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

The Herald Magazine - - Arts BOOKS -

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 –

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