Scot­land’s roads to a hid­den past

Many of the roads trod­den by our an­ces­tors have been for­got­ten but Alis­tair Mof­fat is de­ter­mined to bring them back into use. Barry Did­cock joins him in the Bor­ders as he re­traces the foot­steps of long-dead Ro­man sol­diers

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS -

I’M stand­ing on a hill near Tow­ford in the Scot­tish Bor­ders, in sharp au­tumn sun­light un­der a clear blue Septem­ber sky. And I am, quite lit­er­ally, walk­ing in the foot­steps of Agri­cola.

The Ro­man gen­eral con­quered much of Bri­tain in the first cen­tury and a stone like­ness of him still over­looks the Ro­man ru­ins in Bath. But in 79 or 80AD the man him­self stood where I am now, star­ing down at the same rich farm­land with an ac­quis­i­tive eye – and, with a rather more wary one, up the steep slope to my left, where he knew he was be­ing watched from the sum­mit of the hill fort of Wo­den Law just 100 or so me­tres away. Empty and des­o­late to­day, it was oc­cu­pied then by the Vo­ta­dini, a Bry­thonic-speak­ing Celtic peo­ple whose cap­i­tal was at Traprain Law near Ed­in­burgh. Were they friendly? He didn’t know, but he could make an ed­u­cated guess.

My guide is Alis­tair Mof­fat, a 67-yearold his­to­rian, doc­u­men­tary-maker and au­thor, and a keen stu­dent of both the Ro­mans and the much-fought-over re­gion of Scot­land his fam­ily have made their home for gen­er­a­tions. He has brought me up here, through a boggy ap­proach and up a steep track, to the six-foot-wide Ro­man road Agri­cola built and which can still be seen along the ridge of the hill. And so, feel­ing like I’m miles from any­where, I find my­self stand­ing on Dere Street, a once well-trod­den route which started at York and even­tu­ally stretched to the level of the An­to­nine Wall.

“I think when the Ro­mans ar­rive in ei­ther 79 or 80 AD, peo­ple around here will have seen noth­ing like it,” Mof­fat says as the wind tugs at us. “An army of 10,000 le­gionar­ies and aux­il­iaries, with cav­alry, bag­gage sup­plies and so on, ox­drawn carts and siege en­gines. All that kind of thing rum­bling on. Of course they will have known they were com­ing be­cause they had lit­tle ponies and scouts. But who­ever sat on this hill here” – he sweeps his hand up to the left – “noth­ing would have pre­pared them for what was a belly-hol­low­ing sight: the Ro­man Em­pire, com­ing over the hill. In force.”

There are a few walk­ers out to­day, which sur­prises Mof­fat. Nor­mally the place is de­serted, just him and the ghosts of those 10,000 le­gionar­ies. I ask him how it feels to com­mune with those long-dead Ro­mans, and with the souls of all the oth­ers who fol­lowed in their path, from Ed­ward I’s in­vad­ing ar­mies in the late 13th cen­tury to the thou­sands of Scot­tish drovers who used this route to take their herds to mar­ket in Lon­don well into the 19th cen­tury.

He laughs. “It sounds pre­ten­tious but the first time I came up here I brought a copy of Anthony Bir­ley’s trans­la­tion of Tac­i­tus, be­cause I think Tac­i­tus was with his fa­ther-in-law, Agri­cola, as a tribune. He doesn’t write about this place or in­deed the road, but he writes about the peo­ple they found and en­coun­tered. It’s the first writ­ten de­scrip­tion of Scot­land, re­ally. And he writes just bril­liantly, it’s as crisp a style as some­body writ­ing yes­ter­day. So I rather iden­ti­fied with him and imag­ined what he must have thought be­cause when he came round this cor­ner here on his horse, this is what he would see. We can see faint traces of wind farms and man­aged plan­ta­tions and so on, but the shape of the ground is the same.”

But this isn’t the only route Mof­fat has walked, just as Agri­cola’s aren’t the only foot­steps he has fol­lowed and the Ro­mans aren’t the only peo­ples whose ex­pe­ri­ences in the Scot­tish land­scape and in the Scot­tish weather he has tried to un­der­stand and feel. In his new book The Hid­den Ways: Scot­land’s For­got­ten Roads, Mof­fat cov­ers around 300 miles

and makes 10 jour­neys to all points of the com­pass – 10 walks along routes that in many cases were the high­ways of their day, in the times be­fore cars and when hard shoul­ders were some­thing you got from car­ry­ing fish over the hill to mar­ket.

That way is called The Her­ring Road, it runs from Dun­bar to Lauder and yes, Mof­fat walked it. The one we’re on right now is The In­va­sion Road. Among the other routes Mof­fat writes about are The Road To Heaven, a Fife pil­grim route which ran from Earls­ferry to St An­drews; the High Street of Ed­in­burgh (Mof­fat calls this The Road To Ruin);

The Great North Road, which runs from Ber­wick-upon-Tweed to Cock­burnspath and brought swift-rid­ing Robert Carey to Ed­in­burgh within hours of Queen El­iz­a­beth I’s death to pro­claim James VI King of Eng­land; and the old drove road run­ning from Broad­ford in Skye, across the wa­ter to Glenelg, and then to Kin­lochhourn and be­yond – the ter­ri­tory of the Camerons, the Macken­zies and the McGre­gors.

The idea for The Hid­den Ways was seeded around a decade ago, in a piece of his­tor­i­cal de­tec­tive work Mof­fat un­der­took while writ­ing a book about Hadrian’s Wall. Sniff­ing around what would have been the wall’s west­ern edge, he came across the me­mo­rial to Ed­ward I which stands on Burgh Marsh near Carlisle. It marks the place where the so­called Ham­mer of the Scots died in July 1307, but it is a se­ri­ously re­mote spot. So what, Mof­fat won­dered, was the 68-yearold Plan­ta­genet king and his host do­ing there?

“What he was about to do is what ar­mies had done for cen­turies – he was about to wade across the Sol­way. And the rea­son he was do­ing that is be­cause it was much, much eas­ier than go­ing round the Sol­way Moss, which was a vast area of treach­er­ous boggy land where the M74 runs now. It was eas­ier, quicker – and safer – to wade across the Sol­way at low tide, and the marker they used on the Scot­tish coast was a pre­his­toric stand­ing stone called the Lochmaben Stone. If you kept your eye on that, you didn’t go into the deep wa­ter.”

This an­cient way he calls The Wet Road and, though it’s hard to prove, he thinks the Ro­mans used it as well. Mof­fat has even tried it him­self. A mis­ad­ven­ture

with a deep hole al­most broke his leg, but un­til that point, he says, it was grav­elly un­der­foot and the tide wasn’t strong. Per­fectly cross­able, in other words.

But as well as in­tel­lec­tual rea­sons for writ­ing the book, there were per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal ones too.

“I’m as guilty of this as any­body – you get from A to B and who cares what’s in be­tween?” he ex­plains. “You’re check­ing your watch and your GPS just to get there. But our an­ces­tors weren’t like that. They walked. My mum thought noth­ing of walk­ing 10 miles to a coun­try dance and 10 miles back. We’ve lost our legs as a so­ci­ety, and hav­ing lost our legs we’ve lost our sen­si­tiv­ity to the land­scape to a cer­tain de­gree.”

So you could view The Hid­den Way as a slow travel man­i­festo, a plea for peo­ple to think more deeply about their con­nec­tion to the land, about their place within it, about his­tory and about the peo­ple who have gone be­fore. Even, per­haps, about the weather.

“It re­ally mat­tered,” says Mof­fat. “We have all sorts of pro­tec­tions against the weather and it doesn’t af­fect us as much as it used to af­fect peo­ple. And OK, you’re wear­ing de­cent boots and wa­ter­proofs and I had a phone so I could get out of it. But you’re still at the mercy of the el­e­ments and that’s some­thing you share with sol­diers or pil­grims or the navvies work­ing on the rail­way, or what­ever. You have to deal with the con­di­tions and they haven’t changed. By and large you’re still deal­ing with the same things: wind, rain, sun, cold. That was in­struc­tive. It’s a cliché, but you learn some­thing about your­self.”

Not all the walks Mof­fat un­der­took were along an­cient routes, how­ever. In a chap­ter called The Rail Road he walks the length of the Bal­lachul­ish rail­way line, which was cut out of the rock by gangs of labour­ers in the 19th cen­tury and ran from Bal­lachul­ish to Con­nel in Ap­pin un­til its clo­sure in 1966.

Even more mod­ern is the Cowie Stop Line, though it’s far less known and very few peo­ple have ever trav­elled its length.

Its story be­gins in 1940 with the re­al­i­sa­tion that if the Ger­man army was to in­vade Bri­tain, it could well ar­rive in the north of Scot­land. If it did, the north was un­de­fended: there was one bat­tal­ion of 800 sol­diers avail­able to de­fend the 400 miles of coast­line run­ning from Al­ness in Easter Ross to Grange­mouth. The Bri­tish army may have been saved at Dunkirk but its equip­ment had not. More than 1000 field guns were left be­hind, along with 600 tanks and, im­por­tantly, 850 anti-tank guns. So in place of mu­ni­tions, Bri­tish army plan­ners de­cided they would use con­crete to stop the Ger­man Panzer di­vi­sions, and that con­crete would run west from Stone­haven along the line of the Cowie Wa­ter: the so-called Cowie Stop Line, “a makeshift ram­part to pre­vent a dis­as­ter”, as Mof­fat calls it.

“The re­al­ity of the threat brought back all that kind of Bat­tle of Bri­tain drama,” he says. “We weren’t fight­ing it up here the way they were in the south of Eng­land, with the Spit­fires, but we were fight­ing it an­other way be­cause an in­va­sion force across the North Sea, hit­ting the Mo­ray Firth with Panzer

di­vi­sions and so on ... well if the Ger­mans had cap­tured even only a part of Scot­land I think Churchill would have lost sup­port, Vis­count Hal­i­fax [then For­eign Sec­re­tary] would have be­come Prime Min­is­ter and we would have ne­go­ti­ated with Hitler.”

That drama in­vaded the present too. Although the Cowie Stop Line was the short­est walk Mof­fat un­der­took, it was “eas­ily the most dan­ger­ous … it nearly killed me”. At one point, climb­ing a steep bank which dropped away to a gorge, he fell back­wards and only saved him­self by grab­bing onto a branch. The ac­ci­dent left him muddy, wet and filthy, with the nails of one hand all torn.

Then again, the phys­i­cal­ity re­quired to walk long dis­tances and the hard­ships that had to be en­dured are all part of the story. That’s true of the Her­ring Road, which ran from Dun­bar to Lauder across the Lam­mer­muir Hills and which was trav­elled in large part by women car­ry­ing heavy wicker bas­kets filled with fresh and salted fish for mar­ket. Fresh fish had to be sold fast, which meant mov­ing fast. Of­ten, liveli­hoods de­pended on it. It was a hard, gru­elling cross­ing in dif­fi­cult con­di­tions.

It’s also true of one of the most evoca­tive walks Mof­fat did, the one he calls The Road To Heaven. It started at Earls­ferry and ran north to St An­drews, where in medieval times the town’s mas­sive cathe­dral was a con­stant draw for pil­grims vis­it­ing the shrine of St An­drew. Foot traf­fic was par­tic­u­larly heavy on the main pro­ces­sional feast days, when the saint’s bones would be pa­raded through the town, but as th­ese were in Novem­ber (St An­drew’s Day) and Fe­bru­ary (The Feast Of The Com­ing Of The Relics), the jour­ney there was of­ten dif­fi­cult.

Mof­fat has a per­sonal con­nec­tion to the Fife uni­ver­sity town. He stud­ied there, met his wife there, mar­ried there and later was elected Rec­tor. But even so he felt the power of the place par­tic­u­larly strongly af­ter the ef­fort of get­ting there. Even find­ing the route was dif­fi­cult, but when he did “it was re­ally a joy be­cause you ended up walk­ing in the foot­steps of peo­ple who were walk­ing there in 1300, in 1200, who were de­vout Chris­tians, be­lieved in the power of relics and the power of St An­drew’s shrine. And un­der­stand­ing that by walk­ing it is much bet­ter than un­der­stand­ing it just by go­ing to St An­drews or vis­it­ing the cathe­dral”.

Know­ing that the pil­grims would have passed crosses as they en­tered the town, and know­ing that they be­lieved this to mean they were leav­ing the tem­po­ral realm and en­ter­ing a holy space, al­lowed Mof­fat to bet­ter un­der­stand the tired pil­grims’ mind­set.

“I could see why peo­ple would do it, out of penance, des­per­a­tion, sim­ple faith,” he adds. “Out of a feel­ing that it was their duty as Chris­tians to ven­er­ate a man who knew Christ. And also the old cathe­dral and the head­land has a ge­nius lock-eye, a re­ally pow­er­ful sense of place.”

It all adds up to a very dif­fer­ent way of un­der­stand­ing his­tory. And be­sides a near-death ex­pe­ri­ence, sore feet, a small for­tune spent on maps and the demise of his old Range Rover, there is an­other legacy to Mof­fat’s 300-mile odyssey. He plans The Hid­den Ways to be the start of a long-term project to prop­erly map the walks he made. He hopes to se­cure fund­ing to make the routes safe, and to pay for way­posts and sig­nage. He wants to be able to re­cruit vol­un­teers to help with up­keep and even com­mis­sion pub­lic sculp­ture.

And, though this is a story about old ways and lives lived in slower times, the in­ter­net has a role to play too: Mof­fat is plan­ning an in­ter­ac­tive web­site to which walk­ers will be able to up­load images and videos, and an app they can down­load to their phone which will give them sto­ries, in­for­ma­tion and an aug­mented re­al­ity sound­track about the routes they’re trav­el­ling. Mof­fat has al­ready pro­duced the Dere Street seg­ment, writ­ten from the point of view of Tac­i­tus and voiced by Tom Conti as “a sniffy Ro­man toff”.

The project is in what you might call a beta stage at the mo­ment. But if it comes to pass then in the fu­ture you’ll not only be able to walk in the foot­steps of Tac­i­tus, you’ll be able to hear his voice too. Wind per­mit­ting, of course.

The Hid­den Ways: Scot­land’s For­got­ten Roads is pub­lished by Canon­gate at £20

The route of The Her­ring Road, through the Lam­mer­muir Hills may still be marked, but to many its story will be lost

Kin­lochnourn is one of the few ac­ces­si­ble points on the old drove road from Skye

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