Three generations are looking out across the fields and woods. I’m feeding my baby son, who is two months old. His big cousin sits next to us on the bench, red wellies swinging. My father pulls on his cup of tea. His eyes are on the horizon, where the saddle between two distinctive hills frames the view.
In two weeks’ time, he will leave this upland farm where he was born nearly seventy years previously. It’s the only place he has ever lived. The grief is rising in us. We’re all familiar with loss: my mother died two years previously. But this leaving will carry with it a different plangency.
Forsaking land known so intimately in all of its seasons, through trees planted, grown and felled, through generations of sheep and of cattle, through harvest upon harvest, is another kind of bereavement. Loved ones vanish from sight, but the physical land endures. My father is to live for another twenty-five years, but will refuse ever to return. For us all, this view across the Borders landscape is to become amygdalic: locked away in the part of the brain that stores the deepest emotional memories. We’re leaving the land, but it will never leave us.
In the years that follow, I create other homes. I raise a family three hundred miles to the south and learn to love other landscapes. But something fundamental tugs at me deep inside whenever I’m enfolded back in the Borders. It’s the hills that do it. Earlier this year, after a short trip to Edinburgh, I catch a glimpse of the Pentland Hills through the airplane’s rain-smirred window. There it goes again, that clutch to the heart, that mix of yearning and wistfulness brought on by the sight of heathery hills.
Another memory, from an overnight bus that had left the thundery flatlands of Cambridge. Early summer dawn is breaking over the Ewes Valley as we wind our way up the A7 from Langholm. The sight of the greening slopes brings with it an extraordinary vividness of feeling. I’m home, my senses are awake again.
Those hills carry a particular and indelible scent. Its formula is the acid grassland formed by centuries of grazing sheep, along with bracken, rushes and heather. My bottled Proustian whiff would be just that: the warm aromatic summer grass of the peaty tops, the bracken fronds unfurling, the bog cotton, and moss. The background music: a trickling burn, whaups whirring, and larks ascending.
the warm aromatic summer grass of the peaty tops, the bracken fronds unfurling, the bog cotton, and moss.
It’s hard to express this kind of longing for the place that formed you. The English word homesickness feels inadequate. Nostalgia feels too vague, but is larded with greater meaning on understanding that it stems from the Greek nostos, homecoming. Welsh has hiraeth: a deep yearning for somewhere that is lost, or may not even exist. Saudade is Portuguese for the love that remains after someone or something is gone. There are regional British words for finding your way back, such as hefted, a term for the generations of Lake District sheep who always return to the same piece of fell. Border shepherds would know this patch of hill grazing as a hirsel.
The Scottish Borders span a region bounded by the Cheviot hills to the south and the Lammermuirs to the north. The best way to encounter them is to drive over the border from England on the A68. Leaving behind the bleakness of north Northumberland, the road crests over the frontier at the Carter Bar and suddenly a milder patchwork landscape has been shaken out ahead. Often the weather seems to change magically at this point, morphing from grey mizzle to glimpses of sun picking out the tops and shapeshifting the greens, yellows, ochres and purples that blend pasture into moorland. The Border hills are typically smooth and rounded, created by solifluction, a geological downhill movement due to freezing and thawing. The painter William Johnstone saw them as “…a succession of female shapes…insisting aggressively on the power of the womb.”
Johnstone, who lived from 1897 to 1981, was brought up on a farm in the Borders. After making a significant impact on the art world – he was one of the first British abstract expressionists, and highly influential as the Principal of the Central School of Art in London – he returned to farming in the Ettrick Valley near Selkirk. He ascribed his interest in abstract form to the Border hills. He certainly found a deep sensuality here:
“You cannot paint these subtly contoured hills without attempting to understand their anatomy: their sensuous feminine curves cover sharp elemental bones. There is always, for me, a sexual metaphor in these barren hills.”
The Border hills that framed our view from the farm are the Eildons: three 350-million years old hills made from igneous rock squeezed between sedimentary layers. Seen from the south, they erupt dramatically into the landscape. Viewed from the north, our side, they are softer and greener. The town of Melrose nestles cosily between them and the river Tweed.
We could see only the two larger Eildons, a pair of overtly feminine shapes with a wide cleavage. “Delectable mountains,” the novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott called them, evidently sharing Johnstone’s sensibilities. Largely forgotten today, Scott was sensationally popular in the early nineteenth century. He made his home near Melrose, and drew deeply on the landscape and on old Borders ballads in his works. Many of his protagonists were exiles who longed for home. In 1803 William and Dorothy Wordsworth were his eager guests as he showed them the area’s ruined abbeys, generous rivers and rounded hills; all highly appealing to these arch-Romantics. Ten years later he repeated the tour for JMW Turner, who painted him a watercolour of the Tweed at Melrose.
the area’s ruined abbeys, generous rivers and rounded hills
Prominent hills such as the Eildons, like Glastonbury Tor, attract legends. King Arthur sleeps below them with his knights. A wizard called Michael Scott created them by cleaving one hill into three. A sleepy medieval poet called Thomas the Rhymer was found dreaming on their slopes by the Queen of Elfland, who kidnapped him and kept him for seven years under her spell. Walter Scott spun the myths further and his influence extends throughout the Borders, even to the top of our small piece of hill, where a clump of beeches and larches with branches permanently outstretched from the prevailing wind was known as the Avenel wood. Scott wrote of a ghostly white lady of Avenel who served as a protective spirit over her family.
Whimsical names were literally part of the scenery. Just under the lip of our hill was a smooth spot we knew as the Fairies Bowling Green. I thought my mother had made up the name to amuse us. But the OS map for 1843 shows this place clearly marked. Beyond the lambing field, the land dipped to an enchanted – to my eyes – steeply wooded glen, known as the Fairy Dean, through which the river Ellwyn ran. This was where we were told that fairies would leave small golden cups after a thunderstorm. Sometimes we went in search of them, but no matter how we scoured the pebbly river bed, they never appeared. Last year I discovered that the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh holds a collection labelled: “Natural concretions called fairy stones from Fairy Dean, near Melrose, Roxburghshire, possibly 17th or 18th century.”
Encircled by magic. No wonder the land has held me in its thrall.
When I can’t sleep at night, my mind runs through every field on the farm, picturing them, naming them, one by one: Front Field, Slip Field, Teerie Brae, Foal’s Foot, Old Toon, East Knock, Backmoor Park. I don’t count sheep, but memories of the farm’s flock can also flood in: the cosy bothy in the lambing shed, which smelt of iodine and powdered milk, with its rough blanket for night vigils and an infrared lamp over a straw-lined box to warm cold lambs. The Suffolk tups dreaming in their summer paddock among the dock leaves.
dreaming in their summer paddock among the dock leaves
The morning after a blizzard, when the Greyface sheep sheltering against the stone dyke were snowed over by huge drifts. Discovered the next day by gently putting down a rough stick to snag their wool, they were dug out as quickly as possible. Dogs going wild at the sight of the unharmed emerging ewes, me balancing in my father’s deep footsteps.
Now he, in his turn, is buried. He lies with my mother, tucked into the breast of the left-hand Eildon. Like Wordsworth’s Lucy they are “Rolled around in earth’s diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees.” There is a fine view from the cemetery. It extends across the Tweed to a ridge called the Gattonside Heights. Beyond them lies our hill. The Avenel wood is just about visible.
Did the land belong to us, or did we belong to the land? Perhaps, like Thomas the Rhymer, we can vanish, or be banished, and always find our way back.
© Laura Parker