Yes Scotland?: The Political Ecologies of the Borders in Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and Lay of the Last Minstrel, and in Contemporary Scottish Poetry.
[...] No boundary but a gesture of need, a quest for the shelter we found wanting for years and here, with the promise of growth in the stems, can see marking a lot unconfined.--Brian Johnstone (1)
Sir Walter Scott's early writing appeared amidst British fears of invasion by France during the Napoleonic Wars and a resurgence of urban Jacobinism in the UK inspired by the French Revolution. (2) As a Tory Unionist, Scott viscerally opposed desires for Scottish independence, even supporting the forcible suppression of radical activity in Scotland. However, while he resisted political nationalism, Scott was a great proponent--and, some have argued, an inventor--of Scottish cultural nationalism. (3) Having lived and worked in the Scottish Borders for years, Scott drew particularly on the traditions of the region in sketching his sense of 'Scottishness: He harnessed the natural and cultural histories of the Borders as sources of Loyalist fidelity, repurposing stories of clan conflicts in wild spaces as tales of honor, chivalry, and 'authentic' allegiances between people and their lived landscapes. In Scott's work, as Susan Oliver argues, the Borders are antithetical to urban republicanism, and they represent the best of what Scotland has to offer in its continued union with Britain, which is to say a 'rugged patriotism.' (4) Scott's framing of the 'once contentious and "lawless" Borders as a historical frontier region where martial codes of loyalty and personal honour had [...] naturally [conditioned ...] a latterly dutiful civil society' (5) first emerges in his early poetry, particularly his collection of local ballads, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802/03), and his long poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). These two texts treat the people and places of the Scottish Borders both as wellsprings of cultural distinctiveness and as lessons in loyalty to the Crown.
Although questions of Home Rule animated Scottish political debates from about the 1850s forward, we have in recent decades seen the first credible agitation for full-bore Scottish independence since Walter Scott's day. Fortunately, this agitation is now unfolding at the ballot box rather than on the battlefield. Although Scotland voted for devolution in 1997 and convened its first Parliament at Holyrood in 1999, many Scots still desire complete independence from the United Kingdom for their country. Consequently, in 1014, the SNP (Scottish National Party) administration held a national referendum--the so-called 'indyref'--on the question, 'Should Scotland bean independent country?, with the 'No' side claiming victory over 'Yes' by a 55.3% to 44.7% margin. Following the Brexit vote in the UK in 1016, the SNP began planning 'indyref2;' given the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the Brexit negotiations, despite the SNP losses in Scotland in 2017's UK general election, another independence vote for Scotland could be in the offing soon.
The Scottish Borders would, of course, be much affected by the development of a 'hard border' between Scotland and England, particularly if an independent Scotland were to rejoin the EU Unsurprisingly, then, as Walter Scott did more than two hundred years ago, poets writing in, around, and about the Borders region have been broaching the issue of Scotland's independence in their work. Writers like Valerie Gillies, Gavin Bowd, Tom Bryan, and Pippa Little dwell on many of the same wild spaces and places as did Scott, and they reflect similarly upon the Borders' cultural and ecological particularities. Gillies, who was raised in Lanarkshire and who has been described as a 'poet of place,' (6) writes obsessively about local waterways, especially the River Tweed. Originally from Galashiels, Bowd sometimes walks directly in Scott's footsteps, setting his poems in places like Abbotsford and the Eildon Hills. Bryan, who lives in Kelso, takes an anti-anthropological approach to local spaces, tracking hydrological and geological processes from Selkirk to Berwick-upon-Tweed. And Little, who was born in Tanzania, raised in Scotland, and now lives just across the border in Northumbria, provides an explicitly ecocritical take on place; her 2009 collection, Foray: Border Reiver Women, 1500-1600, is an exhortation against environmental exploitation in the region.
As these observations suggest, these poets broach local landscapes with quite different ends in mind than Scott. Generally speaking, contemporary Borders poetry hews towards Scottish self-determination, but works to 'distinguish independence from nationalism;' (7) it supports the former while writing back to the latter's well-worn tropes. Today's Borders poets tend to valorise pluralism in place of any 'typically' Scottish cultural identity, and in examining the possibilities for Scottish independence, they express a longing for 'a new form.' (8) While Scott mobilised Borders culture as a mode of 'Scottishness' that could contribute fruitfully to the Union, these poets are interested instead in how independence might allow an intimacy with local landscapes to prompt a global gaze. Indeed, in Glaswegian poet Tom Leonard's words, 'The local is the international. The national is the parochial.' (9)
Borders writers Gillies, Bowd, Bryan, and Little, I argue, offer us a convincing ecopoetics of the Scottish Borders. While their work is not often explicitly political, their approach to the local biosphere both gestures towards 'Yes Scotland' support and resonates with the wider world. First, they treat wilderness as truly wild--as independent, one might say--rather than as something that colludes, as it does for Scott, with the most chivalrous and loyal of Border-dwellers. (10) Moreover, the poetry opposes ecological time to human time, often moving through histories of settlement in the Borders and illuminating the ways in which the region's landscapes have outlasted human incursion: a lesson in patient resistance. Finally, these writers point to a deep ecological viewpoint as one possible 'new form' for an independent Scotland, advocating for an anti-anthropocentric approach to the biosphere. This approach counters an 'It's Scotland's Oil' version of independence, which would rely on the continued overuse and abuse of Scotland's natural environment. (11) An investment in local ecologies also inspires a sense of global community in the poetry: climate change respects no borders and requires that we move beyond national navel-gazing. As Gillies puts it, 'the [River Tweed] is a source of life, a key to our survival beyond this century [...]. [It] is a sign of the re-creative power of nature and of time.' (12)
SCOTT AND THE SCOTTISH BORDERS
In 'Writing on the Borders', Fiona Stafford identifies one of the animating questions of Walter Scott's writing: 'How to fulfil his local obligations, while upholding the power of the state ?' (13) Scott was a loyal Borderer, whose early life was conditioned by the time he spent with his paternal grandparents at Sandyknowe, and who later immersed himself in the region while building his beloved Abbotsford. He developed a keen place-consciousness, becoming intimately familiar with local topographies while traversing the Borders on horseback as Sheriff Depute of Selkirkshire. During these travels, Scott also began seeking out local ballads, part of an oral tradition that spoke to his own deep sense of place. (14) He determined to compile and edit a collection of these ballads, publishing them in three volumes in 1802 and 1803 as Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders: a tribute of sorts to the traditions of the region.
However, during this period, Scott was also growing concerned about the future of the Union, which was menaced both by external threats from the French and by internal republican agitation. As Napoleon's armies swept across Europe during the 1790s, disturbances erupted throughout the United Kingdom, inspired by the radical politics of the French Revolution. Although Scotland remained relatively stable compared to Ireland and even to England, reformists fomented political dissent in many of the country's urban centers, and places like Edinburgh, Perth, and Dundee were riven by riots and unrest. (15) For Scott, a lawyer, a committed Tory, and a firm believer in the institutions of the state, this resurgence in Scottish Jacobite sympathies was intolerable, particularly as the French encroached on British shores. After the 1803 collapse of the Treaty of Amiens, Napoleon began assembling his 'Army of England' and building a large flotilla for the purpose of invading the United Kingdom. Scott saw Britain's need to ready for this conflict as a political imperative, and he consequently supported the forcible suppression of radical activism in Scotland. Scott was centrally involved in the 8797 formation of the Edinburgh Volunteer Light Dragoons, a militia designed both to resist French invasion and to quash domestic street protest. (16) 'The War-Song of the Royal Edinburgh Light Dragoons', one of Scott's original contributions to the Minstrelsy, testifies to his anti-radical stance; the lines 'With Scotland's hardy thistle crown'd; / We boast the red and blue' clearly legislate the 'thistle's' loyalty to the royal colors in the cause of 'guard[ing] our king' and 'fenc[ing] our law' against 'the tricolor['s]' threatening advances. (17)
Critics like Caroline McCracken-Flesher, Gerard Carruthers, and Susan Oliver have convincingly argued that Scott asserts Scottish cultural distinctiveness while framing that distinctiveness as Scotland's unique contribution to the Union rather than as the birthright of a sovereign state. Since Oliver's argument in Scott, Byron, and the Poetics of Cultural Encounter focuses on Scott's early poetry--the Minstrelsy and Lay of the Last Minstrel--it is especially helpful to me here. Oliver suggests that Minstrelsy is both deeply rooted in the particularities of the Borders and structured in service of political Loyalism. Scott's studied selectivity (for example, his omission of bawdy ballads from the collection), his 'retouching' of many of the ballads he collected, and his paratextual commentary on the collection's contents all reflect his Unionist sympathies. His editorial introduction to the ballad 'Sir Patrick Spens, for example, fondly recalls a historical moment at which 'there was little of the national animosity which afterwards blazed betwixt the countries [Scotland and England] and they [the Scottish nobles] patriotically looked forward to the important advantage of uniting the island of Britain into one kingdom.' (18)
As Oliver notes, the Minstrelsy looks to Borders history in order to promote (typically feudal) values like loyalty, hierarchy, honor, and martial virtue as against the dangers of unbridled individualism. Although many Borders ballads are about histories of reiving and banditry, Scott consistently subordinates these stories to those of rugged patriotism, chivalry, and heroism. If he tells a reiving tale, he also notes in that tale 'a correspondingly obvious conformity to codes of kin loyalty and communal custom [... which] are in turn always translatable into loyalty to the state.' (19) And, of course, Scott largely omits narratives about vengeance against the Crown, which would have appeared frequently in stories about reiving families. In fact, many of the ballads in the collection, particularly in Parts I (the Historical Ballads) and III (the Imitations of the Ancient Ballad, several of which are Scott's own compositions) are straightforward odes to patriotism. 'Lord Ewrie' praises Sir Ralph Ewrie, 'one of the bravest men of a military race', celebrated 'for his courage and loyalty' and made a Lord for his troubles by Henry VIII; 'The Gallant Grahams' narrates the exploits of James Graham, i' Marquess of Montrose, a Covenanter-become-royalist and 'chieftain bold, / Courageous in the best degree, who fought in Scotland on behalf of Charles I; and 'Johnie Armstrang' commends its titular figure, a Borders bandit Baron, who, despite being betrayed by the Scott; King's collusion with the English King, submits to death because his monarch has asked it rather than taking up arms against him. (20) Although Johnie Armstrang' might be read as resistant, given the enmity between the Borderers and the English King in the ballad, its ultimate lesson is that of loyalty. In the wartime context of 1802-03, this lesson is particularly resonant: Scott implies that Scotland must direct the spirited energy of the Borders towards preserving the Union - its distinctive contribution to this collectivity-in-difference - in the face of external threats.
Moreover, when Scott writes about Borders landscapes, the human virtues he prizes are also to be found in place. The Borders environment is rugged and hardy; its forces of nature shape a uniquely Scottish stoicism that is also a potential face of Unionism. Despite the fact that the Borders were riven by centuries of combat and contestation, the landscape itself, in Scott's telling, is steadfast, unmoved by passing fad or fancy. For all their 'debatability; in other words, the Borders, for Scott, are stable and enduring. Scott's notes to 'The Douglas Tragedy', for example, describe Selkirkshire as a space rife with 'very ancient' topographical features: 'wild and solitary glen [s]; 'craggy rock[s], rushing 'torrent [sr, and so on. (21) The human marks on the local environment, on the other hand, provide the 'physical remains of a succession of past phases of social development. (22) This landscape is dotted with the ruins of 'savage custom; thus telling a story of a movement towards civilisation that is necessarily tied to crown guidance. As Juliet Shields explains, Scott's work 'assigned Scotland a valuable contributing role as the bastion of traditional ways of life and unspoiled nature, while legitimating a more civilised and progressive England's role as governing authority,' (23) and his early poetry is no exception. In The Lay of the Last Minstrel, William of Deloraine makes his way on horseback from Branksome Castle to Melrose Abbey almost archaeologically: he orients himself by way of the Druidical 'Moat-hill's mound' (an ancient build of the kind that Scott elsewhere describes as being of 'most barbarous construction' ), by the route of an old Roman road, and finally by the twinkling lights of Hawick town, signs of a bustling sixteenth-century settlement. (24)
Finally, when Scott describes the Borders landscape, it often appears to shelter, even to collude with, its denizens. Oliver suggests that the topography of the ballads 'is hostile, but not to the borderers. On the contrary, it provides them with a habitat to which they have become thoroughly adapted and with which they exist in rude harmony.' (25) I further argue that Scott's descriptions of this 'rude harmony' ascribe fidelity and loyalty to the landscape itself Put otherwise, for Scott, patriotism is the very stuff of place. Scott's notes to 'Johnie Armstrang, for instance, describe how the Armstrongs, when attacked, would 'retire [...] into morasses accessible by paths known to themselves alone' along the river Liddel. 'One of [the family's] most noted places of refuge, Scott explains, 'was the Tarras Moss, a desolate and horrible marsh [...]. Upon its banks are found some dry spots which were occupied by these outlaws and their families in case of emergency.' (26) It is curious that Scott terms such a rugged and difficult place a 'refuge', but the Tarras Moss is faithful, it appears, to its ruling family. Similarly, in 'The Battle of Philiphaugh' we find 'the thickets of Harehead-wood [...] support[ing]' the right wing of the Marquess of Montrose's army, allowing them to stand firm for a time against Sir David Leslie's Covenanters despite being massively outnumbered in the battle. (27) Even Scott's own ballads, such as The Eve of St John', find the Borders conspiring with the Borderers; here Scott describes Smallholm Tower in Roxburghshire, where he spent much of his youth, as 'being defended on three sides by a precipice and morass.' (28) The rocks and steep drops themselves, in other words, appear to shield the Scotts (and the Kerrs before them, and the Pringles before that) from would-be raids. This union of local ecologies and the people who populate them culminates at the conclusion of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, when the Minstrel is redeemed and his voice preserved for posterity as the sound of the river Yarrow: And Yarrow, as he rolled along, / Bore burden to the Minstrel's song.' (29) The Yarrow therefore serves at the behest of the Bard--so while its soundscape is thoroughly Scottish, its devotion to its people also offers Scott's readers a compelling lesson in Loyalism.
CONTEMPORARY BORDERS POETRY AND 'THE NATIONAL QUESTION'
Like Scott, whose writing reflects his anxiety about the fate of the Union, contemporary Scottish poets are forged in the kiln of 'the national question.' Critics like Juliet Shields and Fiona Stafford have therefore suggested that a comparison of Scott's work to that of today's Borders poets is overdue. As Stafford writes, 'when considering Scott's fraught attention to the Border ballads, it is illuminating to turn to the late twentieth century, when issues of unionism and devolution have once again dominated the political agenda, and to regions where clashing local identities have been experienced most acutely.' (30) I will therefore look to the work of four prominent local poets--Valerie Gillies, Pippa Little, Tom Bryan, and Gavin Bowd--in order to investigate how they relate their lived landscapes, as did Scott, to the question of Scottish independence.
In general, these poets, like many contemporary Scottish writers, stray from imagining '(as Scott and others once did) a positive ideology of Britishness.' (31) Instead, their writing communicates a desire for Scottish independence, a restless energy that they often read into the Borders' wild places. Where Scott found stability and fidelity, these writers typically see a spirit of resistance. At the same time, however, their poetry betrays a skepticism about traditional notions of 'the nation' and a desire for a more pluralist future. To borrow a turn of phrase from Kathleen Jamie's poem 'Pipistrelles, these are writers in search of 'a new form'--and one such form, they suggest, can be found in a deep ecological approach to place. (32) This approach involves an intimate set of local investments as well as a broad global gaze: issues like pollution, climate change, and natural resource depletion, after all, have both regional impacts and planetary ramifications. Ultimately, while Scott promoted cultural nationalism but censured strides towards Scottish independence, these poets, I argue, invert his logic entirely. As Jamie explained in a 2013 piece for the New Statesman.
The thing is, many Scots, myself included, have no problem distinguishing independence from nationalism, and will probably vote Yes in a referendum, not because of a Bannockburn sentiment, but in the knowledge that any Holyrood government need not necessarily be 'nationalist' Or anything else. We can boot them out. In an independent Scotland we could boot out any government that failed us. Imagine! It is not a contradiction to [...] vote Yes for independence but still hold the SNP in suspicion. (33)
First, for these Borders poets, local landscapes exist of and for themselves; they neither shield nor submit to even the most chivalrous of border-dwellers. Valerie Gillies writes concertedly about these landscapes, particularly their waterways: her 1989 collection Tweed Journey, for example, follows the route of the River Tweed from west to east across the Borders. Gillies' wild places are powerful; they encircle the human rather than bending the knee to it. The rivers, hills, forests, and soils of the Borders are recalcitrant in the poetry, insisting on their own agency, and Gillies intimates that Borderers might imagine these lived ecologies as embodying the Scottish spirit of independence. Her 'Stream Rhythm, for instance, uses words like 'slash' and 'gash' to describe the sheer force of the Tweed, and 'The Canto of Tweed's Mouth' finds the river [b]rand[ing its] flood-shape into the rocks.' (34) Additionally, for Gillies, the Tweed's soundscape is the river's own song, 'the origin of sound' (35) and 'the first word of the biosphere to men', (36) unavailable for appropriation as the song of the Rhymer (as Scott would have it). Indeed, 'Walter Elliot's Reel', situated at the confluence of the Ettrick and the Tweed, describes how Elliot 'hears two rivers sing / Their fervent radiant song', as [r]ight by the water's edge he knows/Sound carries them along.' (37) The water's song, Gullies indicates, is also a source of political currency, as its energies are 'turbulen [t]' but directed, thereby providing a place where '[t]he forward stream towards the future starts.' (38) The sense that the Tweed provides of 'a great torque sitting] calmly' embodies 'the re-creative power' that the 'Yes Scotland' movement seeks. (39)
Similarly, Gavin Bowd, who is politically quite radical--he was at one time a Communist Party of Great Britain activist and, despite his profoundly anti-imperial views, was attacked by Yes campaign supporters for identifying the dark side of Scottish nationalism in his book Fascist Scotland--turns to Borders ecologies as part of his search for 'a new form' for an independent Scotland. Bowd, like Gillies, attends to the autonomy of the Borders landscape with which he is so familiar; his '[r]ivers' also 'deploy [their own] will to flow', and his 'paths' have their own stubborn 'choreography.' (40) He sets this (always already extant) ecological independence in dialogue with the class issues of the region, and these twinned impulses reveal a restless desire for self-determination in his work. Bowd's 'Borderland' begins, 'The river could be seen as the confluence / Of northern and southern streams./The glacier's gouging hemmed us in then turns to the Borders' textile mills, where low-paid' workers weave a 'product [that then] crosses the borders'--a product from which they themselves do not benefit. (41) The poem therefore seems to ask how the people of the Borders might be as free from top-down power as are its places: how might they take a cue from 'the glacier's gouging'? Interestingly, too, Bowd appears to write back quite directly to Scott in 'Abbotsford; where he cheekily finds Communist symbolism in the Tweedbank landscape formerly occupied by the committed Tory: 'Somewhere a hammer / shakes the air;' 'The river passes,/turns for the sea / like a sickle.' (42) Bowd's Borders ecologies, in other words, suggest modes of being-in-the-world beyond both the imperial and the neoliberal.
Secondly, these writers invoke a geological--even a glacial--poetics, opposing ecological time to human time. As Bowd puts it, 'Suppose that time / Is wearing our soles / And we pause to watch / The vegetal.' (43) This deceleration allows Borders writers to track histories of settlement in the region, and to highlight the fact that local landscapes have outlasted empires. Indeed, ' [d] own the Eildons, Bowd finds a cemetery where 'tombstones' / Names' are 'lost to lichen' and the wind's long-term logic gradually reshapes the earth, 'stretching the treetop's sinews' in an ecological dance so slow as to be imperceptible to the human eye. (44) Place therefore models patient resistance in the poetry. It is especially telling that these authors focus on Roman artefacts, given that the Romans famously could not hold the Caledonians beyond Hadrian's Wall; if Scotland was once inhospitable to imperial rule, it might yet be so again. Of course, landscapes are vulnerable to human damage over time, hence the work of ecocritical activism performed by some of this poetry. Bowd's 'Clearing, for example, makes a case against excessive timber-felling. Nevertheless, Borders ecologies endure, here, beyond our fleeting reach.
Gillies' 'Newstead 2000; sited at the old Roman fort at Trimontium, describes when
[s]outhwards, [the Romans] went away, losing intaglio rings from their heyday, abandoning the inscribed building stone, 'Twentieth Valerian and Victorious Legion.' (45)
Empires in ruins, of course, make nonsense of power, and the preceding poem in the collection, 'Walter Elliot's Reel, finds its titular figure discovering 'chip[s and] glint[s] / Among the frosty earth:' the so-called 'Victorious Legion' reclaimed by the wilderness. (46) Moreover, the three poems that follow Newstead 2000' in Tweed, journey contrast the steadfastness of the Tweed with the transitory rise and fall of human civilisations. 'The Rant of the Trows; a poem about the troughs in the river between Mertoun and Makerstoun, observes how 'rock [is] rent' over time--the work of centuries--by water, explicitly framing this 'cleft kerb' as a place '[w]here time is nicked to the quick.' Likewise, 'Bemersyde's Welcome' describes how the 'pot-like pools' of the 'Dusky Tweed' 'flow against the streams of time' while 'man in his few metres of atmosphere / Picks his steps in the windy gowl with fear, and 'Pressen Hill' finds water 'contained in earth's crust from earlier geologic time', an ancient tributary that has borne witness to generations of human beings passing above its shoals. (47)
Tom Bryan, who has publicly declared himself a 'Yes Scotland' supporter, develops a similar argument about the longevity, even the intransigence, of Borders landscapes. (48) His long poem 'Wolf Dream Alba' takes an archaeological approach to the region, again noting the patient resistance of its ecosystem to the ebb and flow of human incursion. This poem moves back far beyond the Romans, observing that
[t]he wanderers left forts and huts, metal and jet, torcs of gold, flat axes, bronze swans and flowers. Later, stone tools, timber-laced forts and crannogs, tribes, Picts, Christians, Celts and Northmen.
However, as Bryan puts it, 'Our time but no time to a mountain, whose 'sandstone' is 'mute to our crude reckoning.' (49) The animal life of the Borders likewise models this kind of stolid defiance. Bryan's 'Chary' describes its titular 'tundra-born' [r]ed-fish' as a 'relic of the last Ice Age, a [c]old-blooded northerner' who has watched human civilisations ('Siberian shamans', 'free and Assiniboine', 'Gael') come and go. The fish 'shoals far down and deep, at one with his freshwater refuge; 'so deeply he dwells' that he is out of sight and often out of reach. While a single charr may be vulnerable to human aggression, the species, Bryan notes, has survived empires. The poem's marine life thus quietly outlasts its self-destructive two-legged brethren. (50)
'Wolf Dream Alba' also reads the Borders topographically rather than anthropologically; [a] standing stone four thousand years upright, / perfectly split in two by ice' testifies to the endurance of rock more than it does to the intentions of those who placed it there. Bryan says sardonically,
We're told lunar calendar, sun marker, compass. The archaeological high ground, spiritual, resolute. But why not just two Stone Age teenagers in cave bear hoodies, bored? A reckless bit of graffiti, upended vandalism, on the way downhill. (51)
This sentiment also explains Bryan's desire to have himself reabsorbed by the land when he dies, his ashes '[d]ust[ing] Selkirk and Kelso, strew[n] / [...] atop the Eildons[,] / Float[ing...] on the ramparts of Berwick-on-Tweed.' 'No mote must remain / nor on any mantel stand, he cautions his heirs, as geological time far outstrips the truncated time of human artefacts: of urns, mantelpieces, and houses. (52) When coupled with Bryan's more direct addresses to his fellow Scots--as in Wolf Dream Alba', in which he calls on Scotland to overcome its place as 'a nation frightened, knackered, feudal, / class-ridden, sectarian, boastful and proud', or 'Scotland 1992; where he mocks his country's 'hard men' who 'fight revolutions on pub stools' and exhorts them to 'sober up' and 'unite!'--these lines seem to frame Borders landscapes as embodying a persistent independence of spirit that might serve as a model for the country's future political gains. (53)
Finally, as I have suggested, while these Borders poets are 'Yes Scotland' supporters, they also resist traditional notions of nationalism. In seeking 'a new form' for Scottish independence, they oppose economic arguments that depend on the destruction of local ecologies (the 'It's Scotland's Oil' approach to 'the national question', which rests on the value of the North Sea oil reserves) and take instead a deep ecological or anti-anthropocentric view of what 'Scotland' might mean. In 'The Balm Well for example, Gillies explicitly parodies the idea that oil can be a 'sovereign remedy' for Scotland. Saint Catherine's Balm Well in Edinburgh, oily by virtue of the shale rock through which its water passes, was perhaps where 'our nation first struck oil, but just as it was no true curative for skin ailments, despite early modern theories to the contrary, it is neither 'tarry remedy' nor 'brimstone balsam' for the country today. (54)
Pippa Little serves as a guide to this deep ecological approach to place. Her collection Foray: Border Reiver Women, 1500-1600, writes back to Scott by regendering the history of the 'debatable lands' and by reminding readers that women were typically the keepers of Border ballads, despite Scott's quite masculine conception of bardic authority. More importantly, though, the volume also serves as a warning of sorts against forms of Scottish independence that would require environmental exploitation--a warning rooted in the cultural and ecological histories of the Borders.
Little's poem 'The Cheviots' recalls when the borderlands were essentially a war zone, one in which humans damaged both one another and their surrounding biosphere in the name of contested territory. During this period, 'men who came hungry / cleaved [the] hearthstone [of the Cheviots] with their axes, and the landscape was left to repair itself as best it could:
it was winters and a northern wind rived down the roof beams, softened and rotted them, and evening shadows over Alwin water that kissed the lichens and tussocks.' (55)
Little is critical of such violence--a violence that privileges the masculine over the feminine and the human over the biophysical--and she narrates in favorable contrast the ways in which women of reiver families, asked to tend to domestic spaces, were deeply connected to their lived ecologies. Her reiver women can be found in the very thick of the earth, immersed even in the vital rot of a dungheap: 'I come to the dense, slick back of her, / my living, breathing mother / who turns to offer me the hot throne of her breast.' (56) Indeed, Little links these women's efforts to defend their own bodies with their efforts to defend the wild places they inhabit. 'Shame Go In Thy Company' narrates a wife's response to her husband who has returned from a raid having committed a rape; she advocates at once on behalf of the woman and of the wilderness that he has violated: 'she, that one / you crossed by moonlight / like a river border, / like tearing water.' (57) Ultimately, Litde's look to Borders history cautions Scots not to sacrifice the natural on the altar of the national, suggesting that 'Scotland' must be imagined as an ecological as well as a political entity. After all, as her poem 'Cairn' explains, people and places are intimately interconnected:
I remember the stones on the hill: still feel them in my hands, the lifting, cutting, placing. With things taken away from the land and things given to it, part of me stays with the stone, part of the stone stays with me. (58)
This approach to local landscapes, however, also requires a global outlook. The effects of climate change or of declining biodiversity may be regional, but the problems themselves are planetary. Many of these poetry collections, therefore, while rooted firmly in the Borders, also range far afield. Bowd's volumes run from Borders waterways like the Gala and the Ettrick to spaces and places in France, Canada, and more. His poem 'New Year' sets the Eildon Hills in dialogue with London, Berlin, Moscow, and Yerevan; it observes the minutae of the hills' rain, winds, and heather, but also uses a compass to orient itself towards faraway geographies. In doing so, the poem comments not only on our ecological interconnectedness, but also on Bowd's hope for a political future of 'disorganizing capitalisms / And scattering nationalisms.' (59) Here Bowd models what it means to distinguish independence from nationalism: the former is potentially porous, a stepping stone to global community--a prerequisite for dealing with both environmental and political crises--while the latter tends towards the insular and the parochial.
Bryan's work, too, features a kind of comparative regionalism, demonstrating an intimate place-consciousness while maintaining an outward gaze. 'Borderline' suggests the necessity of a 'Yes' vote by comparing Scotland's contested past to other violent imperial histories, but it also indicates the value of that vote as a springboard to globalism. As Bryan puts it,
Where does Scotland begin? Find Absaroka on a modern map. Border men and women trudge nationhood in bundles and rags. Kurdistan haunts Bonn, Connemara blood mixed with London cement and mortar. Armenia weeps over redwood tables in California. (60)
He thus yokes ecological and political concerns that refuse to respect borders, alluding in the same breath to deforestation (the 'redwood tables') and human displacement (via his references to Native Americans, Kurds, Armenians, and the Irish). Importantly, for Bryan, it is the natural world that teaches us to link the local and the global; mountain ice melt, he notes, flows 'to the furthest sea', where it evaporates and condenses, becomes cloud, then falls as rain, which in turns 'flow[s] home [...] / to the source again.' (61) 'Born By a River's' hydrological cycle therefore describes one possible 'new form' for Scottish independence: a sense of 'home' that remains mindful of the world's 'furthest' reaches.
Tellingly, when solicited by Katie Ailes and Sarah Paterson to submit work to their Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry anthology on the eve of the Scottish independence vote, Pippa Little selected her poem 'For Refuge'--a poem not (directly) about the referendum, but rather about contemporary refugee crises. (62) For Little, the question of Scotland's future is inseparable from the question of whom that future will include. An independent Scotland, she suggests, must be a globalised and globalising space: a space less related to parochial 'Scottishness' than to radical hospitality. Like Bryan, Little draws this lesson in openness from landscape, particularly from the fundaments of landscape that are already common the world over. 'For Refuge' is a wayfinding poem of a sort, one that points displaced peoples in the direction of Scotland by way of collective ecological cues. 'Learn the wind', Little says, 'memorise where it goes.' 'Trust the earth with your bandaged feet'; [c]omfort yourself' by way of the 'stars in the dark / traveling towards you.' (63) The wind's currents, the poem implies, constantly cross borders, and the same constellations can be viewed, if from slightly different angles, across the globe --observations that reveal political boundaries to be artificial, even preposterous, strategies of containment. (This sense of incredulity also explains why the poem begins by making a mockery of maps: 'Use no names. Roads have been whited out, redacted.') Our biosphere frustrates protectionist impulses by revealing the planet as the shape of our shared experience, and global politics, Little's work argues, ought to follow global ecology's lead.
While Borders poets like Gillies, Bowd, Bryan, and Little exhort us to 'awake, awake, for Saint Andrew's sake', (64) they also decouple independence from nationalism, liberat[ing] the idea of national self-determination from the toxic politics of ethnic identity.' (65) As Kathleen Jamie's recent inscription on the stone rotunda at Bannockburn reads, '"Come all ye;' the country says / You win me, who take me most to heart.' Moreover, these poets refute single-minded arguments for Scottish independence that view natural resources as vehicles for economic sovereignty; Scotland's wild places, in their work, are as vital as its people, and the country's ecological health is essential to its long-term sustainability. Borders landscapes, for local writers, neither model 'rugged patriotism' as they did for Scott more than two hundred years ago, (66) nor are they simply backdrops for contemporary Scots' political aims. These landscapes have 'a life of [their] own', (67) and as such, they dictate the value of a deep ecological view of place. This anti-anthropological approach to an independent Scotland, one rooted in soil and plants and waterways, is perhaps more prosaic than Scott's romantic sense of what Borders life might once have contributed to the Union. However, as Juliet Shields explains, 'as the unity of the British state becomes increasingly questionable, [...] it is arguably useful to turn to these long-neglected alternative versions of Scotland, versions that are less grandiose, but perhaps more serviceable for their lack of grandeur. If nations are indeed imagined communities, then surely it is wise to exercise our imaginations broadly.' (68) An ecopoetics of the Scottish Borders, I suggest, offers one such radical reimagining of the country's future.
(1) Brian Johnstone, 'Four Allegories of Independence: 2014: A Hedge in the Making', Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry, ed. Katie Ailes and Sarah Paterson (Edinburgh: Luath Press Limited, 2016), Kindle ed.
(2) Susan Oliver, Scott, Byron, and the Poetics of Cultural Encounter (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 12.
(3) As Judy Steel says of Scott in her Introduction to Valerie Gullies' Tweed Journey (a collection of Borders poems with photographs by Shelley Klein), 'Few writers have stamped their identity so firmly on their own country or have contributed so much, for better or for worse, to how it is perceived by others.' See Tweed Journey (Edinburgh: Canongate Publishing Limited, 1989), p. 18.
(4) Oliver, p. 12, 39.
(5) Oliver, p. 4.
(6) Laurie Severin, 'Locating Valerie Gillies; The Cream of the Well: A Critical Introduction to the Poems and an Interview with the Poet: Scottish Literary Review 9.1 (2017), 115-39, p. 115.
(7) Kathleen Jamie, 'The spirit of Bannockburn', The New Statesman, 7 February 2013, www.newstatesman.com/politics/politics/2013/02/spirit-bannockburn.
(8) Jamie, 'Pipistrelles', The Tree House (London: Picador Poetry, 2004), p. 30.
(9) Tom Leonard, in Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence, ed. Scott Hames (Edinburgh: Word Power Books, 2012), pp. 126-27.
(10) Oliver, p. 47.
(11) The Editors' Introduction to the 2016 collection Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry observes, with a hint of surprise, that poets across the country have taken up environmental issues in responding to the independence question. Katie Ailes and Sarah Paterson note that their call for political poetry in the face of the 1014 referendum was met with an unexpected number of 'ecopoetic pieces which highlight our fragility as part of the changing landscape of Scotland itself; rather than with poems about party politics, employment, the National Health Service, and so forth (Kindle ed.).
(12) Gillies, Tweed Journey, p. 47.
(13) Fiona Stafford, 'Writing on the Borders; Romanticism's Debatable Lands, ed. Claire Lamont and Michael Rossington (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 13-26), p. 17.
(14) Lucy Macrae, 'Local Explanations: Editing a Sense of Place in Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border', Forum Special Issue 03 (2014), 1-12, p. 4.
(15) See Atle L. Wold, Scotland and the French Revolutionary War, 1792-1802 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015) for additional details about this period.
(16) Oliver, pp. 20-21.
(17) Sir Walter Scott, War-Song of the Royal Edinburgh Light Dragoons; Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802/03, 2 vols.), ed. Thomas Henderson (London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1931), p. 713.
(18) Scott, 'Sir Patrick Spens; Minstrelsy, p. 97.
(19) Oliver, p. 51.
(20) Scott, Minstrelsy, 'Lord Ewrie; p. 157,'The Gallant Grahams, p. 254, 'Johnie Armstrang', p. 155.
(21) Scott, Minstrelsy, p. 335.
(22) Oliver, p. 25.
(23) Juliet Shields, 'Did Walter Scott Invent Scotland?: Fulbright lecture, 17 January 2017. www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/did-sir-walter-scott-invent-scotland.
(24) Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1809), ed. William J. Rolfe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1887), p. 25. See also Oliver, p. 71 on this point.
(25) Oliver, p. 47.
(26) Scott, Minstrelsy, p. 146.
(27) Scott, Minstrelsy, p. 246.
(28) Scott, Minstrelsy, p. 606, emphasis mine.
(29) Scott, Lay, p. 128.
(30) Stafford, p. 17.
(31) Robert Crawford, Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination, 1314-2014 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 8.
(32) Jamie, The Tree House, p. 30.
(33) Jamie, 'The spirit of Bannockburn', The New Statesman online. In an interview with the Observer, author James Kelman articulates a very similar position: 'Scottish history is not nice history. It's the history of subjection. We are so used to tipping the hat to our superiors. And that's still the way things are, unfortunately. How many other countries do we know, how many cultures in the world do we know where there's a debate about "should we determine our own existence or not Such inferiority, it's shocking. Independence is not an economic decision, it is a decision to do with self-respect [...]. It's said of me, that I'm a nationalist. I'm continually having to deny that I am a nationalist but at the same time I'm 100% in favour of independence. [People] don't get it' (quoted in Aiblins 231).
(34) Gillies, Tweed Journey, p. 24, 44.
(35) Gillies, The Spring Teller: Poems from the Wells and Springs of Scotland (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2009), p. is.
(36) Gillies, 'Pressen Hill; Tweed Journey, p. 40.
(37) Gillies, Tweed Journey, p. 32.
(38) Gillies, 'Bemersyde's Welcome', Tweed Journey, p. 36; 'Writing on Water at Hart Fell Spa; The Spring Teller, p. 30.
(39) Gillies, 'Bemersyde's Welcome; Notes on the Poems, Tweed Journey, p. 36, 47.
(40) Gavin Bowd, 'Influence; 'Weekend; Technique (Edinburgh: Dionysia Press, 1999), p. 83, 81.
(41) Bowd, 'Borderland; Technique, p. 40.
(42) Bowd, Abbotsford; Camouflage (Callander: Diehard Poetry at the Callander Press, 2001), p. 43.
(43) Bowd, 'The Real World', Technique, p. 20.
(44) Bowd, 'Down the Eildons;' Surface; Camouflage, p. 30.
(45) Gillies, 'Newstead 2000; Tweed Journey, p. 34.
(46) Gillies,' Walter Elliot's Reel; Tweed Journey, p. 32. Notably, Gillies' 2000 collaboration with photographer Rebecca Marr, Men and Beasts: Wild Men and Tame Animals of Scotland (Edinburgh: Luath Press Limited), contains an entire sequence of poems about Elliot, who is a fencer and fieldwalker and local historian from the Lower Tweed Valley (see pp. 39-40). He has located in his travels many previously undiscovered Roman sites and artefacts, and Gillies therefore describes him as a Borders excavator of a kind. Interestingly, Gillies says that the time she spends with Elliot always alerts her to locations that can't be found on maps, and her poems about the man oppose his phenomenological relationship with place--a set of embodied intimacies with local landscapes--to the supposed authority of the map-maker: a familiar imperial trope (39-40).
(47) Gillies, 'Bemersyde's Welcome; 'The Rant of the Trows;' Pressen Hill; Tweed Journey, pp. 36-41.
(49) Tom Bryan, 'Wolf Dream Alba; Doubling Back (Edinburgh: Dionysia Press, 2011), p. 79.
(50) Bryan, 'Charr; Wolfwind (Edinburgh: Chapman Press,1996), p. 61.
(51) Bryan, 'A Stone (More or Less); Missing, Presumed Unread (Beaworthy, Devon: Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2015), p. 65.
(52) Bryan, 'Letting Go; Missing, Presumed Unread, pp. 73-4.
(53) Bryan, 'Wolf Dream Alba; p. 80; 'Scotland 1992; Wolfwind, p. 62.
(54) Gullies, 'The Balm Well; Spring Teller, pp. 62-3.
(55) Pippa Little, 'The Cheviots; Foray: Border Reiver Women, 1500-1600 (Newcastle upon Tyne: Biscuit Publishing, 2009), p. 11.
(56) Little, 'Our Lady of the Midden; p. 40.
(57) Little, 'Shame Go in Thy Company; p. 33.
(58) Little, 'Cairn; Overwintering (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2012), p. 14.
(59) Bowd, 'New Year; Technique, pp. 18-19.
(60) Bryan, 'Borderline; North East Passage (Newbattle: Scottish Cultural Press, 1996), p. 55.
(61) Bryan, 'Born by a River; Doubling Back, p. 11.
(62) Refugeeism is in fact one of Little's primary concerns; her Twitter feed is populated with political statements about displacement, migration, and exile (twitter.com/pippalittlei).
(63) Little, 'For Refuge; Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry, ed. Ailes and Peterson, Kindle ed.
(64) Gillies, 'Saint Andrew, Patron of Scotland; The Cream of the Well: New and Selected Poems (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2014), p. 167.
(65) Boyd Tonkin, 'Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be The Independent, 19 September 2014, www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/scottish-referendum-on-stirling-s-streets-it-was-as-if-independence-had-already-been-gained-9745250.html.
(66) Oliver, p. 39.
(67) Gullies, 'Letter to Scotland', The Cream of the Well, p. 22.
(68) Shields, 'Did Walter Scott Invent Scotland?.
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|Title Annotation:||JULIA C. OBERT|
|Author:||Obert, Julia C.|
|Publication:||Scottish Literary Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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