Travel/history The Marches
Rory Stewart (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)
THIS is a travel book with a mission: to walk and describe the frontier of england and Scotland. The author is a polymath: travelwriter, visiting professor, Afghan aid-worker, MP, television presenter and Government Minister. He is also wise enough to be prepared to learn through his feet: to walk himself into understanding by way of chance encounters that no amount of press briefings, photo calls or conferences could provide.
The product of three generations of expatriate Scots, Rory Stewart is at home both in Perthshire and his Penrith constituency, and is an innate Unionist, equally proud of the very different cities of edinburgh and London. It was with the same sense of adventure and keen-eyed intelligence that elucidated his reporting on Afghanistan and southern Iraq that he set out to examine the differences between england and Scotland. He wanted to observe on the ground whether there is anyone who still feels convincingly British, and to test out his concept of ‘Middleland’, a place formed from the two tough regions either side of the border.
This fascinating quest into the nature of being British takes us back to the time when we were illiterate, head-hunting savages disdaining the superior cultural advancement offered by the Romans. Mr Stewart shows us how the native Britons rejected an enlightened civilisation to remain covered in tattoos, smeared in mud and packed into dank, smoky huts.
Hadrian’s Wall followed no ethnic, linguistic, tribal or geographical frontier. The limit of the Roman state is marked today by our beloved Hadrian’s Wall Coast to Coast Path, but 20,000 men moved 20 million cut stones over a decade to create what was then a military zone of exclusion 80 miles long by half a mile wide. eight hundred years later, it was used by the normans to define an even more vicious killing zone, anchored by Carlisle and newcastle, their two strongholds built over Roman forts.
The mixed population within The Marches comprised Britons (the Cumbrian-welsh and people of Strathclyde) living alongside Anglo-saxon northumbrians and norse settlers. They shared an interest in sheep and cattle, but worshipped different gods in different tongues in different valleys. Centuries later, these peoples came together through shared traditions of reiver raiding and blood-vengeance feuds. Curiously, the two border lands would grow apart in the peace established by the Union of the Crowns in 1603, divided by two different legal traditions. Mr Stewart finds the land is no longer in the hands of indigenous native farmers, but increasingly divided between factory farms and national parks, the gaps filled with retirement villages and tourist-friendly infrastructure.
This depressing contemporary reality is shot through with the pathos and humour of a secondary quest: the author uses his border quest to complete a last voyage around his father. A charismatic Cold War warrior who became deputy-head of the Secret Service, the late Brian Stewart is revealed as a loving father, interested, dependable and ever animated. He was a brilliant linguist, a womaniser and a war hero, who helped to crush the Communist Chinese insurgency in Malaya.
He was old school, taking his secrets with him to the grave, loyal to no one but The Queen, proud of his regiment (The Black Watch), but disdainful of his own father and an indifferent democrat. It’s like meeting James Bond in old age, dressed in a tartan kilt and planting trees, but still only really interested in the exercise of power and the execution of a successful mission.
As a collective portrait of father and homeland, The Marches is a deeply moving, honest and loving portrait, even if Britain and Brian are seldom what they seem.
‘It’s like meeting James Bond in old age, dressed in a tartan kilt
Rory Stewart with his Punjabi fighting stick above the Lowther Valley