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Filed under aspirations, Culture, Disaster, History, Hopes, Rome, Travel

Maps and Mary, Queen of Scots

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Whether looking for the best means to travel from A to B or going in search of treasure you can’t do without a map. And I don’t mean some GPS enabled app, that just doesn’t have the same scope. I mean a large paper sheet that refuses to close down even when you want it to and has a satisfying radius that sets your position on the planet better than glaring at Google Earth. Maps are the key to an ‘otherworld’, they lead to somewhere else, facilitate journeying beyond familiar places to places where one may be inspired and astounded. Maps are really quite remarkable.

Over the last few months I’ve been trying to determine the most likely route Mary Queen of Scots followed after landing from a fishing boat on a beach near Workington during the evening of 16th May 1568. But the truth is proving elusive, not least because after her death she became something more than human, she became a figure of romance, a legend. Every Tom, Dick or Harry with an eye to a profit has claimed she came to call.

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There is no question where she slept that very first night because the evidence is indisputable. Imagine the furore when the Queen of the neighbouring country unexpectedly comes a-calling? Unfortunately the Curwens who resided at Workington Hall were taking the waters in Bath but a servant recognised Mary because he was French and ‘knew her in better times’.  That evening letters were being dispatched to the four corners of the land (and beyond, Mary wrote a letter to France begging assistance). Just before dawn next day Richard Lowther, deputy keeper of Carlisle Castle, arrived with a company of men (between 200 to 800 depending on who composed the letter) to escort the unexpected visitor back to Carlisle Castle. The argument being this was for her own safety.

Lowther was right to worry about Mary’s situation. The Earl of Northumberland wanted Mary under his control, and with Lord Wharton, military governor of the region out of reach in London poor Richard had to make all the decisions. He obviously knew who he could trust and called on a wealthy merchant called Henry Fletcher. Now while most records agree that Fletcher was Mary’s host during her second night in England he owned several large houses in the region. The earliest written record I can find claims Mary stayed at Clea Hall but that didn’t seem to make sense because it’s so far off the beaten track…at least nowadays. Perhaps that’s why most modern tomes agree Mary stayed that critical night at Cockermouth Hall, another of Henry’s homes.

Then, while debating my next step, I happened to bump into John Higham, a retired history teacher who’s written several books on local history. When I told him of my dilemma he pointed me towards the Saxon map of Cumberland which was published in 1579. It came as a surprise to discover that the main road to Carlisle, in fact the only road which would accommodate a large party of men and women on horseback, skirted the hills and passed through the villages of Ireby and Dalston, a very different route from today. And this made it apparent that Clea Hall is in a much better position, especially if you want to ride in ceremonial triumph into Carlisle next day and not look too frazzled. The grounds of Clea Hall also offered space for the few hundred soldiers who needed a place to lay their heads, something far less feasible in Cockermouth town centre, especially with the Earl of Northumberland’s men breathing down your back (but that’s another story).

So my journey hasn’t ended. I have an inkling the records are wrong, but I do know for certain that Mary made the wrong choice in coming to England. But then, had she remained, as was most likely, under house arrest in Scotland, she would have faded into history rather than blazed.

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Looking NW from a farm lane near Crosscanonby across farmland and the Solway Firth to the Galloway Hills.

  © Copyright ally McGurk and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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Filed under Cumberland, History, Research, Scotland, Sources, Writing

What is Creative?

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According to a recent government think-tank craftspeople can no longer be considered ‘creative’. Given the task of Classifying and Measuring Creative Industries they ‘classified’ a craftsperson as a ‘manufacturer who follows fixed procedures to produce articles by hand’. No creativity required! Having spent most of my life working in what I consider to be ‘creative industries’ I’m appalled, especially when the same report praises desk-dwellers like Town Planners and IT consultants for their creative input. At a stroke my status is downgraded to unimaginative; lacking innovation, artistry or aesthetics. But hasn’t there has always been an element of snobbery towards makers who actually get their hands dirty?

I was brought up on the premise that it’s exemplary to make things by hand. When I studied at Art College William Morris remained the oracle and he believed that losing respect for the past meant the future was in trouble. Making is in our genes – from making food to making clothes, mankind learned hand-skills in order to survive. But hand-skills are developed through creative intellect passed down from master to apprentice, and Morris challenged Victorian industrialists for failing to recognise this fact.

For some archaeologists the humble sewing needle marks the most crucial advance for prehistoric societies. This simple tool allowed our ancestors to finally crawl out of their caves. Needles meant clothing fashioned from raw animal skins could be made to fit. And clothes that fitted made winter hunting expeditions more endurable. Better diet meant survival rates improved and life-spans extended, enabling clans to pass greater wisdom and experience onto the next generation. The beautiful paintings left in caves remain the only evidence of their life stories. And of their instinct for creativity.

It took thousands of years before primitive societies discovered how to farm in such a way they could sustain life without the need to wander. And it was no doubt during this period a wider range of craft skills were perfected. Whether making vessels to store water, or weaving textiles or tanning leather to make clothes, people were discovering how to manipulate whatever materials they discovered in order to improve their lives. Perhaps that’s why the current government boffins think crafts lack creativity, because we’ve been using these processes for a very long time. But even if societies did have to produce everything required to sustain life there’s nothing to say they didn’t enjoy the process, people who work with their hands are nothing if not resourceful.

Each stage of early intellectual development can be credited to a breakthrough in manufacturing techniques brought about by craftspeople. Without skills honed from manufacturing hand-crafted products the Renaissance just couldn’t have happened. Blame glassmakers on the island of Murano for the invention of spectacles. And Guttenberg was apprenticed to be a jeweller, that’s how he learned the techniques necessary to ‘create’ moveable typefaces.

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It might take a given set of procedures to make a product by hand, but craftspeople are perpetually innovating, pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and it’s in their nature to explore and experiment. But an experienced craftsperson does not separate the workings of the hand from the workings of the mind. There is no such distinction. Neither do they baulk at getting their hands dirty.

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Filed under aspirations, Crafts, Culture, Education, History, innovation, society

Fully Tested

Spring in Cumbria

I’ve just received results from my first DNA test. I say first because I’m sure the science is still in its infancy. Having dabbled in family history research I already know (on paper) I have relatives in every corner of the British Isles. At first glance I thought my results confirmed what I’d always feared, I am entirely British. How very boring! I was hoping to discover at least one wildly romantic and exotic strain in my ancestry.

But now I’ve studied the data more thoroughly I discover I’m only 73% Brit. So there’s some hope. Actually with mother’s Northumbrian roots it’s no surprise to discover 5% of my genes are Scandinavian, the Vikings were known to love that particular coast. And 5% Celtic, something I’ve always suspected but never been able to prove. And finding Eastern European strains, with trace elements of Jewish, Spanish and Finish/NW Russian probably explains father’s ‘foreign’ characteristics.

But what’s fascinated me most is finding 3% of me comes from the Caucasus. Practically far-flung! Historically many an exotic race fled this contentious region and some infamous ones remain – like the Chechens, a very passionate people (such as my dear friend Ondrei). But this leaves me thinking – what truly defines race? I believe the various places I grew up, and the place where I live now, have made me who I am. Nationality defines character, and the landscape of the British Isles defines my spirit, but it is history which defines my soul. Which is why I wanted to explore my DNA?

Caucasus Mountains

As far as I can see Britain is peopled by the progeny of various waves of immigrants and invaders. There is no indigenous race, nobody who can prove their ancestors have native possession. The only thing my DNA test proves is how I’m descended from a cacophony of ancestors who most probably arrived on Britain’s shores before history was conceived, never mind written.

So what is British? First and foremost an island race who often travel beyond their surrounding seas but generally decide to come home. Otherwise we feel the need to make a ‘little Britain’ wherever we put down roots. It’s inevitable I suppose, to take what’s best and evolve.

I spent most childhood summers on the untamed beaches of Northumberland, near my grandmother’s home, dabbling in rock-pools, careering down seamless sand dunes, splashing the crystal cold waters of the North Sea, wondering when the last invaders beached their boats in the bay.

But my parents lived and worked at the opposite end of the country, in Kent. But it might surprise outsiders to learn that the broad sweep of salt marsh that skirts the Thames Estuary is as remote and unknowable as the wind-swept beaches of Northumbria. Charles Dickens used to walk these ancient sea-walls in search of inspiration. During the sixties, when I lived there, Upchurch was still surrounded by ancient orchards of fruit trees and autumn scaffolds of hops, quilting the northern chalk Downs. Life in Kent revolved around harvest, except nobody liked picking hops; they stain the skin and leave clothes tainted with their pungent smell. No wonder the first history I researched (age 11) was all about the production of beer!

For the last thirty years I’ve occupied a place of outstanding beauty – Cumbria – land of mystery and legend, where two nations meet but never merge. This landscape has its own timelessness, past and present conspire and inspire. But living here requires a particular kind of endurance, because we can experience all four seasons in a single day. True border people are tuned to prevail, I’m sure its distilled in the local DNA.

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I know where I belong. Take me away from my habitat and I’m nothing, or rather what remains is insignificant to who I am or whatever I might be.

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Filed under Ancestry, Changes, DNA, Family, History, Landscape, Research, Roots, Travel, Writing

Spring Clean

February is not an easy month even in the best of years. In my corner of northern England it’s generally dark, and dreary, damp and cold. Spring hasn’t yet sprung although ice-white snowdrops carpet the hedgerows and sturdy-limbed lambs are leaping in the fields. It’s hard to get motivated.

New Year is a time of hope, a time to reflect and make plans – lots of reasons to be happy, lots of reasons to be thankful. While I trust everything will turn out for the best (in the best of all possible worlds) I haven’t put fingers to keyboard of late because I’ve been experiencing troubled times. But I belong to a generation that doesn’t think it proper to air their dirty washing in public

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Am I alone in thinking we’re not as tough these days? Perhaps that’s because we don’t have to be. Despite owning every labour-saving device invented for the job I know I’m not half the housewife my grandmother was. Her home was her dominion. She baked her own bread, grew her own fruits and vegetables and prepared every meal from scratch. And everything inside her cottage and garden was spick and span as she could make it. When I was a small child I watched in fascination as she draped all the rugs and carpets in her cottage across the washing line and beat them mercilessly with a special fan-shaped stick. Clouds of dust drifted across the fence to coat the neighbouring vegetable patch. Possibly that’s why old Mr. Forster always won Best in Show for his cabbages – no self-respecting moth feeds on dust-covered brassicas.

I also remember how Monday’s were devoted to ‘washing’. In gran’s house it was critical as attending Sunday Chapel, and equally sacrosanct. A huge galvanised tub was wheeled ceremoniously into the centre of the kitchen, the gas was lit underneath and while the water boiled everything deemed dirty was ‘cooked’, rubbed and then put through the wringer. The cottage steamed with coal-tar soap and we children knew to play outside as long as possible, whatever the weather.  Gran would apologise that dinner must be cold leftovers but the reason I dreaded washday most was because everyone was exhausted by the sheer physical effort involved.

Mrs. Forster and Gran

Mrs. Forster and Gran

I’ve only known automatic washing machines. Throw dirty clothes inside, fill the soap dispenser, turn the knob and get on with life. Clothes go from dirty to clean without so much as a whimper. And I’ve never beaten the carpets, Henry the Hoover does that, guided by any hand that happens to be home. I’m thankful that house-keeping is no longer viewed as woman’s work. My memories remind me how hard life could be but going to stay with gran felt cosy as a warm, soft blanket. She never, ever complained because no matter how tough her life seemed it was ten times better than her grandmother’s.

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Filed under Changes, Education, Family, History, Life, Roots, Spring, Tradition, Winter, Writing

Kith and Clans

Here is the kind of winter morning I love most. Ringed by clear azure skies the patchwork fields surrounding my home sparkle like crystal carpets as dawn gilds the hedges with bronze fire. And not a breath of wind stirs the stillness. There is a sense that nature is holding its breath, preparing for spring and yet not wanting to wake. But the far horizon has begun to melt already. Mist rises, sloughing winter behind a sentinel guard of skeletal oaks.

This landscape has barely altered through time but had I been here five hundred years ago there might have seemed better reason to praise the clear, frosty weather. Living less than twenty miles from the border (with Scotland) meant we’d be in fear of reivers. But reivers liked to pursue their prey under a cloak of darkness and/or dribbling rain.

What is a reiver? Rather a unique figure – he came from every social class and might live anywhere in the region called The Borders. For many generations reiving families formed a state within a state between the two countries of England and Scotland, organizing the region to suit their own rules and boundaries; fighting men who used tracking, ambush, raid and theft as second nature. The Borders were ‘badlands’ where freebooters, rustlers and raiders held sway. This was ‘their’ country and they understood every inch of ground, be it river, marsh or hillside, by day and most particularly by night. The geography of the region was perpetually used to their advantage, as many a traveller complained. Barbarous, crafty, vengeful, crooked, quarrelsome, tough, perverse, active, deceitful – contemporary descriptions vary little when explaining border people. They made excellent soldiers if disciplined but that raw material was hard, wild, and ill to tame.

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Having grown up in the south of England I knew nothing of reivers until we moved to Cumbria. It’s a parcel of history many historians prefer to ignore (or forget), better known to those who inhabit Britain’s former colonies. Why? Well one of the ‘solutions’ to the inherent problem of reiving was to ‘transport’ whole families (or clans) to populate those colonies. Thus the Grahams arrived in New Holland, with legal charges pending if they should ever return. Being a cagey lot some merely reversed the letters of their surname – Cumbria still contains many a native called Maharg. But the advent of a ‘united’ kingdom meant reiving families were no longer able to slip across the border to evade justice, after 1603 the border no longer existed!

For generation after generation, simmering over five hundred years, no outsider would dare travel unarmed and alone through the rolling countryside which stretches from the Scottish Southern Uplands to the Pennines. In these ‘middle shires’, where mainland Britain narrows between the shallow waters of the Solway Firth and the wild North Sea, where Rome threw up a boundary wall to separate the defeated from the free, few households slept soundly during the winter months. English or Scots, rich or poor, all lived in fear of reivers. This state of affairs gave rise to ‘protection’ being bought from tribal leaders who lived in formidable towers such as Hermitage, a building so grim it was recently described as ‘sod-off’ built in stone. Here was ‘no-man’s land’, where national laws had little jurisdiction. And the control centre of infamy resided in a district called the Debateable Land. Here you find the first use of words like ‘black-mail’ and ‘feud’, and the constant threat of raids, or the retaliatory march of a ‘hot trod’ stamped their hardy souls with a mistrust of all outsiders.

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Just north of Carlisle the M6 motorway crosses the powerful river Esk at a place called Metalbridge. The green and pastoral landscape denies the myth that once upon a time this was actually the most dangerous place in all Christendom. Think Khyber Pass, Barbary Coast or Soho on a Saturday night. Across this moss-filled valley, where winter riding was mired in clay, lies the southern boundary of the ‘Debateable Land’. This hostile region stretched north and east for a dozen or so miles, almost up to Langholm and the mouth of Liddesdale, but was never more than four miles wide and twelve miles long. So lawless were its inhabitants neither Scotland nor England wanted responsibility for policing its crimes but pertly used it as a ‘buffer’ zone.

Touching the western limit is Gretna (a cross-border village created after the two kingdoms were joined), where the lesser river Sark marks the official border. Back in Elizabeth I’s reign a Scottish bishop venturing through the region on his way to Glasgow enquired whether the locals were Protestant or Catholic. He received the terse reply, ‘Na, we’se for Armstrongs or Elliots here’.

Hermitage Castle

Hermitage Castle.

Tradition and politics created a mongrel system for regulating the Border. The region was loosely divided into Marches and each March had a Warden nominated by national government – so, for example, there was a Scottish Warden of the West March and an English Warden of the West March. More often than not the Warden came from a major reiving family, inclined to protect his own interests, but the system worked, even during times of war, and so it persisted. But, by the middle of the sixteenth century, even the Wardens agreed the kind of people who called the Debateable Land home were so inclined to rob, burn, plunder and kill that someone had to take charge. After much deliberation (the final decision being laid upon a passing French ambassador) they decided to build a bank and ditch to mark the reach of each nation’s responsibilities. It’s still there, just to the south of Canonbie, and called the Scots’ Dike.

Recently there has been revived interest in ‘reiving’ families, encouraged no doubt by family historians eager to trace their roots. My mother, seeing her maiden name of Tait listed in our local museum, was keen to purchase a beautifully illustrated history of the family, until she read of their exploits. Taits were infamous on the North March, as were Rutherfords (grannie’s surname), for all the wrong reasons. The Privy Council of Scotland drew up an official ‘black list’ of reiver surnames: Armstrongs, Batesons/Beatties, Bells, Burns, Charltons, Crosiers, Dodds, Elliots, Forsters, Glendinnings, Hendersons, Hetheringtons, Irvines, Johnstones, Kerrs, Littles, Lowthers, Maxwells, Musgraves, Nixons, Pringles, Robsons, Routledges, Rutherfords, Scotts, Storeys, Taits, Trotters and Thomsons. Thieves and vagabonds ‘of great clans who encourage obstinacy’.

Further Reading:

The Reivers, by Alistair Moffat

The Steel Bonnets, by George Macdonald Fraser

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Filed under Ancestry, Family, History, Middle Shires, Roots, Tradition, Winter

Love Affairs

The Great Fire of London: 1666

I’ve always loved history. I think it stems from being curious how people lived their lives under different circumstances. Looking at the past is like unravelling a mystery. I peer into other worlds and wonder how I would cope. Working as a costume designer meant being involved in how the past was interpreted by other people but I’ve never held myself up as an expert, just someone who loves history.

So I wasn’t sure what to say when my daughter asked me to come into school and help the infants develop their studies on The Great Fire of London. I knew my two grandsons felt inspired by the project-work and already understood the most significant facts, such as where the fire began, and how. They’d even told me all about the diarist Samuel Pepys burying his precious cheese, just in case his house was engulfed by flames. What more could I add?

Women's work

I printed a selection of pertinent primary sources and gathered together a few books and maps to illustrate the topics I thought might be of interest. Then I discovered an animated film by a company called Pudding Lane Productions made by computer gaming students in response to a competition run by the British Library. The film lasts barely two minutes but gives a better visual description of Restoration London on the eve of the Great Fire than I could ever hope to reveal with books and papers. Beginning near Pudding Lane the animation sweeps through the city’s narrow streets and alleys, briefly gazing into houses to show the minutiae of everyday life; washing hung out to dry, braziers burning and candles lit – it’s packed with well-researched detail yet nothing nasty that could spark nightmares (the oldest child was seven).

Classroom technology being what it is we were able to start by showing the film. Then we asked what item they would save if they had to abandon their home in an emergency. While most opted to rescue their pets one little voice piped up to say he would take his iPad. When we pointed out that he wouldn’t have an iPad he persisted that indeed he ‘did have one’. This led to a discussion about what a seventeenth century home would or wouldn’t have, and of course it didn’t take long before we got to sanitary arrangements.

– Very few buildings had an indoor toilet, only bigger buildings like palaces and castles.

– Did people have to go to the castle when they needed a wee?

– No they would have to use something like a potty or, if they had a garden, a dirt-box.

– It must have been very smelly in London.

cheapsidehoard

I’d taken along some pictures of the Cheapside Hoard, jewels buried around this period, to illustrate the sort of things that might be buried for safe keeping. Almost as an afterthought I asked my husband if he could lend an item of jewellery to show the class and the ring he produced was actually made in the 17th century. It was very delicate, a fancy gold band mounted with two tiny, white enamel, love-birds set with minuscule emeralds, rubies and diamonds. However as the ring was handed carefully around the class the children became unusually quiet and I worried that they didn’t find it interesting enough to warrant any discussion.

Today I received twenty-three ‘thank-you’ letters, hand-written and beautifully illustrated. The only item mentioned, and illustrated, in almost every letter was the ring. It’s a mute point that history lies in an imagined world but being able to handle an object from that world somehow brings it to life. And I do think my grandsons are blessed to go to a school which believes that the class-room is just a beginning.

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Filed under Education, Family, History, Research

History through the keyhole

The original copy which comprises newspapers bound into a book.

The original copy which comprises newspapers bound into a book.

Portable edition

Portable edition

For thirty years a strapping Victorian bible of a book has sat in the corner of my office unopened and unloved. It’s so ungainly it never fitted on any bookshelf and over the years has variously seen service as a flower press, a prop or a step (by shorter members of the family). It was given to me by my late brother-in-law as a gift when we first moved to Cumbria, in 1982, and I clearly remember how excited he was after discovering it in a second-hand shop in Carlisle. At the time I was knee-deep in knitting a new way of life having moved hundreds of miles from known friends and family so I’m ashamed to say I gave the tome a passing glance and a vacant ‘thank you’.

Last month, when the floor space in my office reached critical level, I decided I must de-clutter. What’s the point of having any book if it isn’t going to be read? Luckily I resolved to honour my brother-in-law and explore the contents of this heavyweight, prior to its being ejected.

Wilson’s ‘Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginative Tales of the Borders and of Scotland, Vol. IV’ isn’t bedtime reading. Apart from mammoth proportions its antique typeface and generally archaic form of writing requires an excellent light source and active attention span. But what treasures lie within.

Wilson collected these stories at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many are folk-tales and handed-down histories, but critically some are based on interviews with ‘interesting’ local characters and the author has a comforting, if not fully objective, style. Researching Wilson I discover he was born in 1804, in Berwick-on-Tweed, and became involved in publishing at the age of 11. The year was 1815, the Napoleonic wars had just come to an end and this tenderfoot decided to go out and interview some local veterans about their experiences. From that seed his quest to record the traditions, tales and history of the region grew.

The tales were first published in monthly instalments from 8th October 1834, by which time John Mackay Wilson had become editor of the “Berwick Advertiser”. They became a minor publishing sensation with an original run of 2,000 having to be raised to 30,000 within the year. Although Wilson died prematurely, on 3rd October 1835 at the age of 31, he’d already contributed 66 tales to the first collection and the success of his idea led his executors and family to continue the process of publication. They recruited a group of contributors to continue the work and a total of 299 were eventually published.

The roll-call of writers influenced by these works includes Sir Walter Scott (who published smaller, portable editions in 1869), RL Stephenson and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Each story radiates with the rich history, lore and legend of the Borders. They caught the imagination of their age and offer a rich social history covering some 500 years. I’ve copied out the opening paragraphs of one story which captured my attention. It recounts the exploits of a man called Bill Whyte as told by his gypsy brother.

‘I was born, master, in this very cave, some sixty years ago, and so am a Scotchman like yourself. My mother, however, belonged to the Debateable Land, my father was an Englishman, and of my five sisters, one first saw the light in Jersey, another in Guernsey, a third in Wales, a fourth in Ireland, and the fifth in the Isle of Man. But this is a trifle, master, to what occurs in some families.

It can’t be now much less than fifty years since my mother left us, one bright sunny day, on the English side of Kelso, and staid away about a week.  We thought we had lost her altogether; but back she came at last, and, when she did come, she brought with her a small sprig of a lad, of about three summers or thereby.  Father grumbled a little – we had got small fry enough already, he said, and bare enough and hungry enough they were at times; but mother shewed him a pouch of yellow pieces, and there was no more grumbling.  And so we called the little fellow, Bill Whyte, as if he had been one of ourselves, and he grew up among us, as pretty a fellow as e’er the sun looked upon.  I was a few years his senior; but he soon contrived to get half a foot a-head of me; and, when we quarrelled, as boys will at times, master, I always came off second-best.  I never knew a fellow of a higher spirit; he would rather starve than beg, a hundred times over, and never stole in his life; but then for gin-setting, and deer-stalking, and black-fishing, not a poacher in the country got beyond him; and when there was a smuggler in the Solway, who more active than Bill?

He was barely nineteen, poor fellow, when he made the country too hot to hold him.  I remember the night as well as if it were yesterday. The Cat-maran lugger was in the Frith, d’ye see, a little below Carlaverock; and father and Bill and some half-dozen more of our men, were busy in bumping the kegs ashore, and hiding them in the sand. It was a thick, smuggy night; we could hardly see fifty yards round us; and, on our last trip, master, when we were down in the water to the gunwale, who should come upon us, in the turning of a handspike, but the revenue lads from Kirkcudbright!  They hailed us to strike in the Devil’s name. Bill swore he wouldn’t. Flash went a musket, and the ball whistled through his bonnet. Well, he called on them to row up, and up they came; but no sooner were they within half-oar’s length, then, taking up a keg, and raising it just as he used to do the putting-stone, he made it spin through their bottom, as if the planks were of window-glass; and down went their cutter in half a jiffy.  They had wet powder that night, and fixed no more bullets.

Well, when they were gathering themselves up as they best could-and, goodness he praised! There were no drownings amongst them – we bumped our kegs ashore, hiding them with the others, and then fled up the country.  We knew there would be news of our night’s work; and so there was; for, before next evening, there were advertisements on every post for the apprehension of Bill, with an offered reward of twenty pounds.’

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

Apart from smuggling on the Solway shores this story vividly describes how the brothers fought the French (Napoleon) in Egypt, their encounters with Arabs (who they describe as being like gypsies of the desert) and subsequently their most dangerous adventure after they return to Cumberland. Bill’s real parentage is finally revealed and the story ends with this sentence: ‘I left him, and made the best of my way home; where, while the facts were fresh in my mind, I committed to paper (for the express purpose of having it inserted among the Border Tales) the gypsy’s story.’

Considering the Battle of the Nile took place in 1798 this ‘interview’ is with a man born in the late eighteenth century yet phrases like ‘small fry’ and ‘half a jiffy’ sound relatively modern. But it’s the stirring eye-witness accounts which make such stories relevant. Strip away Victorian sentimentality and the intimate, chatty style adds credence, just like Michael Parkinson interviewing a celebrity, I feel I’m listening to the past through a key-hole.

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Filed under Books, Drama, History, Research, Travel, Wilson's Tales, Writing