The Marches by Rory Stewart

The Marches cover

The Marches Border Walks With My Father by Rory Stewart was published in 2016. It’s a mixture of history, geography and personal memories and meanders through various topics. The original plan was that Rory Stewart and his elderly father would have a last long walk together, the length of Hadrian’s Wall, but it was soon obvious that his father Brian Stewart didn’t have the stamina to do much walking at all, so the plan had to be changed. This is the story of Rory Stewart’s 600 mile, 30 day journey along the length of Hadrian’s Wall and then north up to his father’s house in Crieff, Perthshire – the beginning of the Scottish Highlands. From time to time his father drives to meet up with him and we’re told a lot about Brian Stewart’s wartime experiences and his subsequent career as a British colonial official and then an intelligence officer, apparently the equivalent of ‘Q’ in James Bond terms. His father was very proud of his Scottish heritage, but sounded so southern English as they both constantly call each other ‘darling’. The closest a real Scottish man of his father’s vintage would have come to a term of endearment to his son is – son.

There are a lot of references to Rory Stewart’s time in Afghanistan, but on his walk he meets up with a lot of people as he criss-crossed the Borders several times on his route. I enjoyed his meetings with people and the landscape, but then he mentioned a ‘fact’ that I knew for certain was wrong, and that made me question the entire book. He writes: I was now standing up to my waist in the water that marked the line of the final break between the kingdoms of England and Scotland. In 1286, racing to visit his mistress, the Scottish king had fallen from a cliff….. Wrong! The king was King Alexander III and just about everyone must know that he fell off his horse and died just outside Kinghorn in Fife in 1286 when his horse stumbled in the dark as he was riding home to his wife during bad weather. There’s even a monument to mark the spot of the disaster. I posted about the monument here. No cliff involved – no mistress involved and the nearest water is the Firth of Forth not the Solway Firth which is the water that Rory Stewart was standing in.

When writing about the WWI munitions factories he tells how many Germans were probably killed by the dynamite manufactured there, perhaps hundreds of thousands, but neglects to mention the women who made the stuff and often died lingering deaths from the close contact with cordite, and often were blown up in accidents during the process.

He got William Wallace’s execution wrong too.

Apart from things like that Stewart’s political opinions got in the way, and they’re unsurprising for a Conservative. He’s against re-wilding and all for intensive farming.

He seems disappointed when he says that:
I had been walking for twenty days through one of the most remote, sparsely populated parts of Britain, and I am yet to meet anyone who has not travelled outside the United Kingdom. Nine out of ten people had apparently not been born in the village in which they now live. But almost everyone insists on their ‘local’ heritage.

That gives the impression that he expected the plebs to stay where they were born and have no inclination or ability to move or better themselves – or take a foreign holiday.

He’s surprised to meet people who are proud to be honorary Scots despite having been born in England or elsewhere, these people often turn out to be more Scottish than the Scots. It has always been like that and we welcome them all, so long as they embrace our culture and don’t try to change us. It’s strange that he’s surprised by this as since he became an MP for a Cumbrian (north of England) constituency he has obviously fallen in love with Cumbria (for the moment anyway) and if he said it once he must have said it five times – The Cumbrian author George MacDonald Fraser. That author may have been born in Carlisle but I’m sure he regarded himself as a Scot.

As you can see the book annoyed me in parts, not least because of the emphasis on his father with little mention of his mother, however he did mention at the end that his wife and his mother had wanted to keep a low profile so that’s fair enough.

I think what it comes down to is that people who have been ‘brought up’ by their boarding school instead of their family never shake off that upbringing and it has the most influence on their character. Rory Stewart went to Eton – and it shows.

John Muir, Dunbar, East Lothian

On our trip to Dunbar last month to visit the battlefield – such as it is almost 500 years after the fact – we stopped off at the actual town of Dunbar which is in East Lothian about 30 miles east of Edinburgh. The High Street there boasts the birthplace of John Muir and although we had often been to the small coastal town, we hadn’t been into the birthplace museum, so we rectified that this time around. As you can see below it’s a rather spiffing looking Scottish Georgian building.

John Muir Birthplace, Dunbar

What a disappointment when we got inside though. The whole building has been stripped back so there’s really nothing left to see of the internals, apart from a hole where a fireplace must have been once. I assume that it must have been riddled with dry rot and it was easier and much cheaper just to scrape everything away down to the bare stonework, no floors or ceilings left. You can go upstairs but it is modern and is almost as if another building has been built within the original one. It’s such a shame as there’s no ambience at all and it’s impossible to imagine how it was in John Muir’s day.

I took a photo of an embroidery sampler which I believe was supposed to have been done by his mother, sorry about the reflections. I have a couple very similar to this one, but mine have the embroiderers name on them – as most do.

John Muir's birthplace, embroidery Sampler

You might be asking who John Muir was, I think he’s possibly better known within the USA than in his country of birth. He was a writer, explorer, naturalist and environmental campaigner and was years ahead of his time, realising that humans were damaging natural environments, and seeing that something had to be done – he is seen as the ‘Father of National Parks’.

Like most coastal towns Dunbar isn’t what it used to be, people would rather go on holiday to Spain than brave the icy waters of the North Sea, but it’s still a scenic area, you can see more photos of the area here.

There’s now a walk called The John Muir Way which stretches 134 miles from Helensburgh (one of my favourite areas) in the west of Scotland to Dunbar in East Lothian. That’s even longer than Hadrian’s Wall is and if I ever get around to a long walk like that I think I’d rather do the wall, if not the West Highland Way. Click the links if you want to see some stunning images of the walks.

The Spirit of Hadrian’s Wall

I was just supposed to be taking books back to the library, not looking for any more to borrow, but when I turned away from the counter I was confronted by The Spirit of Hadrian’s Wall – Photographs by Roger Clegg and Words by Mark Richards. It was in a special display so I couldn’t miss it and it was one of those serendipity moments as I had just signed up to do the Hadrian’s Wall course at Futurelearn, obviously I had to borrow it.

It’s a really lovely book with gorgeous atmospheric photographs of the wall and the surrounding area. I imagine it would make a great present for anyone local to Northumberland who would know the subjects well, or just anyone who loves that part of the north of England. The book is mainly photographs but the writing is interesting too.

You can see quite a lot of the inside of the book if you click here.

Hadrian’s Wall

I mentioned in an earlier blogpost that I’m going to be starting a wee course on Hadrian’s Wall later in September. If you are interested it’s not too late to join in. You can enrol here.

The six week course structure looks like this:
Week 1: Welcome to the Wall: An introduction to the Wall, the course and the course team
Week 2: The Roman Army in Britain
Week 3: Frontier communities: Life on the northern frontier from the late 1st to the early 3rd century
Week 4: Ritual, religion and the Roman Wall
Week 5: Conflict, consolidation and renaissance: Life on the Wall in the 3rd and 4th centuries
Week 6: The ending of the Wall

There are more courses available here.

Corbridge Roman Fort

We visited Corbridge in Northumberland during the summer holidays. The Roman remains there are quite extensive although it’s thought that there is still a lot to be found underneath the surrounding fields.

The town which I was brought up in is situated just to the north of the Antonine Wall which was the wall which marked the farthest point of the Roman Empire. They might have managed to get a bit further north but I don’t think there is any proof of that. I’ve always found it really funny that the Romans managed to conquer just about everyone else but the folks of the Dumbarton area were just too much for them to cope with.

So visiting this Roman ruin was a real novelty for us and there is quite a lot to see inside as well as outside. There is an interesting museum on the site which houses a lot of the artefacts which have been dug up from there. It’s well worth going to see if you’re in Northumberland.

Hadrian’s Wall is another great place (thing). It was built by the Romans to stop the Scottish savages from being able to attack the Romans. The first time I went there on a school trip with the Latin/Classical Studies department I couldn’t get over how big the wall is. The Romans must have been very scared of us. I’ve always fancied walking the whole length of it, the whole breadth of the border, but life has somehow got in the way, maybe one day!