City to Country: Home is something worth writing about.
When I was a teenager, it seemed like living in the Borders was nothing to be proud of. Now, you might say that teens are simply predisposed to despise their surroundings no matter where they are.
But back in the late 90’s round my way, it wasn’t just me. My extended community was in a deep funk, being at the tail end of some serious economic decline that had started in the first half of the 20th century. Hawick, in particular, had been seeing hard times get harder since the emigration of the woollen industry to places with cheaper labour and more efficient factories. It’s population peaked just shy of 20,000 in the 1890s, and today is a meagre 13,500, with a town centre epitomising the ‘death of the UK highstreet’: a litany of charity shops and Greggs. Despite having numerous beautiful buildings and impressive mills, and having once been prosperous and well linked to the rest of the Borders, it now generates some of the worst statistics regarding crime and deprivation in Scotland. Not all Borders’ towns have suffered Hawick’s plight, and some have done well in recent years in part due to the reintroduction of the Borders Railway. But back in the day, when I were a lass, things looked pretty bleak and it seemed like all anyone talked about was getting away.
Venturing far can either provide perspective or sentimental nostalgia. Either way, I began to reinterpret the Borderlands as something quite unique – precious, even. Seems like a bunch of other folk have come to the same conclusion, and are beginning to share their appreciation by moving here, setting up food and craft businesses, and shouting about what the Borders has to offer. Even #scottishborders is doing alright on Insta.
This evening I went to a book launch at the ever-lovely Mainstreet Trading in St. Boswells, for “Tweed Dales: exploring the history, folklore, and stories from the heart of the Scottish Borders”.
The book gives voice to the people, beliefs and events that have woven 'the distinct and diverse cultures of this region'. Indeed, the towns across the Borders are quick to claim their distinctiveness from one another, claim co-authors Elspeth Turner and Donald Smith - a sign their culture and sense of identity is well developed and maintained. Elspeth and Donald have clearly developed a deep appreciation and fascination for the area in researching the book, discovering breathtaking scenery well off the beaten track, and poetry from bygone times which evokes enchanting scenery and the kind of bucolic self-sufficiency today’s hipsters aspire to. The stories, landscapes, and personalities they have highlighted, are organized along routes that you can cycle, drive or walk, and encourage ‘discovery’ of a region long overlooked by tourists as they make the mad dash to Edinburgh and the Highlands.
The packed room at Mainstreet responded with nods and warm laughter and followed up with good discussion. It was heartening and pleasantly surprising to be among so many people actively appreciating and seeking to better understand this area; the same area I had once been dying to see the back of. It also made me wonder who is capturing the people, places and stories that make up the Borders now, and which will carry it’s value forward into the future? Someone pointed out that the “ayes been” [‘it’s always been this way, so it can’t change”] attitude that has stifled growth and change in the Borders for so long, is finally acquiescing to the shifting tides of new incomers and global markets. Clearly, this could be a double-edged sword and we may see the Borders of Elspeth and Donald's book become a dim and distant memory. Hopefully not. But whatever happens, recognising, expressing and celebrating place through culture is vital at any time. It helps make meaningful and valuable what people see and hear around them. Hopefully there are contemporary voices doing just that.
As we are constantly told, the world is apparently overcrowded, over-stretched, under-resourced and polluted. Whether this is true to the extent the media would have us believe, Tweed Dales seems to present an older, simpler time and place of peace, beauty, intrigue and value, which I believe does still exist.
I drove home from the event past newly harvested fields glowing with the rose-gold light of sunset, and a huge lace-like moon hanging above Ruberslaw. I rolled down the windows and let sweet air fill the car, and wondered why I’d ever left.