ONE has pictured a border scene as a
hill, a road, and a water. This is not more graphic than true. So much was
laid bare on the thinning out of the olden forest. It scarce matters which
way one turns, which glen one enters, the road is along the lower slope or
the level bank. The hill is above and the stream below.
So it is in Peeblesshire. The whole
county is made up of the stream, with its attendant roads and environing
hills. Elsewhere an accident, skirting the border or crossing a corner, here
it is the vital current. Feeders enter from the side glens. Some of these
glens are ruder than the rest, but all may be simplified into hill, road,
and water. The stream is the Tweed.
From Peebles to Ashestiel is a
characteristic stretch. The scene gathers more closely in.. The banks may
broaden into the green haugh; the hills may eddy round a meadowland where
graze a few sheep. Only to narrow back till the road finds but scant room
over a spur, worn sheer by the chafing water.
Albeit classic, it is still a byway.
It is not overrun. It is scarce a tourist’s land. The visitors are American
rather than Scots; perhaps German rather than American. Humiliating enough,
but so it is. Even our kinsmen across the water do not much affect this
stretch, but hurry it over to get to Abbotsford, Melrose, and Dryburgh. Down
there are the "lions."
It is not objective enough. It selects
its visitors just as good literature selects its readers, and good drama its
audience. It is not like the Tay—the other notable Scots river. It is not so
majestic, so robust. It has not its roll, its sweep. It is not so
impressive, perhaps not so picturesque. It does not lend itself to effects.
It is subjective and feminine, more refined and intellectual. Its appeals
are spiritual. Its spell must be felt. And holiday makers have no time for
that: they come to see. No hotels dot its banks as along the course of the
Tay. The tourist blight does not rest on the scene.
Nor on the people. They are singularly
themselves. Therein lies the difference between highland and upland, between
gael and borderer. The strong character acquired through a rude past resists
change. As current into pool, so the free wild flow of history has stilled
into independence, not loud but deep. Conditions have changed,
not men; at least not much. The same
spirit finds a more restricted play in gentler times, and seeks expression
in other ways.
The borderer is grim of
humour and reserved even to stand-offishness. He were the last to grovel who
- by the ordinary standards - is sometimes not quite civil. Temptations,
which have beset others and taught them meannesses, are absent. Had they
been present, it would have made little difference. The disposition is not
there. A rude husk hides the kernel. It does not readily drop off. So hardly
does it split that some have thought all was husk. That is a mistake.
Exceptions there may be. I speak of men as I have found them; not once, but
through many seasons, and under divers conditions. I have known the husk and
also the kernel.
In soft murmurs the stream
goes by, kissing the green haughs and swishing the long watergrasses. In
faultless curves it journeys on before. Mood passes into mood in a cycle of
changes, without abruptness; the old mood still returning to pass again. I
say mood because, amid so much that is subjective, one finds it hard to draw
a line between self and scene. Grave or gay, neath sun or cloud. Never
boisterous, only breaking into soft low laughter. Nor yet very sad, at most
Current comes into being in
shallow ripples, quickens into a lively flow, tempered by the shadows in the
hollows. Slowly, very slowly, it softens into pools, and the last low
murmurs pass out of hearing. At the line of seeming stillness which yet is
not still, the pool breaks into ghostly ripples, deepening to the line of
motion across the height of the current.
Some unerring hand might have
moulded all this, so faultless in its balance. Some exquisite soul might
have set the flow to such rhythm. Among Scots streams it stands first. After
the Tweed all seem unbalanced and out of tune. A bar here and there, a
perfect note breaking forth, current gathering into pool, or, it may be, a
stretch where pool and current alternate. Some graceful sweep which charms
the eye and leads it onward. And then a break, a jar, a rude rush, or long
pause. Ripple without music, and stillness without poetry.
Rings chase the pool into the
last touch of charm. So trout may be regarded less as something to fish for
than as artists of the stream. From the centre of the widening circles they
sink back into the restfulness of the pool. I have lain on the green haughs
and watched them at their purposeful play, while the moments flew by
unheeded. So long as the aesthetic sense kept awake was no thought of blood;
the savage was asleep. That, too, is a mood sacred to the Tweed.
There are rifts in the lute,
jars in the melody; but only few, and not characteristic. The stream strikes
against some jutting spur and swirls round in a false curve, or at some too
sudden bend cuts into the bank, forming a false eddy. Beyond, the stream is
itself again, to pass on in a long succession of pool and current.
The pools have names. Names
do not grow in a day. The oldest inhabitant was not at the christening, nor
in the oldest tradition, as far as I know, is any account of the origin.
These names are used by Tweedside men when they meet on the far side of the
globe and exchange fishing experiences, not necessarily apocryphal. They do
not lie, at least to one another; they are too seasoned for that. And leave
boasting to beardless boys, who soon acquire the reserve of their elders. As
a St. Andrews man with a cleek, so each is born with a rod in his hand.
Their stories they tell with a certain grim humour to strangers. The exact
moral complexion is best shown by an example, which will find its way in by
Of one pool I have delightful
memories. Through many a border twilight, and far into the mystic border
night have I lingered there, The hills come very close, to lend a deeper
shadow to the summer dark. Along the face of the protruding spur the stream
flows straight and still. The road overhangs. Where the spur curves back and
the bank bends away is a strip of trees. The wood may be the remnant of
far-spreading hazels of long ago. Very like. It gives the name to the
Less than half a mile down is
"the boat-pool." No boat is there now, nor is any tale of a boat. The name
alone lingers to tell of what was, and will remain as long as the stream
flows. As they have received it, so will anglers and children hand it down.
The dwellers in the little hamlet on the broad haugh must have crossed,
generation after generation, time out of mind. Then the bridge was built a
little further down. Bridge and pool tell the story.
Among the trees on the far
side is Traquair. When the Scottish sovereigns lived mainly on the border,
this was their chief residence; part of the still older castle is said to be
built in with the old house. They hunted here. It was a rich, full, cheery
place. Game abounded, of which the scene knows nothing now. Six hundred head
were killed on one day.
Tweed boasted three mighty
tenants in the persons of a fish, a rodent, and a carnivore. It must have
been a drama of no common interest when the autumn-ascending fish of the
virgin stream splashed over the beaver embankment, while the otter swam,
back and fore, along the upper side in wait. Or when the carnivore, on his
way up from the fishing-ground in the early morning, had to dodge the
falling tree, whose bole the chisel rodent teeth had cut through in the
night. Not for four hundred years has the Tweed witnessed anything of the
Unchecked by the beaver dam,
current and pool were left between the salmon and the otter. Happy days of
untrammelled play, out of which so much that is interesting is evolved. What
rushes of gallant fish breasted the current or lit the pool with their
silver sheen, the otter notwithstanding.
There would be a boat to
cross the pool, to where game was, or retainers dwelt. The name may date
back thus far. The boat would remain as the village grew and the castle
crumbled. The patch of wood by the higher pool may be a remnant of the
forest, under whose noontide shadow the deer sheltered, and whose boles the
beaver chiselled that the trees might fall across the stream.
Below Traquair, the Tweed has
its sharpest bend. It runs straight into the hillside. The road is perched a
hundred feet above the stream. I have seen big fish taken under Plora Hill -
old fish too, as though the patriarchs of the stream in their weariness
sought refuge from the current.
Into the pool a tributary
trickles in summer and rushes in winter. It issues from a bare, wild glen;
but bare as it is and wild, I have pleasant visions of it. The "baa" of a
sheep brings the heart to the mouth, so lone is it. A small, wiry, tanned
man had possession. Most summer days he was there, with no companion save
his rod. A borderer wants no other, and rather resents the intrusion of a
third. In glaring July sunshine, when the water scarce covered the stones,
he fished the stream.
In all my visions of the
place he is there, wading in mid-current ; nor is it likely that I shall
ever get -him out of the picture. He had the defects as well as the
qualities of the district. One day, early in our acquaintance, I overtook
him, casting in a not-to-be-denied way; he always fished with bait. "Had he
taken anything?" "Ay, a basketful!" The basket in question sat lightly on
his shoulders. In league with its master it looked grave, as though it were
stuffed. Like the blotches on the moon, the signs of wear gave it an almost
human expression. I half suspected it of relaxing into a wink when my back
was turned. A strange trio, whom long fellowship had brought to a perfect
understanding, were the basket, the rod, and the man. The angler went on
casting, hooked a trout, and waded to the side to land it. I heard it fall
through space and strike against the straw bottom. It was the first.
"I sent them home by a boy."
This he said with the look of irony the borderer keeps for a stranger. So
his forbears might have said to one who asked if he had lifted cattle. It
might be so. He was equal to filling a basket out of any water, only the
glen is narrow at the mouth, and I had seen no boy. There was no
boastfulness, no special desire that I should think that he was telling the
truth; rather, perhaps, to the contrary. Therein is the peculiar moral
complexion. We got to know each other better ; and he would have gone many
miles to show me good water.
The names of the tributaries
have a meaning. Like that of the main stream, these were given by an
imaginative folk. They are a picture, a tale in miniature. "Quair" means
green. "Lyne," the stream of linns or pools. "Manor," the stream of the
pebbly channel. This was the Leithen, which tells something of the rudeness.
The stream dominates as in
the Tweed. It is not so in the north. One talks of going up the Leithen. The
character gives its name to the glen. It is the stream that has linns, or is
stony. In the remoter feeders the order is reversed. The stream is lost, or
is only part. The ways that wander among the hills are known as "hopes"; it
is a border name, or mainly so. Many of these hopes are nameless. I tried to
name some of them according to what I found there, but modern imagination is
of little use. Often nothing grew higher than the ferns. Here and there a
patch of wood darkened the slope. In the solitude, as of a treeless forest,
were no red deer. The bark of the roebuck came from the far distance.
Still closer the hills gather
in on the main valley. The scene is increasingly wild. There comes a
stretch, solitary as the most contemplative could wish, with no rival in
sight to put a ripple on the angler's spirit. The road is on the far side,
for the simple reason that there is no room for it on this.
By a dark wood is a still
pool. So dense, so almost pitchy dark the wood, that it is not sought even
as shelter from the midday heat. The shadow oppresses, as does the
atmosphere of heavy deeds. It is Elibank, in the centre of raidland, with
many a rude tale to tell.
On the bare slope beyond, is
a border keep. It is in ruin; a scene of jagged walls. An arch is over the
lower story, whither the cattle were driven for safety when the beacon fires
were lit. Now it is lifeless-save when the stoat brings a rabbit, surprised
on the edge of the wood; or the fox hides, to watch the covey of grouse out
on the heather.
The Tweed surges round a
grassy islet. It stills into another pool, where it is good to fish, or
simply to loiter. Many an hour, through many an autumn, have I cast, and
looked, and dreamed. There is so much beside fishing : the dark wood of
Elibank; the ruined keep with its vaulted lower story for the cattle,
sometimes stolen; the rude traditions; the hill, the road, and the stream.
Ay, and something more.
One may not get further that
way. The bank is rough, with the clinging trees, down to where the branches
dip into the Tweed. On the steep, and among the trees, is Scott's early
border home, where oft he sat
Gazing down the steepy
That hems our little garden in.
Here he spent the poetic
years in which he made Scotland the joy of nations. Strangely enough, not
the Scotland he loved; and of which he strove to have a little to call his
own. His objective genius found ruder effects elsewhere, which took hold of
the popular imagination. Bright colours and strong contrasts were better
than subtle blending and wizard work, and of these he was master. So it came
about that, all unwitting perhaps, he did more for the Teith than for the
blended floods of Yarrow and Ettrick, which flowed into the Tweed, just
beyond his house.
Men talk of Loch Katrine, not
of St. Mary's. For one who follows the ride of William of Deloraine, a
thousand follow that of Fitz-James. Topheavy coach loads swing out from
Callander; and one passenger, with stronger memory than the rest, rolls
forth the epic to eager ears as they go along. While only the solitary
pedestrian is on the border road. Glen Artney to the Trossachs is classic
ground for the multitude.
The uplands and vale of the
Tweed are mystic only to the few. Remove Ashestiel and the more famed house
lower down, and few would go for what he wrote-say for "The Lay of the Last
Minstrel." Few Scotsmen; all rush north. The quiet strikes one sadly, but
not altogether unpleasantly. It is better so: all is more as Scott left, and
loved it. It might have been better for the Teith also. Less popular, the
Trossachs would have been wilder, Loch Katrine more charming; it might not
even have attracted the attention of Glasgow. Men look on what they have
Among the uplands I have
wandered for days in high summer, when all were abroad, and found no one.
Save for a few Germans, with whom I hobnobbed, as those do who are of a like
mind and on the same quest. And so we came to Abbotsford and fell among the
ordinary cranks, who like to see where everybody who is talked about
lived-what kind of furniture he had, and whether there was a chance of
taking anything away.
From Peebles to Abbotsford
measures, perhaps, the range of border literature, leaving some ballads
outside. Within the same limits are included the changes in border wild
life. Fence in the hillsides from grazing sheep, and the scene will tell its
own story. No need to plant; trees will spring up of themselves. It is not
so with wild creatures, which, once banished, do not appear so readily.
When Peebles was young, the ablest and most interesting
of the Stewarts - whose attachment to Jane Beaufort, formed during his long
captivity in England, is one of the romances of history -wrote of a medieval
fair day when from enclosed wood and forest the country folk issued to
"Peebles to the Play." What wild creatures were startled from the way, or
drawn to the edge of the trees by their rude laughter, they were too much
taken up with themselves to see. This was from 1423 to 1436. From Ashestiel
in 1807 Scott wrote :
The scenes are desert now and bare,
Where flourished once a forest fair.
Yon lonely thorn, would he could tell
The changes of his parent dell,
What pines on every mountain sprung,
O'er every dale what birches hung.
Here in my shade, methinks he'd say,
The mighty stag at noontide lay,
The wolf I've seen, a fiercer game,
(The neighbouring dingle bears his name,)
With lurching step around me prowl,
And stop against the moon to howl.
The mountain boar on battle set,
His tusks upon my stem would whet;
What doe, and roe, and red deer good,
Have bounded by from gay green wood.