Book review: Hidden Ways, by Alistair Moffat

Detail from the cover of Hidden Ways, by Alistair Moffat
Detail from the cover of Hidden Ways, by Alistair Moffat
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Alistair Moffat has an insatiable appetite for knowledge and experience, and an insatiable curiosity. So it is just as well that he seems also to have an inexhaustible store of energy, both intellectual and physical. He has been the director of the Edinburgh Fringe and the director of programmes at STV. He founded and directs the Borders Book Festival, has made his own television programmes since he became a freelancer, and has written at least a dozen books, some of which he published and marketed himself. Their variety is wide, reflecting his magpie mind. You might think he had no time in his life for anything but work, but actually he is one of these so-called strong and silent Borderers who is happy to engage in conversation with anyone, anywhere, anyhow, anytime, and he is as ready to learn from others’ talk as he is to share his own knowledge and indulge in speculation.

He is fascinated by history, landscape and the lives of generations past, many so long past that our knowledge of them depends on the discoveries of archaeologists, and even then can never be more than partial. His new book is typical Moffat. He begins, as he often does, with family memories. “One day I decided to walk where Annie and my old great-aunts walked...” Walking is important: “Anyone who wants to understand anything of the elemental nature of our history should try to walk through it.” Our ancestors walked everywhere, unless they lived by a river or loch and travelled by boat, or were rich enough to keep a horse or pony. So Moffat will walk. He will walk over much of Scotland, following, sometimes struggling to follow, old roads that are now sometimes hard to find.

This book is the story of a dozen such walks. They take him over much of Scotland, from his own Borderland to Perthshire – “the heart and essence of Scotland” – to Ballachulish and Connel in the West, and the edge of the Grampians in the East. He explores the land and searches for evidence of the people who worked it. He follows the Roman legions whom Agricola led against the Caledonians, into the mouth of whose chieftain the Roman historian Tacitus (Agricola’s son-in-law) put the great denunciation of imperialism – “they make a desert and call it peace.” He takes the route mediaeval pilgrims took to St Andrews where they could hope to see the bones of the first disciple called by Christ. He follows the Jacobites, though remarking sensibly that, as a Borderer, he would have been more likely “to have stood in the ranks of the government’s army at Culloden” – timely reproof to the ignorant folk who think Culloden the last of many battles fought by Scots against the English. Yet, though Alan Breck Stewart might have called Moffat a Whig (as he called David Balfour), Moffat responds to the sad evidence of the destruction of the old Highland society: “What had once been a working landscape, alive with people and their animals, had withered into mere scenery.” “Withered into mere scenery” is wonderful, though Visit Scotland might not approve.

This is a splendidly rich book – a treasure-house of information, memories and speculation, the last no doubt sometimes likely to provoke argument. Which is as it should be. Few people, I would guess, can read it without learning much about Scotland and those who made the country what it is now. You will learn of minor poets and Clydesdale stallions – or “staigs” as they were called; of tracks that have been swallowed up in the passing of time or built over by arterial roads and urban sprawl. Many of us know of Sir Robert Carey’s ride up the Great North Road to tell James VI that Queen Elizabeth was now dead and give him a blue ring “from a fair lady”, but I didn’t know that as James rode south to take seizin of his new kingdom, they met the funeral cortege of one of the men who had rescued his mother Mary from imprisonment in Loch Leven castle, and the king “took off his hat and sat on a dyke as the mourners filed past.” It’s the sitting on a dyke in (I hope) a steady smir of rain that pleases me – as this engaging book so completely does.

*Hidden Ways, by Alistair Moffat, Canongate, 328pp, £20