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A Sassenach's Stravaig
Monday 29 June 2009 -- Mosspaul

One of the motivators for me to set off on my journeyings was David Dimbleby's TV series, A Picture of Britain, which dealt with the art and artists associated with different regions. Those visual aspects have not disappointed, as I hope some of my photographs show. Also, I've remarked before on how this trip is making new connections in my mind between people, places and history.

What I have not talked about much is the literary connections I'm making. They're not hard to find, indeed there are books about the subject, but I have not taken much notice of them before. Nonetheless, they add another layer of linkages to what I see, another dimension to explore.

Mosspaul InnWhere I am at the moment gives a good example. I'm staying at a five-van site at Mosspaul, in Roxburghshire. It's behind a restaurant, formerly a coaching inn and before that, reportedly, a monastery. (There's a page about its history, here, on Electric Scotland.)

Behind the inn on the other side is a former bothy. These are traditional small cottages or bunkhouses for communal use such as for walkers or agricultural workers, often left unlocked. This one is now a private house. The owner, Dave, earns his living from making wooden jumps for use at gymkhanas. It's quite horsey around here.

The inn sits on the border between the old Scottish counties of Roxburghshire and Dumfries. These names officially disappeared in 1996, the two counties being swallowed up by Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway respectively. There are signs for each on the roadside, either side of the inn and facing each other, showing that you're entering the relevant county. The odd thing is they're about 100 yards apart. Presumably the inn is in no-man's land.

In the lower part of the sign for the Scottish Borders is the message that it's "Scotland's Leading Short Break Destination" (their italics). The sign for Dumfries and Galloway informs people that it's "First in Scotland". Not if you're heading for England it isn't.

Who dreams up these dopey tag lines and, more to the point, what chump thought them necessary? You see them everywhere, sitting grinning under the formal name of some place or official body.

Just as well there isn't a place called Forsyth. Its civic leaders would probably have the local council's vans painted with the slogan, "Nice to see you. To see you, nice." (Despite his Scottish-sounding name, 'Brucie' comes from Edmonton, north London.)

Road to LangholmThe inn is in the Teviotdale valley, being surrounded by grass-covered (and sheep-covered) hills, through which run both the A7 road and the Mosspaul Burn. And that's it. There's nothing else to see -- just road, green hills, sheep, a stream, and the inn and bothy. It's not the sort of place for people who need urban stimuli.

Two miles south of the inn, the Mosspaul Burn joins the Blackhall Burn to form a rivulet, Ewes Water. Despite its name, this is nothing to do with ovine micturition. As if to reinforce the point, the first word is pronounced "ooze", not "use". It flows into the River Esk at Langholm, known locally as the "Muckle Town", i.e. the big town.

At one time the inn was called Halfway House because of its situation between Hawick ("Hoyick") to the north and Langholm, slightly closer at 10 miles' distance to the south. In the days before motor cars and smooth, hard-surfaced roads, travel was slow, arduous and damned uncomfortable. Reaching such a spot would have lifted the spirits and eased the nether regions.

Famous visitors to the inn included William Wordsworth, inevitably accompanied by his sister Dorothy, and, more than once, the young William Gladstone and his wife. Another famous guest was Sir Walter Scott but then he lived not far away.

Miss Wordsworth described the place thus in her Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland A.D. 1803:

We saw a single stone house a long way before us, which we conjectured to be, as it proved, Moss Paul, the inn where we were to bait [eat]. The scene, with this single dwelling, was melancholy and wild, but not dreary, though there was no tree nor shrub: the small streamlet glittered, the hills were populous with sheep, but the gentle bending of the valley, and the correspondent softness in the forms of the hills were of themselves enough to delight the eye.

It's much the same today as when she visited over 200 years ago (apart from the modern road -- and the telephone wires, the electricity pylons and a dark green blanket of Forestry Commission evergreens to the south-east of the inn.) Her brother, if brought back, would doubtless take vociferously against all the appurtenances of modern life you see now.

Poetry in motionWhen I was at Keswick, I bought a modern paperback version of his Guide to the Lakes, first published anonymously in 1810. It tells you much about the area -- it's a good guidebook even now -- and much about the man. There's even a chapter titled: "Changes, and Rules of Taste for Preventing their Bad Effects". He hated the introduction of the railway to the Lakes, so I wonder what he would have made of this mode of transport (see photograph), especially its livery!

Opening the Carlisle to Edinburgh mainline railway in 1862 took away the coach traffic from Mosspaul and the old inn closed in 1864, falling into ruin after that. It was replaced by the present building in 1900, mainly to meet the needs of the growing army of leisure cyclists. These days it's motorists who call.

Next time I shall dilate further on the theme of writers in Britain, starting with those in this part of the Borders.

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