Monthly Archives: January 2018

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)

Convergences: Debatable Lands Vol 3. Part 1. ‘After the service’.

[This the first 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:].


After the service

I was probably the only person of Flora’s generation at her funeral who had not known her since childhood, had never called her ‘Faun’, short for ‘Fauna’. (As a precocious ten-year-old, James Aitcheson had insisted that, as a vet’s daughter, ‘Flora’ should have been christened ‘Fauna’. Shortened to ‘Faun’, this became a lifelong nickname). So, over the best part of a life-time she had been ‘Flora’ and ‘Faun’ both. I had come to known her much later, as a correspondent who became a good friend.

Chew Green

After the funeral, I turned abruptly left outside the old kirkyard, unable to face the obvious curiosity of the people gathered in the car park, and let a steep track take me up to a plantation above the village. Although the breeze was too light to disturb the trees, the late sunshine now occasionally broke through the cloud to warm the new-turned earth over her body. Chance turned me up a narrow ride into the scented darkness where, ahead, the thin grass, struggling up between the tire ruts, strained towards the light. Grass a shade of green that recalled Flora, not sick in hospital as I had last seen her, but at our only previous meeting. Sitting across from me in the Baltic’s café on a cold spring morning, she had cradled a large mug of just such a green as if warming her strong narrow hands.

The plantation drowsed fitfully in the late afternoon light and a childish fear spurred me on. Here, as in a dream, you might meet a black wolf the height of a man, or else one of the ‘good neighbours’. The churned ride took me steeply up hill, then out into a clearing. As I emerged the wind finally returned, so that the high trees murmured like the sea. I passed a half tumbled stell, its floor now a patch-work of yellow grey, deep pink, and strangely mottled emerald sphagnums, protected by the stell’s crumbling walls from the encroaching trees. Walking over a second rise I found myself in a sudden wasteland created by acres of clear felling. Rutted soil, trapped water glinting like splintered glass, Sitka stumps at crazy angles, brambles and rosebay willow-herb forcing themselves through the irregular heaps of rough trimmings. I knew that in time grass, balsam, and mosses would slowly heal the scars and hollows, cover the bare bones of the land but, hollowed out by grief, I could take no comfort in that knowing.

The light had almost gone by the time I returned to my car and, when a pair of little owls called to each other softly down the valley, I cried.

Some weeks after the funeral I received a bulky package from Flora’s solicitor. It contained thick foolscap notebooks and a memory stick, the patchwork she’d stitched together during her last years in and out of hospital. The accompanying letter read:

Dear Iain

Rilke’s Torso of Apollo notwithstanding, it’s too late to ‘change your life’, even if you really want to. As I’m sure you realise, your circumstances preclude that as an option. You just have to stay with the trouble, follow such threads as you can, and wait attentively on the flow of your Borders work, rather than letting all that go. Perhaps you also need to ask yourself what really lies behind all the ‘deep mapping’ you’ve done up here? I’ve enjoyed our exchanges and recent attempt to develop work together. (Maybe, I know, so as not to speak of other things). So, what you’ve got here is possible material for you to work with, perhaps to finish what you started in terms of your Borders work, as well as something of what we’d only just begun together?

I’ll explain what lies behind what I’m sending you.

Long ago I read Joan Didion’s ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ and it stayed with me. She’s not very flattering about people who, like herself, keep private notebooks, but I’ve done it anyway. She sees us as a breed apart, lonely re-arrangers of events, somehow always anxious and dissatisfied, maybe with longstanding resentments or a sense of loss. She rightly says that keeping such notebooks is not about having an accurate record of what you’ve been doing or thinking, not about ‘the facts’. It’s about our knowing in our hearts that we all too quickly forget things we want to believe we’ll always remember. The places where we had experiences that mattered deeply. The people who loved us and those who betrayed us. The secrets we whispered to the first and the insults we wanted to hurl at the second. We keep notebooks because we’re frightened that we’ll forget the sub-text to our own stories; what we once were and, along with that, the thickness and richness of the world. My notebooks are a prophylactic, a way of combating my fear of this illness emptying me out, leaving me rootless and adrift in a shrinking present; fear of sailing without the proper ballast that our past provides.

Nobody wants to sail that last voyage without that ballast.

When she wrote that essay, Joan Didion knew she had already lost touch with some of the people she used to be. With her teenage self and her early transgressions. (She could remember the scenes, but could not see herself as part of them, or reconstruct the conversations.) Also with an older, more troubling self, one full of complaints and stories she did not want to hear again, someone who both saddened and angered her, a ghost who kept returning in a troubling and unfocused way precisely because she wanted to forget her.

My keeping notebooks was, like hers, a way to stay in touch with the life that always exceeds what we can call ‘mine’, with a world and all that is intimately bound into it, all the kith and kin. To stay in touch ‘unto death’.

Apologies for my hand-writing and the rambling nature of it all. That’s in part the consequence of the material involved, of a mind with a tendency to wander and lately, no doubt, of the drugs they’ve had me on. What I’m sending you is also, perhaps, a useful counterpoint to all that scholarly plundering and sifting you did for your books. My ‘heart work’ to your ‘head work’, if you like.

I am of course the least reliable witness possible to all these lives inseparable from my own, but I hope you’ll find time to make something of all this. For your sake, not mine. And I hope that if I (we?) haunt you, it will be in the kindest of ways.

With my love, as always



 Towards the head of the Jedwater.


Years before, Flora had initiated our friendship with the following email

Dear Dr. Biggs,

Please excuse my contacting you out of the blue like this. It’s about ‘Alison Oliver’ in your ‘8 Lost Songs’. We were very close as children and I feel you should know what really happened to her.

When I knew her, she wasn’t Alison Oliver but ‘Cat’ (Margaret Catherine) Douglas. She only became ‘Alison Oliver’ when she returned from France to work as a singer and fiddler. Nor was she ‘Canadian of Scottish decent’. Her father, Alistair, was an accountant born near Jedburgh, her mother Maria was half French, half Polish. (Her Polish diplomat grandfather married the daughter of impoverished French aristocrats and Cat’s mother never let her forget that blue blood). Nor did she simply disappear into thin air after the fire. She died a few years later in very sad circumstances.

When she dropped out of university in France Cat broke off contact with her parents and, unbeknownst to any of her childhood friends, came back here to the Borders. She supplemented her tiny income from playing and singing by waitressing and, after the fire, started living with a music promoter who was eventually jailed for dealing heroin. She died of a heroin overdose.

She was reported missing by a waitress she worked with when she didn’t turn up for work three days in a row. Then a walker found a body below the cliff path on the Northumbrian coast, just up the coast from Rumbling Kern. She’d taken a bus north, then walked to the sea. She was two months pregnant. I discovered all this because the waitress friend remembered Cat talking about me and the police then found my address in an old diary among her things.

Cat was well able to invent those songs. She knew all the old ballads inside out and had studied ethnomusicology for two years at university. She had walked all over the Southdean area too and knew a lot about its history. She used to visit cousins and they’d go on long hikes with an older family friend, a local historian and amateur archaeologist.

As you can probably imagine, it was horribly odd coming across ‘8 Lost Songs’. Anyway, I feel you should know about ‘Alison’.

Yours sincerely,

Flora Buchan.

I didn’t know how to respond to this email, which threw a different light on the work A. and I had undertaken together. I sent Flora a polite reply with my condolences for the loss of her friend. I also apologised for what might well seem to her the rather cavalier approach we had unknowingly adopted, given what turned out to be a far more tragic series of events than we had supposed. A week or so later she sent me a kind and insightful reply. That in turn prompted an irregular correspondence that, with time, became the friendship that underwrites this book.

Sarah Aitcheson wearing the Flora / Faun / Laura mask


Convergences: Debatable Lands Vol. 3 – the conclusion of a deep mapping

A new year begins and I want to acknowledge that I have grown rather tired of my academic voice, it’s preoccupations and arguments. I respect it’s right to the views it has set out here, have even admired it for doing so on occasion. But it’s time for a change.

That change will manifest itself in two ways. Firstly, because I propose to allow another, less academic and more ‘writerly’, voice space here. This is the voice that has formed and informed Convergences: Debatable Lands Vol 3. Secondly, because I hope – as I’ve already indicated – to be putting up guest posts by people whose work I admire. A response to a growing need to ‘listen’ more, to make more space for other voices.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Vol 3  is the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project, which goes back to 1999. I began this last part in 2013, when I was recovering from bowel cancer, and it takes the form of a text and image biography of Flora Buchan.

I will be putting some sections up here, but the complete work is now available on request as a pdf .

If you would like a copy, please contact me  at:


Debatable Lands Vol. 3

 Flora Buchan

compiled and edited by

Iain Biggs 

“Writing, when properly managed … is but a different name for conversation”.

Laurence Sterne[1]



[1] The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman Ware: Wordsworth Classics 1996, p. 75.