The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
The Security of Strong Walls
By Scottish travel writer Gilbert Summers,
who wonders if a fortified town really has a special meaning for him.
If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.
So many generations, my Scottish east-coast fisher-folk ancestors, stretching back in time. They lived long in spite of their perilous trade — barely making a living amid the treachery of the North Sea’s uncertain weather. The men sailed in, hauled open boats on to an open shore (at least at first), and threw their catches to their dogged wives. They in turn, cleaned the fish, then hawked them round the countryside, as far as they could go on a day’s journey — in between baiting lines, gathering bait and rearing children.
There was no romance here — only the endless struggle with the sea and the grasping landlords. These were my people of long ago — on my father’s side, at least — before they quit the sea — and I’m proud, I suppose, of what must have been the resolute acceptance of their lot.
They must have been aware of many things we barely notice — nuances of clouds, directions of sea swell, distant landmarks on shore; in short, navigation and survival by near-instinct. These vanished ancestors may be the reason why I am happiest by the sea, unsettled by an easterly off the Firth and get preoccupied by the shape of clouds while painting skies.
So far, so rational. Perhaps if my ancestors sailed by the stars and sun, then some kind of folk memory explains the quirks in the way that I react in my rural environment. I too like to know the wind direction. I just do. But what of other echoes, other images in the mind that are less easily explained?
The bed is rough-cut wood; in fact, the tree bark is still on its supports. Heather or twiggy, ferny material covers it. There is no mattress. I see this in detail because I am small, apprehensive and trying to squeeze under this bed. I keep repeating the phrase ‘Here come the troops; here come the troops.’
I am trying to hide, because, beyond the darkness of the house interior, framed by the door-less entrance, I am watching men on horseback, picking their way carefully down a heather-clad (and therefore Scottish?) hillside. They approach carefully, turning their horses this way and that to find the easiest route to the grazing fields of the valley floor. They are relentlessly coming my way and they do not seem friendly. A childhood terror may face me when these horsemen reach the house. That is all I can tell you of the image. But it’s vivid. The weather is grey, the floor earthen and I smell the wood.
Now, I have been lucky enough to have had a career that involved writing about Scotland. Quite a lot of time it did not involve writing what I wanted to say, but there was a mortgage to pay and a client brief to fulfil. Naturally, I travel to just about everywhere hereabouts. That’s easy. After all, Scotland is a small country, though with extraordinary diversity in short distances.
So, you might say it’s a place with atmosphere, with special characteristics brought about by topography, meteorology, light and, inevitably, what you know of local history. (Hey, it all makes for great pictures.)
Setting aside my odd image of horsemen for a moment, my feelings towards two separate and real locations became linked in my mind, one day, not very long ago. The first was the Scottish Borders, south of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, and my attitude towards parts of this perfectly attractive area. The Borders are picturesque — rolling hills, wooded river valleys, towns with lots of character and great traditions of celebrating horsemanship and community spirit. I’ve supplied plenty of copy about it to all kinds of clients over the years. You’d like it there.
But that doesn’t mean I have to like the area. In fact, I always drive away with a sense of relief. I am ill at ease in some of the towns. No, I won’t name them. The domed hills above them are faceless, giving nothing away, while the valleys oppress. (Look, I said you’d really like it there. Trust me. I’m a guide-book writer. But that’s my sharing of a secret — there’s a little chunk of Scotland that bothers me.)
The second perception is different — though equally irrational. And I’m just going to have to look you in the eye and say it. In times of stress and trouble in my life (in the past), I’ve always had a hankering, an irrational urge, to head for a certain town. Yes, it’s crazy — especially when I admit it’s called Berwick-upon-Tweed. Any Scots (and even some English people) reading this can now shake their heads and remind me that, uhmm, Berwick isn’t even in Scotland.
Oh, sure, historically it has been from time to time — in fact, some say it changed hands between Scotland and England at least 13 times up to the mid-15th century. But when the Scots and English finally got over their Border wars, Berwick-upon-Tweed, at the mouth of the river that marks the border, at least in part, ended up in England. (It’s soccer and rugby teams plays in a Scottish league, oddly enough though!)
Please do not bring this to the attention of any of my publishers or other clients in Scotland, but one of my favorite Scottish towns is in England, if only by a mile or two. I feel at home there. I seem to know by instinct where the little alleys run — the shortcuts between streets and down to the walls. Ah, yes, the walls. Berwick-upon-Tweed has the finest surviving Elizabethan fortifications anywhere in Scotland or England. Strong fortifications these, with clever loopholes allowing defending gunners to rake the front with cannon and shot. These are stout walls like cliffs, giving the defenders confidence and security. Gun-ports command the river estuary. No vessels can approach unnoticed.
I’ll tell you how much I like Berwick-upon-Tweed. It’s the only place I can think of where, if I can’t get my favorite seat at the window in the cafe-restaurant that overlooks the rooftops and the river, then I feel quite indignant. (It’s called The Maltings. I thought you’d want to know. But keep clear of that tiny high table right in the corner.)
One day, it suddenly hit me. Perhaps I am so fond of, and feel so comfortable in, Berwick-upon-Tweed because it was for centuries a real place of safety or refuge. Armies fought their way through it. Families from the countryside around it must have fled there in times of war. Perhaps even that little boy — whoever he was, escaped in the nick of time, fled over the moor as the roof burned, and came to Berwick. Or perhaps those men on horseback in my mind were Border reivers, the families who raided across the Border — from both sides — in olden days. And that was why I irrationally do not feel comfortable in some parts of the Scottish Borders.
But what does all this mean: these odd associations with places? (Even as I write this, I’m asking myself why I have always been frightened of horses.) My rational explanation is that sometimes real but distant memories get mixed-up with long-ago imagined incidents or even some memory of a dream from childhood. So, in an unconscious effort to explain my image — wherever it came from — I just connected two real places around the Scottish Borders.
You may, if you wish, prefer to believe that I had somehow tuned in to an incident in the old warlike days of Scotland. For me, as I order another coffee and admire the view of the Royal Border Bridge spanning the River Tweed, the psychology of it all defies definition. Those fisherfolk, my ancestors, far to the north with no connections to Border conflicts, would tell me just to watch the weather and look over the bows, to what lies ahead. The past has no landmarks we can trust.
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Gilbert Summers has spent much of his career supplying information on Scotland to tourist organisations and publishers at home and overseas. His website scotlandinaweek.com is an honest account of his homeland.