Thursday, 7 April 2011

Exciting Border Reiver Tour

The Border Reivers are one of the most interesting parts of British history and one of the least promoted or advertised. Of course people have tried and there is a well marked tourist trail, several good books and a few museums. But if anyone wants to understand what is going on in Afghanistan, look no further than what happened between England and Scotland from the 14th to predominantly the 17th Century, but with odd outbursts of violence into the 1800's.

Even today there is a little angst in the border communities. Certain things are never mentioned, family names are instantly identifiable and linked with their murdering ancestors and the countryside still has a feel of menace to it.

That's why I was looking forward to driving the this tour, with a local historian as a guide. Having done the local school run, I put on my Wallace tartan tie and feeling misguided pride swelling up in my half Scottish bones, drove over the top of the hill towards the meeting point at Lanercost, near Brampton in Cumbria. There you will find a fantastic tea room:

next to a beautiful 12th century red stoned priory.

The weather was moody. One side of the valley was bathed in sunshine. The valley floor was a contrast of greys and blues and various shades of yellows and greens. The other side of the valley looked like the entrance to the gates of hell. A wall of black clouds stretched as far as the eye could see. It had rained heavily during the night. The rivers were swollen and the roaring water was the colour of drinking chocolate. The River Esk at the border town of Longtown was out of control and had burst its banks. The power of nature was admirable, particularly in the knowledge that we were observing from the safety of the bus.

The trip was fascinating. Tom Moss, the local historian was a knowledgeable speaker. Tale of Johnny Armstrong, Kinmont Willie, Lang Sandy, the Murderous Robsons, Adam Scott the King of Thieves the romance, the suspense, the tales of deadly deeds, murdering, pillaging and double dealing should have been an amazing experience.

"On the right is Hollows Tower, one of the finest and best preserved peel towers in......." announced the guide over the bus pa system.

"Where?" said a voice from behind.

"Where?" said another frustrated voice.

"I can't see anything," said another.

The inside of the bus with the strange mix of very warm air and damp cool air from outside had defeated the single glazed windows. There was nothing that could be done until we reached our destination, the Clan Armstrong Museum at Langholm, twenty minutes away. But they were experienced tourists and there was plenty of elbow rubbing, creating circular porthole sized areas through which they could see. Though this was not productive, as the Scottish mist was lurking outside the bus and having cleared the window, it was not possible to make out much of the passing landscape.

It brought back the embarrassment of another driver's story of a tour of Germany during the winter, where he didn't see eye to eye with the tour guide. She had ordered him to stick to the programme and go out on a tour of the Black Forest on an atrocious day. The fog was so thick that they never even saw one tree.

In the Borders, it was different. The clouds lifted and revealed a beautiful windy but warm day. Scots Dyke came and went. We passed through the Debateable Land and Liddesdale. Lunch was at the Liddesdale Arms in Newcastleton which serves the finest chips in Britain.

"What do you do to them?" I asked the owner.

"Well I cook them," she replied. Ask a silly I refrained from asking any more. The menu was truly Scottish, haggis fritters, Scotch Broth. Excellent and simple food. In the window of the pub was a poster for an evening with clairvoyants.

"I used to work with a mystic called Madame Zarina," said one of the passengers. "When she came to do a promotion at a shop, she complained that it was too busy - so I told her that she should have predicted this. But she wasn''t pleased and said no one can tell there own future - so I won't be going to see these clairvoyants."

The time flew by. the tour moved on. On to one of the most dramatic castles in Scotland - the Hermitage castle. Seeing it it the middle of nowhere, surrounded by windy, cold hills sends shivers down your spine. A quick tour of Hollows Tower, guided by the 85 year old descendant of Armstrong.

"Watch him," said his helper, "as you drive away. he will give you the final curtain." As we passed him he bend his right elbow and smacked his left arm onto hih right arm. It was the Armstrong motto he was re-enacting, not some continental obscenity, we were later told.

Back to base and a satisfying end to the tour. In the words of the Lament Of A Border Widow;

'Nae living man I'll love again
Since that my lovely knight was slain
Wi'a lock of his yellow hair
I'll claim my heart for evermair.'

The romance did not last long. "You're late," said the passenger as I raced to do the Carlisle return service.

Give me a Border Reiver anyday.

No comments:

Post a Comment