Wednesday 24 November 2010

Bewitching tales

Some of my school chums went to Durham University, girls I used to visit for long weekends when I was an undergraduate. It was a super opportunity to explore a part of the country I did not know that well - Northern England and the Scottish borders. There is still a wonderful romance that clings to so many places here, an echo of old, unhappy, far off times and battles long ago.

One of the places we went to was Flodden Edge, the site of the camp of an invading Scottish army in 1513 led by King James IV in person. The battle of the same name wasn’t actually fought here but a little further to the north at Branxton, where the Scots were defeated, and the king killed, by an English force led by the Earl of Surrey. There was only the three of us that day on the hill of Flodden, a lonely, almost haunted place, with the wind whistling lightly through the trees. We came across a spring, muddied and covered in leaves, with a stone surround carrying the following inscription;

Drink, weary pilgrim ; drink and stay
Rest by the well of Sybil Grey.

Apparently the structure was commissioned in the 1880s by Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford, the words referring to an incident in Walter Scott’s poem Marmion, his Homeric epic on the Battle of Flodden. The old spring was the place the poet was thought to have had in mind when describing the death of Lord Marmion, the Scottish knight, offered water by a ministering angel in his last extremity.

There is another place associated with Walter Scott we came across, further north and across the border. Here the romance is at the most intense, the ghosts of the long Anglo-Scottish wars the longest lingering. And the past is nowhere better symbolised for me than at Smailholm Tower in the wild, bleak, impossibly romantic countryside close to the town of Kelso. Scott, whose family farmed land nearby, knew and loved Smailholm as a boy. To see it is to love it, to love the old legends of witches by night and reivers by day. To see it is also to understand life on what was once a dangerous frontier.

Smailholm is not a castle, not the sort of place that could ever have withstood a siege. Rather it’s a bolt hole, a kind of fall-out shelter, originally built in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. From the top one has an excellent view of the local countryside for miles around, now a scenic pleasure, once an essential safeguard. From there an early warning could be given at the approach of English raiders, pouring over the border from Northumberland. On these occasions it was better to be inside than out!

Scott mentions Smailholm twice in his poetry, in The Eve of Saint John and again in Marmion. The Tower is a wonderful and evocative reminder of a strange and violent past, captured superbly in Scott’s epic;

And still I thought that shattered tower
The mightiest work in human power
And marvelled, as the aged hind
With some strange tale bewitched my mind
Of forayers, who, with headlong force,
Down from that strength had spurred their horse,
Their southern rapine to renew,
Far in the distant Cheviots blue,
And, home returning, filled the hall
With revel, wassail-rout and brawl
Methought that still with tramp and clang
The gateway's broken arches rang;
Methou lit grim features, seamed with scars,
Glared through the window's rusty bars.
And ever by the winter hearth,
Old tales I heard of woe or mirth,
Of lovers' sleights, of ladies' charms,
Of witches' spells, of warriors' arms…

Of witches’ spells and warriors’ charms and lovers’ dreams, the wonders of a country in romance, beguiling, enduring, eternal.


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  2. Nowadays, the Scots reivers bypass the northern counties and head straight for London to work their mischief. A few counter-raids would not go amiss to keep them in their place.

    I love the border country, and enjoyed exploring its lonely places when I was about your age. Sir Walter made it romantic, but life must have been brutally hard there in the days of the mini-Ice Age; it is bleak enough today, when the northeast gales scream across the sea from Scandinavia. I have wondered whether Wm. Shakespeare ever ventured so far north before composing the Scottish Play.

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  4. Calvin, the answer is no! Almost all of his history plays are based on information taken from chronicles, particularly that of Holinshead. But Macbeth owes much more to the imagination...with a spot of royal flattery thrown in. The depictions of witchcraft are lifted straight from James I's book Daemonologie.

  5. Well, that's a very confident assertion! While I'm aware that there is plenty of evidence that he had extant sources available as his source material for much of his work, I don't see how that precludes the existence of other sources - including personal experience! There are a lot of uncertainties about Shakespeare's life. I don't think it's unreasonable to speculate that during some of the blanks he might have found time to visit parts of the country other than Southwark and Stratford-upon-Avon.

  6. Confident, that's one half of my personality summed up. The other half is made up of conceit! Speculation is perfectly reasonable; I do it all the time.