Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Roamin' with the Romans

I took the chance during the countdown to Christmas to do something I'd always planned; walk at least part of Dere Street, the Roman road between the Scottish border and the fortress at Trimontium. My wife dropped me off at Jedfoot, close to where the road crosses the river Teviot and I set off up what looked like a muddy farm track that headed directly south towards the Cheviot Hills.

The legionary marching camp at Pennymuir in the Cheviots is where I made my first real connection with the Romans as a 16-year-old labourer on a Youth Opportunities Scheme. Every morning during the summer of 1972 I'd be packed off in a smelly old van driven by Taff, the Arnhem veteran, and put to work by Jock, the tall, wiry foreman of the labouring gang. The camp had been ploughed up by the Forestry Commission to plant trees and our job was to turn the peat back into its original position in the three foot furrows. The turf banks the Romans created at Pennymuir to protect their camp are still there and it's always struck me that using my mattock and shovel to cut the peat into manageable chunks, I was doing exactly what the legionaries would have done to create the place in 80AD or thereabouts.

Dere Street begins in York and continues as far north as Edinburgh, probably following the line of march of governor Julius Agricola's invading force. Most of it now lies under the A1 and A68 trunk roads, but there are sections between Pennymuir and Jedfoot which still exist more or less as they did when it was built, with the ditches and banks still visible and a carriageway as much as twelve paces wide. It's what we call 'clarty' underfoot, but wonderfully atmospheric and you can imagine yourself meeting a marching century round every corner. Look back north from any rise and the road heads arrow straight for the triple peak of the Eildon Hills which gave Trimontium its name. Agricola's cavalry would have scouted this route ahead of the main army and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to work out the reaction of the locals to the arrival of the armoured might of Rome.

I walked out about five miles to Cappuck, where there was a permanent Roman cavalry station as well as at least four marching camps. The signal station was built by the Twentieth, the legion which was home to my character Valerius, and we know at least two of the men who were stationed there. Aulus Julius Severus, a tribune of the Gaestetae auxiliary cavalry, and Gaius Quintius Severus, who commanded the First Cohort of the Faithful Vardulli, left altar stones which are now built into the fabric of Jedburgh Abbey, and have incredibly survived two thousand years and the ravages of half a dozen more invading armies.

Look carefully and you can just see the peaks of the Eildons

The Romans have still left their mark

You can just imagine the legions marching north 
Cappuck: these fields would once have thronged with infantry and cavalry
From Cappuck, I walked back over the hill to Jedburgh, for a pint at the Tavern with my mate Iain and brother in law Jimmy, and a perfect end to the day.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

These boots were made for walking

Today I took my old walking boots for a last wander through the Ochil Hills between Sheriffmuir and Dumyat before they're put out to grass. It was a poignant occasion, because I've had them for fifteen years and they've been to the top of Mont Blanc. Not I hasten to add with me in them, but with their original owner, my late and still sorely missed friend and colleague Tim Harper.

Tim sold me them for a tenner sometime around 1996. He was an incredible character who threw himself into everything he did with huge enthusiasm, whether it was his job as chief sub of the Daily Record, climbing an alp or casting a fly at a rising trout. The seven mile walk I did wouldn't even have counted as a stroll to a man who could do two Munros before breakfast and still be looking for more at the end of a ten hour day in the hills.

He died on the way down from an ice climb on Ben Nevis in early 2001. Totally professional in everything he did, the rescuers who recovered his body praised his equipment and preparation. It was just one of those things: an ice shelf that gave way beneath his feet.

I never put those boots on without thinking of him, but they've done their bit and into the cupboard they'll go. Next year I plan to get back into the hills properly, so Santa will be bringing a pair of cracking new boots and an all-weather jacket. It was a fantastic day for a walk, with frost on the ground, the air scalpel sharp and crystal clear and the Trossachs a glorious saw-toothed wall of white in the distance. I saw thrushes and redwings by the hundred in the woods, flocks of bullfinches, chaffinches, great tits and blue tits, and dozens of blackbirds in the hedgerows making the most of the last of the berries. When I reached the highest point on the moor I sat on what looked like an old burial mound and watched a falconer flying an eagle or a big hawk through my binoculars. It followed him around like a dog while he probed the ground with some kind of electronic gizmo that emitted high-pitched sounds, presumably to spook the rabbits below. Tim would have loved it.

Every foot of the ground I walked over has been touched by history. Great armies roamed these hills during the battle of Sheriffmuir. Dumyat was the fortress of the Maetae, the warlike tribe who had to be bought off  by the Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, during his invasion of Scotland. Signs of habitation dot the bleak landscape, whether it's the ruins of old shepherd's cottages and field boundaries or the moss-covered stumps of standing stones above intriguing earth barrows. On the way back down I pondered over what came to be Bridge of Allan would have looked like two thousand years ago. I suspect that the focus of habitation would have been the shelf of land occupied by the rich folks of Upper Bridge of Allan these days. It would have looked out over an incredibly rich and diverse flood plain where the Forth, Teith and Allan rivers meet. The waters would have been filled with salmon and trout, and the marshes with waterfowl. Otter would have provided furs and there would have been deer and wild boar aplenty in the woods on the hills around. If ancient life was ever idyllic, then this was one of the best places in Scotland to be.

None of that would have interested Tim much. The past didn't draw him as it does me. He was that fascinating paradox: a man who lived for the future, but managed to treat every day as if it was his last. There's a message there somewhere that I'll carry into the New Year with me.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

As Private Fraser would say: We're all doomed!

Today my blog celebrates its fourth anniversary. When I started it on December 17, 2007, I had very little idea what a blog was and, cliched though it sounds, the world was a very different place.

My motivation was to give people, particularly unpublished writers, an insight into what it felt like during the countdown to my first book, in all its excitement, exhilaration and downright terror. It pledged to be a warts and all account, but, of course, it hasn't been entirely transparent; there are some inner fears and conflicts you have to keep to yourself for your own sanity. Yet looking back over 166 posts and four years, it pretty much sums up my life as it has been lived.

The highs have been the books and their launches, the support of my family, the reacquaintance with old friends and the making of new ones: finding a courage and confidence I didn't know I had to walk away from a perfectly good job into an uncertain, but always exciting future. There are more books on the way and the ideas keep coming. The lows? The usual mundane stuff about surviving until the next pay cheque comes through. An occasional feeling of aloneness that is more imagined than real.

They have been four momentous years, but the next four promise to be more momentous still, and for all the wrong reasons. When I look at the world today compared to that day in 2007, the future is filled with threats. Unemployment as I write is the highest for 17 years, particularly among the young, and it will continue to rise, possibly even to Great Depression levels. The lost generation will not just be a convenient political soundbite, but a reality. 

Polarisation between left and right, rich and poor, and north and south has never been greater in my lifetime. Take a look at political forums or the comments on national newspaper stories and the language is ever more extremist. If you listen carefully, even at the highest levels, you can hear the sound of sabres rattling. A week ago, a Conservative MP talked about France using EU laws as "an Exocet aimed at the heart of the City", a deliberate and inflammatory harking back to the Falklands War. Yesterday, I heard a steely-eyed government minister describe with relish how Typhoons and helicopter gunships will be deployed above London during the Olympic Games at the same time as thirteen and a half thousand British soldiers are helping 'secure' the event. Why not go the whole hog and put a Challenger tank on every street corner? It will certainly come in handy when the inevitable riots start as the dispossessed see the fruits of their sacrifice go up in smoke in a multi-million pound fireworks display.

On the one hand we have an immature, elitist cabal who think it's a good idea to target chemotherapy patients for benefit cuts, on the other a leaderless, demoralised sham of an Opposition whose toothlessness opens the way for the champagne socialists controlling the unions to start throwing their weight around. The only good thing about our political system is that one way or the other the Opposition has the ability to expose and occasionally curb the worst lunacies of the lot in power. If there is no opposition where does that leave us? In Scotland, Labour is about to elect a leader who will guarantee Alex Salmond's place as First Minister for as long as he chooses. At the same time, support for independence grows, not because there's a huge appetite to break up the UK, but because the alien, fundamentally selfish, political philosophy currently in vogue in the south is anathema to most Scots. The irony is that we've never needed unity and mutual economic support more.

Time to stop when a blog turns into a rant, but I, like, I suspect, most of the disempowered Centre, am angry and fearful. I make one last prediction. The thing that brings it to a head will be the lack of understanding or genuine care amongst the current incumbents of Downing Street. Understanding of the real terror when you don't know where the next mortgage payment is coming from and your home is drowning in negative equity. Understanding of what it's like to graduate with a good degree and a one in ten thousand chance of getting to use it. Understanding that, when the world is falling apart, people don't need lectures or more pain, they need hope.

Oh, yes, and a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my readers.

Friday, 2 December 2011

The fork in the road

Authors spend a lot of time considering What if? or what I think of as the fork in the road. Take the left fork and you might buy the winning lottery ticket, take the right and your car might be squashed flat by a tank transporter. That kind of thing. It can be a matter of choice or chance, or maybe even someone else's arbitrary decision.

I found myself asking the What if? question the other night when I watched a TV programme called The Hudson's Bay Boys. In it, the BBC had brought together five Scots who had worked for the Hudson's Bay Company in the 60s,70s and 80s. The HBC actively sought out young Scots men to run their remote Arctic Circle stores from the 1800s to the 1980s, and thousands made their way across the Atlantic. It was a fascinating story of young men - teenagers - journeying from their homes in Selkirk, St Andrews, Dumfries and the Shetlands to seek out adventure and a new life in one of the harshest localities on earth. 

I think this is a remarkably tidy and well kept store at the
 height of summer. It would be very different in the winter
While their contemporaries worked 9-5 in mills and offices, they ran the isolated company stores, traded for furs with their Inuit customers and hunted seals and caribou in temperatures that sometimes fell to minus 50. Before they reached their twenties they had become key members of the almost completely isolated communities they served. In one clip, Jim, the Shetlander, told how he'd pulled teeth, delivered babies and wept as he remembered the only person he couldn't save using his self-taught medical skills. They integrated in a remarkable way with the Inuit people; four out of the five had married local girls and now had children and grandchildren. The biggest upheaval in all their lives had been the celebrity sponsored anti-fur protests of the 70s and 80s. When Brigitte Bardot posed with a doe-eyed, fluffy white seal pup nobody worried about the native Inuit as the trade price of a sealskin crashed from 34 dollars a pelt to eight dollars and their economy collapsed, threatening the whole Inuit way of life.

The reason I asked myself What if? is that in 1972 I answered an advert in The Scotsman asking for young adventurous men to apply to join the Hudsons Bay Company, and, about the time I was turning turf in a Roman camp in the Cheviot Hills, went up to Edinburgh for an interview. I shudder to think what kind of weedy specimen I looked to the interviewers at 16 years old, but what if I'd got the job? My life would have turned out entirely differently and I'd be a different person now. Would I have written books? Maybe I would have written them a lot earlier, because there wasn't a lot to do during the eternal winter nights apart from read, write and listen to the radio. I like to think that I would have miraculously acquired the DIY skills that elude me today, not fainted during a difficult birth and yanked out a molar without a qualm. I suspect the reality would have been very different

I don't envy them, much, though four out of the five live remarkably fulfilled lives. The welcome they received from people they hadn't seen for twenty years was a testament to their achievements, but their youth was a desperately hard existence and for every success there would have been many failures. 

Still, you can't help thinking: What if?