Book review: Britain’s Last Frontier: A Journey Along The Highland Line by Alistair Moffat

Undiscovered country: Moffat recalls his first trip to the Highlands
Undiscovered country: Moffat recalls his first trip to the Highlands
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ONE sunny spring morning in 1964, the young Alistair Moffat boarded the train at Kelso and headed north on a school trip. The journey took him across an invisible frontier and deep into a country which he was seeing for the first time.

Britain’s Last Frontier: 
A Journey Along The Highland Line

Alistair Moffat

Birlinn, £17.99

A mountainous and often empty landscape, it left the class “a little dazed and quietened” by the time they alighted at Morar and began the short walk to the youth hostel at Garramore.

That hostel closed nearly two decades ago, the railway line from the Borders to Wav­erley was ripped up nearly three decades further back, but Moffat’s fascination with the history and culture of the Highlands has remained undimmed.

This book, written with love and insight, is the proof. In it, Moffat explores that “last frontier” between the Highlands and the rest of Scotland. Chapter by chapter, he anatomises the differences that he picked up on during that Easter school trip and in the course of a varied career that has ranged from being Scottish Television’s director of programmes to running Britain’s biggest DNA analysing company.

The resulting book is what one might call 4G history, for genetics, geography, geology and Gaeldom are all in the mix. But what opens out each of those topics is a fifth “G”: Moffat’s skill as a generalist, his ability to communicate intellectual fascination.

Pithiness helps. If you want to explain the rise of the Aberdeen Angus, here it is in three words: “Trains changed breeding.” For the rise of whisky, here’s a dozen: “Scott, Phylloxera and Victoria combined to put the dram on the map.”

Without the ability to tell a good story, such summaries would be pointless. What brings Moffat’s history to life is his ability to see significance in detail, to seize on the historical anecdotes that really count.

Take, for example, Culloden. These days most people realise the extent to which it was a Scottish civil war battle, and Moffat emphasises the visceral Lowland hatreds of Highlanders that manifested themselves when the captured Jacobite standards arrived in Edinburgh, their silken banners dragged through the dirt of the streets by the city’s chimney sweeps: “These were the flags, the rags of savages, tribesmen, people scarcely human – they had no value and they deserved no respect.”

No sooner has Moffat finished with Culloden than he is tearing back millennia to the geology that essentially underpinned such mutual hatreds and suspicions, and forwards again to examine what DNA tells us about the Picts or to give a subtle analysis of JM Barrie’s lesser-known novels. Few academic historians could ever attempt such interdisciplinary leaps across the centuries, and even if they did, wouldn’t be able to match Moffat’s story-telling panache.

But at the root of all history is a sense of wonder many professional historians have lost the ability to communicate. Moffat, however, hasn’t – and his latest book still has echoes of the wonder that he first felt on that 1964 school trip across the Highland line: that this land, for all its seeming strangeness, is our land too. «