A brief history of Tweed

The Borders is not what it seems.

I read, researched and re-thought the story of the Borders for almost a year, and then took another year to write what turned out to be a very surprising book. Much of my lazy and outdated thinking was dismissed in the process, and dozens of preconceptions were jettisoned. I discovered that we were not always Borderers, that we formed part of the core of the great British kingdom of Northumbria, were home to Cuthbert, the best-loved saint of the North, that when we did become a frontier zone our busy economy and glittering cultural inheritance were thrown down and smashed to pieces. Fourteenth-century Borderers would probably have preferred defeat at Bannockburn to the two centuries of corrosive warfare that followed a hollow victory. The loss of Berwick and the disappearance of the great medieval town of Roxburgh broke the Border economy in half, and the emergence of the appalling Border Reivers set a grisly seal on a long era of waste and destruction.

After the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 (engineered in part by Lords Tweeddale and Roxburgh) and on into the 18th century, the shape of the Border landscape began to change radically; cottars were ruthlessly cleared off their ground long before something similar took place in the Highlands, and a Berwickshire blacksmith produced an epoch-making invention. James Small was unquestionably one of the greatest Scots who ever lived and yet his name remains buried in obscurity and confusion. What he did changed the world. Small invented the cast-iron, one-piece swing plough and the widespread use of its new, screwed shape laid out the pattern of fields, hedges and roads that seem so timeless to us now. The Canadian and American plains were opened up by variants on his unpatented design.

And while Small changed what we saw around us, another Borderer changed how we thought about ourselves. Walter Scott’s literary genius is well understood, but his practical role in creating the Border Tweed industry has been largely forgotten.

When I had finished setting out this mountain of stories in what seemed like a graspable order, I did what most writers do and, through my agent, David Godwin, tried to find a publisher to take on the project. Even though both my earlier books had been kindly reviewed and had made it into the best-seller lists, London publishers were not interested. To their collective mind the Borders seemed a faraway place with little identity and no commercial meaning. If I were to cut the length of the book by half, they might consider it. Of course Scottish publishers understood the proposition much better, but such is their chronic lack of capital that they also preferred something shorter, and could offer only a small advance - for two years’ work.

Few things nettle a Borderer more than these sorts of belittling attitudes and, despite a number of old-fashioned looks from my wife, I determined to publish the book myself, with no cuts and no compromises. Very quickly I discovered that a great deal of work and frustration was involved - from acquiring ISBN numbers to persuading bookshops to stock the book. The stranglehold exerted on the book trade by distributors was a nasty surprise, and the dismissive rudeness of one of them quite extraordinary. It almost felt like I was back at the ITV Network Controllers Group. However, my old friend Colin Baxter rode to the rescue, agreeing to distribute the book in the UK, alongside his beautiful picture-books and cards. And it should be in good bookshops on Monday. But the battle has been all uphill and buried in all these battles is a lesson of some sort about not being a primary producer.

What fuelled my determination more than anything was something simple - revelation. In the straightforward terms of good journalism I had found some great stories about a place I love passionately and I wanted to share them - unashamedly proudly - with other people. And more, I wanted to show that history was not an academic luxury or something to satisfy mere curiosity, but actually an absolute necessity.

In 2001 my beloved Borderland had the life almost squeezed out of it by the curse of foot-and-mouth disease. Time seemed to stop as we moved from being a backwater to being a desolated backwater. It was as though the Black Death was abroad again, killing in thousands, converting the springtime fields into a medieval landscape. And in the midst of the pain, the pyres and the sickly-sweet smoke, it seemed to me that we needed badly the sense of identity, dignity and perspective that a long and eventful posterity can confer. To move forward out of the burning wasteland, it might help if we wrapped ourselves in the glories of a shared past, and did some remembering. And while that may sound somewhat highly charged, I found that fellow Borderers understood immediately what I was doing and help of all sorts was always near at hand.

The historian, Walter Elliot, lent books, advice and encouragement. Riddell Graham at the Scottish Borders Tourist Board eagerly seized on the project to help revive visitor numbers for this year. And without exception the advice and generosity I had from individuals and institutions has been immense - and moving.

And so is the story of the Borders. To give a flavour of what I found, and encourage people to come to the Tweed basin and see for themselves, here are some extracts from the book, set out in a broadly chronological order, beginning with the long process that gave the place its name:

By the middle of the 13th century the political border between England and Scotland was hardening and disputes over its precise location were dealt with by meetings between noblemen and royal office-bearers from either side. In 1245 there was a particularly contentious meeting at the Reddenburn (where the frontier leaves the Tweed to head for the Cheviot Hills) and its outcome can still be seen. The line of the border follows an eccentric and meandering course, sometimes using natural features such as the Carham Burn and at other times cutting in straight lines across swathes of farmland. The people watching the two sets of knights riding to and fro, on both sides of Wark Common, must have wondered at the workings of distant diplomacy. They had grown up in what was essentially the same Northumbrian cultural atmosphere. On both sides of the imaginary line everyone spoke English, lived in shires, revered the same saints, ploughed their furrows and pastured their stock in the same way. But even as early as the 12th century forces to the north and south had begun to pull them apart as they grew into two distinct communities of English and Scots. In Scotland Alexander III developed the notion of a Celtic kingship to contrast with the Norman-French models of the recent past, and at his coronation in 1249 at Scone this was symbolised powerfully when a Gaelic-speaking seannachie recited his genealogy back to and beyond the Dalriada kings. And as early as the reign of Malcolm IV the phrase, "Kingdom of the Scots" came into currency. To the south of the Tweed a different differentiating device was used.

Because the Northumbrians were so comparatively distant from London and a peripatetic royal court which spent much of its time even further away in France, the Prince-Bishops of Durham used their royal or palatine powers to help foster a meaningful border between two groups of similar sorts of people. In 1121 Bishop Ranulf Flambard built the mighty castle at Norham and described it as being "on the border", and other sources used similar language to support that way of thinking about the Tweed Basin. And, as concretely, the Prince-Bishops extended their influence by taking direct control of the old Lindisfarne shires of Norham, Islandshire and Bedlingtonshire. North Northumberland became North Durham.

The distinctions between Northumberland and the realm of the kings of the Scots were sharpened even further in the 12th century by the calculated political deployment of the cult of St Cuthbert. The great gifts given to Durham became known as "St Cuthbert’s Land" and the people who lived there, right up to the Tweed, got the unifying name of the "Haliwerfolc", or "the people of the saint". This turned the focus of their identity southwards to the shrine and church of St Cuthbert and away from the memories of old Northumbria and the naturally holistic geography of the Tweed Valley.

As the centuries of warfare that destroyed Roxburgh and removed Berwick from the heart of the Border economy wore on, the Border Reivers rode into history. They created nothing, but their exploits supplied the stuff of many a ballad and romance. Few sources say much about how they operated, and almost nothing about their most potent weapon, their ponies. Sadly, the breed of horses ridden by the reivers became extinct in the 19th century. What was most important to the Border Reivers was the ability of their Galloway Nags to travel long distances over the most difficult and treacherous terrain. Carrying 20 stones of man and kit, they could travel 150 miles in one trip without any loss of condition. And often they travelled at night, preferably a soot-black, moonless night. Much of the cattle-stealing was done in the winter time, between October and December when the beasts still had the remains of their summer condition and could be driven for many miles.

Walter Scott immortalised the reivers, collected the Border ballads and carved out an indelible place for himself in history. Near the Volunteer Hall in Galashiels sits a granite bust of Scott and on the plinth the sculptor has chiselled, "O Great and Gallant Scott". For a man who never struck a blow in anger, it seems an odd motto. But there are many definitions of courage and a mental toughness allied to a protean capacity for hard work converted Scott’s talent into genius. He cast a mighty shadow over the 19th and 20th-century Border country and its history is impossible to understand fully without taking frequent account of his many influences. In several important ways we are all Scott’s heirs. And in one particular his work was to have a profound impact on the lives of succeeding generations of Borderers, many of whom would never read a word he wrote.

Hodden grey, or homespun grey, was a thick, coarse, undyed and warm cloth often found on the backs of ordinary people. But it was not always a uniform colour of grey. At some point in the distant past country weavers had taken the natural shades of raw wool and worked the warp and weft to create a rectilinear pattern of white and brown/black squares known as checks. It was a good way to convert what nature provided into a tidy, obviously man-made arrangement without the aid of dyes. These hodden grey weaves became known as "Shepherd’s Checks" or "Shepherd’s Plaid".

At Bowhill House, near Selkirk, two large swathes of Shepherd’s checks are on display, described as the plaids worn by Sir Walter Scott and his friend James Hogg. While the cloth behind the glass looks well-pressed and suspiciously new, there is no doubt that both men wore plaids of this exact sort and their work contains several references to what became known as Galashiels Grey. On the back of the success of Scott (and to a lesser extent of Hogg) the shepherd’s plaid became fashionable in the 1820s and the weavers of Galashiels became very busy.

Enterprising merchants and tailors began to make the shepherd’s check into trousers and demand from London grew. Meanwhile Walter Scott was busy organising the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, during which the portly king sported a mid-thigh length Royal Stewart kilt over flesh-coloured tights. Once royal approval was conferred, the mills of Galashiels began to turn out miles of the stuff for fashionable society. They still do.

James Locke was an expatriate Scot who ran a flourishing tailor’s shop in London. He and his dandyish friends wore jackets and trousers made up from Border cloth and when the Prince of Wales wore a "suit" with matching jacket and trousers, an enduring sartorial vogue was set.

An oft-repeated tale insists that when Locke received a package of "tweel" (or twill) from Galashiels in 1847, the Regent Street tailor somehow misread the label and wrote back asking for a consignment of "tweed". This makes no sense. He knew fine what tweel was and where the Tweed flowed. "Tweed" cloth was almost certainly a smart piece of marketing drawing on associations with the most famous Tweedsider in recent history, Sir Walter Scott.

Having travelled from the earliest times for which there is any sort of record in the Borders right up to 2002, I allowed myself the luxury of a postscript, a rapid sketch of what I felt I had learned from working on this book. And I came to some unexpected conclusions.

Historically the border was bad for the Borders, but great poetry compounded our difficulties. The Border Ballads sparked the creative imagination of the young Walter Scott and his overpowering talent set a cultural tone which still endures and finds doleful expression in the phrase "it’s aye been". Or, "it’s always been like that and it doesn’t need to change". Of all the difficulties facing the Borders in the 21st century, aye-beenery may be the most intractable.

But in his encouragement and promotion of the infant tweed industry, Scott showed how the power of poetry, and the romance of historical fiction, could be forward-looking and lay down a fertile ground for the creation of wealth and jobs. Since his death in 1832 what the Borders has needed is more of his showmanship, assurance and flair. For a flickering moment his writing put the Borders back in the centre of creative life. And if this can happen once, it can happen again. More than fragile inward investment, the Borders needs ideas - ideas that have their beginnings and endings in these hills and river valleys, and which can reach out and touch the lives of anyone. For with the creation of the Scottish Parliament the border is hardening again and if this book shows anything, it shows how dangerous that can be. It also shows how our posterity was far from marginal. But if we are not circumspect, our future might be.

The sole legacy worth having from the appalling Border reivers is a thrawn sense of independence. Let us use that to ignore the imaginary line which has divided Borderer from Borderer for centuries, let us incorporate Berwick, Carlisle and north Northumberland into our way of thinking if not our new polity. Let us understand who we were so that we may recognise who we really are.

The Borders: A History of the Borders from the Earliest Times by Alastair Moffat is published by Deerpark Press, 19.95.

The Borders, based on Moffat’s book, starts on 9 April on Border Television; on Scottish and Grampian Television, 10 June.