Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Son of a gun! Solving a 70 year old mystery

I know I'm always banging on about my home town of Jedburgh, or Jethart, as tis known by the locals, but I was down visiting on Tuesday and I have a slightly odd story that I think illustrates the true meaning of belonging.

The occasion was a meeting of the local Probus club, which is a monthly gathering of about thirty gentlemen of retiral age. They meet to discuss an eclectic range of subjects, but much of the material is about the history of the town, the Borders, and its environs. I met lots of people I knew and saw lots of faces I should have been able to put names to.

I was there to talk about books and Romans, but I strayed a bit - as you do - and was telling a few tales about growing up in the early sixties and the adventures we used to have. I suddenly remembered an occasion when I was about 10 and my friend, Brian Pringle, and I, were paddling in the Jed at the bottom of Canongate, not far from the Royal Hotel where the meeting took place.

We were probably guddling for trout, as you did, but when I was rooting around in the stones I found something much more interesting. The object in question was a rather rusty, but perfectly recognisable (I was interested in war stuff) Luger automatic pistol, with an Afrika Korps palm tree and swastika symbol on the chequered butt. For a ten-year-old whose idea of heaven was the Victor comic (surely you remember Matt Braddock VC?) dropping through the letter box, it was the find of a lifetime (I looked for a similar gun on the internet and it must have been awfully rare). To keep or not to keep? Oh, the temptation. Thankfully common sense prevailed and we took it to the police station, and it was never seen again.

Who knows, Rommel might have
carried one just like it
But the find aroused lots of questions. How had it got there? Who had it belonged to? How did they get it. The answers were: probably some Jethart lad who served in the Eighth Army and either took it off an officer prisoner or a body, brought it home, eventually realised it was a bit dangerous to have and chucked it where he thought it would never be found.

Anyway, I regaled them with the tale, and then went on to the other things I was there to talk about, had a great Q & A session and was just wrapping up when one of the gents at the far end, Alan 'Potty' Porterfield, piped up. 'This isn't a question', he says, 'but an answer to something you brought up earlier. Back in the day, I was the only laddie in Jethart who played British and Jerries with a genuine Luger. It belonged to my uncle Wattie Turnbull who brought it back from the war. When I was a bit older I asked him what he'd done with it. "I chucked it in the Jed" he says. So now I know what happened to the Luger and you know where it came from.'

And there you have it. A mystery that goes back to the battle of El Alamein - fought from the 23 October to 4 November, 1942 - and the Desert Rats, then links the fifties and the sixties, is finally solved seventy years later. Spooky, eh? 

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The lost palace

I've passed the field a few hundred times. It slopes down to the road, between the village of Ancrum and the River Ale, just a couple of hundred yards from a cliff with caves where the local residents once sought refuge during the troubled times of the Wars of Independence. There's nothing remarkable about it, but I'd seen people with metal detectors or field walking a couple of times, so I had an idea there'd been something there once, perhaps an Iron Age settlement or Neolithic Fort.

But when we were visiting on Saturday I noticed the unmistakeable signs of an archeological dig, so I put on my wellies and took a walk over to discover that the diggers had just uncovered one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in Medieval Scotland, a long lost Bishop's Palace. Dr Chris Bowles, who led the investigation, told me that the Palace had been built in the 12th Century, and was in use for most of the 13th. It had been built by a Bishop of Glasgow, and one Bishop de Bondington, responsible for founding Glasgow Cathedral, had actually died there after dictating his last writ to the Pope.

The dig at Ancrum has fascinated local people
To put the importance of the site in perspective, you have to be aware that the palace was built at a time of enormous significance in Scotland's history. King David I, a pious and devout ruler, endowed the four great Border Abbeys around that time, handing over vast swathes of land. Jedburgh Abbey just four miles away was founded in 1138 by the king and Bishop John of Glasgow, so there is likely to be a direct correlation between the two. Perhaps it was where the Bishop's representatives lived while they oversaw the building work of the magnificent Augustinian church, which took over a hundred years to construct.

It was unfortunate to be completed at a time when relations between England and Scotland began to deteriorate, and when the Abbey suffered from the various incursions - it was burned five times - the Bishop's Palace would have suffered with it. The end probably came in the mid 16th century with Henry VIII's Rough Wooing of Scotland when Sir Ralph Evers triumphantly wrote to his king that he had burned 'seven monasteries, sixteen castles, five market towns, two hundred and forty villages and three hospitals', and  had followed Henry's instructions to put man woman and child to the sword to the letter. Jedburgh Abbey never recovered and the power of the Bishops was ended.

Part of a Medieval window with beading and slots for bars

You can see the foundations of a massive wall
The limited archeological dig has uncovered portions of wall that give some hint of the massive scale of the structure and it sent a shiver down my spine to be able to look on tangible evidence of its existence and significance nine hundred years after it was built. They've also come across various finds associated with the period. The one that fascinated me most was a lead musket ball, one of a number found in this field. By the time it was fired, the Bishops of Glasgow were long gone, but it points to another time of turbulence, probably in the 18th century, perhaps a long forgotten skirmish in the '45, when Bonnie Prince Charlie's army passed this way. Who knows what other stories it has to tell ...

Monday, 1 October 2012

A celebration of writers and writing

Two images stick in my mind as the Saturday night banquet at the Historical Novel Society came to a climax (I use the word advisedly). The first was Bernard Cornwell's Flashman-like leer as he read the male part of a steamy sex scene written by Gillian Bagwell and narrated by Diana Gabaldon. The second was the look of pure joy on HNS founder Richard Lee's face when he realised the gift handed over by peerless conference organiser Jenny Barden was a beautiful sword made of Toledo steel.

Those two moments summed up the whole weekend for me. Wholehearted commitment from everyone from the biggest names to the complete unknown, and the pleasure of being part of a gathering of hundreds of people with the same interests, passions and inspiration. From the opening speech by best-selling novelist Philipa Gregory, an absolute tour de force on the art of historical fiction, to the fascinating peroration on the roots of the genre by Margaret George that kept everyone spellbound for close to an hour, the conference was a celebration of all that's good about writers and writing.

The two events I spoke at were characterised by the eloquence and passion of my fellow panelists and the enthusiasm of the audiences, whether it was the thirty who attended a workshop on making fight scenes authentic, with the aforementioned Mr C, Angus Donald and Russ Whitfield, or the three hundred who watched us tiptoe our way in tackety boots through the minefield of Brawn versus Heart, a debate on the alternative merits of romantic as opposed to adventure fiction (with special thanks to Chris CW Gortner for his handling of a tough panel). I was able to attend another three or four events and every one was unique.

I met lots of old friends, and many new ones, chatting about books, book people, and giving advice to fellow writers about getting published. I'm only sorry I didn't have time to attend the Sunday sessions, and my only regret was that I didn't get the chance to answer the question about why, as writers, we concentrate on extraordinary people rather than ordinary ones. Put simply, ordinary people aren't as interesting. If an ordinary person strays into one of my books I send in a troop of cavalry to burn down their village.