Scottish history from viewpoint of tempestuous and ambiguous region
Brian Morton hails the clear-eyed energy and verve of Andrew McCulloch’s story of Dumfriesshire
IN the summer of 1818, John Keats went on a walking tour of the Lake District, Ireland and Scotland with his friend Charles Armitage Brown. As the pair approached Dumfries, the poet’s mood began to darken. He had begun to tire of “scenery”, but thought “human nature is finer”.
Standing in front of Burns’ tomb, the immediate object of his pilgrimage, he began to compose one of his more sombre and incoherent sonnets: “The town, the churchyard, and the setting sun, / The clouds, the trees, the rounded hills all seem / Though beautiful, cold – strange – as in a dream / I dreamed long ago”.
Keats had much on his mind. His beloved brother Tom was dying, albeit quicker than John knew; his own career seemed stalled; he was mocked by Scots reviewers as belonging to the “Cockney school” of laddish pornographers; and the country was in the grip of political oppression – the “Peterloo” massacre, much discussed at the moment, was only months away. And yet, through or despite all this, Keats seemed to intuit something of Dumfries’ long and darkly ambiguous history.
The county’s story has been told before, most notably by Sir Herbert Maxwell in his 1896 A History of Dumfries and Galloway.
Maxwell’s surname is as deeply inscribed in the region as Johnstone (the earls of Hartfell, Annandale and Hopetoun, so heavy hitters), Douglases “black”, “gross”, “dull”, “good” and “le hardi”, and, needless to say Bruce; these dynasties seem to dominate the medieval to early-modern period, reinforcing an impression of Nithsdale, Annandale, Eskdale as a distinct region with its own complex internal politics. Another name that figures strongly in the region is McCulloch and no one – not even Sir Herbert – has written about Dumfriesshire with such clear-eyed energy and verve as Andrew McCulloch.
There’s considerable local pride and affection in his long account – we’re a full 150 pages in before we get a verdict on Robert Bruce – but not a whisper of hagiography. In a single, crisp paragraph, Bruce is rescued from one-dimensional heroism and exposed to a few “inconvenient” truths.
Though raised in a Gaelic-speaking family, having been fostered out at birth, and despite holding a Scottish earldom, he spent much of his formative life among the English aristocracy and considered himself one of them. That’ll go down coldly in some quarters but it makes an important point and helps correct our unshakable habit of mythologising historical figures.
The only complaint about McCulloch’s book, if it be a complaint, is that instead of writing a county history he has produced a history of Scotland from the point of view of one of its most tempestuous and politically ambiguous regions.
Not for nothing was an ungovernable strip of it known as the Debatable Land. The frequency of reference to Lochmaben and Caerlaverock is a salutary reminder that the political geography of Scotland before the Union is very different from what we think it to be today, when the Central Belt and the other cities represent an epicentre. McCulloch’s subtitle is well chosen. It implies history as a dynamic and a process rather than a series of setpieces.
With that in mind, he starts with Dumfries under the icesheet and brings his narrative to a close with a rain of fire from the Lockerbie bombing, one
of the best and most measured short accounts of that terrible, tragic event you’ll ever read.
What follows is a short coda on the Land Reform (Scotland) Act of 2016, which feels tacked-on but continues and rounds out McCulloch’s regular excursions on land use and management in the region.
Dumfriesshire’s land, prior to improvement, was acid and grudging; only the monks seem to have wrangled it into productive use. When Keats visited, the countryside was only just recovering from the Year of No Summer, a chill, harvestless spell caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora.
Burnings of a more deliberate sort –