Following 9th century monks as they flee from invading vikings with the body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels – and undertake a momentous journey that helps shape England
Don’t eat the fish and chips in Melrose; greasy, poor quality and badly cooked, and that includes the mushy peas too. It filled a hole but it felt like a slimy cannonball hung there in my stomach. And the girl behind the counter definitely wasn’t smiling either…
We came through Carham, with its beautiful Church of St Cuthbert overlooking the Tweed, gravestones comforted by a multitude of daffodils. Through Kelso, its 12th century monastery now in ruins but once ‘unparalleled in the rest of the kingdom.’ And we were heading towards Melrose, for the vantage site called ‘Scott’s View’, when Paul spotted it on a far hill. Built in the 1400’s, Smailholm Tower, described by Paul as ‘a photographer’s dream,’ was home to the Pringle family and survived centuries of assault from border raiders. It’s nine foot wide walls were necessary on many occasions and its stunning views meant approaching raiders could be spotted from miles around.
Hundreds of years of Anglo-Scottish warfare left its mark. Families couldn’t earn a living when their homes were in border country and the frequent streams of soldiers took what they wanted.
“Reiving, raiding for cattle and sheep, and whatever else could be transported, was the only way to survive and it became an established way of life for over three hundred years, a profession which was regarded with no discredit amongst the Borderers. The practice spread from the 13th century and was passed down through the generations. Reiving was not confined to cross boundary targets. Raids were made, not in the name of Scotland or England, but in the name of their family or clan.” (The official Border Reivers Website)
In 1544, Reivers from Northumberland made off with 723 cattle, 108 horses and 104 prisoners from Smailholm village. We circle the tower first, Paul as fast as a mountain goat all of a sudden, enjoying its sight from different angles and elevations, then we creep up stealthily and are amazed to find the door open. There’s a little visitors shop inside and you can pay five pounds to walk to the top. We talk to Paul instead, who seems happy to have some conversation. He tells us the three incredible hills to the West are the Eildon hills, states Smailhom was a Tower House for landed gentry, rather than a smaller Pele Tower that a tenant farmer would have had. He told us that Walter Scott, the most revered writer of his time, spent time in the farm below as a young boy and was brought up here to play by a shepherd. He tells us a story about a man called Thomas Rhymer who claimed he was abducted by the Queen of the Fairies in the Eildon Hills. It was suggested there was a proliferation of fly agaric hallucinogenic mushrooms in the hills and so he may have been taken in his imagination rather than physically, although once upon a time people didn’t separate the imagination from the physical ‘reality’ as much as they do now. Travelling in different realms, to the lands of the spirits, to the underworld and otherworld, was dangerous, but it was possible, and your body didn’t have to go with you on your journey.
We move on to ‘Scott’s View,’ which looks down dramatically at the loop of the River Tweed, the tongue of green land that once held aloft the monastery at Melrose, now a couple of miles from the town of the same name. Aidan built a monastery down there around the same time Cuthbert was born, then went to found the monastery at Lindisfarne. Cuthbert entered the monastery at Melrose after seeing a vision of the soul of Aidan being born to heaven one night when he was out on the hills as a shepherd boy. And then he followed the same route Aidan took, bringing Christianity to the people of Northumbria.
Paul and I want to go back to Smailholm Tower and spend the night there, knowing it will be isolated, beautiful and safe, that we can climb any number of short hills and watch the sun go down with a view to die for. But it’s too far north and we need to get moving. Cavers is our next stop. It’s so small it isn’t on my road atlas but I have a good feeling about things.
“Trust me,” I tell Paul. “There will be somewhere fine to stay there, I know there will be.”
And so we drive along the small roads, guts heavy with bad fish and chips, knowing it will be more scenic and hoping it will be just as fast. Cavers comes, and goes. The night is darkening quickly. We’d hoped to catch the church at dusk and then find somewhere close to stay, but the village was behind us and there wasn’t any room to do anything but keep driving forward. We stop at a beautiful church on the winding road down through Teviot Dale, a gorgeous view to Hawick. But it’s the wrong church and we’re pulled up on the side of a very narrow road and in front of the long driveway of a very posh house so we know we can’t stop there. St Cuthbert’s Church is behind us, somewhere, but we can’t turn around so we just kept on driving, hoping to find anywhere suitable for the night. The trees heighten on either side, the view diminishes and then we find a corner with a flat part on the edge of it. The little ridge down to the brook is blocked by a barbed wire fence. A lamb looks across and baa’s a surprised welcome. Paul and I shrug. It will be dark in fifteen minutes and this is the first place we’ve seen in miles that gives us the chance to get off the road, even if it is by just a few feet.
I stand outside the van, the side of it that means I won’t get ran over by some maniac hurtling around the corner at late night high speed. I want to go and walk by the brook that comes from the darkness on my left and ripples away into more darkness on my right. Sides of pitch black woodland surround us, an open top of mainly dark grey clouds slowly dissolving away into midnight blue and the occasional magical glimpse of the moon. The trickle of water that constantly flows and the cold wind that alternates between medium and strong makes this place feel damp.
This is the type of landscape that the Reivers would have come to, to hide for the night with their stolen cattle. I walk a little along the patch of grass that separates the road from the brook and experience the darkness more fully. Yes, they would have sheltered for the night here, small hidden dip that it is, in the view of no one, keeping their cattle and horses soothed for the night, their prisoners silent. That’s if they had prisoners because killing the opposing family or clan was not an unusual occurrence.
I walk the other way, out of the safety of the back of the van. A small rough track goes down to some kind of animal shelter. The gate has been smashed in, probably by the weather. And then I come back up, look at the small forested edge to my left and shudder. The Community had much to lose but they had much to fear as well, for it was not only Vikings that were dangerous. Boars, wolves and bears lived in the wild. I look up to a moon that is set free by escaping clouds, wonder at the moon-glow that emanates from it, that lights the grass, the trees and gorse all around. If there were wolves out here, they would be howling their song now the moon is shining brightly. I’ve experienced it on top of the Golan Heights, a haunting yet beautiful sound, when the wolves stayed inside the shadows of the trees but walked us back behind the barbed wire fences of the border kibbutz, back to where we belonged.
I stand at the side of the van a few moments, looking into darkness, and then I turn to the back and something makes me jump. On reflection, it may have been the bicycle rack on the back of the van, shining in the moonlight. I’d forgotten there was something behind the corner and a flash of it may have made me think somebody was there. But the thought of something being there, whatever that something is, has lodged into psyche. The mind plays tricks in the darkness. Things appear that aren’t there, or at least that’s the safest way to think about it.
Sara Maitland, in ‘A Book of Silence’, writes beautifully about all aspects of silence and solitude. Today’s society, she says, does much to avoid silence at all levels. “Silence is terrifying, unnatural and drives people mad. Silence is supposed to be very dark, very heavy.” As for the woods all around me; these are the places of demons and fear. Many people do not like to be in forests or woods. They’ll sail over high seas, climb mountains and run marathons, but the terror of the wild wood, those stories of witches and wolves, with the natural eye-line blockaded in all directions, makes the woods and forests a shuddering place where many will not dare to venture.
I’m lucky. I have an option. And so I climb into the van and pull down the blinds, to escape both the wind and my imagination.