Normally no-one reads evaluation reports. Which is a shame, because people put a lot of work into them. And that’s where the learning takes place from projects. So we’ve decided to do our evaluation in the style of Buzzfeed, in the hope it means slightly more people get to learn from what we learned in the project.
Backstory: In September 2013 we (Sophia Collins and Ross Winter) walked from one end of the River Tweed to the other, with our baby, who was seven weeks old at the time. Everywhere we went we put on storytelling and storysharing events. We got academics and other professionals who knew something about the Tweed to come along and tell stories about what they knew. We got professional storytellers to come and tell traditional tales relevant to the Tweed. And we got local people to come along and tell us their stories. And this is what we found out.
1. You haven’t lived until you’ve changed a nappy on a Scottish hillside as dusk falls.
We ended up setting off for our first day’s walk much later than intended (did I mention we had a seven week old baby?) and only just enough time to get to our destination for the day before night fell. But newborn babies are no respecters of schedules, and he did a spectacular poo. So we had to change him on a rocky hillside. We think it should be a new high-octane sport: extreme nappy-changing.
2. The best swimming spot on the River Tweed is the Washpool, near Drumelzier
In the Upper Tweed, when we asked people about their favourite memories of the Tweed, they all mentioned swimming in the river. Most people said the best swimming spot was the Washpool (pictured), where Biggar Water joins the Tweed. There’s a nice pebbly beach, the water is shallow and warms up quickly and you can float in the current.
We asked some kids what they imagined the inhabitants of the valley 10,000 years ago liked to do. They said they MUST have played the jumping-in game, cos that’s the best.
3. You get the biggest audiences in the smallest places.
Tweedsmuir, Drumelzier, Norham – all little villages – we got audiences of 10-15 people. In Galashiels – one of the biggest towns we passed through – we got 2 people. It’s much easier for word to go round in small places. Someone from the Village Hall committee makes a point of telling everyone there’s a thing on. In big places there’s too many other things to do, and no-one from your venue takes ownership of telling everyone about it.
Word of mouth is much more powerful than an article about you in the paper. We got a double page spread in the Southern Reporter, but in Kelso (where it’s based) we only got 6 people. Mind you, we were up against the Ram Sale.
4. Ram Sales night is the highspot of the Kelso social calendar.
It’s front windows gave onto the town square, and teenage kids kept climbing on a bench and banging on the windows. We joked about it to the caretaker when he came to lock up and he said, “Aye, well it’s Ram Sales night. They all go a bit crazy.”
The Ram Sale is a yearly event. People come from all over Europe to buy and sell rams. It’s Kelso’s big opportunity to mix up the gene pool. And from the look of things they were taking it.
5. The best fishing on the Tweed is the Junction Pool at Kelso. It costs £33,000 for a six day licence to fish there.
Apparently it’s really deep, which for reasons I’ve forgotten makes it good for salmon fishing. (You half think rivers are a roughly uniform depth, getting gradually deeper as they get wider. But in fact there are many flows and stream within the river, all roiling around, with different bits of water taking different paths. And of course the riverbed is made of different stuff at different places. So some bits end up much deeper than others.)
The salmon much upstream of Kelso have got knackered in their journey up the river. And not that many even make it that far. Much below Kelso they are going too fast. Kelso is the sweet spot where the fishing is best. So that’s where they charge the most.
6. Who pays £33,000 just for six day’s fishing? TV quiz show hosts from the ’80s.
We wondered who on earth pays that kind of money for less than a week’s fishing. And then we found out. A guy came to one event who used to be a taxi driver in Kelso. “I’ve had that Noel Edmonds in the back of my cab, taking him to the Junction Pool. And that Chris Tarrant.” I don’t think they were together. It’s not like Stellar Street, where all the ’80s TV stars have to go on holiday together…
7. Salmon don’t want to eat ‘flies’, they want to fight them.
I always thought the flies fishermen use to attract fish were pretending to be a tasty morsel of food. Bait, innit? But apparently salmon don’t eat much on the journey up river. They stock up while they are still out in the Atlantic. On their journey upriver they are intent on spawning. And they think the fly is a rival swimming above them.
8. Lots of people think Berwick is at war with Russia.
Berwick upon Tweed, being strategically important (at the mouth of the river), and on the Scottish/English border, has changed hands several times over the centuries. The story goes that due to the unclear legal status of the town (is it in England or Scotland?), it had been mentioned specifically in the declaration of the Crimean war in 1853 (“On behalf of England, Scotland and the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed”), but not in the peace treaty in 1856. So, technically, Berwick is still at war with Russia.
9. Some people think this ‘war’ ended in 1966 with a quip from the Mayor.
Another story goes that the Russian ambassador visited Berwick in 1966, and signed a peace treaty with the Mayor of the town. Who, on signing, turned to the ambassador and said, “You may tell the Russian people they can sleep easy in their beds tonight.”
10. Sadly, neither of these stories is true.
Berwick wasn’t mentioned by name in the declaration of war against Russia in 1853. In fact, the Wales and Berwick Act in 1746 settled the legal status of Berwick as being in England, which it has been ever since. Neither was the Russian ambassador making friendly visits to Berwick in 1966 (shortly after the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis). And the Mayor, sadly, never uttered that immortal line. It didn’t stop Berwick having a ‘war with Russia’ weekend a few years ago though.
11. People prefer a good story to the truth.
Jim Herbert from the Berwick Borough Museum came along to our Berwick event and entertained us all greatly with his recounting of the whole story.
His take on it is that a good story has more staying power in the popular imagination than the boring truth. Which I guess is part of why we walked a whole river doing a storytelling project in the first place.
12. Selkies (mythical seal/people in Scottish mythology) really existed. Sort of.
Dr Jeff Sanders, from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland came along to our event in Berwick. He talked to us about his fascination with myths and stories, as an archaeologist. He says stories can contain echoes of past events. For example, he thinks stories about selkies (mythical creatures who are seals in the water, but then turn into people on land) are an echo of contact between land-dwelling people in northern Scotland and people from Scandinavia who’d crossed the sea in their canoes.
13. A ford is not a good place to cross a river if you’re on foot.
A river is a barrier in the landscape. Which is kind of obvious when you think about it. But normally, if you’re in a car, you just drive to the nearest bridge and cross it. But when you are on foot. And you need to be on the other side of the river in an hour, to do a show in a village hall. And the nearest bridge is four miles away. Then it really hits home to you that the river is a barrier.
Then, you find yourself looking at the map and going, “It’s OK, there’s a ford just there. We can take a shortcut!” Because you have many times before crossed rivers or streams at fords, in a car.
And then you get to the ford. And you look at the surprisingly deep water flowing over jaggy looking stones. And you think, “We aren’t in a car.”
And then you think. “But we need to be two miles over there in 20 minutes.” And you take your socks and shoes off and tie them round your neck. Trying not to throttle the baby with shoe laces. And then you cross the river. Wincing with every step.
And then you feel like terrible parents. And you make everyone you know promise never to tell the baby’s grandparents about this.
14. People in the olden days were smarter (and more agile) than us.
Later that evening, when telling the story of crossing the ford to the people in Drumelzier Village Hall, they all nodded and said, “Oh yes, the ford!” They told us that a hundred years ago there used to be stacks of stilts kept on either side of the river there. People from the village across the way would come in to Drumelzier on a Sunday, to go to church. And that so they could cross the river without getting their Sunday clothes wet, they went across on stilts.
I could hardly keep my balance doing it in my bare feet. Never mind on stilts and in voluminous skirts. People in the olden days were both resourceful and impressively co-ordinated.
15. Salmon are cunning
When we first started researching the Tweed, we realised that the Tweed is all about the salmon. It’s claimed to be the best salmon-fishing river in the world. As we’ve heard, it can cost the price of a small house in some parts of the country to fish there for less than a week. So salmon-fishing is crucial to the local economy. Stories about salmon – fishing them, poaching them, netting them – were everywhere we went. And yet we didn’t see a single salmon in two weeks of walking down this river.
My theory is: they heard us coming and thought it was funny to hide. They are pretty smart fish. The ancient Celts associated the salmon with wisdom. (Hear Ruth Kirkpatrick tell the story of the salmon of wisdom below). At Norham, one of the people who came to our event was a ghillie (a professional who helps people fish salmon). He was a no-nonsense-seeming sort of chap. And yet when we asked him what he liked about his job, he gave a mystic pause and said, “You could study them your whole life, and never understand the salmon.”
16, There are many stories centring around salmon swallowing things.
Our favourite one we heard was the story of a schoolboy who threw the school key in the river, in an effort to get out of school. St Cuthbert then visited the local vicar in a dream, telling him to ask for the first salmon out of the nets the next day. The clergyman did as instructed, and lo and behold, when he opened the salmon up, the school key was inside.
St Cuthbert is NOT the patron saint of schoolboys.
17. Don’t call people experts.
Our plan was to have a storyteller and an ‘expert’ at each event. The ‘expert’ would be someone who knew something about some aspect of the Tweed and could tell a story about it for 5-10 minutes. We had a guy from Scottish Water talking about the building of the Tala reservoir. We had a mycologist talking about Otzi the Iceman and how a ‘first aid kit’ of fungi was found with him – fungi that also grow along the Tweed. We had a textiles lecturer talking about the history of weaving in Galashiels… You get the picture.
But we found it much harder than we expected to recruit these experts. People would say, ‘Well, I’m not really an expert on the geology of the Tweed, I’ve only written a couple of papers that touch on it. You should speak to so-and-so.” When all we wanted was someone who could talk about it for 5-10 minutes. They just needed to know a bit more about it than the other people in the room.
We shouldn’t have used the word expert. To an academic, an expert is someone who has spent their life studying that topic in detail. We should have used another word. but we haven’t thought what that word should be.
18. Paxton House, near Berwick, has a tiny, unique museum.
These days, the Tweed is a centre of leisure fishing, mainly for salmon. But for thousands of years it’s been the site of net-fishing. If you want to fish salmon as a leisure activity you use a fishing rod. If you want to fish salmon with maximum efficiency, cos you are hungry, you use a net. They believe iron-age people here used nets to fish for salmon. Until recently net-fishing was a busy industry here. They kept the catch in ice-houses and sent it down to London over night on the train from Berwick. Paxton House has (I believe) the world’s only museum devoted to net-fishing.
19. And it’s in a beautiful setting
20. Paxton House also has a teddy bear treasure trail
In every room they have teddy bears in period fancy dress, for kids to spot. Some of the costumes are awesome.
21. They also have a giant teddy bear, on a giant chair, which our son did not like one bit.
22. An ancestor of someone I know orchestrated the massacre of thousands of Scots
When you are doing a project like this, finding stories about the Tweed isn’t restricted to the walk itself, it takes over your life. So a couple of months before we did the walk, I was doing a workshop in Edinburgh, and ended up sat opposite Sir Roland Jackson, (head of Sciencewise, and formerly of the British Science Association). I was telling everyone about the Tweed project and Roland piped up that his great-great-lots of greats-grandfather had commanded the English troops at the Battle of Flodden. I thought it was brave of him to mention that aloud, while in Scotland.
Estimates vary, but it’s thought something like 10,000 Scots died on the Flodden battlefield, and about 1,500 English troops. Honestly, Roland is the mildest of men. You wouldn’t think it to look at him.
23. Priories weren’t just about hanging around praying.
At our event in Coldstream, the curator of Coldstream Museum came and spoke. She talked about what happened after the battle of Flodden, which took place nearby, exactly 500 years earlier. This is the bit the songs and the histories usually leave out.
It would have been like the aftermath of a natural disaster – there were thousands dead, and presumably thousands more wounded. In the medieval world priories would have been centres of organisation, of medical supplies and knowledge. They would have been like the Red Cross, treating the wounded, feeding the survivors. It must have been grim work.
24. Some people claim there used to be a country between England and Scotland.
While we were walking the Tweed, the aforementioned Roland Jackson (did I mention he’s lovely?) pointed an interesting post out to me on twitter. It was by Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith, discussing the lost country of Middleland. I don’t know enough about the history of the area to judge his account. (And obviously, there used to be many kingdoms in Britain which have waxed and waned over the years. Was Middleland more or less significant than Mercia et al?) But I was captured by the idea that there used to be a kingdom between these two great countries, that then got squeezed away. We did sometimes have the sense along the border that we weren’t in England or Scotland, but in Borderland.
Incidentally, Rory Stewart sounds like an interesting chap. He was previously a senior coalition official in a province of occupied Iraq in 2003–2004 and wrote a book about it. ONE of his other books is about walking across Afghanistan. And he’s younger than I am. Mind you, I bet he wasn’t carrying a baby when he did his walk…
25. The borders are thick with stories
Everywhere we went there were not just interesting stories from experts and local people about the area. But SO MANY folktales. You could walk a few miles and bump into several. In this way the Tweed was completely unlike the Trent, which had a lot of industrial history, but not much folklore that we got told about.
I developed a theory that this was because of point 23. Maybe Middleland had a normal amount of folklore, but as Scotland and England squeezed together, the stories got scraped up, like sweetie wrappers at the bottom of an escalator, until they were all jostling against each other.
My other theory was that the Trent used to have just as much folklore, but during the big upheaval of the industrial revolution, communities got swamped with incomers who didn’t know the old stories, and they all got forgotten. Or possibly, the Scots are better than the English at holding on to their cultural heritage. Obviously we need to do more rivers, so we have points of comparison and can test these theories out.
26. The border was surprisingly unimportant, in some ways, to those who live along it.
I was talking to the teenage daughter of a friend we stayed with on the trip. She lives in Norham (which is in England, but on the banks of the Tweed, near Berwick). She was talking about what a small world it is up there, and how notorious her auntie is. She said, ‘If I mentioned my surname to anyone from round here – Norham, Coldstream, Kelso – they’d immediately know who my auntie was.’ What struck me was how Norham is in England, but the other two places she mentioned were in Scotland, but that made no difference to her.
It seems obvious really, but when you live so close to the border, you stop caring about it as a border. So many people live on one side but work (or shop, or date…) on the other. We thought this journey would give us an interesting way to reflect on the nature of Scottishness (and Englishness), with the independence referendum coming up. But in fact, no-one talked about it. It seems to matter a lot more to people living a long way from the Border. ‘Far away’ in Edinburgh or Glasgow.
27. The River Tweed is different from the River Trent
I know, duh! But in 2012 we walked from one end of the River Trent to the other. It was really different. In many more ways than we can go into here. Most of the Tweed is pretty and rural, with lots of tourism. When we walked the Trent we passed six power stations and 13 sewage works. As I said above, the Tweed has far more folklore and people seemed to know its history better. Is that something particular to the Tweed (or the Trent?)? Or does it reflect a Scottish/English difference?
More river walking is obviously needed to find out!
28. Scottish Water are quite sweet, for a large corporate body.
Not only because Bill Elliot from Scottish Water came and spoke at one of our events, and was nice to our baby. But also, we discovered that there is an annual raft race on the Upper Tweed, organised by the Crook Inn at Tweedsmuir. It’s the highspot of the year for local kids. On the day of the race, if the river is low, Scottish Water let extra water out of the Tala Reservoir, so that the rafters can have a good race.