Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episode
transcribed, compiled and edited by
Sandy (Alexandra) Elene Maclean Denny
1947 – 1978 and
1942 – 1995
Stories and places
Landscapes remain largely mute until decoded, only then do seemingly arbitrary jigsaws of pattern and trace take on particular meanings. To understand a particular patch of land, to actually enter into it, requires a willingness to know it as ‘this place’, rather than simply to become acquainted with it as a location in space, an area on a map. However, to enter a place in this way always carries with it some element of risk, however slight. All landscapes, even the most mundane, have certain unexpected depths. In addition to other, more obvious, properties they are saturated with the sedimented traces of innumerable pasts deposited over lifetimes. In consequence they can become powerful psychic echo-chambers that catch the ‘objective’ questions we bring to them and subtly bend or change them, bouncing them back to us full of strange reverberations and unexpected resonances. At worst a landscape can be a psychic tar-pit, a trap that catches us unawares, drawing us down into thick black deposits of decayed life.
None the less many of us desire to enter places as living palimpsets – strange books that open out into seemingly limitless avenues of understanding, a trace of densely layered, ongoing movement, modification and reconfiguration. We enter in one of two ways: either by living in a place as an inhabitant or by moving through it as a an attentive traveller. Either process involves us in engaging with multiple temporal and spatial dimensions, in understanding both human and natural activity. Our entry is finally achieved only through the marriage of many kinds of knowledge and experience. A song, even an old, layered song like Tam Lin, has beginning and end, is opened and closed by the voice of the singer. A place is less easily defined, even when it has more or less agreed physical boundaries. To bring a song and a place together is, then, to look for a unique and complex spatial and temporal matrix.
Tamshiel Rig is located in Southdean parish, on the English Scottish border, and appears in one late twentieth century guide book sandwiched between two musical references. The first is to a photograph of ‘Scotland’s best known folk-singer, Ronnie Brown, late of the Corries’. He is giving the annual oration at Carter Bar to mark the Redeswire Raid. (Carter Bar is just to the west of the Redeswire Stane that commemorates the last Border skirmish in 1575, set at the eastern end of the parish). The second is to James Thompson, who ‘spent his young life in Southdean beside the Jed where its course curves back from Chesters to the A68’. Once seen as an influential writer, Thompson is remembered today, if remembered at all, as the author of Rule Britannia. A fanciful guidebook reader might imagine Southdean situated between a folk tradition resistant to the cultural values of the British Establishment and a perfect expression of those values.
As he walked above Southdean on a wet autumn day of storm force winds, early in the new millennium, this fanciful juxtaposition lodged itself inextricably in his thoughts. Fighting to see his way through the driving, near-horizontal rain, these strayed to the interaction between the urban and the rural, the North and South, in American popular music, a music influenced in small part by ballads from the country in which he now walked. He knew something of the migration west of Borders farmers and miners from the history of his wife’s family, but it had come to life during a conversation with a friend farming on the southern edge of the Border country. She had just identified an object, returned to her as ‘unidentified’ by the local museum, as her father’s Jews harp. Unlike the museum’s curator, she had remembered the campfire scenes in the cowboy films of her childhood, scenes in which someone always played either a Jews harp or harmonica.
He knew that the Jews harp or trump is one of the oldest and most widespread of the world’s instruments, for all its strong associations with northern Britain, and enjoyed the irony inherent in her story. He also knew that, in 1591, James the IV of Scotland had commanded the accused at a witch trial to reproduce on the Jews harp the tune she played for dancing at a sabbath, and that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the instrument had been generally used for dancing in Scotland and the northern counties of England. (In Dacre in Nedderdale they had even had a Jews harp band). He did not speak to her of any of these things, nor of the fact that the trump, as it is often called in Scotland, was taken to North America in the seventeenth century, as a barter object by settlers (many from her own area) in trade with the native Americans. Later it was taken up by various forms of folk or popular music, for example the black jug bands. He said nothing, leaving her to memories of cowboy films. But as she spoke, he had sensed the distance between the north of England and California momentarily diminish. The local world of her father, a gentle, soft-spoken County Durham hill farmer, suddenly stretched across oceans. Remembering that moment as he walked against the storm, it occurred to him that every place always belongs in some part within a matrix of stories that leads us to other times, other places, and so to other stories, new beginnings.
There have been moments in Western history when individuals, studying what we call superstitions and the irrational, have made sympathetic links between the supposed credulity of the ‘savage’ or uneducated mind and the fears produced by childhood nightmares. One such figure, Lafcadio Hearn, wrote:
‘The impossible is much more closely related to reality than the greater part of what we designate true and ordinary. The impossible isn’t perhaps the naked truth, but I believe that it is often the truth, undoubtedly masked and veiled, but eternal. He who claims he does not believe in ghosts lies in his own heart‘.
The ‘impossible’ is, of course, only what we are unable to accept as reality, and the border between the ‘possible’ and the ‘impossible’ are, in consequence, negotiable so that, should we discover in history a factual ‘nightmare’ at the root of what we had taken to be empty superstition, we may question where that border is drawn.
Wulf and Eadwacer is an obscure, densely allusive Anglo-Saxon poem, written some time between 657 and 1104. Richard Hamer interprets it as an account of a woman’s grief at the loss of both her child and its father, Eadwacer, who in all probably raped her. She is not sick with hunger, although that was common enough in that period, but with a combination of desire and grief. She refers to Eadwacer both by name and as ‘Wulf’ (wolf), which in Anglo-Saxon also meant an outlaw or outcast, perhaps to stress her feelings about both his ambiguous role in her life and about what is to become of their child. The concluding lines of the poem indicate that a wolf will carry away the child – ‘our wretched whelp’ – into the wood and so to its death.
(When he first read the poem the hair on the back of his neck stood up. He felt an almost unbearable pain in his chest, as if he was being slowly crushed by stones).
The poem’s ending may refer to the Anglo-Saxon solution to the problem of young children who, sickly, weak, deformed, unwanted or unsupportable, became an intolerable burden to their parents. These children were left in woods or at a crossroads and so, in all probability, to the wolves. A belief in the magical substitution of a ugly, sick, or deformed fairy changeling for the ‘real’ newborn child – a changeling that must be ‘returned’ if there was to be any hope of recovering the ‘real’ child – rationalised this exposure. Such beliefs persisted for many hundreds of years and our sentimental linking of children and fairies is, relatively speaking, very recent. Originally any such link can only have been a source of terror to children.
Death by exposure was doubly terrible. Not only was the child cast out to die, it was denied the rites of burial that ensured that the dead, however obscure, were included within the collective world of faith, tradition and memory which contained and helped sustain the living. To be left unburied was to be exiled for all eternity. So fundamental was the desire for proper burial that its denial became an extreme punishment. Political outlaws, excommunicants, the worst categories of criminal and suicides were not buried in hallowed ground but placed at cross roads or parish boundaries. The overwhelming need for proper burial, gave rise to a widespread folk motif where the hero earns, by providing an appropriate burial for a unburied corpse, the help of that corpse’s ghost. This theme is known to specialists as that of ‘the grateful dead’, a name more usually identified with the musicians first collectively known as Mother McRees Uptown Jug Band, then as the Warlocks and, finally, as the Grateful Dead.
Another time and place: Samhain
Walter Scott claimed that ‘Carterhaugh’ existed at the confluence of Yarrow Water and Etterick Water, between Bowhill and Philiphaugh, about a mile outside Sellkirk. A ‘Carterhaugh’ does indeed appear there on the 1:50000 OS map. For Scott, Carterhaugh was a literal location where supernatural events once took place but, far from authenticating the ballad, this misses the particular quality of Carterhaugh as catalyst, its ability to facilitate our understanding of love, the the fear of death and much else besides. If Tam Lin takes us ‘elsewhere’ it is precisely because it is not bound to any particular time and place. In the version of Tam Lin by Steeleye Span, the entire narrative takes place ‘in Carterhaugh’ at Halloween, the night before Samhain in the old ‘Celtic’ calender. Yet these references are, it seems to me, more a means of evoking the start of a liminal journey than an attempt to fix the ballad in a specific time and place .
Each society finds its own ways to make peace with the ancestors and their power. A particular time may be identified to publicly acknowledge their power, with rituals established to ensure release from that power. Samhain served that purpose for the ‘Celts’. At the death of the old year they built great fires and ‘ghost fences’ – palisades topped with heads or skulls known as the ‘mast of the Morrigan’ – in order to keep the malignancy of the dead at bay. Livestock that could not be fed through the winter was slaughtered. Samhain would have been particularly potent in upland areas where livelihoods depended largely on stock-raising, as it did for those who lived above Southdean, and traces of its rituals are present in Tam Lin.
The ‘Celts’ believed that at Samhain distinctions between nature and culture, the quick and the dead, animals, mortals and divinities all dissolved in the time between one year and the next. Samhain stories refer to barrows becoming portals between the worlds; stories that also reverberate with traces of rituals involving public copulation and human sacrifice. When the Irish kingdoms met at Tara for Samhain the High King took on the role of a god, publicly copulating with a maiden incarnating the local river goddess to ensure the survival of the seed until the next season. Kings, often understood as a succession of sons born of, and then married to, their Goddess Queen, were sometimes installed for a seven year period, at the end of which they were sacrificed to her at the festival. Later rituals modifying this original sacrifice, substituting the wooing of a maiden for the goddess and the ritual murder of another male – perhaps a criminal or outlaw – for the king, again at the end of a seven year period. It was at Samhain that processions of magical horsemen issued from the barrows, led by the horse-goddess Epona (who would herself sometimes become a white horse).
Whatever kind of ‘truth’ we may attribute to these stories, they continue to haunt our culture, to reverberate at the edge of our sense of the many and complex relationships between sons and mothers, and between the mothers of sons and their daughters-in law, the young women who take their place in their sons’ affections.
Oak Sike rises below Wolf Craigs, where the open hillside meets the densely planted forest some hundred and fifty metres below the border between England and Scotland. A dense, uniform blanket of trees dominates the view west, a view closer to that at the beginning of the Neolithic period – when natural forest, largely birch and hazel, covered the entire Cheviots – than any time prior to 1947. The modern forest, with its straight rides and uniform planting of conifers, is the visual antithesis of that variegated woodland, yet still shelters some of the same native animals. Look north west from Wolf Craigs and your line of sight follows the valley formed by the Carter Burn towards the ruined church at Southdean, once ‘Zedon’, ‘Souden’ or ‘Sowdun’ (Sow’s Hill). To your left, hidden by the ridge above Black Burn, is the Iron Age site of Tamshiel Rig. Neolithic people first managed this landscape, setting a pattern that lasted well into the Middle Ages as ‘forest farmers’, opportunists who took advantage of gaps in the canopy to grew cereal or used wild resources to support livestock.
To the south west of Southdean lie Wolflee and Wolfhopelee (as they were spelled in the nineteenth century), under hills of the same name. Both are situated on Catlee Burn, one of many ‘Catlees’ in the area. (Coincidentally – or not – wolves, pigs and cats were once sacred to the Moon-goddess Cerridwen and are animals sometimes linked with ‘witchcraft’). Much of the pattern of farming was established before the Anglo-Saxons founded the nearby village of Chesters between the tenth and twelfth centuries, an ancient landscape that remains implicit in place names. Wolfhopelee is literally either ‘wolf valley clearing’ or ‘wolf valley pasture land’, open or cleared woodland where animals grazed. Tamshiel Rig is literally ‘Tam’s hut ridge’ although, since a ‘rig’ can also indicate a ridge and furrow field or a small area of cultivation, it may simply have meant ‘Tam’s farm’. (The remains of the shiel or hut can still be found just to the east of the site of the original ‘fort’).
The land below Wolf Craig has been understood as ‘forest’ in a number of different senses. To the Normans the word “forest” implied a tract of land ‘lying out’ (foras), rejected as of no value in the first distribution of property. A hunting ‘forest’ did not necessarily imply woodland, but might consist of moor, heath or fenland. Woodland, however, was seen as a managed working environment with its own economy. Pigs, horses, cattle and sheep shared the grazing with deer; charcoal was burned, bark collected for tanning, wood provided fuel for brewing and timber for building. Into this economic system the Normans introduced a complex legislation regarding ‘venison’ (all game animals) and ‘vert’ (the land in which they lived) and ended the right of any free-born person to enter the woodland to bring home game for the pot. Responsibilities were implicit in the exclusive rights attached to this new forest. For centuries the ‘forest’ borderland just to the south of Southdean was held by the Umfraville family on condition that they defend it from ‘wolves’ or wulvesheofod – literally a ‘wolf’s head’ but also used to designate a human outlaw.20 To keep this history and the words of Tam Lin in mind, standing at Wolf Craigs and looking out over the modern forest to the ‘marginal’ farm land below, is to begin to enter this landscape as place.
The Southdean farms and pele-houses north and west of Tamshiel Rig, almost all ruined, are: Dykeraw Tower, Lustruther, Slack’s Tower, White Hill, Hilly Linn, Northbank Tower, Watties Spindles, Martinlee Sike Farm, Chapel Knowe, Shaw, Hindhaughhead, Longslack Sike farm, and Broombanks (or Broombauks) farm. In addition, farm buildings or isolated houses are or were located at Crink Law, Waterside, Southdeanrig, Steel Knowe, Southdean Law and Carterhouse. Current farm land is in all probability the result of reclamations from the moor and natural woodland that reestablished itself following the period of intense land cultivation which produced Tamshiel Rig. Today the parish sits on the northern edge of Wauchope Forest, a vast area of managed post war woodland. Walking in this constructed forest there is no sense of what has been lost. Yet in the nineteenth century the last vestiges of the old Caledonian Forest could still be seen at the head of the Jed Water. The Capon Tree, an ancient oak supported by poles, was still standing in 1992. At its height as a settlement, Southdean was at the centre of an early medieval mixture of woods and moor land that made up the Royal Forest of Jedburgh, the parish being roughly equivalent to the old Jedburgh Forest given to Sir James Douglas in 1320.
This land was once crisscrossed by small roads and tracks. The medieval Wheel Causeway crossed over from the village of Wheel in Liddesdale (now lost), joining the current B6357 just north of Wolfelee Hill. It then turned to join what has become the A6088 that crosses the Jed Water at Southdean. The modern road follows the Carter Burn valley parallel to the line of the old road to Otterburn. Drove roads and tracks once ran parallel to that old road or crossed it to run up into the hills, evidence of livestock that forms a counterpoint to place names that refer to wolves. Wolves still come to mind today passing the Fellside Kennels just north of Carterhouse. Here Siberian Huskies are kept in large runs near the road and, at Wolf Craigs, they conjure up the vision of a grey wolf (canis lupus), glancing out over what were once ‘archipelagos’ of cultivated ground and rough pasture land, set in the great but dwindling expanse of the Royal forest.
An old song
‘Folk music has never been simple; it’s weird‘. Bob Dylan
The first known reference to Tam Lin is in The Complaint of Scotland (1549). The earliest known printed version is from 1769 and is variant C in the English and Scottish Popular Ballads, by the American Francis James Child (1825-1896), generally regarded as the definitive collection of traditional English and Scottish ballads.Tam Lin is, however, a song, something which Child’s text largely forgets. Although there is no alternative to treating the song as a written text here, the reader would do well to listen to one or more recorded versions in order to keep its musical qualities in mind. In addition to two recorded versions by Fairport Convention, there are interesting versions by Franki Armstrong, Pyewacket, Steeleye Span and Mike Waterson. Anyone wishing to gain some sense of how the ballad would have been sung as part of an oral tradition should listen to fragments sung by Betsy Johnson and Willie Whyte.
A speculative history
The raw material from which Tam Lin was constructed considerably predates the sixteenth century, but by how much is a matter of debate. Folk songs are songs composed by individuals that become ‘folk’ songs when accepted by a community – anything from a family to a nation – and transformed as they pass from one individual to another, a process known as ‘community recreation’. The category of Border ballads called ‘supernatural ballads’ – particular Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas – are both older than the rest of the Border ballads and rooted in similar material. (Thomas the Rhymer appears as a character in one version of Tam Lin). That material may first have been given ballad form by Thomas Learmont of Erildoune, who died in 1260. The supernatural ballads probably appeared in something like their current form only when conventional religious values became established in the Borders towards the end of the thirteenth century, threatening to eclipse all trace of the earlier pagan culture.
It has been suggested that Thomas Learmont collected stories from a dwindling community who spoke ‘Old Welsh’; reworking them as ballads in which he gave himself a part. He appears to have identified with the much earlier figure of a “Borders Merlin”, a pagan bard and prophet who fled when his king, Gwenddollau ap Ceido, was killed in 573 at the battle of Arthuret, a little to the north of Carlisle. It may seem unlikely that a thirteenth century poet would know such material, yet such knowledge would parallel the process by which the material informing ‘The Dream of Macsen’, recounted in The Mabinogian, to on its medieval form. The historical Macsen – the Spanish-born Roman general Magnus Maximus – fought a campaign against the Picts and Scots in 384, and made a bid to become emperor before being defeated and beheaded in 388. The first surviving written versions of ‘The Dream of Macsen’ come from the early fourteenth century, some 950 years after Macsen’s death. The time scale of oral transmission is prodigious by modern standards but, given what we know of bards who flourished between the sixth and fifteenth centuries, such oral survival is entirely plausible.
Although the ‘Old Welsh’ of the British ‘Celts’ died out in Scotland in the early 1300s, it is clear that the world it named did not. The Scots leaders who fought the Battle of Otterburn in 1388 arranged ‘a rendezvous ”on the frontiers of Gales -“Wales”, or rather “Cumberland”’. They did so while camped at Southdean, near the south-eastern edge of what was once the territory of the Selgovae (whose name may be derived from sealgair, meaning ‘hunter’ and who appear to have sent ‘Caledonian’ bears to the Coliseum). The Selgovae were closely linked to the Picts and inhabited a great wood, Coed Celyddon or the Wood of Caledon, covering much of southern Scotland, the same wood to which the pagan Myrddin fled after the battle of Arthuret in 573, part of which became Jedburgh Forest.
An ‘autonomous native society’ persisted in the Borders from the late pre-Roman Iron Age into the early medieval period.35 The Roman Dere Street – which crosses the modern border only some twelve kilometres east of Tamshiel Rig – once divided the colonised lands to the east from the native British to the west. Until the tenth and eleventh centuries, Dere Street was the most significant border in the area. In the uplands to the west that feed the Carter and Black Burns and the Jed Water,’Celtic’ pastoralists continued to occupy the poor land at the heads of valleys, while the Gaels (‘Gales’ ) or Picts occupied the richer lowland as the area’s overlords. The material that forms the basis of Tam Lin and True Thomas, narratives that take place on Samhain Eve, might well remain popular in such country, preserving as they did traces of the old, pagan belief systems that linked the people to ‘their’ land.
All the running water in ‘Lower’ Southdean Parish
- Jed Water
- Pinkie Burn
- Shaw Burn
- Jordan Sike
- Longslack Sike
- Martinlee Sike
- Millstone Sike
- Oak Sike
- Swin Burn
- Deep Sike
- Lining Burn
- Carter Burn
- Limekiln Burn
- Skleffholes Sike
- Duntae Burn
- Black Burn
- Lamb Burn
- Fell Burn
- Tod Sike
- Lances Sike
- Hay Sike
- Yellow Sike
- Causeway Sike
- Piper Sike
- Brack Sike
- Rushyrig Sike
- Hyndlee Sike
- Swire Sike
- Raven Burn
- Raven Sike
- Common Sike
- Bracken Sike
- Redstone Sike
- Wig Burn
- Hyndlee Burn
- Harecairn Sike
- Cross Sike
- Catlee Burn
- Wolfehopelee Burn
- Mackside Burn
- Westshiels Burn
- Rough Sike
- Battling Sike
- Cleuch Burn
- White Burn
- Spar Sike
- Moss Burn
- Belling Burn
On the day of the gathering they were all up before dawn, watching the weather and preparing for what might well be a nine hour day of hard walking. They had to collect their neighbours, each with his own dog, and reach the highest ground before the sun cleared the last traces of early mist, allowing them to see the small groups of sheep scattered across the rough ground below. To get into position would require an hour and a half in the back of a series of ancient Landrovers, humans and dogs crammed together haphazardly as they climbed a road often indistinguishable from the rock strewn burns which ran beside it and, on occasion, into it. Shaking as much from the violent jolting of the journey as from cold, an ill-assorted line of gatherers would put itself in working order and then spread out across the border march that ran along the high ridge. The adults would ensure that, when the last person was in place, the dogs could be directed so as to outflank even the most far-flung and obstinate of ewes. (Children were subject to one simple command: ‘keep the line’! On the given signal, this ragged line would begin its slow, difficult descent, each person keeping a weather eye on both neighbours in the line and on the endless succession of hags, dips and burn beds which the old ewes deployed in their unceasing attempts to avoid the line.
As the gathering moved downward, adults controlling dogs would start to whistle and call, marshalling the slow descent of small family groups of sheep. This terse form of wordless communication would occasionally turn into furious bursts of wondrously obscene shouting, the result of an overenthusiastic dog that, having run too far ahead, had allowed an old ewe and her wide-eyed lamb to use one of the deep hags to escape back to some favoured patch of ground behind the line. When this happened the whole line would have to halt, women looking anxiously at their children as the profanities flew, until the renegade sheep had been encircled and driven in front of the gathers once again. Within the first hour the isolated pockets of sheep would start to merge into larger clusters, tumbling through the heather and sending up volumes of pollen dust and insects to thicken the warming air as they started the descent to the gate in the first fence. Soon little tributaries of sheep, ewes and lambs now struggling to keep together as their numbers grew, would be flowing down towards the first shelf of level ground, pooling into ever larger groups as they went. As the first gate came into sight, and with it the promise of a mid-morning break for water and a mouthful of food, the dog handlers would press these pools of sheep to merge into a single, stable sea, just as it eddied violently under increasingly pressure from the flying dogs. As if at an invisible signal, the whole sea of sheep would slow as the leaders forded the big burn parallel to the upper fence, quieting as the dogs were pulled back and told to rest. With the heather-scented heat haze now thickened by thick dust and the overwhelming smell of hundreds of wet sheep, the air around the gate boiling with sound and smell. Men sit and smoke in silence or drink tea from a flask while women pacify children demanding food, attend to blisters and wipe noses. The dogs lie flat or scratch, panting hard in the growing heat, one eye on the sheep and the other on the possibility of scraps.
The basic rhythm of downward march, expansion of the flock on the flat, followed by a temporary check at a line of fence, will be repeated three times before the end of the day. On each occasion the sea of sheep will have grown until, now a great heaving ocean of close to one thousand ewes and lambs, it finally flows into the holding field by the Big House, an ocean that will continue to ebb and murmur all night as ewes and lambs call for each other, each call somehow distinct in tone, duration or pitch.That sound, swelling and ebbing, strangely raw and unsettling despite being muted by the cold dampness of heavy night air, caught the child somewhere below his ribs. It become, somehow, the sound of a vast human crowd made up of lost, separated and disparate adults and children, caught up in some overwhelming, incomprehensible catastrophe, one of the mass clearances or terrible enforced migrations that haunt history. Despite his usual excitement as he anticipated tomorrow’s dipping, that sense of catastrophe, past or future, wove fear deep into the fabric of all his dreams.
Samhain Eve 2002
After the symposia papers and questions, long evening meals spiced with gossip and professional politics, after boredom, displays of rampant egoism and the occasional valuable insight – all standard fare – he is stranded at that most modern of ‘crossroads’ , grounded by weather that closes his local airport on a bank holiday. There is not a bed to be had in the city and, after several hours fighting his fate he resigns himself to sitting still, to waiting. He camps down with his baggage and begins to read:
Our problem is not so much one of deciding between absolute agency (I make my world, create my situation) and complete passivity (I am forced to be what I am), although some might put it that way; it is more a matter of figuring out how to respond to the acceptance that we are always in both positions at once …
It was a few hours later, among the detritus of an extended meal eaten more to break the monotony of enforced inactivity than satisfy hunger, that he realises that he has finally caught up with himself.
Just before they cancelled his flight, he saw two immaculately dressed Muslims take turns to prostrate themselves in prayer in a quite corner of the departure lounge. Each had been transformed by a trick of the light into a huge dark shape against the deep red wall, a wolf-like figure apparently conducting a whispered dialogue with a twin plug wall socket. Their unselfconscious fulfilment of an everyday obligation had reassured him, even as the windows crackled in the wind. With the announcement he was caught up in the general confusion; lost luggage, angry women begging stand-by flights while their helpless menfolk looked on, frightened adolescents weeping into mobile phones, and the strange solidarity of becoming, however temporarily, just one more displaced person among others, subject to a system as disinterested in their distress as it was clearly unable to address it. Later refugees, migrants and the homeless will drift through his waking dreams.
To the stranded traveller an airport is an image of purgatory. Figures dozing, jammed into hard corners or slumped on seats apparently designed to prevent sleep, inhabiting a nightscape among mountains of staked chairs, airlessness filled with the low hum of distant machines, the steady, rhythmic pacing of armed guards. Between worlds, unable to sleep, his thoughts are invaded by stories. As these surface he fears that the dead, the ‘good neighbours’, may press in again, whispering, mocking in the empty air. However, it seems they have no purchase here, in the artificial twilight of this immaculate, chromed and plasticised way-station. The very anonymity of its void becomes a spirit-fence. None the less stories weigh on him here, between places, between times; stories of love and hatred, adventure and fear, discovery and loss. Stories perhaps grander than his, wider in scope, more historically resonant. A war-time journey, for example, across Europe in an army’s wake, to a liberated death camp, to Berlin and beyond. But also stories of journeys closer to home, of an eleven year old child utterly dismissed by a teacher, told it is nobody, will get nowhere; or a story of spiritual quest, of searching and inner work undermined and abandoned, only to be reanimated years later. Stories that are not, however, this story.
Sitting in the airport he remembered how, at the start of one such journey, his teacher had spoken of the tradition of animal names and, during the ensuing discussion, had named him ‘scared rabbit’. Now he was ready to move on, to join the dance that ‘witches’ like Anne Armstrong and Isobel Gowdie of Auldearne had hinted at, a dance of endless transformation and return, a old dance where the dancer might ‘become’ hare then hound, trout then otter, bee then ‘swallow hen’ , mouse then cat or, as he liked to think, roe buck then wolf and, in each case be ‘fetched home’ when the necessity for that particular transformation had passed. He was learning to meet the faces that necessity required he met, to change and come home again, to turn, when his time came, from the music to silence.