Dryburgh (Part 5)

  12 Jun '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Dryburgh – a novel in parts (read part 4 here)

5. Reivers.

“Christ all bloody mighty, Wilson!” Just as I began to exert pressure on the shotgun’s delicate trigger, the familiar, unique, agricultural bulk of Corporal Angus Wilson filled the doorway. In the darkness, I could not see his face but those coat-hanger shoulders were unmistakable.

“Who is that behind you?” I barked, momentarily fearing that it was someone with a pistol jabbed into Wilson’s back.

“Campbell, sir. Private Campbell!” he said quickly and from behind this monument to oatmeal, I heard the voice of the man who found the tunnel out of Berwick barracks, “Sorry sir. Sorry about that”.

Once Katie had struck a match and lit a candle, the two men sat gratefully in the window embrasure. “I expect you’ve had nothing to eat for a while”, she said, putting the remains of our collation on the napkin. Having been on the run for five days, they almost wept with thanks. And as with me, Katie was kind enough to remind them to go slowly. She found some more cheese and I gave them what was left of the whisky. The fire of the dram made them smack their lips, visibly reviving the two exhausted soldiers.

“You should sit here, miss”, said Wilson after they had eaten every last crumb. “Campbell and me will be happy on the floor”. Both slid down the wall, blew out their cheeks, stretched out their aching legs and smiled their thanks. “How many made it? Any idea, sir?” I shook my head. They had both seen the spotter plane, and like me, had kept themselves out of sight during the day and travelled only at night. “I just hope that some of them were not daft enough to go home”, Campbell added. None of us can go home now”, I said.

On the march north, the thugs who tormented us had no interest at all in who we were, no-one ever asked for our papers, and even at Berwick, they only counted us each morning. We were no more than numbers. But I had given my name, and the little commandant will have remembered it. He will have had to report the breakout to his superiors, and no doubt suffered them coming down on him like a ton of bricks. From any soldier they recaptured, the Germans would be unhesitatingly brutal in extracting information. And out of a hundred men, some will have been much less careful than Wilson, Campbell and me. Somehow, I needed to get a message to Dryburgh House, to my father. Until my two comrades appeared, that had not occurred to me, to my shame. I had been too concerned with my own survival to think of my father, all alone, rattling around that big house. Since my mother died, he had talked not about adjusting, about making changes, but the opposite, about continuity. “I shall be going nowhere until Father Doran gives me my last rites and the casket is carried across to the abbey”. Perhaps Katie could call him to warn him, but that felt like an evasion.

“So, what are we going to do now, sir? Maybe we should talk about it?” said Campbell. A highly intelligent man, an electrician before he joined the regiment, he also turned out to be resourceful. “But we might need a wee bit of help”. Smiling at us all, he pulled his knapsack onto his lap, undid the buckles and brought out a bottle of whisky.

In the circle of candlelight, our faces bright against the black darkness behind, we were, I think, at that moment, simply glad to be alive. Stolen from a store behind a grocer’s shop in St Boswells where he worked as a delivery boy, Campbell’s whisky warmed us. Straightening his back, looming large in the light, Wilson asked the question that continued to hover over us, “What should we do, sir?” The two soldiers turned and looked at me as though they were waiting for orders. Katie was quiet. “What can we do? The Germans are holding a gun, or rather a bomb, to everyone’s head.” I replied. Silence settled on us as we stared at the flicker of the candle flame.

After a time, very quietly, Katie started talking, not to anyone in particular, more as though she was thinking aloud. “You are all Borderers. You should remember your history, remember why places like this tower were built. What’s happening now is not really anything new. For centuries English and Scottish armies burned and killed their way across this landscape. What Borderers did then is what you should do now. They endured. You need to do the same. You need to survive. Then you can think of what to do”. She shot me a fierce look.

Katie talked of the riding times, the centuries when families banded together for mutual protection and lived their lives at the point of a spear, becoming what history came to know as the Border Reivers. When war crackled along the southern horizons and distant smoke was seen from the roofwalk outside where we sat, families drove their animals into the hills and hid from foraging, rapacious soldiers. “You are all outlaws now”, she said, “and you will need to find a way of living, surviving, beyond the reach of those who are hunting you”.

As the whisky bottle was passed round and we risked a second candle, the stone chamber seemed less chill. We talked of fighting spirit, of how the Borderers had distinguished themselves in battle again and again. In the regiment there was a distinctive, thrawn, can-do sense of independence. Suddenly an unlikely example swam into my head. “Do you remember Private Sinclair, Willie Sinclair?” I asked Wilson and Campbell. “Aye sir, not the sharpest knife in the box”. I agreed but, “he did have a bit of spirit. He used all his leave to go back home to Coldstream to look after his old mother. Do her garden, chop logs, all that sort of thing”. I could see from Campbell and Wilson’s widening smiles that they remembered the story I was about to tell, but Katie had not heard it. “One afternoon in Berwick, I saw him in civvies with his suitcase waiting for the bus to Coldstream in Golden Square. When I pointed out to him that he was half an hour early, he puffed out his chest, ‘Aye sir, But it won’t take me long to wait half an hour’. Now that’s the kind of spirit we need.

After a little more whisky, I could see that Wilson and Campbell were at the end of any energy they had left. They knew it too, and as a strange version of decorum circulated in their heads, they levered themselves upright, saying they would find a corner in the chamber below.

“It’s probably, well, it really is too late and too dangerous for you to cycle home through the dark tonight. Isn’t it?” Katie was enjoying my discomfiture, smiling, cocking her head to one side, waiting for me to blunder on with this hesitant invitation to sleep with me. Even though there was no bed and we could see our breath plume into the air around the candle flame. “And don’t worry. I will keep my distance”. Still, she said nothing. “Anyway, you said I had a certain aroma”. After a few seconds that seemed to stretch into an eternity, she raised an eyebrow. “Listen, you idiot, I’m not going anywhere. Not without you. Anyway, it’s bloody cold and we both need a hot water bottle, even a smelly one”. Keeping our coats on and covered by Katie’s mother’s cashmere, we lay like spoons on the straw, my face inches from her hair. With my arm pulling her close, I hoped the moment would last forever, but we fell asleep almost immediately.

“Charming” was the word that woke me. Katie was looking out of the window at Wilson and Campbell urinating off the edge of the crag the tower perched on. “And bloody stupid!”, I said, running down the spiral staircase to get them out of sight. Moments later, Katie wheeled her bicycle down to the wrought-iron gate to the eastern track. We had agreed that she would ask her father for his help. We could not risk a third night in the tower. Someone was bound to notice activity and toing and froing around a place that was supposedly uninhabited. Would it be possible for the three of us to spend the night at her father’s farm, in the hay barn, before moving on? And could I please use the telephone?

Having been beaten very badly, the four prisoners were scarcely able to walk and with their hands tied behind their backs, they stumbled up the steep steps of the Guild Hall in the Marygate, not far from Berwick Barracks. The guards pushed and kicked at them until they reached the top. If any could still see through the bleeding mess of their faces, they will have made out the shape of a gallows set up just below the top step. On a cross beam, four nooses had been tied. The Germans dragged the soldiers into a line to face the crowd that had been forcibly marshaled in the street below. There was a hushed, horrified silence as the little commandant stood forward and shouted.

“Do not forget what you are about to see. Tell everyone you know what you see today. Everyone! Heil Hitler!”

The guards hung a sign on each of the men. “Our wives and children are all dead because of us”. And then as the commandant walked behind the row of prisoners, a noose was tightened around their necks. So that this grisly spectacle lasted as long as possible, he booted each man in turn off the step to swing and suffer an agonizing death. The crowd gasped at the long minutes of choking, wriggling on the end of the rope, scrabbling to get a foothold back on the top step, each soldier finally pissing himself while the others waited, and watched. After about half an hour, this obscene spectacle ended. The gallows and the bodies hanging from the cross-beam were left standing for seven days as the gulls circled above them.

“No, David. I am going nowhere, and that’s an end of it. We have been here for centuries and if these appalling people think..” “Dad”, I cut in, “Please. Listen to me. They are coming. They will come for you soon. Because they want to find me, because they will think you know where I am, they will beat you and probably worse. Please, please Dad, you have to leave.”

Katie’s father had kindly let me use his telephone, but anxious about nosey operators listening in, warned me not to be too long. “No. I will not leave and if they do come, they will not get in without a fight.” I was despairing. “OK. Then please do one thing for me. Put some water and some food in the Priest Hole, and if they bang on the door in the middle of the night, hide there.” Both Jacobites and catholics, my family had survived persecution in the long and dangerous centuries before emancipation, and next to a grand fireplace was a very cleverly concealed hiding place for a priest. Very reluctantly, my father agreed to do as I asked, muttering something about being a rat in a trap.

Although we rarely agreed on very much, my father and I were closer than we had ever been. But that was not saying much. When I was eleven, I can remember sitting at the top of the main staircase in Dryburgh House, looking through the bannister as my parents held their Christmas drinks party for tenants and neighbours. I think my father must have drunk too much whisky for I heard him talking a little louder than usual to two friends. Loud enough for me to hear every word. He was berating someone, saying he thought they were faint-hearted, weak, perhaps a little effeminate and even worse, uninterested in the important things in life like family, the land and the church. After a few moments it dawned on me that the person who had disappointed him so much was me. He was talking about me. Shocked and winded at my own father running me down, his only son, in front of two friends, not even members of our family, I never forgot those words of betrayal, and I never told my mother, or my father, that I had heard them coming out of his mouth.

Away at school, I enjoyed languages, German, French, Latin and Greek, something my father could not begin to understand. “Useless, simply useless, complete waste of time.” Looking back, I think part of the reason I enjoyed learning about other cultures and how they understood the world was an unconscious reaction to my father’s disapproval. The person he talked to his friends about was clearly not good enough and in German or French, I could adopt an alternative identity, be someone else. And the truth is that I also took those subjects precisely because of my father’s disapproval of them. When our modern languages master said I had the best German accent and pronunciation he had ever heard from a non-native speaker, the transformation was complete. Although I did not realize it at the time, I had found another person I could be, someone who was not faint-hearted, weak, effeminate and disappointing.

Where I think I did meet with his approval was on the rugby field. Probably the only innate, natural gift I was given was the ability to play this game very well. At fourteen, I was six foot one, the same height I am now, with a big frame, the ability to sprint, kick goals and I had what our house master called ‘adhesive hands’ because I never dropped the ball. When I was older and came home at the Christmas and Easter holidays, I was immediately drafted into the Melrose 1st XV. But even though I knew he enjoyed rugby and came to watch me, my father never uttered an encouraging word.

At St Andrews University, I rather gave up the game, preferring to spend as much time with Katie as possible. One Easter, Melrose had selected me to play in a home game against Kelso and my father was told that a Scotland selector was coming to watch me. But he chose not to tell me, why I don’t understand. I had a slightly stiff shoulder, decided not to play and to go up to St Andrews to be with Katie. Since I gave up playing, several people have said to me that I was international class, but my father never did, never offered an encouraging word.

Why he was so closed, I do not know. His upbringing was severe, I believe, but that is a poor excuse. The cycle should be broken. But one thing did cheer me. My mother’s love was completely unconditional and she encouraged and supported me until the awful day when she crashed her car avoiding a child who ran into the road. The little girl survived but my mother did not. I know that my father loved her very much and he has never found a way to accept his loss. A friend once told me that when he was waiting for me in the drawing room at Dryburgh, he overheard a very flirtatious conversation between my parents. Unaware of his presence, they embraced and kissed passionately in the hallway. I was glad that, after some pressure, my friend had told me what he had inadvertently witnessed. At least that was a fulfillment for my father, real happiness. For myself, there was nothing so uncomplicated. He was a hard man to love, and would in any case have recoiled if I had used language like that. But he was my father and no doubt I played a part in the sterility of our exchanges. Although what that part was, I cannot be sure.

“Bleaklaw Moss”, said Katie’s father, apropos of nothing anyone else had said, probably a link to a conversation conducted in his head until that moment. “No-one will ever find you there, even if they know you are there”. After the first hot meal any of us could remember, Wilson, Campbell and I sat by a crackling fire with Katie while her father poured generous tumblers of whisky, something we were going to miss. “So far as I understand things, it seems to me that you have no option but to disappear, at least until something else catches the attention of those thugs at Berwick.” He went on to explain that Bleaklaw Moss was a wide plateau of dangerous bog-land, much of it covered by willow scrub and colonized by self-seeded sitka spruce blown from a vast plantation on its eastern flank. “I know an old shepherd who can show you the safe paths. And if you choose the right place to build a shelter where you can hide, you will be invisible from the air”.

“Where is it?” I asked, never having heard the place-name, wondering just how bleak it might be in winter. “About twenty miles south of here, in the foothills of the Cheviots”.

Christmas Eve, 1944.

As a farrier in a former life, Angus Wilson knew a great deal about horses but to my amazement, and his, he had never sat on one. “Sit up!” barked Katie. “You look like a sack of potatoes.” She walked around the placid Highland pony Angus had managed to mount, after more than a few grumbles, tightened the girth, placed the big man’s feet in the correct place in the stirrup irons and showed him how to thread the reins through his fingers, between his pinkie and ring finger and then index finger and thumb. “Their mouths are sensitive and you won’t need to haul this old chap around. He knows his job and plenty worse than you have sat on him.” And last of all, she buckled on a neck strap, explaining to Wilson that “the technical term for this is the holy crap strap. When those words come into your head, grab it.”

Quite how Katie had persuaded her neighbour to lend us four of her shaggy Highland ponies, I was not sure. Perhaps her riding school was not busy, perhaps she needed a break from feeding them through the hungry months of the winter. But with twenty miles to cover in a day we needed transport, and to move fast in daylight. Walking through the night was much slower, more dangerous and it would be very easy to get lost on our way to a place none of us knew. When Alan Grant suggested we take refuge in Bleaklaw Moss, he had more good reasons than inaccessibility for choosing it. He knew how to get from his farm to the foothills of the Cheviots without much risk of us being seen. Very well read, and a farmer who saw the land itself as a text, as more than simply a place where crops grew and stock grazed, Katie’s father had spread a map on his kitchen table. “ The Germans will use the roads. There aren’t yet enough of them to do anything else and they will see only what they see from their vehicles. But there is one long road that is invisible to them, a ghost road, one that will make you disappear”.

Smiling, knowing that he had our full attention, Grant traced his finger across the old Ordnance Survey map. “Do you see this straight line? It’s not a sequence of field boundaries. It will lead you almost all the way to where you need to go. It’s a Roman road, built by the legions almost two thousand years ago. The hard standing of stones and gravel that they hammered down has meant that no-one could ever get a plough through it. Almost impassable in places in summer, choked by hawthorn and blackthorn, it opens up in winter. You can see where it runs. But the die-back is high, nothing flattens it and in many places there are mature hardwoods on either side. All of that will give you cover.”

An overnight blanket of cloud had caused much of the snow to melt, only white fringes remaining in the lee of dykes and in ditches. As the grey dawn edged from the east, our band of four riders clopped down the Grant’s farm track in the shadow of a shelter belt of Scots pines. Katie rode in front, leading us west to join the ghost road where the legions had once marched. Teasing us as we were tacking up the ponies, she had said that real Border Reivers would not have been so weedy. They would not have hesitated to ride their surefooted little ponies by night. “Ill met by moonlight” was the phrase she used.

Breasting a rise, we could see below us a long line of hardwood trees, their naked, leafless limbs gaunt against the morning sky. There was no wind, nothing moved, and no sound except the crunch of the ponies’ hooves on the frosted ground. “That’s it over there”, pointed Katie, “and about half a mile beyond it is the main road”. The night before, we had agreed that in the unlikely event that we saw any traffic on Christmas Eve, we should stop, dismount and stay as still as possible. The placid Highlands would immediately drop their heads to look for a bite of something. But we could make out no engine noise carrying in the clear air as we joined the line of the old Roman road.

Spear-straight, it made for the shoulder of a distant hill that was topped with a monument that can be seen all over the Border country. More resembling a land-locked lighthouse, it had been built at the end of another war by French prisoners to honour the Duke of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. As our ponies plodded quietly between the avenue of trees, the path winding uphill around bushes and fallen branches, it occurred to me how history shifts. In 1815, the Germans were our allies against the French and Napoleon’s vaulting ambition to dominate Europe. In fact, the arrival of Field Marshall Blucher’s Prussians turned defeat into victory. Perhaps the lighthouse should have been dedicated to him.

Alan Grant was right about the road. Between the lines of trees and bushes, most of them thorns, nothing but shallow rooted weeds and tall grass grew. Almost two thousand winters had done little damage to the road-bed laid down by the Romans. Katie turned in the saddle, “We will have to dismount when we reach that wood up ahead. There’s no gate and we will need to move quickly down a tarmacked back road to get out of sight again”. She smiled, “You manage a trot, Angus?” I could not see his face, only imagine the horror on it.

Just as we turned down the road, I fancied I could hear engine noise. Bouncing around in the saddle, slewing from side to side, Wilson was hanging on grimly as his pony trotted, grabbing for the holy crap strap. And was only saved from a heavy fall on tarmac by Katie doubling back to grab his reins. “Stand up in the stirrups and keep your backside out of the saddle!” In a sudden dip in the road by a little bridge, there was a gap in the fence and a dense wood behind it. Moments after we were all through it, a very stately car glided past. Was it a Rolls Royce or a Bentley? There were several grand houses in the vicinity and perhaps a chauffeur had been sent out on an errand.

Below the wood flowed our first real obstacle. Thankfully, there was no winter spate speeding the River Teviot towards its junction with the Tweed at Kelso, but it would not be easy to cross. We could have diverted by a road bridge about a mile to the west, but that would have been a very last resort. There were clearly people about. Katie reckoned that the easiest way over was below an old cauld. Where the low dam diverted part of the flow of the river into a mill lade, there were some islets and she felt the ponies would be happiest crossing where they could see some slivers of land rising up out of the water. “Kick! Kick!”, Katie shouted at Alan Wilson. “If he thinks you won’t, he won’t” After more refusals, she splashed back, took the reins and led the reluctant Highland and its sorry rider to the far bank.

It was at that moment, I first felt that we were being watched. There were no buildings nearby, not even any field shelters or barns, only a strip of dense and dark woodland on the ridge above the southern bank of the river, the direction we were going. Was there a flicker of movement in the woods? Or was it just birds fluttering amongst the debris? When we passed through it and crossed another stream, the land began noticeably to climb. This stretch of the road was open, not clogged by the winter die-back of weeds and thorns, clearly maintained and used as a farm track to reach out-bye fields. Its unnatural, geometric straightness impressed me. Without machines or the internal combustion engine, with only picks, shovels and baskets, the Romans had been able to write their story indelibly and enduringly on this landscape.

Looking sideways at Angus Wilson, Katie suggested we trot where the going was good. It was mid morning and only three days after the winter solstice, the shortest day, and we needed to make better time. There were perhaps only four or five hours left for us to reach Bleaklaw Moss before the light faded. With Katie riding alongside, Wilson managed to stay on as we moved into the upcountry.

Passing through woodland on either side, much of it evergreen, we were well hidden. But when we came to a crossroads, where a tarmacked C road cut across, it was much more open. And it would be like that for about a mile. Too risky. We dismounted, led the ponies across a stripy ploughed field whose furrows were filled with snow and found cover behind a long shelter belt of pines and spruces. With no time to stop and rest, we ate what the Grants had put in our saddle bags as we walked south towards the Cheviot Hills. We had agreed to meet Sandy Ormiston at Five Stane Rig. An old shepherd whom Alan Grant knew well, and trusted completely, he would show us the lie of the land, open the bothy and then take Katie home in his Landrover.

Where the Roman road spurred away south off the tarmac surface, the views behind us to the north and east opened dramatically. A watery sun blinked between the clouds. Remembered sights like that had been a salve for my soul on the hardest days of the hunger march and after bullets had flown around us on Queen Beach lay before us. I gazed for a few moments at the three Eildon Hills that rise above the Tweed at Melrose, over the fertile fields of Berwickshire and east to the flat horizon of the North Sea coast. This was my home place, and I was damned if it was going to be taken from me and all the people who made it. I was damned if I was to be nothing more than a fugitive, a casualty of a lost war. Katie pulled up her pony beside me. It was as though without knowing it both of us shared the same prayer at that moment and for both of us, it was answered at the same time. She turned to look at me, fixing me steadily, not smiling, and I said, “We will fight. I don’t yet know how to but somehow we will fight”.

Sunk down between two parallel dykes, the old road seemed pristine, unchanged, the course of its metalling clearly visible, dropping slightly on either side so that the frequent rains could run off. Only the curlews could see us passing through the landscape as they wheeled in the updraughts and we trotted on in the hoofprints of history. On the hills on either side of this raised valley, sheep were moving slowly across their flanks, searching for a bite of bitter winter grass amongst the gorse.

With perhaps two hours of light left, Katie encouraged us to kick on for Five Stanes Rig, only a mile or two further. But when we came to the shoulder of a hill and could see the course of the Roman road run a long way to the south, well past the place where Sandy Ormiston’s car should have been visible, we could see no sign of it or him. Perhaps he was late, or had been stopped, or had hidden his vehicle somehow. The five stones of the little circle are not monumental, more like something you might sit on than be in awe of, but their location is clear. And it was clear that the old shepherd was nowhere to be seen.

Katie pointed to a plantation some distance off the road, over to the west. With my binoculars, I thought I could make out the shape of a small, low building half hidden in the fringes of the trees. “Perhaps that is the bothy my Dad meant?” she said. “Even if it is not, you should use it. I need to start back very soon.” We headed over the tussocky grass, looking for a sheepwalk that might make for easier going through the dips and sudden hollows. And when we reached what looked to me to have been a shieling, little more than a rudimentary shelter used by shepherds summering out on the high pasture with their flocks, we were sure this must be the place that Grant meant. In the wide and open landscape around the road, there was nothing else to be seen.

“Don’t worry”, Katie said, kissing me, “this old pony has plenty of gas left in the tank and we can canter on the good stretches. I will be home before the night closes in. It’s Christmas Eve! I had better be”.

As we dismounted, and Wilson and Campbell unlatched the door of the bothy, I watched Katie ride away, turning in the saddle and waving. And then in a moment, she disappeared. The pony reared. They both fell. And disappeared.


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.

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