One morning in late May that year I called at the farm and, to my astonishment, Lizzy was up and eating breakfast. She seemed completely changed. I blurted out something like: ‘was she feeling better?’ She told me she’d had a vivid dream. Peter had come into the bedroom and, standing at the end of their bed, told her how much he loved her and that she must stop grieving for him now, get herself better, and look after little Sarah. She sat up in bed and begged him to kiss her, but he’d insisted he had to go. She heard his footsteps on the stairs and the click of the back door shutting, exactly as she had done when he’d go out early. Then she woke up to hear the cock crowing. I told her how delighted I was to see her up, grabbed whatever I’d gone to collect, and went out to find Arthur.
That’s the official account of how Lizzy started to mend. It’s not, however, quite the whole story.
As we were finishing moving the sheep I noticed a police car parked outside Arthur and Nessa’s cottage and said something to him. We finished up and then went down just as Nessa came out with the young copper who’d just transferred from Hawick. Arthur asked if everything was alright and the young man explained he’d just taken a statement from Maggie, who’d seen a man looking around the farm in the night.. There’d been a series of recent thefts from farms, so the two men went to check the yard. I then noticed Nessa looked very pale. She hurried me into the kitchen.
Nessa and Arthur’s daughter Ruth had recently returned from Canada with her six-year-old daughter Maggie. The daughter, a nurse, had an interview so had left Maggie with her grandmother. In the night the little girl had got up to go to the bathroom and, on her way back to bed, opened the curtain to see if it was getting light. This gave her a good view up towards the farm. As she looked out she’d seen a man come out from the back porch and walk through the yard, looking left and right, then down to and past the cottage. She’d seen his face very clearly and in the morning she’d told her grandmother what she’d seen. Nessa remembered the spate of recent thefts and rang the old police sargent, but warned him it might be nothing. He’d been concerned enough to send the young constable to take a statement.
‘He was very good with the lass and she told him exactly what she’d told me, near enough word for word. But Miss Flora, he asked her to describe the man she’d seen and it was Master Peter. But Maggie’s never seen him, nor any photograph either. Of course the young man just wrote it all down and praised her for her memory. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. I sent her to play and was taking him out when yourselves arrived. Whatever am I to say to the sergeant, I’m afraid he’ll think it’s some terrible bad joke’.
I told Nessa about Lizzy’s dream. She looked at me wide-eyed, shook her head, and walked out of the room. I rang the sergeant myself. He’s a traditional singer I know quite well. I don’t remember now just how our conversation went, but I started by asking if he remembered ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well.’
Whatever you make of all this, and I swear it’s true, Lizzy’s depression eased off, at least to the point where eventually we were able to return to something like our old lives. But after that I had a real sense that I didn’t know the half of it when it came to Lizzy. That, of course, turned out to be entirely true.
I suppose I should also add this.
You may possibly remember sending me a little booklet,A. R. Wright’s ‘English Foklore’(1928), number twenty-three in a series called ‘Benn’s Sixpenny Library’, that you’d found in a second hand bookshop. You almost certainly won’t remember writing that you were disconcerted by what seemed to you my excessive gratitude for such a small gift. My reason, which I didn’t feel able to share with you then, can be found on page twenty-three.
The dead seem to have been carried feet foremost from ancient times, in order to prevent their seeing their home and door and so being able to find their way back as revenants.
This brought to mind something that happened when the undertakers came to remove Peter’s body. There was an altercation between an old neighbour who’d come to help Nessa with the laying out and the undertaker’s men. I only caught the low, insistent, tone of the old woman’s voice, not her words, and then an incredulous refusal from the undertaker; then the old woman again, now openly angry, before I had to attend to something else. When I looked out of the window moments later I saw Peter’s coffin carried out of the house head first. After I’d read that passage in Wright’s book, I asked Nessa if she remembered that day. She looked away and tried to change the subject. When I pressed her she admitted that old Miss Kerr had had words with the men, but insisted she couldn’t remember what the old lady had said. This was the same Miss Kerr who, when I asked about her brother one day, told me he was all upset about a tweed suit bequeathed to him by a former emplyer because it had inexplicably rotted. She’d added: ‘what did he expect, silly man, it fretted for old Mr …, who’d worn it on and off thirty years’.
After reading Wright it’s not hard to guess the cause of the altercation, but I do wonder about her motive.
I know neither of us, as intelligent, rational people, believe in such things. But, as we each know, our intelligent, rational selves are hardly in the majority.
The Reed Estate
Of course it’s hard for me not to admire Lizzy as the localsee her; that is as Peter’s widow and ‘mistress of the Reed Estate’, since she’s genuinely had to overcome very real difficulties in order to keep the farm going and bring up Sarah. Although there’s something ironic about that view of Lizzy, since the Reed Estate as was realy only exists in memory now.
Originally it consisted of the home farm and a cluster of five smaller tenant farms, all a world away from the intensive agriculture of the lowlands. A parcel of haughs (meadows) along the river and patches of dense woodland in its steep valleys, hill pasture and moorland that’smixture of bog, heather and cotton-grass. In the old days, all this grazing land was treated by its owners, at least in terms of public rhetoric, as ‘for sport’, that is as primarily for grouse and pheasant shooting. As ‘gentry’ the Reeds preferred to see the estate as a recreational site and the income it brought in from farming as a secondary matter. From this point of view once the shooting was rented out ‘the estate’ became, in the eyes of the more hidebound of Peter’s peers, a farming business and Peter a farmer rather than a gentleman who owned land. Of course, nobody would be so vulgar as to put any of this into words, least of all say anything to Peter or Lizzy themselves. But that didn’t make the judgement any less real in the minds of some in the region. It’s difficult to explain the nuances of all this to outsiders. Particularly now when the presuppositions involved, which are essential to preserving an identity predicated on archaic distinctions, would be bitterly defended if ever made explicit. They are, of course, all but invisible to those that hold.
When I first came north I thought the Cheviot uplands were just an endless, undifferentiated succession of dull and very empty hills. Initially it was Lizzy’s schoolgirl pride in both the natural and human history of the region that carried me beyond that first impression. I learned that the upland landscape was differentiated into fields and rough pasture; that the second consisted of bog, patches of dull green sedge, occasional dwarf shrubs and massive hummocks of sphagnum moss and, higher up in the dryer areas, white headed cotton-grass and drifts of heather. In a good year, these drifts turned a wonderful purple in early to mid-August and were often interspersed with cloudberry and ling. She pointed out to me the notable inhabitants of this highland, the hares, lapwings, curlew, assorted raptors, and both black and red grouse. She insisted I understand other, more esoteric, differentiations too. I learned that the Reed Estate did not host relic communities of arctic alpine flora, the dwarf cornel, chick-weed, willow grass, alpine willow herb, rose root, hairy stonecrop, and alpine scurvy grass, that survive in some of the deep rocky ravines of estates further north. A relic flora that brings with it various environmental restrictions to vex its owners.
Even in its heyday the Estate’s farming side never made the Reeds much money beyound the tenants’ rents, but it enabled them to maintain a certain view of themselves. Lizzy’s public persona is now a strange afterglow of that former identity, a sense of self that’s genuinely invested in the farm as a livelihood for Sarah and herself. But it’s all muddled up with a ghost: the former social role of mistress of an estate as it once was; a roll that her mother-in-law wore like a glove.
Lizzy and I have never seen eye to eye on the role of shooting in the whole business of estates here. I dislike the various, largely bogus, claims that this somehow contributes ‘to the conservation and maintenance of the countryside’. Claims made by an industryonly interested in protecting its own interests, including the social status of landowners, and heavily subsidised by the tax-payer.
At the risk of boring you half to death, I’ll give you an indication (albeit a bit dated) of what’s involved, based on notes I made back in 2009. At that time 80 percent of estates were involved in grouse shooting, although grouse numbers had declined by nearly 50 percent compared to 2001. However, the fee levied per brace had increased by over 30 percent in real terms over the same period.Grouse shooting was estimated to account for 46 percent of permanent employment across the estates surveyed, but only 43 percent of reporting estates made a profit on their grouse. I think this confirms my view that maintaining the status of ‘gentleman landowners’ is a significant motive in all this.
The stone heap
That said, more estates were making more profit in 2009 than previously. It wasestimated that they spent almost £11 million on wages, operating, and maintenance expenditures. However, it’s not clear how much of this was offset by other benefits. (An ecologist friend thinks the offset is very considerable, not least because estates are able to collect substantive Government subsidies.)Much ‘everyday’ estate expenditure is on routine countryside management, including predator control (some of it highly suspect, if not illegal), pest control, and heather and bracken management, which to a degree may also benefit agricultural activity. But this is, as you’ll know, environmentally problematic. There was of course no mention in the report I’m quoting from of such environmental issues, nor of the relationship between all this activity and watershed management, or of the social and economic cost to the nation of having to deal with flooding. Nor was there mention of the very substantial subsidies paid to the owners of grouse moors by the State.All of which needs to be understood in the context of other facts, for example that over half of Scotland is owned by just 432 people, the most concentrated pattern of land ownership anywhere in the developed world.
Everything here began to change when the day-to-day management of the estate was passed over to Peter, who by then had graduated from agricultural college. He immediately began worked closely with Arthur Bell to pull the farming side of the estate business around. Some three months after he moved back north he and Lizzy got engaged and she became privy to the financial and other implications of his mother’s battle with the trustees. She would only tell me
so much but, reading between the lines, I think when the lawyers investigated the trust they discovered various irregularities. Whatever the case, the trust agreed to amend its own terms of reference and real managerial authority was largely devolved to Peter. The whole business was probably as costly as it was unpleasant and, at least initially, Peter ran into endless problems created, directly or indirectly, by his father. Not the least of which was that people on the estate he’d grown up with had been ‘let go’, which had naturally generated a lot of bad feeling locally.
Peter began at once to set in motion a plan that, to many people locally, was simply unthinkable. He put the Big House on the market and then sold it to a business syndicate, part of a package that also gave them exclusive rights to the shooting. The syndicate then turned the house and outbuildings into a small exclusive hotel that, by providing some much-needed local employment, helped to mollify local feeling. In parallel, Peter moved Arthur and his wife Nessa into a renovated estate cottage, taking over the factor’shouse at the farm for Lizzy and himself. All this allowed him to pay off virtually the entire estate overdraft. He then established a management company, with his mother and Lizzy as partners to sideline the trust. He and Lizzy then married quietly at a civil ceremony at the Jedburgh registry office. There were only about a dozen of us there, but Kate had come home especially. That was, to my knowledge, her last visit to the UK.
‘Picking up’ dead grouse after a drive.
That was in July. Early in the morning on the first Tuesday in December the following year, Peter took the old estate Landrover out onto the hill to liaise with a contractor assessing the value of a plantation with a view to felling it. The plan was that Peter would then meet Arthur and Graham Watson, the cattle man, by nine. At half past nine Arthur called in at the farm to ask for Peter.
It took a long afternoon to get Peter’s body out of the remains of the Landrover and bring it up from the river, which was high from several days of intermittent snow and sun. The police concluded that Peter had braked going into the second of the hairpin bends, that the brakes had failed, and that the vehicle had then skidded and the front hit a low boulder. At that point, the Landrover had turned over onto its side, slide down the rest of the steep, snow-covered bank, and dropped the ten odd meters into the freezing river below. The local mechanic who maintained the farm’s vehicles told the inquest the Landrover had only just scraped through its M.O.T. back in March and he’d suggested it be replaced. Peter told him he hadn’t the funds. The coroner recorded death by drowning. Lizzy, six months pregnant with Sarah, started having the most terrible nightmares and, after a very difficult birth, developed what began as post-natal depression.
Mrs. Oliver and I organized a wake for family and close friends at the farmhouse.
Arthur, normally an abstemious man, drank steadily. Knowing him as well as I do I sensed something was brewing and went to find Nessa, who was holding court among the local women in the kitchen. I told her my suspicions and suggested she get him home. She was in the process of bustling him into his coat when he turned and said to Lizzy, across the room and loud enough for all to heard: “He might as well ha’ killed him his self”. Nessa, blushing furiously, pushed him out of the door before he could say another word. Everyone knew exactly what he meant. Coming from Arthur, normally the mildest and most discreet of men, that outburst was taken as a judgement. Nessa might tell everybody she met how mortified she’d been that he should say such a thing in front of Lizzy and ‘herself’ (Lady Armitage) but, as I told her, he had only put into words what we’d all thought.
In the year and a half that followed, Mrs. Oliver and I looked after Lizzy and Sarah and did what we could to help Arthur, Mike, and Graham keep the farm going. My father had died of cancer two springs previous and Lizzy’s father of complications following a stroke that same summer, so we were all of us already feeling bereft. Kate was largely out of touch, living a hand-to-mouth existence in Australia, loving it, but poor as a church mouse.
My childhood world, the foundation of so much in my life, was in real danger of becoming something so distant, so prelapsarian,as to be wholly unreal; my oldest friends were distressed or scattered, and Cat was dead. My musing on that childhood began, perhaps, simply as an attempt to reconstruct, to rewrite perhaps, a substantial part of my identity. Historically, disaster of one kind or another has almost been the norm, so we’re used to having to telling things again, but differently, just to keep ourselves going.
In Scotland, a factor is an estate manager.
This is perhaps the most explicit and detailed of all the various ‘supernatural’ Border ballads that provide an account of a revenant,a ‘living ghost’, who returns from the grave to warn or instruct the living.