Alistair Moffat on ‘Britain’s Last Frontier: A Journey Along the Highland Line’

Alistair Moffat, Director of the Borders Book Festival and author. Picture: Neil Hanna
Alistair Moffat, Director of the Borders Book Festival and author. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Alistair Moffat tells David Robinson how he first came to realise that there is a lot more to Scotland than the Lowlands

“In the dark depths of the Cave of the Child-Dead, torches flickered in the draughts as priests laid out the bodies of the little ones. Watched by distraught and grieving parents, the ceremonies began, perhaps with chanting and music, certainly with an atmosphere of solemnity. And then the extraordinary climax came. Raising a heavy axe above his head, a priest decapitated the child and spitted the severed head on a sharpened pole.”

That’s how Alistair Moffat begins one of the chapters in his latest book about Scotland, and I’d take a wild guess that it might leave you wanting to read more. Three thousand years ago, at Covesea, near Lossiemouth, these things actually happened, though you’ll be relieved to learn that the archeological evidence mercifully suggests the children were already dead when decapitated.

I’ve started the way Moffat does for three reasons: first, because it shows the immediacy with which he writes about the past. Secondly, because his phrase-making revivifies it still further – those buried children’s skulls, for example, he describes as “ghost fences” (is anything pithier possible?) – and lastly, because of his intellectual range. From those people in the Covesea cave, he switches to talk about the Pictish art nearby, and discusses what we now know about the Picts from their newly discovered DNA marker, and off we go into genetic history, just as previous chapters have eased us, expertly but informally, into geology and Gaelic.

That intellectual curiosity – and the ability to communicate – is a rare gift, and one that has helped Moffat in a career as one of Scotland’s cultural movers and shakers, from being a hugely successful director of the Edinburgh Fringe to an award-winning director of programmes for Scottish Television. It also can’t do him any harm in the jobs he holds down right now – director of both the Borders and Lennoxlove book festivals, rector of St Andrews, and, of course, writer. “My wife always used to say I was finding more and more ways to earn less and less money,” he told me five years ago. That, though, was before he started his latest job – running a successful DNA analysis 

His latest book, Britain’s Last Frontiers: A Journey Along the Highland Line, is a direct result of a conversation he had with Jim Naughtie at the Borders Book Festival in 2008. The two men were talking “with a bottle of whisky between us” about that sometimes clear, sometimes indistinct border between Highland and Lowland Scotland. Surely, they mused, someone should write a book about that?

Yet the book’s real seeds were planted much further back. In 1964, the young 
Moffat caught the train from Kelso with the rest of his class for a school trip to the Highlands. As they headed north, the rest of his class were quietened by the big country beyond the carriage window. The day after, in a tiny church by Loch Duich, the 14-year old Borderer first heard Gaelic psalmody. It felt, he writes, “as though a history and a culture hidden to me was beginning to open”.

“It was an opening,” he insists, when we meet in Edinburgh. “Going from the fertile, productive landscape of the Borders to this dramatic landscape that you just don’t expect. The thing I remember, growing up in the countryside, was how we used to feel patronised by Edinburgh, as though they were sophisticates and we were the hicks.

“When I started working in TV [he quickly became director of programmes at Scottish Television] we always felt in both Glasgow and Edinburgh that we were being patronised by London. So when we started making Gaelic TV programmes in real volume, I remember giving a lecture to hundreds of staff saying if you ever patronise Stornoway, for example, you’ll be doing exactly the same thing that annoys you about London.”

That fascination with the culture on the other side of the Highland line wasn’t superficial. “I realised I needed to learn the language. Scotland must be one of the few countries in the world in which 95 per cent of the population can’t pronounce 50 per cent of their geography. But it’s more than that: language is a prism on a culture.

“One of the things that I like about Gaelic is that there’s no such thing as RP, as ‘posh Gaelic’. It’s completely demotic and people speak with all kinds of different dialects. I’d been taught Lewis Gaelic, but when it was time for me to sit my Higher in Gaelic after a total immersion course paid for by STV, the lady giving me the exam was from Mull and I could hardly understand a word she said! – and that’s my excuse for only getting a B! But I do love Gaelic’s instinctive democracy – that’s the same with Scots, of course, too.”

When he first started to think about that invisible frontier between Highland and Lowland, Gaelic- and English-speaking Scotlands, there seemed to be any number of stops along the journey. “Callander was an obvious one, as I’ve always thought that AJ Cronin always wrote the Tannochbrae stories with one foot metaphorically in the Highlands and one in the Lowlands. I was so fond of Andrew Cruikshank, who was my chairman when I was at the Edinburgh Fringe [as director, 1976-81] who played Dr Cameron so memorably, but I couldn’t get it to work.

“Then I was drawn to writing a lot about whisky as one of the few cultural phenomena that crosses the Highland Line, but then all of those Lowland single malts kind of complicate things, so I threw out a hell of a lot about that. And again, I thought of making it about music, because Donnie Munro is a friend and I really admire what Runrig achieved in leaping across the Highland line, but I couldn’t get that to work either.”

Instead, Moffat has amassed a mixture of stories that ought to be better known in Scottish history than they are and ones in which he presents well-known stories in a new light. The Covesea Cave is a classic example of the former, but so too is the Rourkes’s Drift-like defence of Dunkeld by the Covenanters in 1689 against the Highland army, the massive defences against Nazi invasion of the Cowie Stop Line near Stonehaven, or the gargantuan Roman legionary fortress at Inchtuthil in Perthshire.

“I didn’t have much of a purpose in mind at first, but the book just grew. With the story of the Cowie Stop Line – Scotland’s last-ditch defence against 1940 a Nazi invasion – I was helped by Norwegian thriller writer Jo Nesbo, whom I met at the Edinburgh book festival. George Rosie told me I ought to read JM Barrie’s The Auld Licht Idylls and that was another chapter, as I realised just how central a figure Barrie was to the whole book. A Lowlander who lived right up against the Highland Line, he is almost the classic example of someone being defined by something that they are not – in Barrie’s case, that he was not a Gael. When he was growing up a Lowlander in Kirriemuir, Gaelic was dying in the glens of Angus.”

Barrie was actually on his mind quite a lot during the writing of his latest book. “It was the same time as I was campaigning to be rector of St Andrews (Moffat’s alma mater, where he studied medieval history). Of course, that’s a position that Barrie held himself, and the rector’s installation speech which he gave in 1922 about courage is justly famous. Gordon Brown sent me a copy of it that had belonged to his father with a note inside saying, ‘No pressure, then!’ ”

When Moffat donned the rector’s cap and gown and made his own speech, he referred to his “blinding revelation” in his second term that “everyone was making it up as they went along”. By this he didn’t mean that his lecturers were inventing facts, but that there was nothing inevitable about them doing their job – or anyone else doing theirs – in the first place. “That sounds like a threadbare commonplace now, but in 1968, social class in Britain was very entrenched, much more than it is now. For me, a raw 18 year-old, it was a small step from that realisation to the getting of self-confidence, realising that I had just as much to offer as anyone else.”

The latest and greatest expression of such intellectual self-confidence is Moffat’s business, BritainsDNA, which now employs 15 people, including geneticists in Vienna, Oxford, Edinburgh and Dublin. Already they are already pulling together fascinating research on why so many Scots have red hair (two of the most common types are about 70,000 years old, are descended from the first two individuals to have that sort of red hair, and probably lived in West Asia). This year – or next – they hope to be able to identify where the first person with blue eyes – again, the ancestor of everyone else with blue eyes – came from.

As someone who wrote (in 2004’s Before Scotland) about the first people who crossed into Scotland after the Ice Age, when the only evidence available lay in stones and bones, Moffat is fascinated by the notion that each of us contain within ourselves evidence of where we wandered on our long journey out of Africa. Those DNA markers don’t always give us the answers we are looking for (though all racists, I think, should realise that they were once black), but the more people who take the DNA test, the more accurately we will be able to work out where in the planet our ancestors lived before they came to Scotland.

In his own case, Moffat is mildly miffed to discover that his ancestry is Anglo-Saxon rather than Celtic, his DNA marking him out as of the Angles, the Germanic tribes who invaded England along with the Saxons and the Jutes in the early fifth century. In years to come, when we all know our genetic roots, maybe he will be able to trace a journey along his own bloodline just as enjoyably as he has done with the Highland Line. He’s the sharpest Angle I’ve ever met, so that will be a good book too.

• Britain’s Last Frontier: A Journey Along the Highland Line by Alistair Moffat, is published this week by Birlinn, £17.99