Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Violent, bloody and lawless: or was Sir Walter having us on?

The publication next month of a new version of Walter Scott's 'Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border' will provide we Borderers with yet another opportunity to analyse and agonise over our region's troubled past.

It was Sir Walter who, almost single-handedly, gave the Border lands their sometimes unwanted reputation as a lawless, blood soaked medieval wilderness where murder, kidnap and blackmail were daily occurrences as the brutal family gangs of reivers went about their evil business.

Nowadays our American cousins run DNA tests on each other to determine whether they may be descended from those clans of rapists, pillagers and cold-blooded killers.

Scott's 1802 minstrelsy, produced after he collected dozens of ancient ballads, songs and tales of derring-do during a 'pilgrimage' through the Border Counties, was seized upon by historians. The minstrelsy was key in shaping the perceived way of life for cowering hordes of locals in southern Scotland during the late Middle Ages, and that version of events has been with us ever since.

No doubt times were hard, and a fair amount of killing and maiming took place in those far off times. But we may never know whether the myths and legends surrounding the Border Reivers were based on fact or fiction. Were they villains or heroes? It probably doesn't matter.

The Edinburgh edition of the minstrelsy is a 600-page critical work written jointly by Sigrid Rieuwerts, of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, and Katherine Campbell, Department of Culture & Scottish Studies, Edinburgh University.

We are promised: "One hundred poems and songs, many of them containing fascinating narratives of death, murder and abductions". Well I did warn you!

The blurb for the book continues: "It reveals the roots of Scott's impact on Romantic perceptions and on the creation of an imagined Scotland."

But there are academics out there who challenge and refute the word pictures portrayed by the minstrelsy. In Approaches to conflict on the Anglo-Scottish Border in the late 14th century, Alastair Macdonald, of Aberdeen University, discusses the alleged violent reputation we still nurture today.

He writes: "The concept of a violent and uncontrolled society on the Marches is most certainly the dominant image of the region in the later middle ages. This is the image consistently portrayed, for instance, in works aimed at non-academic audiences.

"A recently published tourist map of the Borders contains the following statement (from the perspective of c.1600): 'for six centuries up to that moment this troubled buffer zone...rang to the clash of steel, the thunder of hooves and the screams of bloody murder'".

Mr Macdonald goes on to ponder where this image came from. He concludes: "Like much in the historiography of the Anglo-Scottish Borders, the turbulent image of the region owes much to the influence of Sir Walter Scott. The romantic vision of Scott and James Hogg has proved remarkably enduring and has much to do with the still dominant approach, even in academic work, to the medieval Anglo-Scottish Marches."

So make up your own mind. Were our forebears wild and wicked heroes as depicted by Sir Walter and Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd? Or were they just ordinary, run-of-the-mill folk whose landscape was no more tarnished by violence than any other part of medieval Scotland?

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