Travel/his­tory The Marches

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

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

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