In Praise of the Southern Uplands – singing the old songs

IT took me an inordinately long time to realise the delights of the borderlands. For too long northern mountains and overseas wilderness took up my attention. It wasn’t until I mellowed into my forties that I began to appreciate there was life below three-thousand feet. Even then, curiously, it wasn’t so much the hills that drew me to the southern uplands but the songs, the border ballads.

I was, in a sense, in search of the songlines, and my introduction to the Southern Upland Way was a45 mile route between Moffat and Galashiels, taking in the excellent Bodesbeck Ridge and the historic Minch Moor, a high level route that follows the footsteps of cattle drovers, battling dukes and kings. And of course Ettrick, beloved Ettrick – a name that stirs my heartstrings, a bit like Torridon or Sutherland, and while Ettrick has virtually nothing in common with such highland areas it does have a parallel in its resonances of wildness and remoteness.

It was the ancient hunting forest of Ettrick that sheltered the patriot William Wallace, and the Bruce, and the Black Douglas and later, the Marquis of Montrose and all those who haunted this same lofty fastness when they too were being hunted like wild animals. An ancient verse suggests,

The Ettrick Foreste is a feir firests

In it grows mony a semelie tree

There’s hart and hinde, and dae and rae

And a’ wild beasts in grete plentie

In this respect, especially when walking a route where the historical aspects are almost tangible, areas like Ettrick and Minch Moor make you feel you have been transported back several centuries to when this part of Scotland was truly wild, rugged and remote. It was this “spirit of place”, so neatly put by the words of Ronnie Browne’s song;

 “I walk alone where two hawks fly,

Where once we heard the bairnie’s cry”

that I had wanted to examine on this three-day journey. I was also keen to explore another curious phenomenon.

The late Bruce Chatwin once wrote about the physical world that Australian Aborigines live in and a parallel world from which they believe their physical world is derived. This other world is their “dreamtime”, and for them it is as real as the physical world in which they live. What I find fascinating is that the Aborigine’s believe their ancestors created the natural world by singing it into existence!

The songs the ancestors sang created the land and the animals and the birds and the plants, and modern Aborigines still go walk-about to experience these “songlines”, what they refer to as following the Footsteps of the Ancestors. By singing the old songs they believe they can play a vital part in the continuing creation.

It’s a lovely concept, and it’s not that far removed from traditional Christian thinking. An old story relates to Caedmon, who died in 680 and who is remembered in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey as the first known poet of Anglo-Saxon England. One night he had a dream in which he was commanded to sing. When he asked what he should sing he was told to sing of those things he knew instinctively – the glories of creation.

I wonder how many songs and ballads from the borderlands have been influenced by the natural magnificence of those areas, or by some historic event – a battle, a jilted lover perhaps?

I wanted to experience the songlines of the Borders for myself, and in experiencing the songlines I discovered the hills, and the cleuchs, and those little byways that make up so much of what we now know as the Southern Upland Way.

My experience of that 45-mile section of the Southern Upland Way thrilled me – even today I recall with fondness the delights of the route – Ettrick and Scabcleuch, Riskinhope and Blake Muir, and the high level traverse, in the footsteps of kings and drovers, over Minch Moor. I learned of the attraction of Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders and why so many people, throughout the ages, would want to write songs about it. I left with a song in my heart, a newfound song of the borderlands, the rolling hills, the woodlands, the history and the incomparable fusion of time, song and story.

Bruce Chatwin had a vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and ages, that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song, of which we may, now and then, catch an echo. Man has left a wonderful trail of song from coast to coast, from Portpatrick to Cockburnspath, and its echoes still ring out through the ages to those who will listen.

Out ower yon moss,

Out ower yon bonnie bush o’ heather,

O a’ ye lads whae’er ye be,

Show me the way to Gala Water,

Braw, braw bonnie lads o’…

The Southern Upland Way, in perfect symphony, awaits you…


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