Category Archives: Debatable lands Vol. 3

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 14, 15 and 16.

Lower valley, March (sketch)

 Editor’s note. Flora included among her notes various descriptions or ‘sketches’ of visiting local places at particular times, of which this is the first. These are, I believe, as much ‘portraits’ of her kith as are her descriptions of the children she grew up with. 

The roar of the river descending is overwhelming – every surface throws back or drowns out all other sounds in this narrow place. I resist the draw of the falls and turn elsewhere – my attention running out ahead feeling its way into the complex tangle of saplings, fleshy plants, old fallen trees, then down to test out the uncertainties of the path as it turns suddenly underfoot – first scree, then mud, twigs, water, fractured rock, the path a fading trace.

With the turn up hill my ears adjust, start to catch differentiations against the diminishing roar. The irregular and muffled ‘plock’, ‘plock’ as the stream pushes one stone after another over a lip of rock to fall onto the pitted shelf below. Sounds that appear to be the drowned ghosts of hard, clean, crisp sounds of stone and water; sounds that bypass my turning thoughts to work directly on the nervous system. These speak of the singular unity, weight and density of each small stone that falls. Beyond the wild garlic and saplings are the sharper notes of melt water finding its way down through irregular stone heaps, frost-shattered boulders, the iron-stained crumbling cliff. There are an infinitely variety of sounds of trickling, falling, spouting, running, streaming down. And back behind all this still further, there is a faint, counterpointing, rumble and boom of water hitting the black pool edged with shreds of swirling, soapy foam.

So, along with an opening up of and losing sight of what is in view, a shift dictated by the simple logic of following the path, the valley is simultaneously re-constellated in quite another way; as the damp, chill, all-pervading space of sounding water in all its variations.

After bell-ringing practice

 As usual, I’d spent much of the Christmas holiday going down to the farmhouse to visit Lizzy, Sarah and Mrs. Oliver. This must be eight or ten years back now.

Lizzy had dropped Sarah off at a party early in the evening of New Year’s Day and, on her return, we started to tidy up the aftermath of the festivities. Then the phone rang. There was a pony out on the road above the ford and could Lizzy please help catch it? Mrs. Oliver hears well enough when she wants to and, as Lizzy put the phone down, she asked me if I’d go instead. Lizzy started to protest but, when I agreed, shot me a grateful look. I knew only too well how much she always missed Peter over the Christmas period. I put on coat and boots and went out into the rain.

When I got back the kitchen was immaculate and Mrs. Oliver was sitting straight-backed in her chair, a sherry bottle, two old wine glasses, and a large wide-necked plastic container of mixed nuts on the table in front of her. Without speaking she poured me a large glass of sherry and pushed the nuts towards me. Pulling off my coat, I caught sight of the photograph of the bell-ringers and, on a whim, asked who they were.

‘Lizzy’s gone up’.

I thought she’d decided to ignore my question but, after a sip of sherry, she adopted the storytelling voice I’d not heard since Sarah was little. She’d clearly been on the sherry some time.

She wasn’t particularly keen on bell ringing, but she was keen on the boy second from the end on the right. (She referred to him variously as ‘the boy’, ‘Bill’ and ‘Billy’, always with affection.) They were second cousins once removed and, looking carefully, I could see that his face somewhat resembled hers, round, strong browed, serious. She didn’t remember much about the rest of the group, only Billy and her friend Millie, but thought the younger man in the over-large suit was arrested in 1945 for selling black market goods. Billy was involved in bellringing because his uncle was both a church warden and a bellringer. Having persuaded Millie to sign up with her for moral support, Mrs. Oliver set about getting Billy to walk them home. (Millie lived two doors down.) As soon as she did Millie, now redundent, was allowed to gave up bell ringing. That happened shortly after the photograph was taken and, with Millie out of the way, Mrs. Oliver could focus on Billy.

They started walking out together properly when she was seventeen and, when Billy became an apprentice motor mechanic, she found weekday work cooking in a little hotel near the garage where he worked. Despite the hours, she and Billy managed to see a fair bit of each other. When the wat broke out and he was drafted into the RAF, she somehow managed to get work in catering at the big airfield where he was based. She then joined the WAAF when she was there and eventually rose to corporal. While she was there, she met Aircraftwoman 2nd ClassElizabeth Reed. Despite their different social backgrounds, the two women became lifelong friends.

Billy died just outside Caen, the result of burns following an accident. The two of them had promised his uncle they’d go back and ring the bells when the war ended, but when it came to it she hadn’t the heart. After her mother’s death she found the bell-ringers’ photograph among her mother’s things.

After the war she’d returned north to a job managing the canteen at Oliver and Son, an agricultural suppliers business. There she met young MasterMichael, a decorated soldier and a Socialist in a largely Tory world. She danced with him at the 1947 Christmas office dinner and accepted the offer of a lift home afterwards. After a short courtship they married. She’d wanted lots of children but he hadn’t. Once his father died he put the business first, something she took in her stride; that, his politics, and the charity work he did with his Polish friends. They had the two girls and, she added fondly, later you and the other children would always be around and needing to be feed.

 When she’d refilled our glasses a second time she asked about men in my life. Taken aback, I meant to give a quick answer and go home. But the sherry got the better of me. I told her that after Hamish I went off boys for a good while. I didn’t mention Mario. Instead I told her about London, the strangeness of living among people I knew nothing about, and who neither knew nor cared about me. About how, as a a child, I had longed to be just myself, Flora, not ‘Andy Buchan’s daughter’ or ‘one of the Oliver girls’ gang’ and, in consequence, how London had given me both a real shock and a new sense of identity. Finally, I told her a little about Quentin and my leaving him to return north.

‘Not much luck with the men then.’

I didn’t answer. I knew I should go home but it was blowing a gale again outside, the rain hammering the corrugated roofs of the outbuildings and clattering a metal bucket somewhere in the yard. I told her Quentin had been desperate to be a successful painter, and I didn’t want to play second fiddle to that. I didn’t tell her about going back to our flat with a sick headache one lunchtime and catching him and a voluptuous Spanish Masters student in flagrante delicto on our bed. I’d known for months we were drifting apart, but it took the shock of that betrayal to finish things between us.

‘Nobody local courting you?’


After another silence, she asked me what I was thinking. I had in fact been thinking wistfully about an all-too-brief affair in the last days before I left London, but I said I wished I’d been like Lizzy, set my heart on one man when I was young and, for better or worse, waited for him. Even I could hear just how maudlin that sounded.

‘Lizzy’s life’s been more complicated than you think.’


 Upper valley, June (sketch)

The rapid call of oystercatchers that rise and swerve sharply away, a flurry of black and white avoiding our advance, breaks into my reverie. From the distant hillside, now thick with flowers, come the barely audible sounds of sheep, curlew, lapwing. A small cloud of fieldfares rises from beyond the tree-covered bank and is swept away by a wind that does not yet reach down into these broad, sheltered, pool-dotted flats that run up alongside the upper burn above the gorge.

Closer at hand there is the ever-present plash and tumble of water that, combining with the unexpected warmth of the sun, becomes a soporific. The zigzag of ripples where we step across the narrowing burn echoes the strange, rhythmically stabbing heads of two goosanders working against the swift current in the river, now far below. Topping the steep bank above the ford we re-enter the realm of wind, its sound once again battering all else away from the inner ear. Everyday time returns.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Parts Eleven and Twelve.

Telling Stories

Miss Richardson was Northumbrian born and bred, and had a great fund of old Northumbrian stories that she’d slip into our lessons as pointers to how the world worked. She knew we’d shut our ears to anything that smacked of preaching and so always told her stories accordingly. I still remember some of them. One was about the couple from Netherwitton who are asked to adopt the son of the king and queen of the fairies. The man is then blinded in one eye when he catches the king stealing. She had begun by asked what we thought of old stories about fairies. When we didn’t know how to respond to what seemed to us a silly question, she suggested that if people can’t criticize authority directly, they invent stories that allowed them to draw attention to the injustices they suffer.

The story I remember best was one she told us older children just before I left, about the treasure in Broomlee Lough. The treasure should have been recovered long ago, but a link in the specially forged chain needed to pull it up had broken. I can still feel the pleasure of the shock of her explaining that this was because the smith who had made it was not the seventh son in an unbroken line of smiths as his father claimed. It turned out his father had gone away to Willimoteswick to gamble with the drovers and, while he was away, a bold young tinker had visited the farm. Nine months later his wife had given birth to the boy who became the smith who made the link that broke. She said we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be impressed by people who claimed their family or birth made them special, because everyone has their faults.

Another story, which I appropriated and retold one evening in London when talking politics with Desideria, Giulia, Francesco, Mario and Simon, was ‘The Faa’s Revenge’. It’s about what happens to the people who forget that ‘their’ land is taken from the people who previously tended it; their wealth acquired at the expense of others’ labour. People who fail to respect the basic laws of human compassion. Being the amateur historian that she was, this tale was mixed in with information about Kirk Yetholm, for centuries the headquarters of the ‘Egyptians’ or Gypsies in Scotland. (We’d not then learned to call them Roma). Their king, John Faa, a contemporary of King James V, had been granted a letter under the Privy Seal that confirmed his authority over all his people in Scotland and required all sheriffs in the country to assist him in maintaining the laws of ‘Egypt’.

In my mind, I always link of this story to the old Border ballad I associate with John Faa’s people: which Child calls ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’, but is also known as ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies O’, ‘The Gypsy Laddie’, ‘Black Jack Davy’ and ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’, but I know next to nothing factual about Faa himself. There is, however, a story that presents a very different tale to that in the songs. Namely that Faa ran away with the Countess of Cassillis and that her husband followed them and caught them at a ford over the river Doon, still known as the Gypsies’ Steps. He then forced his wife to watch from an upstairs room while he had Faa and his followers hanged in front of the Castle Gate at Cassillis. She was then said to have been imprisoned for the rest of her life. While Faa’s role as king of ‘Little Egypt’ is historical fact, there is absolutely no evidence to support the story of John Faa and the Earl of Cassillis’ wife.

‘Jan. 1979’



Iain, even now I find writing about Laura difficult. The facts are straight forward enough. Laura was Hamish’s imaginary friend and, apparently, my ‘lost’ twin sister. (Just how or why she was lost I was never told, but she was supposed to have disappeared soon after we were born.) Literally speaking, then, Laura was simple a fiction. But, because of being a shared secret I never participated in first hand, because of things that happened and didn’t happen between Hamish and me later, and because she became all too real in my dreams, it’s all rather more complicated than that.

I can’t find the James Hillman quote in the first Debateable Lands book just now, but the gist of it has stayed with me. That we don’t die alone but join the ancestors, the little people, the whole multitude of compound souls who inhabit our nightworld; the various complexes we talk to, the invisible friends who pass through our lives, all with their gifts of desires, fears, regretful sighs, surprising ideas. The multitude who accompany us all along, both angelic and demonic figures. Both angelic and demonic accomplices who, like the beasts in Rilke’s first ‘Duino Elegy’, are aware that we’re not really at home in this interpreted world but, as with habits, liked us and lodged, never gave notice. I think many children, like the animals they often feel closest to, notice how literally, reductively, adults take the world. Literally, of course, in large part to avoid having to acknowledge the ancestors and accomplices who give the lie to our belief that we are self-contained, self-sufficient monads. All of which is a way of saying I’ve come to think differently about Hamish, so haunted by his feared father’s obsessive vocation, and by all the ghosts of dead priests and academics who created the family library going generations back. Haunted too, I suppose, if only for a while, by me, Laura’s supposed twin sister. But all this relates, strictly speaking, to the time when Laura had gone to ground after my arrival in the village.

Hamish had been a sickly, and an unhappy, child. His maternal grandmother cared for him much of the time when he was small because his father insisted his wife put parish business first. His grandmother had worked as a librarian at Edinburgh University until she married a Classics professor twenty years her senior. When the Professor died, she moved south to be near her only daughter. Mrs. Laidlow read Hamish fairytales and all manner of poetry, including Petrarch’s The Canzoniere, which is maybe where the name ‘Laura’ came from. She knew perfectly well that her son-in-law regarded fairytales as an irrelevance in a properly Christian culture, and thought secular poetry was produced by unbelievers and degenerates. I like to think that’s why she read them to Hamish.

Hamish never spoke to me about Laura and I never asked him about her. I think he must have been afraid I’d tease him or challenge his story. I know, however, that before I arrived, Laura was the great secret he shared with a select few: Patsy, Cat, and two other girls at school, Mary Bell and Barbara Dunne. She became the central figure in their imaginative lives until my arrival broke the spell.

This seems to be what happened, pieced together from what Cat and Patsy later told me. They all somehow missed the announcement that a little girl called Flora was to join them next term, all except Patsy, and she misheard it. In high excitement, she told the others that the teachers had said Laura was coming to join them at school next term. I don’t know what Hamish made of this, only that Laura’s imminent arrival ‘in the flesh’ caused some consternation.

Hamish had enthralled the four girls with stories of Laura’s adventures for several months. Although Cat always insisted she knew perfectly well they were ‘just make-up’, Patsy insisted they all wanted very badly to believe in Laura. At that time Hamish had that pale, slightly unreal, aura of someone recovering from serious illness, so it no doubt it seemed entirely possible to them that he’d know about a mysterious girl who lived alone in the moss. Someone adults mistook, if she appeared in their peripheral vision, for a vixen, a roe doe, or a brilliant dragonfly.

Laura lived in Lady Moss and the surrounding woodland.

Later, when I learned ‘Long Lankin’, I used to imagine Laura and Long Lankin sharing a shelter there, with her listening to his muttering about the wrongs done to him and the terrible revenge he’d take. But Hamish was talking about our moss, one of the rare places that, as primary school children, we were expected to stay away from. Not, as far as I remember, forbidden because adults thought it was particularly dangerous (it wasn’t), but because it was simply somewhere they’d rather we didn’t go.

This, of course, made our going there essential if we wanted to earn the respect of our peers. There was, however, a ritual to be observed when making such a visit. You always told a friend you were going to the moss, you went alone, and you marked your visit by adding a little stripe of fabric with your first name written on it to the old tree right in the heart of the moss. Judging by the amount of old, decaying cloth there when I was a child, this ritual had been observed for a long time. Whether the moss was originally home to a ‘clootie’ tree I simply don’t know, but its name suggests it might in some way have been connected to either the Virgin Mary or to the Queen of Elphame.

Located between a big Sitka spruce plantation on one side and a string of small upland fields, our wooded moss lay just to the north of a flat, meandering section of Black Burn. With its dim light, numerous moths, tangle of stunted birch roots, dark pools, and sense of almost uncanny stillness, the moss was a perfect place in which to imagine Laura.

Patsy later told me that, after I turned up, Hamish quickly explained me away by saying the grownups had made a mistake. I wasn’t Laura but her very ordinary twin sister, and that I didn’t know a thing about her because she’d been stolen away.

When I was a girl, I tended to assume that Hamish was just naturally quiet, since that’s how he usually was when we were together. Later I wondered whether his silences weren’t the result of his being deeply preoccupied, working out how to locate me in relation to Laura, his first and perhaps deepest, all-be-it imagined, love. Did he really see me as her twin, or as her pale shadow or, later, perhaps as her uncanny, uncertain double; perhaps even as a dubious, ultimately illusory, seductress sent to make him forget her? Our imaginal life works in such odd ways any of these seems possible.

Quite some while after we split up, a figure I just knew was Laura started haunting my dreams, my ominous darker-haired, sharper-faced doppelganger. Her persistent presence eventually became frightening and, in the end, I had to exorcise her by making a ‘Laura’ mask for a little ritual where I ‘became’ Laura. (Why this took the form of a stylized fox’s head I don’t remember, but no doubt it was suggested by the dreams.) I got a friend to photograph me wearing it, to evidence the fact that I had finally ‘become’ Hamish’s Laura. But still, occasionally, there’s this young girl’s voice in my head that tells me I’m just imaginary, an invisible part of someone else’s kith!

I have wondered about Laura and her animal forms since I learned of the widespread folk beliefs that a person’s spirit can take possession of an animal, often to help the living in some way. You’ll remember our discussing the idea that children have a sense of themselves as emerging out of a field of forces and materials too big for them to grasp, only some of which are captured in their current, human, form? I suspect Hamish was just such a child, somebody who was troubled with illness and an unhappy home life and didn’t make the conventional absolute distinction between humans and the animals and insects he saw around him on an almost daily basis. So, Laura could also be a fox, a roe doe, a dragonfly, as well as a girl. Just as like so many girls in old songs who take animal form and then, as often as not, are killed accidently by their lovers.

I’ve also linked all this to A.’s comment in your book that he was all for permeability, which he linked to explorations of various figures from old folk cultures: the Mistress of the Animals, the Women from Outside, Artemis, Richelle, the Mistress of the Game, Oriente, and the Queen of Elphame. All these powerful figures who could move between the visible and invisible, the worlds of humans, animals and the dead. After his beloved and awe-inspiring Nana’s death, maybe the poetic figures she’d evoked leaked into Hamish’s world, a compound that took the form of Laura?

Sarah Aitcheson wearing the Flora / Faun / Laura mask.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part ten – Something elusive

Something elusive

 One August morning in my childhood I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom with my chin on the windowsill. A great flurry of rooks and jackdaws wheeled out over the big field behind the cottage, which had been cut for hay late into the previous evening. The field was dappled by swift shadows as a succession of small clouds blew past high above. I absorbed this unthinkingly, with the sun’s warmth, much as a cat might. The quality of these northern uplands that are, and yet are not, my home, was already settling into my marrow.

Now this is all bound up with a sense of something I can’t name but recognise as related to Don McKay’s notion of ‘wilderness’ as ‘the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations’.[1] But as soon as I write this I feel doubtful. In the past, London friends have interpreted my reluctance to talk about my northern childhood as indicative of some lack; an oblique reference to a problematic exile following the loss of my mother.

I think that’s nonsense, but ….

I suspect my not speaking about certain aspects of my childhood relates to something more complex and elusive than that loss; to my unruly love/hate relationship with the brooding and beautiful land in which I’ve lived and worked most of my life. A relationship that is also bound up with my intense dislike of a system of land ownership and management, based on a largely unacknowledged history of violence, that still determines so much about this landscape.

However, that child with her chin on the windowsill might, if you’d persuaded her, have admitted that her reluctance to speak about such things also had to do with her fear of glaciers. She imagined glaciers as vast implacable and deadly cows’ tongues, slowly rasping away the big salt lick of the world. She must have picked up on something Miss Richardson said at school and glaciers and ice fields haunted her imagination for years. She had nightmares about them freezing and eating everything living in the whole world. This seems so strange now, in a world of rapidly melting ice-caps, but was vividly real to her then. In that nightmare, vast sheets of rough ice came oh-so-terribly-slowly down the valley in the darkness, inexorably crushing and freezing everything in their path as they headed for our cottage. And with them came an overwhelming sense of an icy death without rest or stillness.

So perhaps Mum’s death had a part in my reticence after all.

There’s one other thing that may relate to the glacier business and my associated fear of the cold. I was a beanpole of a child who said she was hungry all the time.[2] (I’m sure now that wasn’t true.) Perhaps it was my way of protesting against being landed in this cold, wet, and windy place where I always seemed to have to find the energy to walk up yet another hill. I do remember early on enduring weeks of cold, unending, near-horizontal rain that so lashed the valley that the sheep and cattle seemed permanently huddled in the lea of whatever afforded them shelter. A rain that rattled on our roof and could even be heard over the sullen growl and rumble of the river, which normally ran so quietly some fifteen yards from our front door. So maybe it’s no wonder that the warmth and bounty of Mrs. Oliver’s Homehaugh kitchen looms so large in my memory. While it’s certainly the case that, as a child, I grew fast and did feel the cold, Miss Richardson was right when she told me that saying I was always hungry was ‘just a habit’. But, writing this now, I wonder less about the habit than the question: ‘hungry for what’?

Mum died when I was nearly seven. She and Dad were work partners too and, I believe, very happy despite problems with Mum’s foster parents. She was twenty-two and Dad thirty-one when they married secretly in a registry office the day after she graduated from the veterinary college where he taught part-time. Her wealthy parents, her adopted father the last of an old Catholic family, were appalled. Dad was a godless Scot of humble farming stock and, to add insult to injury, I came into the world three months earlier than was expected by respectable people.

I used to pretend I don’t know how Mum died so as not to have to talk about it. In fact, Aunt Claire told me what happened. Mum got an infected cut that didn’t respond properly to antibiotics. She developed a fever and then became seriously ill. After eleven weeks of inconclusive diagnoses and progressively longer periods in hospital, she died from complications resulting from a neurotropic virus. It sounds clichéd, but I think part of Dad died with her. As far as I know he never so much as went out with another woman. But then I suppose his only daughter might have been the last to know if he had.

I owe a lot to Miss Richardson, but I took her entirely for granted then. She taught me to look, listen, and think carefully about what I saw and heard. She illuminated our lessons with her knowledge and enthusiasm as a highly competent amateur naturalist and well-respected local historian. She could be stern, even frightening (she needed to be, given some of the children she taught), with a brisk matter-of-factness that almost hid her essential kindness. But whatever our various quarrels with her when we were under her charge, I never heard an adult she taught speak ill of her.


I always enjoyed her stories and, when I heard she’d died, I came up from London for the funeral. Everyone turned out to pay their respects, including lots of former pupils who’d moved away. Her funeral gave me a sense of our community here that nothing before or since has matched. It helped me decide to move back north.

[1] The reference is to Don McKay (2001) ‘Vis-à-vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness’ Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Gaspereau Press MMI, p. 24.

[2] This once led to a strange exchange that Flora didn’t understand at the time but which stayed with her. She wrote in a letter to me that Miss Richardson had an eccentric woman friend, a regular visitor to the village, who was a folklorist from the Highlands. She would often come into the school to talk to the children and, on one such visit, overheard Flora complaining about being hungry and called her over. Flora vividly remember her saying, very seriously: ‘be careful what you say lass, or a just-halver might hear you. You don’t want one of them’. This stayed with Flora because she had absolutely no idea what the woman meant, seemed to be entirely serious, and so frightened Flora. The following passage is from Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan’s Scottish Fairy Belief (2001): “Humans who ate a lot yet never seemed to gain any weight were believed to have ‘a voracious elve’ called ‘geirt coimitheth, a joynt-eater, or just-halver, feeding on the pith and quintessence of what the man (sic) eats, and that therefore he continues lean like a hauke or heron, notwithstanding his devouring appetite” (p. 63)].

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Parts eight and nine

Many Selves

I can quite easily name some of my day-world selves. There’s the practical and pragmatic ‘countrywoman’ who is intermeshed with Lizzy’s local and regional worlds. Then there is her intellectual sister, the somewhat brittle ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘European’ who learned her politics (and no doubt her tendency towards disdain) in London. Then off a bit to one side of them, and always slightly detached, there’s the ‘Mender and Maker’, on whom we’re all economically dependent. Back from these three there’s the ‘Listener /Respondent’ who first contacted you and who, I suppose, is the dominant voice in all this writing. She hovers uncertainly between my day-world and the night-world selves, who I’m far less certain about.

Maybe because we only find each other on the edge of reverie, catch each other’s eye at twilight, ‘between the dog and the wolf’, and then whisper to each other while playing games of hide-and-seek in dreams. There’s certainly a girl like the thin, uncertain schoolchild who loved Cat and Kate so fiercely. But then there’s her brother (?), a strange boy who might be the double of Dad’s uncertain little daughter as she was on the cusp of puberty. There’s a gaunt, older, woman who sometimes wakes me at night, whose yearning for a helpmate and bedfellow still unsettles me. And there are many others, odder and more elusive. For example, a woman dressed all in green, young or old is hard to say, someone I once tried to paint. In my painting she was thin-lipped, angry, righteous, and pale as death. For reasons I no longer remember, I called her Our Lady of the Roadkill. There are also numerous other, shadowy, beings (human and otherwise), many of whom have stalked me since childhood and, maybe, before. The shadowy revenants and composites, including a person who’s somewhere between Mike and Hamish, and various doppelgangers of friends like Richard and yourself.

All I can be certain of is that all these figures are somehow part of myself and none of them quite what they seem. They’re one reason why I’m writing all this.

Familiar animals

I sometimes wonder which animals would act as familiars if I were the ‘skinny little witch’ Lizzy once named me during a schoolyard quarrel? I imagine there would be at least three.

The first is called Finn by his owner. He’s a large white dog belonging to an ex-soldier who I greet regularly as he passes me on his bicycle. He and Finn live in a homestead made up of small sheds and a caravan, all set back from the path through the lower pasture beside Home Burn. Finn has the shed nearest the path but only barks if you go too close. He and his master appear disinterested, self-sufficient, uncomplaining. Both seem beings of considerable intelligence. I recently watched Finn as, untethered, he hunted rabbits across the low meadow and among the broom bushes that fringe it. He’s a swift and terrible killer. Mostly, however, he watches over the valley floor, its guardian and familiar.

The second is the large black cat who lives with Barbara Graham, a young widow, and her two boys in the end-of-terrace cottage next to the graveyard. The small steep fields above and below the terrace are his fiefdom, although occasionally I glimpse him much further away. (I assume from his swagger that he’s male.) I often notice him at dawn or around sunset, those in-between times. Then he haunts my peripheral vision, a lithe black presence suddenly animating some otherwise taken-for granted corner of land. He’s a mercurial figure, happy to mediate between my day and night worlds, moving purposefully or idly as suits him, out there at the edge of the human order and, sometimes, vast, shadowy yet soaked in moonlight, through my most private dreams.

I don’t know this cat’s name. He watches me speculatively when I past him, as if calculating something. Once he came slowly down the top of a wall and invited me to rub his head and under his chin before moving on. The quality of his purr was astonishing, a skin drum full of bees. He too is a skillful hunter and extraordinarily strong. I’ve seen him jump from the roadside to the top of a dry-stone wall with the corpse of a fully-grown rabbit in his jaws. I think he knows he has my greatest respect for this and his other qualities.

During our single face-to-face encounter, I was struck by the rough, luxurious density of his fur. He appears at a distance to be black but, in sunlight and close to, is a dark chocolate brown that shifts in intensity as he moves. The density and luxuriousness of his fur reminded me somehow of pubic hair. (I hear Kate say questioningly: ‘really, pet’, followed by her pirate’s dirty chuckle). That’s to say of the time when, a little girl of maybe five, I walked in unannounced on Aunty Claire to say I couldn’t sleep. She was standing with her back to me, quite naked, in front of the full-length mirror. Everything was dimly lit and smelled lovely and, in the mirror, I saw this thick luxurious dark triangle under her belly where I had only my little pale purse.

When I asked about it she quickly covered herself with a towel and laughed in that way adults do when they’re about to lie to children. She said: ‘Mummy will tell you all about it when you’re older’. But, of course, Mummy didn’t because by then she was dead. Ironically, it was Aunty Claire that Dad asked to explain the ‘facts of life’ to me. I’d known them for some time by then however, mostly thanks to Kate, but pretended I didn’t so as not to disappoint her.

There’s something uncanny about this cat with his dense black fur, something that differentiates him from solidly literal Finn in the meadows below. There is absolutely nothing uncanny or liminal about Finn. What you see is what you get. The cat, however, while he is preternaturally present and so invites me to be the same, is equally familiar in the shadowed between-spaces that link day and night, insidious memory and lucid dream, together; as much a carrier of sleeping souls as of dead rabbits over seemingly insuperable obstacles.

There is a third familiar, one I find myself strangely reluctant to write about because I feel its silent presence as being close to the void of death. I identify ‘it’, (I cannot provide a gender) and, indeed, there may be a pair, with the great ‘white lands’ of the high hills, the bleached expanses of Molinia and other rough grasses up there where the hares dance and have their forms. Unlike the other two familiars, I see it in a space now almost entirely outside the realm of current everyday human concern, a creature of the night wind and half clouded moon.

It’s a great white barn owl that hunts among the tumbled walls and collapsing sheds either side of the top road. I usually see it gliding somewhere along the stretch of road that runs up under the long gray outcrop before it climbs the last ridge and takes you over into the next valley. I suspect this spectral bird nests in the last of the old quarry sheds left standing. I’ve seen it no more than a dozen times in almost as many years, although I drive that way at night at least once a fortnight during nine months of the year. But I always sense its presence there, wondering if the headlights will catch its feathered bulk in silent flight out over the night landscape.


Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part seven: The respondent

[This the seventh of forty-nine narrative sections that make up Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3, the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project. The complete work is now available on request as a pdf. If you would like a copy, please contact me at:].



The respondent

Iain, I kept a copy of all my responses to you from our exchanges about the first ‘Debatable Lands’ book. You’ve probably long since forgotten them, but I think there are a few that still seem pertinent to what I’ve been struggling with in writing this. They are as follows.

 1]. You identified A. as a personification of questions about the world in which you earned your living. That identification was obviously central. You also called him a constant companion, which to my mind makes him equivalent to an invisible friend who accompanied you as you moved on from the world you conjured up in ‘Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig’. But it’s his role as the voice addressing the circumstances of your inability to reconcile your daughter’s long-term illness with the Apollonian attitudes of the medical world and, increasingly, of the academic research world in which you were enmeshed, that seems to me central to what’s been going on right across your work all these years.

This relates, it seems to me, to a powerful point of contact between the two of us. There are I think parallels between the, sometimes tense, role that A. played in your writing and the tensions between my ‘cosmopolitan’ self and the ‘country woman’ self who, sometimes grudgingly, participates in Lizzy’s world as seen by the local community. (There’s another Lizzy who is troubled and fragile and altogether different to the one the community sees). I would need to give more thought to this parallel but wanted to put down as a marker for myself about our relationship.

My provisional view is that A. was an aspect of yourself, a separate, even quasi-independent, entity who has a degree of distance from a situation you sometimes found almost impossible to live with. And I now suspect that I’ve taken on something of that grumpy old bastard’s role.    

 2]. I think you’re at least partly right about the working people here in the past living in multiple interpenetrating worlds; as interacting with, as I think you wrote, the familiar earth of animals and plants, the celestial world of God’s heaven, the demonic world of Satan, and the preternatural world of the planets and the stars. That although officially God sat spider-like in the center and governed the whole, in practice people lived among a multitude of contending forces located in an uncertain relationship to Divine Law.

Also, that ritual action, prayer, and chant or song might be employed to magically affect the interplay of contending forces. I liked your reminder that magic had different forms: ceremonial or angelic, natural, artificial, or demonic, the first two often blended with spiritual disciplines and prayers indistinguishable from the rituals of popular Catholicism. Of course, (she says!) this was associated primarily with women as practitioners of a magical form of healing, conducted out of motives of neighborliness, paternalism, good housekeeping, Christian charity or simply self-help. I’m sure many villages did have their nurses and wise women well-versed in herb-lore and in secret brews and potions, so that their medicine often blended into white magic and, as you say, sometimes verged on black. I still know people who can assume a certain authority locally based on a (perhaps misplaced) sense of that tradition and all that had once underwrote it. After all, I’ve heard an old man in Ellingham say that it was only when the railway came that the fairies stopped dancing on the Fairy Hill!

Who else but women would take the time to attend to all this, then as now? …

3]. You can imagine my delight at reading what you wrote about women’s lives on the Western Marches between the Twelfth and Sixteenth Centuries. The part of me who revels in the distaff Borders heritage I shared with Kate whooped with delight that in 1327 women on the Western March took part in raiding like some of their Gaelic-speaking sisters in Ireland. How very practical to carry off the shorn wool and linen that the men disregarded! No wonder they were characterized as independent-minded, courageous, absolute mistresses of their own houses, and concerned to dress well by foreign observers in Protestant Edinburgh. I do wonder, however, what the authorities there thought? I suspect they saw them as, at best, badly behaved and, at worst, ‘whores’. I particularly like the Italian ambassador’s comment about they’re being bold and not distinguished for their chastity because they gave their kisses more readily than Italian women gave their hands. That’s perfect for Kate, somehow.

You write that we have no equivalent woman’s penitential testimony to match that of Geordie Burn. But the Kates of our world in their earlier incarnations would surely have matched him, hopefully not in murdering, but quite possibly in drinking, stealing, taking deep revenge for slight offences, and in sexual adventures. I think of them as the Borders contemporaries of the Nurse in ‘Romeo and Juliet, Margaret in Much Ado about Nothing and Audrey in ‘As you Like It’.  Anyway, on a practical level, Geordie Burn never have found about forty men’s wives to fornicate with if there’d been no wives willing to oblige him! So, where are their voices now?

I’m sure that the repertoire of Borders singers in early Stuart times would have consisted of far more than Riding ballads about feuds and raids. You’ve only to think of the diverse repertoire of the early Bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Peetie Wheatstraw. They all had to earn a living and did it by singing what people wanted to hear.

Furthermore, why would James IV pay the Carlisle girl twenty-eight shillings (which must have been a fortune then) to sing ballads that dignified the very way of life he was campaigning so hard to end? It’s easy to forget that ballad collectors like Scott and Child had their own presuppositions based on class, propriety, and gender. I doubt they were any more tolerant of bawdy than the pious folk who condemned the Blues as the devil’s music and I’m sure their collections represent only a fraction of the songs known to someone like the ‘Carlisle girl’. (I say this knowing something of the repertoire of her modern equivalents, the singers among today’s Scots Travelers.) 

Woman working at the Tar Heel Mica Co. Inc., in Plumtree, North Carolina.

(photo. Elizabeth Turrell)

I was very moved by what you wrote about Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles meeting with Cis Jones. Lovely that she sang them versions of the old ballads: ‘Long Lankin’, ‘Barbara Allen’, ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender’, ‘Lord Bateman’, ‘The Elfin Knight’, and ‘Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard’. Moving too that she was sometimes accompanied by her two daughters and her granddaughters. Good for Maud for seeing through Sharp’s claim that Cis was of sound English stock and for acknowledging that about one third of Appalachian songs were carried on Scottish and Irish (I’d guess Scots-Irish) melodies! Interesting too that the supposedly English singers were mostly of northern English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish descent. So that Appalachian song culture, from the early C18th on, must have involved constant cross-cultural exchange between different European migrant groups, Native Americans, Melungeons, and Afro-Americans.

I’m also interested that Cis Jones’ belonging to the Holy Rollers religious sect didn’t stop her singing ballads, given how often they intervened to prevent the collectors from hearing ‘love songs’. I’d give a good deal to know what was in Cis’ mind when she said she was sure Sharp and Karpeles would make no bad use of the ballads. It makes them sound like spells, part of the lore of ‘granny women’ and ‘yarb doctors’. Maybe the other singer Sharp and Karpeles were particularly interested in, Julie Boone, was rarely at home, and wandered all around the country bare-footed staying wherever she happened to be when it was dark, because she was out collecting ‘yarbs’? Anyway, you’ve given me an appetite to discover more about all this and, when I do, I’ll report back.[1]

Re-reading these old thoughts again today made me think about the many different persons that make me up. I’ll come back to this another time.

[1] Flora was true to her word on this and, among other things, obtained an extraordinary set of photographs taken at the Tar Heel Mica Co. Inc., of Plumtree, North Carolina by the ceramicist Elizabeth Turrell, (see colour image above). Flora wrote to me that she’d like to think of the women in them as the granddaughters of people like Cis Jones and Julie Boone, although she doubted they still shared their beliefs.


Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part 6. ‘The Two Kitchens’.

The two kitchens

Almost the first thing Mrs. Oliver did when she moved in with Lizzy and Sarah was to ask if she could hang an old photograph from Homehaugh on the kitchen wall. When it was up she’d regularly glance at it, fondly but reverentially, as a devout Russian Orthodox believer might at an old family icon.

In that photograph, she’s about fifteen and looks assertively out from the middle of a group of bell-ringers. A rather short, serious-looking girl in school uniform who is already becoming the woman I’ve known since I was eight. On her left a taller, thinner girl with glasses, Millie, identically dressed but for white ankle socks. She looks as if she’s about to giggle. There are eight older men and one younger, who wears an ill-fitting double-breasted jacket. Finally, there’s a schoolboy about the age of the girls. Everyone looks very serious except Millie and the younger man.

This photograph now hangs in Lizzy’s kitchen next to an old child’s blackboard where farm and household tasks are written and erased daily. It overlooks the big kitchen table with its dark green legs, draws for cutlery, and ridged and knotted pine top. The house revolves around this table, located as it is between the yard beyond the back door, the farm office and passage that leads to the sitting room, and a shabby utility room dominated by a big old washing machine that’s always busy. It’s the hub of a working world-without-end, now watched over by Mrs. Oliver’s bell ringers. They used to face the kitchen window at Homehaugh, the house where Lizzy and her sister Kate were born and grew up. There, from opposite the massive double sink, they looked out across the narrow back lane, the small home field and churchyard, towards the high hill above.

That photograph is also witness to a lifetime of Mrs. Oliver’s cooking. To thick yellow scones, large uneven loaves of brown bread, crusty meat pies, and the almost black rich fruit cake that always appeared in our bait-boxes on holiday trips, walks or rides out. To eat that cake again now is to return to childhood, to meals in the hidden river valley or the hills, the taste of many expeditions. And to drinking sweet tea out of chipped enamel mugs in the big shabby back room at Homehaugh itself on wet winter Sunday afternoons. The smell of cooking would waft in to where we all sprawled, us girls chatting with half an ear on the boys’ squabbling and to whatever music James was currently playing: Dylan, Them, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Leonard Cohen.

Mrs. Oliver cooks less now and Lizzy is reluctantly stepping into her shoes. Reluctantly because she’s so busy on the farm, but also because she knows she’ll never cook as well as her mother and has a competitive streak. Mrs. Oliver helps her cook weekdays and, at weekends, teaches her granddaughter Sarah. That, along with her regular glance towards the bell ringers, suggests she’s feeling her age. I see these things because I’m in and out of that kitchen all the time.

I learned from Lizzy that her mother met Elizabeth Aitcheson (then Elizabeth Reed) as a canteen manager in the WAAF. Lizzy is named after her and because of that friendship they moved to Homehaugh in 1954, shortly after old Mr Oliver died. Elizabeth Reed’s older brother, a bomber pilot, was killed late in the war and her younger brother, a soldier who became a Japanese prisoner-of-war, died in 1947. At that point, Elizabeth Reed left home. (The locals always assumed there was a man involved, something Mrs. Oliver dismissed as empty gossip.) Elizabeth only returned after a car accident that left her permanently lame. Her father, old Mr Reed, never recovered from losing the boys and wanted to make a male cousin his heir. There was a monumental family row of the kind we specialize in on the Borders and have done from time immemorial. In the end, a formidable great aunt of Lizzy’s brokered a compromise whereby the estate was put in trust, although this involved certain conditions that put Elizabeth under pressure to marry. She left home again when she could and only returned when her father was dying. (Her mother had died four years after her younger brother was born.) Then Elizabeth suddenly married Sir William Aitcheson. Handsome, titled, a decorated war hero, well-connected in both the business and political worlds, he was considered by the Reed clan to be ‘a very good catch’, not to mention ‘a remarkably good fellow’ for marrying an eccentric, if wealthy, cripple. It was clearly a marriage of convenience from the start, since they mostly lived apart. She up here, him in York or London. He got his big country estate and shooting parties each summer; she her sons and a loosening of the trust’s hold on the estate.

Lizzy’s parents were uneasy about Sir William from the start. They felt he took too much for granted and, while Mrs. Oliver wasn’t entirely immune to his considerable charm, she thought him untrustworthy. Mr. Oliver disliked him from the start as a smooth Public School man, a snob, and an ‘incomer’ (conveniently ignored the fact that the Armstrongs have always been a Name to reckon with in the Borders.)

Personally, I think Sir William was predictably true to type, but with the savvy to find new ways to underwrite his traditional presuppositions about family, class, and entitlement. But then Lizzy would say I’ve always been unnecessarily critical of our landowning class since I went to London.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Parts 4 and 5: ‘Fragments from genealogies’ & ‘Richard Kerr’

[These are the fourth and fifth of forty-nine narrative sections that make up Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3, the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project. The complete work is now available on request as a pdf. If you would like a copy, please contact me at:].

Fragments from genealogies



Richard Kerr

Richard had rented a cottage on the southern edge of our high moorland for several years before I discovered he was there.

When Dad and I first moved north, Richard was studying at university and often visited us in the summer. I didn’t see a lot of him then because he stayed in the old caravan in the garden, although he sometimes ate with us in the evening. But I often heard him, talking with Dad downstairs late into the night, or singing when he came in for a bath. I was rather shy of him because his occasional appearances at breakfast, still glowing from his bath and dressed only in shorts, gave me my first, somewhat bewildering, taste of the mysterious attraction of the male body. I do, however, have a very fond memory of us all playing tag out in the back garden early one morning the year we moved north. Me rushing around on the wet grass playing the fool, and the two men so bent up with laugher they’d no chance of catching me. It was the first time I remember Dad laughing properly after Mum died.

After Richard graduated we got snippets of news from Christmas cards. He got a First in Earth Sciences, did a Masters in Environmental Studies, and then a Ph.D. on something involving the Forestry Commission. He was overseas when we had Dad’s funeral and I lost touch with him after that. So, when I heard where he was living I got his number and rang him. We agreed to meet for lunch at a pub after I’d made a delivery, suggesting neutral territory in case, after all those years, we didn’t hit it off. As it turned out, we did.

He was a little late. He’d helped with a stray bullock hit by a lorry and then needed to clean up. We talked over a ploughman’s lunch and then went back at his cottage and continued over mugs of tea. We walked a big mongrel called Mike, who Richard shared with a neighbour. Then he made soup and we ate it together with bread, cheese, pickle and his own small sweet tomatoes, grown in a little ramshackle greenhouse behind the garage. We were still talking when I noticed it was almost midnight and that I needed to drive home.

Richard had worked full-time for the Forestry Commission as a ‘field scientist’ and then diversified. He studies, and occasionally culls, roe deer and acts as a consultant. He also records data for various long-term environmental projects on forestry for two different universities. The cottage is full of books, the garden of vegetables and bees that, like Mike, he shares with a neighbour because his work involves traveling. When he’s at home he also does odd jobs around the village, mostly gardening, walling and other handyman stuff. He says it’s to supplement ‘the pittance’ he gets for his work, but I suspect it’s just as much because he’s gregarious, likes to gossip, and enjoys the physical work.

Richard is tall, lean, with a weathered face and crow’s feet around his eyes. His hair is thick, cut close, flecked with grey, and starting to recede. He has powerful arms and big expressive hands – the hairs on their backs are ginger brown but go almost blond in summer – with which he gestures as he talks. His voice is no less deep, lively or edged with laughter than in my childhood memories. When he gave me a farewell kiss on the cheek he smelled slightly earthy, with a hint of wood smoke, well lived-in wool, a touch of sweat, and a hint of garlic from the soup. As I turned I felt a faint tug of desire and, for the time it took me to walk to the van, turn, and wave back to the figure in the doorway, I wondered what he would be like as a lover. A mistake. But I made a resolution to visit him when I could.


As it turns out there wasn’t that much time for visiting. I saw him twice that spring and maybe four or five times over the summer and into the autumn. In early November, a community forestry group on the Isle of Mull hired him as a consultant. He met Margaret there and sent an email announcing that they were engaged and he’d be moving to Mull. The significant bit read:

I’ve met someone called Margaret McDonald, a wonderful woman who lives here with her son Ben, a boy who sings like a lark and has given all their hens Gaelic names. (Ben’s father was drowned at sea when he was three.) Margaret is fifty per cent of the post office here. She also helps run an internet repair business for the north end of the island. A pillar of the local community in the best sense, who has helped negotiate me a part-time job here on a highlands and islands community forest initiate. Despite my advanced age, she has also graciously agreed to marry me. Wedding invitations will follow in due course and, as soon as I can sort myself out, I’ll move to Mull.

I was invited to the wedding but made my excuses. I sent them the little yew box I’d made him as next year’s Christmas present, along with a copy of an old photo of Dad with myself, aged about ten I suppose. I last saw him when he and Ben drove away with the remainder of his possessions. He had spent a week sorting out his lease, saying goodbye to friends, collecting up the last of his books, furniture and so on into his van and a horse trailer he’d borrowed from Margaret’s brother. Mike and the bees had already gone. Sarah Aitcheson helped me entertain Ben while Richard was busy. A thin, darkly beautiful boy who said little, but smiled his dazzling slow shy smile to make up for it.

Richard, Ben, Lizzy, Sarah and I squeezed around my kitchen table for supper the night before they left. We had a grand evening together and, despite my sadness, I enjoyed watching Sarah, then just turned sixteen, try out her already considerable charms on young master Ben. She was wearing her big black DMs, red tights, short sleeveless blue dress over a black tee shirt, with her long dark hair tied back and up. Very adult-looking but still also just a girl – that wonderful combination of not quite knowing what to do with her body, of ready smiles and open laughter, the odd blush, and those almost savage little surges of energy that ensure she’s never still for long. Ben, probably a year or two younger, was clearly smitten. Watching them flirt and laugh together I remembered her aunt Kate at Sarah’s age. When we said goodbye outside his cottage late in the morning the next day, I had the sinking feeling in my stomach I get now whenever someone who matters to me goes away.

After the goodbyes, Richard started the van and, opening the window, passed me the white glazed ceramic bottle he’d kept among assorted oddments on the old pantry shelf. I’d said, the last time I called in, that it was a little white sentinel, keeping watch on the home road. As he gave it me he smiled and gave a little nod. Then he reversed the trailer around the yard and headed down the lane. Sarah, who had come to help load but spent most of her time flirting with Ben, forgot about being grown-up and jumped up and down, waved wildly, until they disappeared.

I went straight back inside to shut windows and start locking up. I needed time alone to still my heart.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part 3. ‘8 Lost Songs’ revisited (for Catherine Douglas).

[This the third of forty-nine narrative sections that make up Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3, the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project. The complete work is now available on request as a pdf. If you would like a copy, please contact me at:].

Editor’s note. In 2004 I initiated a project that became ‘8 Lost Songs’, an artist’s book that included a CD of music, prints and a map on silk. It was made with two friends, the musician Garry Peters and the book designer Jonathan Ward. The book was produced in a limited edition, but has a second, digital, life. It was the second publication in an ongoing ‘deep mapping’ project, begun in 1999, and was my first attempt at ‘a true story that never happened’. In a note among her papers Flora suggests that, because of what happened to her friend Cat, I return to ‘8 Lost Songs’. What follows is a slightly revised and further annotated version of the original text, but should now be read in the light of Flora’s email to me about Cat’s later life and early death, reproduced above.

 ‘8 Lost Songs’ – Preface

The circumstances that led to this project require some comment. In 1999 I began work on a book with a scholar and artist who, for reasons of his own, wished to remain anonymous. He was referred to only as A. The book we produced – Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episode – was published by Wild Conversations Press, and appeared in January 2004. A. had retired from all forms of public life that year, something he had been contemplating for some time. In the autumn of 2003, in preparation for his retirement, he kindly sent me material relating to various ongoing and unfinished projects he thought might interest me. The material that resulted in Eight Lost Songs immediately caught my attention.

The content of this publication has been taken from various sources. A. undertook almost all the original research on which the publication is based, which I then wrote up in the form it appears here. The ‘ethnographic notes’ on the eight lost songs themselves are, apart from a few corrections, reproduced here as cat (as ‘Alison Oliver’) wrote them. My own role has been to edit and assemble the material for publication, to produce the images, to provide some additional contextual material in the form of footnotes, and to invite Gary Peters to respond musically to what we know of the ‘lost’ material.

Introduction: ‘8 Lost Songs’

This project is best described as a celebration but, paradoxically, one that has at its heart several absences. It responds, in words, images and music, to such information as we have about a set of eight lost songs linked, as far as we know, by their connection to the former parish of Southdean. We know nothing about these songs beyond what is set out in Alison Oliver’s notes, reproduced below.

No attempt has been made to ‘reconstruct’ the songs, as individuals like Sir Walter Scott might have done in the past, not least because there is simply not the information available to do so. Instead, we have responded, using what information we have and our imagination, to the enigmatic trace of the various individuals whose lives provided the focus around which the original songs appear to have taken shape.

The background to ‘8 Lost Songs’

On May 6th, 1969, ‘Alison Oliver’ (Catherine Douglas), who claimed to be a Canadian singer of Scottish decent, played a tape to the independent record producer George Canning. On the tape, she had recorded herself playing and singing what she claimed were eight traditional songs. She also played and sang at least two of these songs ‘live’ to Canning. Oliver, an unknown singer working the northern folk club circuit, had spent almost eight months getting an appointment with Canning. When they finally meet, he was clearly impressed both by her singing and playing and by the material itself. He asked to borrow the tape so that he could play it to associates but, unfortunately for us, she refused, saying she’d rather return and play the material ‘live’. After some discussion, he agreed in principle both to help her cut a proper demo and look for a recording contract for her, providing his associates were as impressed with the material as he was. The only note of discord in an otherwise positive meeting came when he asked Oliver why, if these were indeed traditional songs, he had never heard any of them before? Oliver was clearly uncomfortable with this question and launched into a long, convoluted story about how her family had taken an old ballad manuscript to Canada with them when they left Scotland, where the songs had subsequently been forgotten.

As Canning later told Sarah Norton, his personal assistant, he didn’t believe this story and had implied as much to Oliver. At this point she had become defensive and insisted that, while the arrangements were hers, both the tunes and lyrics were traditional. Canning dropped the issue but, although the two parted on good terms, he told Norton to write to Oliver and tell her that, given her insistence that these traditional songs came from a manuscript in her family’s possession, she must bring the original manuscript with her when she next came down to London.

Some days later a fire broke out in the small, isolated cottage Oliver rented. No trace of a body was found in the burnt-out room and to all intents and purposes she disappeared.

That might have been the end of the matter had A. not found a thick envelope of material tucked into the back of a very battered copy of the first volume of Child’s English and Scottish Ballads, which he noticed at a car boot sale. The book had ‘Alison Oliver, 1965’ written inside the front cover and, to judge by the many marginal notes, she had made a close reading of its contents. A. bought the book and became intrigued by the narrative implicit in the collection of documents. He decided to find out what he could about the circumstances surrounding the loss of the eight songs. The documents included a letter confirming Oliver’s appointment with Canning and another from Norton passing on Canning’s request that she bring the manuscript to London. They also included what he took to be the draft ‘sleeve notes’ reproduced below.

Like Canning, A.’s initial assumption was that Oliver had simply ‘faked’ a set of tradition ballads, using Child as a basis, and that the notes were intended to lend an air of authenticity to her forgery. However, after some extensive research A. realized that, although almost certainly faked, the ballads were in many respects highly sophisticated. All the figures referred to in the notes had not only existed, they each had some link to Southdean. In addition, the sleeve notes’ references to other ballads, some of which are not in Child, together with Oliver’s account of local features such as the state of the site at Hilly Linn, appeared to be entirely accurate. This suggested that, at the very least, the lost songs were a deeply researched forgery. His investigations confirmed that the songs were not known locally and all the experts he consulted said it was very unlikely that they were indeed ‘traditional’ songs.

Regardless of the question of the exact provenance of the songs, it seemed to be a little short of tragic that the ‘Sowdun parish blues’, as Norton recalled Oliver laughingly calling them during her meeting with Canning, have not survived. Canning had an ear for strong material. He would hardly have offered to help an unknown singer unless Oliver’s performance, and the quality of the material, were outstanding. The notes suggest that, whatever their origins, these songs represented a rich and varied set of insights and/or imaginings about lives in Southdean parish between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The Eight ‘Sowdun’ (Southdean) songs: Alison Oliver’s notes

One: ‘The Crow Child’ or ‘Ranting Jamie and the Witch’s daughter’. Of the eight Sowdun Parish songs, ‘The Crow Child’ is the longest and strangely, the closest in style to the old Borders ballads such as ‘Thomas Rhymer’ and ‘Tam Lin’, with their seamless blending of the mundane and supernatural. However, unlike the almost archetypal characters in the old ballads, the figure of ‘Ranting Jamie’ Courton appears to be based on an historical person. We know from historical records that, in 1670, the radical Covenanter James Courton of Southdean was drowned when the government-owned ‘Pride of London’ sank of Deerness. Courton had been a prisoner on the ship awaiting transportation to the American colonies. Other elements in this song remain, at least in terms of any historical basis, either confused or obscure.

It has been suggested by some ethnologists, however, that the first third of The Crow Child refers to the death, in 1615, of a young Shetland woman condemned as a witch for fostering a fairy child which she hid in Caldback hill. Some have assumed that she had an illegitimate child by a sailor and tried to hide this from the Kirk. Caught nursing her child, she claimed only to have taken pity on a chance-found ‘fairy’ child. However, any association with fairies, however charitable, was liable to be treated as a capital crime and she was subsequently executed. The child is believed to have survived, to have later escaped to Orkney, and subsequently to have become one of the most feared and respected ‘howdies’ (wise women with supernatural powers) in those islands’ history. She, too, is said to have had a daughter at a time when most women were past such things. The reference to the ‘crow child’ comes from an Orkney story that goes as follows.

The Crowlady’ Ruth Jones (photograph Phil Collins).

A young girl went out to play on the hill above her mother’s house one day with her friends. After a while they became bored with all their usual games and wondered what to do. The girl child, daughter to the ‘howdie’ Mattie Finn, said: ‘I’ll show you something my Mam taught me’. She stood on a great stone, flapped her thin arms, inviting her friends to catch her, turned into a great black crow that flew low over their heads. Astonished but delighted, they ran laughing and calling after the crow until they were tired out. The crow returned to the great stone and began to change back into a little girl. But the children soon realised something was wrong. What hopped and shook on the stone was a young girl with the head of a great black crow. They became frightened and, after whispering together, sent the youngest of the group to find Mattie Finn. Mattie was standing at doorway talking to a sea captain.[1] She gave the poor child a black look when she interrupted them but, when she heard what had happened, ran straight out to the hill. Coming up to her daughter, hopping and crying on the great stone, she called out some words and at once the crow child had her own head again. Mattie took her by the shoulder and gave her daughter a good hard slap, saying: ‘that’s to teach you not to forget what you’ve been taught’.

How the story of Mattie’s daughter and her grandmother’s terrible death became linked to the loss of the ‘Pride of London’ and the death of a Southdean Covenanter is not known. It must be assumed that a singer took a muddle of local island tales of ‘howdies’, fairy lovers and cursed sailors and, sensing in them the abiding thread of conflict between the ‘man of God’ and the woman who follows other paths, gave them a new form and currency through the link to an historical event, the deportation and death of ‘Ranting Jamie’ Courton, a typical example of the ‘migration’ of traditional material.[2]

Two: ‘The Righteous Fugitive’. This song was very probably inspired by the life and deeds of the Rev. William Veitch, an outlawed Covenanter and outdoor preacher, who became well known in the parish of Southdean and surrounding area for his ability to escape capture by ‘the persecuting soldiery of the bigoted Stewarts’. A local account alleges that ‘the staunch Covenanter own his immunity from capture to an underground hiding place on a heather clad knoll, so deftly fashioned and advantageously situated that he could view the landscape and watch the military as they fruitlessly searched the moorlands endeavoring to ‘track the fugitive to his lair’. The description of Veitch’s ‘lair’ in the ballad suggests this may have been the barrow formally known as ‘Carter’s Howe’ that overlooks the Carter Burn and the old road to Otterburn as it runs east across the parish. If this is the case, there is a certain irony in the fact that this most zealous of Covenanters owed his life to the one feature in the local landscape still associated with the pagan (‘fairy’) world remembered in the ‘supernatural’ Borders ballads.

 Three: ‘By Katey’s Cross’. The character of ‘Auld Peter’ at the center of this song is said to be Peter Oliver, a Southdean fiddler and supposedly the last person in the parish to see the ‘good neighbours’, as the fairies were euphemistically known. This same sighting was reported by his son, Robbie Oliver, to a local historian at some point early in the nineteenth century. It was described as having taken place somewhere on White Hill, to the north of the old Leatham chapel. The central event of the song resembles later, better known stories, for example that told by Son House of Robert Johnson, in which musicians are said to have sold their souls to the devil to play better. The Queen of Elphane is an appropriate substitute for the devil here, since the Church traditionally linked them, claiming that she paid him a human tithe every seven years. (The original basis for this tradition can perhaps be traced back to elements of pagan ritual associated with the sacrifice of the king to the triple Goddess, who became in turn the Queen of Elphane and featured prominently in Scottish witch trials).

The exact location of the cross roads where Auld Peter meets the queen, once the site of a local market, is now lost. Circumstantial evidence suggests, however, that it may have been located at the point where the old drove road running up from Leatham crosses the main Otterburn road before fording the Carter Burn.

 Four: ‘Wandering Jamie’. ‘Wandering Jamie’ would appear to record the adventures of a certain James Hume Turnbull ‘of Hyndlee’, who was born 1842 and, like many of his generation, left the parish twenty-six years later to seek his fortune in the New World. It has been suggested that, having fallen foul of the law in Scotland, the historical James did indeed cross to the New World. (An undated warrant for the arrest of a James Hume Turnbull, a suspected ‘Resurrection Man’ working in Edinburgh, can be found in the Edinburgh Records Office. Apart from the name, however, there is no evidence to link these two men and it is likely that the warrant predates the birth of Turnbull of Hyndlee. From the notes, it appears that this song may have been not dissimilar to the traditional ballad known as ‘Lord Franklin’). He is said to have travelled deep into the northwest of Canada where he died of his wounds out on the frozen sea following a mortal battle with a great white bear. Beyond the reference to ‘Hilly Linn above the Jed’ that sits oddly in the second verse and may be a later addition, there is nothing to link the song directly to Southdean. It none-the-less accurately reflects a major facet of the parish’s history – the exodus from the hill ‘farmtouns’ to find employment either in the big cities or in the New World. The former farmstead of Hilly Linn is now no more than a name on the map and a few moss-covered stones beside a young rowan tree in an area of rough ground between rows of recently planted forestry.

 Five: ‘Bold Helen’. Some circumstantial details in ‘Bold Helen’ suggest that it may be based, if only in part, on events in the life of Helen Gerdin of Dykraw ‘in Jedburg Forest’ who, on the third of June 1675, was fined for forestalling the market at Jedburgh by selling meat before ‘the ringing of markitt bell’. While the song may also refer to other actual events in Helen’s life, it probably draws for the most part on much earlier material, now lost, celebrating the wit and cunning of independently minded countrywomen in their dealings with husbands, neighbours, lovers and the authorities. The vivid account of Helen’s erotic adventure in verses eleven to thirteen, highly unusual in a ballad of this kind, is not unlike the erotic encounter of the Waggoner and Jenny in the English ballad ‘Ge Ho, Dobin’. Both songs make evocative use of parallels between the sexual act and the characteristic motions of a form of transport – the bumping wagon in ‘Ge Ho, Dobin’ and the actions of the vigorous oarsman in ‘Bold Helen’.

The ‘mill race’ where Helen half drowns her husband lies to the southeast of the site of the old Sowdun church and its course is still just visible in the field behind Sowdun farm. ‘Tam’s Rig’, where Helen hides from the Sheriff’s men, is almost certainly Tamshiel Rig, where the remains of the shielding can still be seen near the site of an Early Iron Age settlement and fort now destroyed by modern forestry planting.

 Six: ‘The Death of the Rev. Thomas Thomson’. The account in the parish record states that the death, in 1716, of the Rev. Thomas Thomson after a two-day illness was the result of ‘supernatural intervention’. (The exact nature of which is not recorded, although the song itself suggests that it was the result of a ‘fairy’ curse). Like other ‘Sowdun’ songs collected here, this one hints at an underlying and deeply felt conflict between the ‘rational’ Christianity of men like Thomas Thomson and an earlier, ultimately pagan, world view that retained much of its power in the remote upland farms into the early nineteenth century. Given her sudden appearance and disappearance in the snow-covered landscape ‘beside the Carter Burn’ on a day when a wind is blowing from the north, we can reasonably assume that the ‘fair hunting lady’ who ‘looked at Thomas with a cold eye’ after he had scorned the ‘poor tinker’ is no ordinary woman. She resembles the ‘Queen of Elphane’ in the ‘supernatural ballads’ and as she is discussed by Robert Graves in The White Goddess.

 Thomas Thomson’s son James (1700-1748) was born in Southdean and became one of Britain’s most influential poets of the period, inspiring Turner, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Perhaps the ‘fair lady’ felt she owed him some recompense for what she had done to his father.

Seven: ‘Black-eyed Border Maid’. Oddly, the ‘black-eyed heroine of this relatively recent song remains anonymous, despite herself making it clear that she is a descendent of ‘Black Jannet’. This is the ‘Black’ Jannet Grieve‘ of Suddonrig’ who married in 1762, one of the many formidable women in a family well represented in the parish. She in turn is probably the granddaughter of the ‘bonny Jannet Grieve’ who hid ‘Bold Helen’ in the song of the same name. While it will appear singularly odd to a modern listener that reference to a ‘green mantle’ should give rise to such consternation in the Grieve family, the reasons for this become obvious when we know that ‘greens’ is an ‘archaic’ expression for sexual intercourse, and that a ‘green mantle’ refers to ‘a roll in the grass sometimes, but not always, associated with loss of virginity’.[3]

 Eight: ‘Margaret and Isobell’. It is a matter of historical record that Margaret Chisholm, the wife of a traveler named Thomas Olipher (or Oliver) was fined in 1640 for wounding a certain Isobel Leidance in the face. Like the Rev. William Veitch, Thomas and Margaret appear to have used a local barrow for either shelter or, perhaps more likely, storage of dubious goods, which would explain Isobel’s ambiguous taunt about abusing the hospitality of the ‘Elphane Queen’. (Tempting as it might be to suggest that this barrow is the same ‘Veitch’s lair’, otherwise known as Carter’s Howe, linked with ‘The Righteous Fugitive’, there is no evidence for this). However, it can be noted that there are a series of long, twisting ‘banks o’ gravel grey’ clearly marked on the first ever Ordinance Survey map as lying along the edge of the ‘haughs’ that border the Black Burn, just as they do in the song. Whether these were the location of the epic fight between the two women, or indeed whether that fight inspired the song’s account of the protracted and increasingly surreal battle recorded in the song, hardly matters. Whatever the case, it is a perfectly example of the peculiar, black humour found in certain ballads.


Alison Oliver.

[1] On the islands the ‘howdies’ or ‘Finns’, said to gain their power from the fairy folk, were believed to be able to summon up fair or foul winds and could be persuaded to sell a fair wind for good silver.

[2] Alison Oliver’s notes resonate with Rebecca Solnit’s observations about country music. Solnit observes that: ‘the old Scots and Irish ballads were as gory and gloomy, but they are generally heirlooms now, and country and western music is their immigrant bastard grandchild, something that came into its own only half a century ago and hasn’t died out yet […] For me country’s definitive song might be Long Black Veil’, whose way with time is straight out of the Bronties. A dead man sings ten years after his hanging for a crime he didn’t commit, but his only alibi is unutterable: ‘I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”, who when he died “stood in the crowd and said not a word”. Now she wanders the hills in a long black veil and, well, visits his grave where the night winds wail. Hills and night winds are still there, are reliable, are what you have in the end’. See Rebecca SolnitDiary – An account of driving in the Serra Nevada / New Mexico driving east in the London Review of Books, 9th October 2003. I would argue, however, that the approach to time she refers to is less that of the Bronties than of traditional Scots and Borders ballads that deal with the dead and with revenant beings, for example ‘The Unquiet Grave’, ‘Clerk Sanders’ and ‘Sweet William’s Ghost’.

[1] This expression crossed the Atlantic with the old ballads. In 1972, Ron ‘Pig Pen’ McKernan would introduce the aside: ‘I don’t want to miss my greens’ into his rendering of Clark and Resnick’s ‘Good Loving’. The concluding lines of ‘A Ballad of Andrew and Maudlin’ makes explicit the reason for the family’s consternation:

They laid the Girls down, and gave each a green mantle

While their Breasts and their Bellies when Pintle a Pantle.


Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part 2: ‘A life is several stories …’

[This the second of forty-nine narrative sections that make up Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3, the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project. The complete work is now available on request as a pdf. If A life is several stories …’you would like a copy, please contact me at:].

‘A life is several stories, not just one:’ (in lieu of an Introduction).[1]

Looked at conventionally Flora and I lived very different lives. I earned my living teaching in colleges and universities and, when I knew Flora, was working in the south-west of England. Every year, however, I and my family spend time in County Durham. Flora lived in the Borders country to the north, where she worked as a ‘maker and mender’. This required her to travel back and forth across the Cheviot hills collecting and delivering work. So, despite our different ways of life, we became friends, largely because we shared a fascination with the physical and social worlds of the rural upland country of the north. We also shared a deep-rooted need for exchange and speculation, for conversation. As individuals uncertainly located psychologically between urban and rural worlds, we had a common sense that people’s lives rarely fit entirely into simplistic categories. These simple commonalities have largely determined the nature and form of this book.

As Flora’s editor, I’ve tried to be true to her sense that a life is best seen as several interwoven stories, each lived in distinct, if ultimately interrelated, worlds. As a mesh of stories inhabited by multiple, porous, selves; by ‘Flora’, ‘Faun’, and ‘Laura’s twin sister’, each one played out within a cat’s cradle of relationships. What follows is less an edited autobiography than a provisional mapping out of the life-long conversations that maintained Flora’s sense of kith[2], of a way of knowing these intersecting worlds.

Something need to be said about the process by which this mapping arrived on the page. I first read everything Flora sent me and, because her writing often addresses me directly, then worked through, in quasi-geographical terms, the overlap between our lives conversationally. This allowed me to envisage the ‘place-between’ we called ‘our’ Borders; a place that, although very much grounded in physical geography, is also somehow a shared identity. (So, I’ve visualized it using my own photographs in addition to those she sent me.)

You can get some physical sense of this Borders by tracing a route on an Ordinance Survey map. It falls within the area that you would enclose on the following journey. You might begin at the river Esk at Longtown, following the A6071 via Brampton and Alston to Stanhope on the A689, before turning north on the B6278 to join the A68 at Carterway Heads. You would then continue up the A68 before turning right onto the B6342 some seven miles north of Corbridge. Then you would follow the B6342 until Rothbury, where you take the B6341 until you turn left onto the A697. Then you would follow it through Wooler to the river Tweed and so into Scotland at Coldstream, before turning south west again on the A698 to drive to Kelso. Then take the A699 to Selkirk before joining the A708 and driving, via Yarrow and St. Mary’s Loch, to Moffat. There you need to take the A74(M) south as far as junction 17, where you can pick up the B7068 which will, eventually, take you back to Longtown and the river Esk. It’s a journey that can be done in daylight on a long summer’s day.

Of course, this route merely encircles ‘our’ Borders. It took Flora a lifetime to get to know it and, despite having visited it for over thirty years, I’ve hardly begun to do that.

The next stage of the process required weaving together Flora’s material: texts from her notebooks, our letters and emails and, importantly, her images. These different elements suggested different threads, literal, metaphorical, and imaginal, for the whole weave; the warp a variety of texts, the weft an array of variegated images.

A little about the images, then. The compound black and white ‘framed’ images reproduce those pasted into Flora’s notebooks. As I understand it, she took photographs from her early teens onwards. Then, when she first became ill, she bought a little portable scanner and started copying images from Lizzy’s collection of Oliver and Aitcheson photograph albums. I assume that the material for her dense compound photo-images came from these sources. By contrast, the many single black and white photographs seem simply to document people and places. Some appear to be experiments in deliberately overlaying images. (Flora was fascinated by images such as the mugshot of an Australian criminal from the nineteen twenties). Some of her images have notes on the back, which I’ve reproduced in quote marks. Otherwise, I have left her images untitled. Most of the colour images, apart from those of both Flora and myself wearing her ‘Laura’ mask,[3] are my own and are included because they evoke places we both knew. The titles of these are mine.

In piecing together Flora’s material, I have taken as central her belief in the links between place, kith and what the Romans called genius locus, the spirit of place. That belief was also tied up with a shared interest in ‘imaginary friends’.

By the age of seven about a third of children have an imaginary friend they experience through all manner of vivid interactions. This friend may take the form of a human, an animal, or some fantastical creature. They are often deeply bound up with children’s relationship to place. These intense friendships are not, however, restricted to childhood. Some creative and socially well- adapted adolescents (and quite possibly adults) keep in touch with imaginary friends. This does not affect their other social interactions and there is no evidence that they are particularly isolated, lonely, or have personal or social problems. These friends may provide comfort in the face of life difficulties or coping with traumatic experiences, but they may also be active partners in creative work. Although once largely seen negatively – as a mark of childishness, extreme introversion, or as a cause for developmental concern – such friends are increasingly accepted as an outlet for a child’s imagination. A prompt for storytelling, games, a source of companionship and for coping with new situations. They may even be a source of parental pride in the quality of a child’s imagination.

Invisible friends are sometimes seen as analogous to characters in novels, about whom authors say: ‘they have a life of their own’, but this seemed doubtful to Flora and me. We thought that the alternative view, that they may be personifications of some aspect of a person who would otherwise remain excluded, voiceless and faceless, made more sense. As such they may ease the demands of living in a complex, multi-dimensional world; helping us to accept and narrate ‘difficult’ relationships necessary to our plural self, enabling us to set out narratives we need for which there would otherwise be no focus.[4]

Flora herself understood invisible friends, and particularly Hamish’s friend ‘Laura’, as an important interface between our everyday sense of our place in the world and our imaginations. They enabled a person to remain imaginatively open in the face of what are too literal, dogmatic, or reductive social conventions defining the limits of what is ‘real’. She believed such friends enabled individuals to have a living engagement with experiences and values outside the limits of those conventions, with a second life that might have deep meaning without necessarily being literally ‘real’ or ‘true’.

I should add that imaginary friends have played an important part in my own life and work. Most obviously in the figure of ‘A.’, my interlocutor in two books: ‘8 Lost Songs’ and the first volume of ‘Debatable Lands’. As Flora observes in the section ‘The respondent’, she had in many respects taken the place of ‘A’. This obviously raises questions about the relationship between invisible friends as existing in a purely imaginary realm and those friends to our imagination central to our imaginal life but peripheral to our day-to-day life. (Flora and I only met face-to-face twice.)

In my exchanges with Flora about imaginary friends I always envisaged them in terms suggested by the theologian Roger Corless. He proposes that we each live, sequentially or simultaneously, in more than one world, argued that we may in consequence have, and so need to articulate, more than one personality. When the conventions that define reality in the world into which we are born do not allow for this multiplicity, we may conjure up invisible friends to help us address this lack. Corless sets out his own thinking about this in what he describes as ‘a true story that never happened’,[5] one in which several people discuss their different spiritual positions. In this way, he allowed different aspects of himself to emerge as semi-autonomous characters acting out a drama on the stage of his imagination. My sense is that, in assembling Flora’s material I have, in some respects, attempted to create a ‘true story that never happened’.


[1]Christopher Whyte 1997 The Warlock of Strathearn London: Indigo p. 203. Whyte’s strange conception of a ‘magical’ world was unknown to me when I began editing Flora’s writing, yet seems to chime with our concerns.

[2] Although the term ‘kith’ is now largely obsolete, in Middle English it meant both ‘familiar country, places that one knows’, and ‘acquaintances, friends’. It has linguistic roots back into Old German that link it to knowledge and to our modern term cunning. Kith is, then, a way of knowing the world that does not distinguish places from friends. The (impossible) task Flora bequeathed me was to ‘map’ something of this.

[3] These photographs were taken by Sharon Townson and are from a project Flora and I had started but were unable to complete because of her illness.

[4] In the final pages of Islanders, Margaret Elphinstone addresses the conflicting understandings of a newly arrived priest on one hand and the local wise woman and midwife on the other. In the process, female characters are reminded that we each have “many stories” and that “they’re all true,” so that there is no point “pretending that there’s only one tale which takes account of everything.” Margaret Elphinstone, Islanders (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1994), p. 408.

[5]Roger Corless, “Many Selves, Many Realities: The Implications of Heteronyms and the Plurality of Worlds Theory for Multiple Religious Belonging,” Pacific Coast Theological Society Journal (2002)