Dryburgh – Alistair Moffat

  09 Apr '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

I like yarns, ripping if possible, and in these the strangest of times, the escape offered by reading a ripping yarn is more valuable than ever. Writing one is even more fun! In embarking on this serial, I am so far out of my non-fictional, historical comfort zone that my pants have no seat to fly with. I have never written fiction (at least not consciously) and have no real idea how to do it. And so I have taken the advice of the great Allan Massie. When I asked him what advice he gave to aspiring novelists, he said “Start!’ And so with Dryburgh, I have started. And although I have only the vaguest idea as to where the story is going, I promise to finish and will complete a chapter every three weeks, maybe two if it goes well. I have no idea. And after reading what follows, you might agree.

Alistair Moffat, April 2020


Dryburgh – a novel in parts

1. Moonlight

Under the canopy of the trees, it was black-dark. Through the full leaf of high summer, no light could pierce the oaks and chestnuts and the midnight path was a matter of guesswork. The man moved very slowly. Often stopping, holding his breath, listening for the rustle of movement, sometimes stretching out a hand where he thought a tree trunk might stand in his way, he made slow, hesitant progress. And yet, about a hundred yards away, the man could see where he wanted to go. High, bright and full, the moon lit the night river, glinting silver off the water. But reaching it was taking much longer than he planned and he could not risk a torch.

Earlier that day he had driven up a metalled track used by fishermen to reach the huts on the beats along the riverbank. Certain that he was not observed, the man had opened a gate and carried on along a narrow track, stopped and pulled down a fibreglass kayak off the roof rack. He hid it carefully in a copse of hazel bushes to the right of the woodland track he hoped he was following in that bible-black wood. Edging closer to the moonlit water, groping through the darkness, his feet, not his eyes, suddenly recognised where he was. The last few yards of the track were paved, a memory of its ancient purpose and the time when many walked its length, going about their daily business. Red sandstone paving led to the river’s edge because once it had been a busy ford, the Monksford.

For three lazy, meandering miles the River Tweed flows through sanctity, looping around two ancient monasteries, and in the millennia before bridges, this was the place where monks had forded the great river. Half-forgotten, overgrown and used only by the occasional horse rider, the track had suited his purpose perfectly. Closing the gate quietly behind him that afternoon, pushing aside the branches of hawthorn and dog rose, the man had driven unseen to the clearing in the wood where he could unload his boat, hide it, and turn the Land Rover. But he had no idea that the tree cover would be so dense after nightfall.

Once the man had found the kayak, making as little noise as possible, he dragged it to the edge of the trees. The moonlight was suddenly brilliant, almost dazzling, dancing off the surface as the river turned south to his destination. Wading into the current, having rehearsed that afternoon, he knew that the smooth, slippery paving extended for about twenty yards, sloping gradually. Beyond it, the floods of five hundred winters had swept away the rest of the old ford and gouged a deep channel that was hidden in the dense moon shadows. Once the freezing water reached knee-height, the man expertly steadied the kayak and sat down, rocking it slightly. Paddling quickly across to the far bank and its welcoming darkness, he allowed the current to carry him downstream towards what he hoped would be the solution to a mystery.

What the old soldier had sent him was perplexing. At his funeral, few contemporaries gathered because the old man had outlived almost all of them. It was a sparse, quiet atmosphere in the crematorium chapel but there was one colourful emblem of the past that conjured a memory of a morning of extraordinary valour, a few hours that changed the world. On the coffin lay the old soldier’s regimental Glengarry cap. Navy blue with a red toorie bobble, two long black ribbons at the back, and a red, white and black dicing trim, it bore the gleaming badge of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. He had been amongst the first British soldiers to face the hailstorm of machine-gun fire that whipped across the Normandy beaches in the summer of 1944.

It was the old soldier’s daughter who had first brought them together. At a talk on local Roman antiquities, the man had noticed her immediately. Sitting in the front row, she was a tall, dark 1950s beauty with a slow smile and an easy manner. Afterwards she had made introductions, even though she did not know the man’s name. Perhaps it was only politeness with a newcomer, perhaps it was his imagination, but did she do that to discover who he was? After that first meeting, the man had joined the history society and become friendly with the old soldier. The tone was mostly formal, reticent about anything remotely personal, the conversation usually confined to matters historical. But behind the politeness, there glowed an unstated warmth and great respect.

A week after the funeral, a well-sealed brown envelope arrived from Bruce, Rutherford & Pringle, a firm of local solicitors. A formal letter told the man that their client had wished him to have the enclosed papers. There was a spidery, hand-written letter clipped to a sheet carrying two verses of a poem and a series of photocopies of maps and a drawing.

I know that the sort of ancient history I enjoy bores you, even though you always listened attentively and dutifully read my papers on Roman road-building and burial practices. But in our conversations over the years, I sensed that your real interest was in politics and more recent events. I shared that interest, but while I lived I dared not give voice to my thoughts, not to anyone. The Romans lay at a safe enough distance.

 For decades we have been fed a narrative about the Second World War, its course and its outcome. Not much of it is true, and I think you know that.

But where is the first-hand evidence supporting a different version of history? Where are the accounts of those who witnessed it? They need to be found and made widely known before we who lived it are all dead and dust gathers over closed chapters.

I think I know where the truth can be found, but not exactly where. For the sake of a better future, will you now try to clear away the lies and discover what really happened in the past and how it has indelibly shaped the present?

Much taken aback at such forthright, deeply held views, the man picked up the rest of the package. The note was paperclipped to a photocopy of two verses from Sir Walter Scott’s poem, ‘The Eve of Saint John’.

O fear not the priest, who sleepeth to the east!

For to Dryburgh the way he has tae’n;

And there to say mass till three days to pass,

For the soul of a knight that is slayne.—

The varying light deceived thy sight,

And the wild winds drown’d the name;

For the Dryburgh bells ring, and the

white monks do sing,

For Sir Richard of Coldinghame!

The man had steadied the kayak in the current, keeping to the safety of the shadows of the right bank. Above him, through a thin fringe of trees, he could see the lights of houses twinkling, but to the left were open fields with only sheep to notice his passing. It was long past curfew and its strict rules were policed as much by curtain-twitching watchers as by the authorities. And the moon had made the landscape graphic, like an old black-and-white film.

He paddled under a footbridge where winter spates had piled boulders against the far bank. They glowed in the moonlight as he turned east and then quickly south below stands of tall hardwood trees. They had once bordered the policies of a grand house, now a large hotel, and beyond it lay the ruins of Dryburgh Abbey. Pulling quickly into the moonlit river and over to the left bank, the man felt the keel of his kayak scrape the bottom. Steadying himself with the paddle, he stood up, splashed into the shallows and hauled his boat under the branches of an overhanging tree.

Having scrambled up the bank and back into the safety of the shadows, he came to a drystane wall, and stood on the edge of the abbey precinct – what had come to seem like a giant board game, a landscape of snakes and ladders.

It was clear from Scott’s verses and the attached maps and drawings that the old soldier had been looking for a hiding place of some kind. Quite what it might conceal was unclear. And its precise location was even more unclear. But it was here somewhere, amongst the ruins. Like so many of the great medieval churches, Dryburgh Abbey had been built on ground that was already sacred. Bounded on three sides by a loop of the River Tweed, it had been shaped by geology as a place apart, and a place attractive to those early Christian hermits who wanted to flee the temporal world. Many centuries before the monks came to build the great abbey, a man called Modan had come to Dryburgh.

Leathery old saints like him left behind little more than the echo of their prayers. In places cut off by rivers, seas or mountains from the sins of secular society, they knelt, clasped their hands around their rosaries, chanted, contemplated, fasted and tried to understand the mind of God. Other than rough wooden huts for shelter and stone oratories open to the heavens and to the unblinking sight of God, they left no buildings to mark their passing, no monuments to their profound faith. Nothing remained of Modan at Dryburgh except what had attracted him: the spirit of the place, its natural aura of peace and sanctity. If it was given to men to know the mind of God, then it would be in the stillness under the trees in this loop of the great river that they would come to know it.

Since the old soldier’s death and the arrival of his package, the man had come often to the abbey and begun to understand something not only of its history but also its atmosphere, a sense of otherness. He was careful always to look like a visitor and not an inquisitor. He asked no questions of the guides and carried with him none of the maps and drawings he had been sent. Knowing them by heart, he tried instead to make sense of Scott’s verses. They seemed to be a key. The first verse prompted the man to look in the eastern parts of the abbey church, in the presbytery where the high altar had once stood, against the east wall. That was where priests prayed, but not where they slept. The dormitory was in the east range but the presbytery was where mass was said and sung. None of that made any sense.

Far from making progress that summer, enquiries appeared to be going backwards. On the man’s first visit, he believed he had discovered something the old soldier had missed, something that looked very like a diagrammatic map, something that could at once solve the puzzle if it could be decoded. Crudely scratched on one of the wide foundation stones of the north wall of the abbey church was a gaming board.

To amuse himself and some of his workmates on days of rain or worse, one of the medieval masons had taken his cold chisel and mel to make a board for a game known as merelles or nine men’s morris. Played by Roman builders, it is an ancient strategy game like chess, but instead of a chequered board, the mason had cut a pattern of squares, smaller ones inside a larger frame and all connected by straight lines. Usually black and white like chess pieces, each player had nine counters, and to begin, they took turns placing them on some of the twenty-four points where the straight lines and the squares intersected. Like noughts and crosses, the goal was to set three counters in a row, what was known as a mill. This allowed a player to remove one of his opponent’s pieces, with the ultimate goal being to remove seven of the nine so that he could no longer form a mill of three.

The man became fascinated and in a charity shop bought an old chessboard that had the grid for merelles on the back. With draughts pieces, he played out the game’s strategies in an effort to make an arrangement that might look like a map. Perhaps a mill would point in a certain direction, or perhaps two would represent coordinates. The number three featured in Scott’s poem and the board scratched by the masons was close to the great man’s tomb. After much frustration, countless moves, gambits and variations, the man concluded that the old soldier had ignored the merelles board for the simple reason that it was of no importance, something uncovered by accident when the abbey was made ruinous by an English army in 1544. It was a curiosity but not a clue.

Having read widely, the man knew that the commendator of the abbey, David Erskine, had tried to preserve as much as possible after the English raids. But in 1560 the Reformation completed what the English had begun. Because Erskine, his sub-prior and the seven remaining monks had wisely converted to Protestantism, they were allowed to stay on at Dryburgh, but no new monks were to be ordained and the life of the monastery quickly withered into ruin and neglect.

Beyond the deep water channel to the south of the abbey buildings, the man had seen a strange object standing by itself, what turned out to be an obelisk, a monument to continuity. A descendant of the last commendator, also named David Erskine, the Earl of Buchan, had bought the abbey ruins in 1786. A keen antiquarian, he conserved as much as possible and by planting beautiful specimen trees – rhodedendra and borders of ornamental shrubs – he converted Dryburgh into a garden. The shell of the great church and the conventual buildings became the equivalent of the follies built to fill the vistas from the drawing-room windows of a grand house, a gigantic garden feature.

Normally a mild, well-mannered man, Walter Scott disliked Erskine intensely, writing that he was a person whose ‘immense vanity obscured, or rather eclipsed, very considerable talents’. Scott was buried at Dryburgh because of rights retained by his family, but it seemed a strange decision given his visceral dislike of the owner of the abbey. Did that dissonance have any bearing on the puzzle?

When he reached the obelisk, the man saw that it had been erected at the behest of David Erskine to mark the foundation of the abbey in 1150. Two curious figures had been carved in high relief on either side. In a wide-brimmed hat, a doublet and hose, James I of Scotland looks apprehensive as his hands grip the scabbard of a dagger and seem to be covering his genitals. On the other side stands his son, James II, wearing a suit of armour, a plumed helmet that looks more like a lady’s hat and a startled expression. These terrible sculptures of two quizzical kings were no help to the man’s investigation, only some welcome amusement.

More and more, he was drawn back to the extract from ‘The Eve of Saint John’. Walter Scott’s second verse began with doubt, a sense that all was not what it appeared: ‘The varying light deceived the sight’. And so all that summer, growing increasingly anxious that his frequent visits were being noted by the guides and the lady at the ticket office – everyone was vigilant these days – the man had varied the time of day he came. Since he imagined that the sun’s rays might reveal something, somehow, he had always come on sunny days. Perhaps at different times, when the sun threw different shadows, something would be revealed.

But his persistence shed no new light – until he realised something so obvious, it annoyed him. It was so blindingly obvious. A schoolboy would have worked it out. Light does not come only from the sun. Scott wrote of deceit and ‘a varying light’. Perhaps a clear night with a full moon would answer all questions – if he was not witnessed and caught breaking curfew. The man decided that, after months of frustration, the risk of one last effort to solve the old soldier’s puzzle was worthwhile. And so he waited for the night of the next full moon.

Having looked over at the façade of the hotel to reassure himself that all was quiet and no one had dared to venture out, even for a breath of night air at the grand entrance, the man scrambled over the drystane wall and into the abbey precinct.

A dense stand of trees screened the ruins from the hotel and its car park. Their shadows were deep but not long. It was close to midnight and the moon was climbing to its zenith. Through the trees, the man could see that the nave of the abbey was brightly lit, its pink sandstone almost glowing. His plan was to enter through the west door and face east towards the presbytery and the high altar to see if moonlight showed him something sunlight could not. But when he passed under the rounded arch and stood about halfway down the length of the great church, he could see nothing that looked different. To his left was the merelles board, protected by a low wire enclosure to prevent visitors from standing on it. But just as he moved towards it, the quiet of the still night was suddenly shattered.

Very close by and coming quickly closer, sirens screamed and the man saw headlights swing across the parkland beyond the ruins. He froze, exposed in the bright moonlight, the nearest cover thirty yards away. Willing himself not to run or make any sudden movement, he dropped to his knees and crawled behind the low stump of a pillar. Three cars raced into the hotel car park, churning and spraying the gravel as they turned and stopped.

Peering over the pillar, the man saw six people in black uniforms slam doors and run towards the main entrance of the hotel. He exhaled with relief, blowing out his cheeks. But he could not stay here, in the open. Bending almost double, he scuttled back through the west door and hid in the shadows of a huge Wellingtonia. Able to see across the car park to the hotel, he watched lights go on in the public rooms of the ground floor and then in corridors and rooms.

Moments later, four of the uniformed men appeared at the entrance. Two dragged a handcuffed man, still in his pyjamas, and behind them, two more pinioned the arms of a women in a nightdress. She yelped as the gravel cut into her bare feet and then stumbled. One of the men grabbed her hair, dragged her and almost threw her into the back of one of the cars. Gunning their engines, sirens flashing and howling, the two cars sped off into the night.

Soon afterwards, two more uniformed men appeared on the steps of the main entrance and shook hands with a third, a civilian in a suit. Watching from the shadows, the man recognised a familiar pattern. Officers from the Department of Public Safety preferred to make arrests, usually on the basis of information received, in the middle of the night without any warning. That was when suspects were most vulnerable, most likely to confess to crimes or misdemeanours. Those who supported and reluctantly understood the necessity for this sort of policing called the officers the Vigilantes. The name came from their motto, Semper Vigilans, always watchful, and their style from those trigger-happy cowboys who sometimes took it upon themselves to act beyond the law in westerns.

Winded by the brutality he had just witnessed, the man considered abandoning his search. He did not even know what he was looking for. This quest had become an obsession, a very dangerous obsession that could see him bundled into the back of a car and beaten by a bunch of Vigilantes. And yet cold logic told him that the local thugs were busy. And they had a woman to amuse them.

The windows of the hotel were still lit and frightened guests would be whispering to each other, wondering what had happened. And the last thing any of them would do would be to venture outside after curfew. If the man was to make one last effort to find what the old soldier had been looking for, then this was probably the safest time to do it. And once nothing had been found, no hiding place uncovered, well, then he could forget about the whole thing. He had done his best, taken very considerable risks, and would have nothing to reproach himself for.

 Nevertheless, it would be prudent to put the ruins of the abbey between himself and the hotel. The Vigilantes might extract information from the terrified couple that would bring them back – and quickly. The man skirted the low wall that bordered the nave, turned right down a flight of steps through an arch and came to the entrance to the chapter house. It had survived almost intact from the depredations of the sixteenth century and there were stone seats around its edges. After kayaking down the river and avoiding detection, the man was tired. The chapter house was also a safe place to use a torch and he had brought two: a powerful head-torch and a smaller one with a beam like a laser. Leaning back against the cold stone wall and stretching out his legs, the man tried to gather his thoughts. Patting his pockets, he found a bar of chocolate and munched a few squares for a shot of sugar-rush energy.

His mobile phone showed that the moon would reach its zenith in about fifteen minutes. If its rays were to show up anything, then that would likely be the time. Skirting the pillars of the chapter house doorway, the man looked around the cloister to be sure that he was alone and could not be seen from the upper storeys of the hotel. At the foot of a stair and through another arch, a path led to the gatehouse and the bridge over the water channel. Beyond stood the obelisk and its ridiculous kings, and beyond that stretched parkland, the policies of Dryburgh House. It stood about three hundred yards to the south-east and was once the stately home of the antiquarian, David Erskine, Earl of Buchan. Its windows were dark, and in the stillness, the man could hear no movement. Towards the river, he saw a flock of ewes grazing quietly with their fat summer lambs.

And then, at that moment, it seemed that the Heavens shifted and the world ceased to turn on its axis. It was as though stage machinery began to grind to produce a fleeting illusion, something that observers knew was incredible but believed anyway. A thick cloud passed over the moon and the land plunged suddenly into darkness. Such was the shock of it that the man stopped dead, steadied himself and then looked up at the sky. And then the wheels ground again, the Heavens shifted once more, the moon was revealed, the land brilliantly lit, and the old soldier’s puzzle was suddenly solved.

No more than a hundred yards away, hidden by trees until that moment, stood a small circular building with a conical roof. And on the point of the cone there shone a tiny moon, an earthly reflection of the planet above. It seemed to radiate light of its own. But as the man moved closer, magnetically attracted, it seemed, he saw that on top of the roof was a steel ball of some kind. Burnished to a brilliant sheen, it absorbed the milky light of the moon and appeared to have its own aura.

There was a low wooden door on the far side, hidden from the big house. Captivated and made bold by the otherworldly moment, the man did not hesitate, or trouble to look around or care about the noise when he shouldered the door open. In the musty blackness, he put on his head-torch, resembling a miner who had forgotten his helmet, and looked around. There was nothing. The little building was empty, completely empty. There were no chests or containers of any sort on the paved floor. Not rounded like the exterior, the walls were squared, making a box-like interior. But there was nothing at all to be seen.

Flicking on his laser torch, the man raked its beam up and down the walls. They were not flush but covered with square stone boxes about a foot across. He had broken into an old dovecote and these were nesting boxes for pigeons. Most grand houses had dovecotes, a source of fresh meat, eggs and fertiliser. Turning this way and that, the man felt sure that Walter Scott’s varying light had led him to the right place. But if something was to be found, then it was no longer here. No pigeons nested and nothing seemed to have been left or hidden anywhere.

The man stood in the middle of the paved floor staring at the stone squares, and very slowly, almost without thinking, he realised that they were not only nesting boxes. They were also something else. He was staring at a giant merelles board.

On one wall, twenty-four boxes imitated the twenty-four points on a board, and he could see two mills. Three small round stones had been placed in one row of boxes that were vertical and in another three was a mill of three more round stones that ran horizontally. He could see that they were arranged as coordinates. The mills almost met in the middle of the wall of boxes. Almost. Both pointed at a nesting box that had been closed, made blank. A stone square had been fitted over the box.

The man could reach up and touch it but he was not tall enough to shift the square piece of stone. Climbing, using the lower boxes as footholds, he managed to squeeze his fingers into a tiny gap on one side. But the piece of stone would not shift. Tearing his fingernails, he could not pull it out. His chest heaving, sweat running down his face, he tugged and scraped at the edges, but there was not even the slightest movement. The cover seemed to be fitted flush. Tiring, and grunting with effort, the man tried to climb up a little higher to get more purchase, but he lost his footing, grabbed at anything – and accidentally pushed at the little stone square. It fell inwards.

The man lifted up its edge and slid it out. Feeling with his hands in the nesting box, he pulled down a package, something wrapped in an oilskin. In it was a thick, weathered and battered leather-bound notebook. That was all there was. The man managed to climb a little higher and aim his torch beam into the nesting box but there was nothing else in it.

Riffling quickly through its thin pages, he saw that he had found not a printed book but hundreds of pages of small but clear handwriting. It seemed to be a diary or a journal of some kind. Brushing off the dust and the cobwebs, the man opened the notebook and read the first lines on the first page.

My name is Captain David Erskine of the 1st Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers. If you have found this notebook before I could retrieve it myself, then I am a dead man.



Alistair Moffat was born in Kelso, Scotland in 1950. He is an award winning writer, historian and former Director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Director of Programmes at Scottish Television. He is the founder of Borders Book Festival and Co-Chairman of The Great Tapestry Of Scotland. You can find more of his books here.

  • Share: