Monday, 4 July 2011

A Walk with Alistair Moffat

Alistair Moffat led a well-attended walk organised by Borders Forest Trust's man on the spot,Ed Glenwright to the Devil's Beef Tub on Saturday, a fine still day and -amazingly- few midges. Alistair went out of his way to emphasise what a significant period the Reivers represent in Borders history, brought about by the collapse of political authority following the defeat of the Scottish army at Flodden. Armed gangs, criminal families, roamed at will raping and stealing until the accession of James VI following the death of the childless Queen Elizabeth I restored unity to the two warring kingdoms. At one point, Alistair paused beside a large sheep stell and I asked him if he had ever heard the rumour that these drystone wall features in the landscape, situated in varying places and of varying sizes, were derived from formulae invented by the 17th century mathematician Sir John Napier. It is always claimed that stells are for sheep to shelter in or other sheep related functions, but this theory has flaws. My house looks out onto a hillside where a neighbour keeps his blackface flock, and never once in bad weather have I seen a sheep sheltering in one of these edifices. I have a stell on top of a hill, quite small and round with very tall walls - quite a different shape from the one I can see on the opposite hillside. I suppose they were handy for a man to shelter in to treat a sheep or a lamb if it were in trouble, and mine had a very ancient, rusty broken bucket lying beside it which suggests some kind of utilitarian purpose. The ground up there is marshy, evidenced by the reeds growing in and around the stell but there is no burn. A mystery. On Sunday I went across to Elshieshields to continue making plans with Ann Shukman for an international conference to celebrate the life and work of Alexander Men, one of the twentieth century's martyrs who I met just before he baptised my elder daughter at Easter 1990, a few months before he was murdered in circumstances reminiscent of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral eight centuries before.

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