28 Things You Learn by Walking Down the River Tweed

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.

In Kelso our gig was in the Town Hall. The room we were supposed to be in was out of action, so we did it in the registrar’s room, where they hold weddings. Yes, that was a bit weird.051

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. 063


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.084

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. Roland_Jackson_web

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.


Epilogue 1 – Berwick and Paxton House

For the sake of completeness, I thought I’d let you know a bit about what we did AFTER we got to Berwick. We rambled about a bit, catching up with things we’d wanted to do on the way, but didn’t get time for. It was all part of our exploration, if not part of the source-to-sea journey, so I thought I’d better document it. Consider this an epilogue to the main journey:-).

We spent a day resting in Berwick.



And visiting their excellent charity shops. Ross was very tempted by a guitar. But I said he already has enough guitars. And anyway there was no room in the car.



We went to the actual end of the Tweed and looked at the sea. 007

We then visited Paxton House. Which was absolutely fab. I can’t recommend it enough, if you are in the area and want to visit a stately home of some description.


It appears I am auditioning to be the female Doctor Who...

It appears I am auditioning to be the female Doctor Who…

We had the best guided tour of a visitor attraction I’ve ever had. Often, I find, guided tours are a bit tedious. But the guy who showed us round (Richard, I think), had a knack for storytelling and engaging an audience. 020

He gave us a real insight into the history of the place, and also the life of the house in times gone by – both above and below stairs.

They had so many nice little touches. Like a teddy bear trail for younger kids – teddy bears in period costume hidden in each room. 034

The staff were all so nice, you could just tell this was a happy place to work, and where they really cared about their visitors. 078

They even have a mini museum, devoted to salmon-netting on the Tweed, which we found absolutely fascinating.

084Sadly, we couldn’t find the guy who worked there, to pick his brains. But apparently he is THE GUY who knows everything about salmon-netting on the Tweed. Maybe we’ll have to go back some day…

It was a beautiful setting anyway. 091




Our gig at the Storytelling Festival

IMG_2277Last week we did an event in Edinburgh as part of the International Storytelling Festival. We thought it went great, and we certainly enjoyed it. Andy Hunter told Borders stories from his wonderful store of folklore. Prof Chris Spray talked about studying swans and the minister, the digger and wetland management. Doug Rocks-MacQueen told a story about an archaeological dig. And I wittered on about our journey and laughed at my own jokes in between.

It was a real privilege to be part of the festival, and on-stage at the Storytelling Centre. Even if the baby started crying half-way through and I started leaking milk all over the stage. I don’t think anyone noticed, so it was fine. Although it does make it surprisingly difficult to concentrate, when you’re onstage, trying to tell a story, and you can feel milk landing on your knee…

Here’s an audio recording of the event. Ross has put markers in on Soundcloud at the start of each section, so you can just skip to the bit you want to listen to.

Tales from the Tweed at the International Storytelling Festival

In September 2013, we walked from one end of the River Tweed to the other. Armed with stories, laptops, a ukulele, and a baby, we put on shows along the way celebrating this great river. We were also joined by a selection of wonderful storytellers, and experts – from archaeologists to mycologists. 9808567613_5f43d08018_o

As part of the International Storytelling Festival (theme this year: journeys), we will be putting on an event telling the story of our trip. It will feature storytelling of local history and folklore from Andy Hunter, contributions from experts on the Tweed, and an account of our trip. There might also be one or two cute pictures of the baby.

Please come and join us on 26th October, 4pm, at the Storytelling Centre, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH1 1SR.

Day 16 – Norham to Berwick-upon-Tweed

Miles walked: 10

Weather: Fair-ish. Clouds but no rain.


I’m posting this horrendously late. Sorry, dear reader. I blame having a baby. But procrastination, laziness and disorganisation have played their parts too.

Today Andy the storyteller joined us for our walk, which made a nice change. 024

(Andy does have an actual surname of course. It’s Hunter, and he runs the fab Storybikes – guided cycle tours, with storytelling.)

The day started off sunny – although still quite fresh – and we walked up to Norham Castle in the sunshine. This was supposedly once the most dangerous place in England, but it looked pretty chilled out to us.



We thought today would be an easy day – after all, it’s got pretty flat around the river now – but actually there was probably more up and down than we’d had on any other day. Lots of little cliffs alongside the river. And also lots of places where the path was quite eroded and narrow. I really felt for Andy, who’d got his bike with him.


Early afternoon we got to the Chain Bridge, near Horncliffe (once the longest wrought-iron suspension bridge in the world, fact fans).

9786935021_49e65ab333_oWe considered whether to stay in England or go to Scotland (and the wonder that you can do either just by crossing a bridge). But decided that more than anything we needed a cup of tea. Of course.

Fortunately Honey Farm (and its bus cafe) was just a couple of hundred yards up the road.002


Here we had what I think was the best cup of tea of the trip. Plus soup and a sandwich. 001Then we pushed on to Berwick – up and down and up and down. And finally the famous viaduct hove into view.9787034652_e13b4cb3b5_o

It was a lovely – if surprisingly tiring – last day. I was a bit disappointed that this was the end of our epic quest, and we spent all day walking – along riverbanks, through woods – with a storyteller, and yet nothing mythical happened. I was hoping an old man would appear by the wayside and ask us a riddle. Or something. But no.

Then we got to our venue and a woman appeared and gave me some golden coins. “Aha!”, I thought, “the moment has come at last!”. But it turned out they were just tokens for the ’80s style drinks machine.

The event went brilliantly. The specialist for today was Dr Jeff Sanders from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland – who’s much cooler than you might think from that title. (Sorry antiquaries!). He told some great stories – about growing up in Galashiels, about the lost continent of Doggerland, about the first inhabitants of the Tweed valley, 10,000 years ago.

My absolutely favourite bit (excerpted in the audio clip below) was him explaining that archaeologists have a theory about where selkie legends come from. Selkies, in Scots folklore, are seals that turn into people (or people who turn into seals, depending on how you look at it). Often a young man will fall in love with a beautiful maiden who turns out to be a selkie, and then she turns back into one and swims away when the secret is revealed. That kind of thing. There’s often a mysterious seal skin which gets discarded and then reclaimed.

The theory is that these legends represent the folk memory of encounters between land-living people and canoeing travellers from Scandinavia. The canoeists had a waterproof wetskirt of sealskin, and, in the cold of the North sea, would be unable to canoe without it, without freezing to death.

I love this idea of folktales as echos of real history. And it so nails one facet of why I wanted to do this project. Stories aren’t just mindless entertainment. They tell us things.

So many other interesting things were said in the rest of the evening. We had an embarrassingly well-informed audience, including the curator from Paxton House (herself an archaeologist), as well as a former salmon-netter, and an expert on Berwick on Tweed’s history. I could write for hours about everything that was said, and my reflections on it, but this post is late enough already. Trust me though, you should have been there…

I have been nagging Ross to edit some audio excerpts from the discussion, to include in this post, but he hasn’t done it yet. And I’m posting this now and am therefore no longer behind with my blogging. So I WIN! I’ll nag him some more, and include them in a future post collating the interesting things we found out.  and now he’s done it. What a wonderful boyfriend! Below you’ll find a clip where Jeff Sanders talks about selkies. And also our usual daily log.


Day 15 – Coldstream to Norham

Miles walked: 9

Weather: We got the full gamut – gales, heavy rain, sunshine.

10256205795_1e69106630_oObviously I am writing this totally late and we finished the walk over two weeks ago. I can only apologise. Can anyone explain to me how small babies take up so much time? It’s not like they do very much. But somehow it takes both of us all day to look after him. And our house still looks like a bombsite.

When I was a kid I wondered what exciting things the grown ups did after we went to bed. Now I realise it was mainly tidying. At least if a burglar breaks in in the night, we’ll be alerted by the sound of him treading on rattles and crinkly-eared teddy bears.

We had a hearty breakfast at the Castle Hotel in Coldstream, while we looked out of the window in trepidation. It was chucking it down and we’d overhead a weather forecast yesterday talking about ‘the worst gales for several years’. It didn’t sound too enticing. We tucked into extra toast and ate it slowly.

The rain eventually eased up a bit so we girded our loins and set off.

20131007-195618.jpgWe admired Coldstream’s ‘in bloom’ attempts, but I still feel Melrose is going to be a tough one to beat.

20131007-195654.jpgThis Flodden display caught my eye – because, of course, what better way to celebrate the brutal deaths of approximately 15,000 men and boys than a civic display of succulents?

20131007-195726.jpgImmediately as you leave Coldstream you cross the bridge into England. It felt much the same over there. In fact, here, right on it, the border seemed like less of an issue than it is elsewhere. I chatted later, in Norham, to a girl who mentioned her aunty, “Everyone knows everyone here. As soon as I say my surname to anyone from round here – Horncliffe, Coldstream, Kelso, whatever – they’d know exactly who all my relatives are.”

I thought that was interesting that she made no distinction between which side of the border places were on. I guess it makes sense, there’s no language barrier, no passport control. In Norham, you’re only a few miles from Coldstream, but you’re hundreds of miles from lots of places in England. According to this blogpost, this all used to be ‘middleland’. I don’t know the history well enough to judge that claim – and it does seem a bit of a sweeping analysis – but it’s an interesting perspective.

Our luck held and the rain mainly held off. But it was bloody windy. I kept trying to take a photo to demonstrate this, but I discovered you just can’t tell from a static photo that leaves and branches are moving. Disappointing.

It did chuck it down with rain at one point, but we sheltered under a tree and it blew over in ten minutes.20131007-200001.jpg

We also walked onto a peninsula, then all the way along it to the end, thinking we were still following the bank of the river. We stood around in confusion trying to understand how we were suddenly surrounded by water on three sides. Then we looked properly at the map. And backtracked and walked around and cursed the stupid map for adding a mile or so to our journey.

Thus, of course, as is traditional, we ended up running out of time to make it to Norham for our event. So we cut across country, to the road, where lovely Claire the storyteller came and picked us up in her car. This meant we got to admire Twizel Castle and Twizel Bridge on the way.20131007-200313.jpg


The bridge apparently played an important role in the Battle of Flodden. Which is, y’know, interesting, but reminded me of something Les Reid said to us last year. He was complaining that Newark Council don’t give any money to his Heritage Barge and had cut funding to the folklore museum but were putting all their money towards a Civil War Visitors Centre. He said, “The Civil War was three years of the town’s history. But they don’t care about something that was part of the real life of the town for a hundred years or more!”

The Battle of Flodden only lasted a day and yet it’s everywhere. I know had effects that lasted more than a single day. And I know that it’s the quincentenary this year. But still, we seem to live in a culture that’s more into celebrating war than real life.

Anyway, we found a lovely group of people – and most importantly, a cup of tea – waiting for us at Norham Village Hall, all marshalled by the fab Joan Lawson. I’d been worried about today’s event because we hadn’t been able to find a specialist to come along. But as it turned out, one of the people there was a ghillie. We picked his brains mercilessly about salmon and salmon fishing.

He told us that a license to fish the Junction Pool at Kelso costs £33,000 for six days! Who pays that? You can buy a house for that money in some parts of the country…

He also said that you’ll never understand the salmon, no matter how long you study it for. That even though he’s been a ghillie for 20 years, he’s still learning every day. It was – perhaps – a surprisingly mystical thing for such a no-nonsense looking man to say. But I’ve found fishermen are often contemplative types.

There does seem to be something deep about the salmon – it features heavily in folklore, not least as the salmon of wisdom. I don’t know if that’s because the salmon is so enticingly difficult to fish, or because it was important in the diet of our ancient ancestors, or because it makes such epic journeys. Feel free to write in, salmon experts and cultural historians! Either way, this was a satisfying event for us – after two weeks of travelling down this river, it was good to be talking about salmon.

Day 14 – Kelso to Coldstream

Miles walked: about 10

Weather: Sunny

20130925-031723.jpgThis was the day we had to leave our Week 2 holiday cottage. From here on in – the last three days – we’ll be staying in a couple of B&Bs and a friend’s house. So not only did we have to pack and clean, but we needed to get rid of all our bits of food, or decide what to do with them. Fortunately our wonderful friends Abi and Chris were staying with us for a night and in between stopping their kids killing each other, they helped us tidy and clean up. In fact, I’m  pretty sure they did more of it than I did. We are rubbish hosts and they are exemplary guests.

Chris works for the RSPB, surveying fungi, and was coming to talk at our event in Coldstream. He flatly refused to let me call him an expert. He says lots of people know much more than him, ‘expert’ makes him uncomfortable. He’s grudgingly OK with ‘specialist’.

I think this has been a problem with this project, and something we’ll need to think about for future projects. It’s been a lot harder to recruit the ‘experts’ than we were expecting. I think because of this: A man who’s identified any fungi I’ve ever showed him, a man who FOR FUN, in his free time, peers down microscopes at mycelia, a man who drives his girlfriend round the bend secreting little pots of sheep poo around the house, so he can cultivate rare fungi. THIS MAN thinks he isn’t an expert.

I think a lot of potential contributors were like this. They said to themselves, ‘Oh, but I haven’t spent my whole life studying the ecology/geology/history of the Tweed. Therefore I can’t volunteer for this.’ When we only needed people to talk for five minutes, so they only really needed to know something interesting the other people in the room didn’t know.

The thing is, the more people know, the more they become aware of that they don’t know.

Ah well. We’re learning all the time. And I guess when you are trying to do something new, you’re bound to get bits of it wrong. It’s an experiment. And despite the team’s 40+ years of engagement experience, we still have to learn some things by trial and error. Next event, we’ll call them specialists.

Also exciting today, the very nice people at Aquapac sent us a link of best place to buy phentermine online, a free waterproof case for my iPhone, after they’d read about our adventures fording the river.078

It’s a pretty nifty wee thing and much-needed on this project. Aquapac got in touch thanks to my lovely friend Dr Lindsay Keith who’s been following our progress and told them of our water-proximity and recklessness. I knew there was some reason I was writing this blog…

Anyway… we arrived in Kelso about on time, but then had to feed gigantababy. Of course. For an hour. So we set off knowing that really we didn’t have enough time to make it to Coldstream. The first bit of the walk was just straight along the road. Which was fast, but boring. 20130925-030211.jpg

Then we were beside the river, and it was all very flat, with wide open skies, and reminded us of Lincolnshire.20130925-030358.jpg

Then we got a taxi from Eden Bridge, cos otherwise we weren’t going to make it in time.

Coldstream looked very cute as we drove into it. We saw signs saying ‘Coldstream in Bloom’. “Oh, you’re competing with Melrose!”, we chirped. “Everyone’s competing with Melrose,” our taxi driver muttered darkly. 20130925-032637.jpg

Here the river is not just a river. It’s also the border with England. I find something fascinating in the fact that at the same time the river is a physical, geographical fact – made by tectonic plates and erosion and water – and also a notional, made-up-by-human-beings fact, which is nevertheless very real. For example, you walk across the bridge from one side of the river to the other, and you are subject to different laws. So Coldstream, like Gretna Green, was a place people eloped to to get married. Because the marriage laws were more relaxed in Scotland. 20130925-030827.jpg

Today 1 in 6 marriages taking place in Scotland take place at Gretna. Not because 1 in 6 Scots get married there. But because of ‘marriage tourism’, with people coming from England and overseas. Even though most have no legal reason to do so, the romance – the story – is powerful enough to bring thousands of people all this way, and means millions of pounds to the local economy. Stories can be powerful things…

Coldstream isn’t fixed in the popular imagination as a wedding destination in the same way. Although they do have some tourist weddings there. But what most people know Coldstream for is the Coldstream Guards. And our event was in the Coldstream Guards Museum.

It was one of my favourite events I think. They’ve all been good in their own different ways. But we had a nice big audience here (well, 15 people) and an embarrassment of experts. I thought it went brilliantly.


It was also nicely inter-generational.



Professor Mary Bownes from Edinburgh University came and talked about the Tweed – and the Scottish countryside – in the lives of the international staff and students who come to work in her laboratory. Many of them are stuck here miles away from their friends and families over Christmas and she usually has them round to her house for Boxing Day. One year the Tweed froze over and they all mounted an expedition to come and see this wonder.VIEW OF SHORE


I loved how personal this was, and the little insight it gave into the social side of science, and what it’s like to be a scientist.

Mary also talked a little bit about developmental biology. What she loves about it is paying attention to the fine details, in order to try to understand the big. She brought along a microscope and let people look down it at samples we’d picked up on the way.

Chris Knowles, from RSPB, talked about fungi and their importance. He identified various fungi we’d picked up along the Tweed and told us a bit about each one. Then he wove a wonderful story of the history of life on earth, with fungi as the heroes.

He said that in the distant past, plants invented lignin, which meant that suddenly they could grow tall, as trees. But nothing could break down lignin, so trees were just piling up everywhere, with lots of energy (and carbon and other elements) locked up in them. This is where most of the coal in the ground comes from.

Then along came a fungi that worked out how to break down lignin. Hurrah! Trees could now rot, all the stuff that was in them could be released back into the ecosystem, and life could diversify all over the place.

He also told us how Otzi the Iceman had a fungi kit with him – two fruiting bodies of fungi, threaded onto leather strips. One – the razor strop fungus – may have been used to carry fire embers in and keep them alight, so you didn’t have to laboriously start a fire each day. A chalcolithic version of a lighter. The other has antibacterial properties and was probably his first aid kit.

For me this was a nice reminder that our ancestors 5,000 years ago were more sophisticated and had more effective technologies than we often give them credit for. Otzi’s knowledge of the things growing around him and their properties, FAR outstrips mine.

Our final expert was Rosy Hayward from Coldstream Museum, and she talked a bit about the history of Coldstream. The priory there would have been a big and significant place in the Middle Ages – a centre of civilization and organisation, and a centre of medical care and expertise. After the battle of Flodden – where 14,000 men died nearby, 500 years ago – the Priory would have been the main place treating the wounded and giving any kind of medical care.

History books usually just focus on the glorious (or tragic) battle. But the aftermath must have been horrendous, and lasted much longer. Coldstream Priory would have been like the Red Cross, helping deal with this man-made disaster. And in those days before penicillin, perhaps using the very same fungus that Otzi was carrying on his leather thong.

I love trying to find these little connections between our seemingly disparate stories.

9743953872_79a6ab07f8_oOur storyteller was Claire McNicol, whose enchanting irish lilt was perfect for telling the story of Finn MacCool and the salmon of wisdom. And the story of Angus and Beira – the story of the struggle between spring and winter. Both of these felt very appropriate to a journey along the Tweed. Especially with gales forecast for the next day.

Our audiences talked about their experiences with the Tweed – some living alongside it, some visiting for holidays. Salmon, and other wildlife were important to them. They talked about unexpected moments of peace – hearing a bird call in a sudden quiet moment. A wild animal stopping to stare at you. Moments of transcendence, you might say. This has been a common theme, which tells you something about human’s relationship with nature that I think the term ‘ecosystem services’ is in danger of missing. But they also talked about flooding – let’s not forget, rivers aren’t always cute little picture postcards.

After the event we went for tea and cakes with everyone. Then, determined to cover the day’s allotted walking, Ross and I split up and did a bit each of the remaining bit.


Telling you all about that part of the day would probably end up doubling the length of this blogpost. But we talk about it in the audio log below, if you want to listen to that. We made it back into Coldstream just as darkness fell.

20130925-030920.jpg We tucked into some well-earned pub fare before an early night, trying not to worry too much about tomorrow’s forecast gales.

Day 13 – St Boswells to Kelso

Miles walked: 10

Weather: Overcast, a bit chilly


We drove into Kelso and thought, ‘This looks a bit busy’. It was almost impossible to find anywhere to park. Ross thought he’d seen what looked like a cattle market as we drove in. It turns out later that this was the Ram Sales. An annual sheep market. It’s the biggest in Europe.

When I was studying biology at university I remember a genetics lecturer loftily telling us that the main purpose of universities was mixing up the gene pool. People come from all over the country, and find other people from other parts of the country to mate with. When I heard how the Ram Sales is a big event in the Kelso calendar, and people come from all over Europe, I thought, ‘Mixing up the gene pools!’ I heard later that I was kind of right. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

We got a taxi back to just east of St Boswells and set off walking. It was mainly fairly straightforward going. We walked on the north side of the river and there were paths by the river some of the way.

007Then we took a farm track and then a road away from the river, to avoid impassable-looking cliffs (round by Dalcove Mains Farm, if you feel the need to follow along our progress on a map…).

We sat and had a cup of tea from our thermos, and fed and changed the baby, sitting on some muddy straw in the corner of a field. About half an hour later we passed a fisherman’s shelter with chairs and table and stuff that we could have sat at instead. Oh well. If there’s one criticism I have of the Tweed – not enough places to get a cup of tea. On the Trent there’s pubs and cafes nearly all the way, but on the Tweed, there’s mostly nothing. Without our thermos we’d have been screwed.

We followed paths that veered a wee bit away from the river – as the bank was intermittently impassable. The path was speedy walking – even speedier at the point we realised we were in a field of young bulls. Ross, bragging of his country upbringing, claimed what we needed was a big stick.

He furnished himself with a big stick, and as a high-spirited young bull galloped towards us, I asked what he planned to do with it. “I’ll do THIS!”, he exclaimed, waving the stick at the bull. I kept my head down and carried on walking as swiftly as I could. The bull actually looked a bit sad that we didn’t want to play. He trotted off, then hopefully galloped back. Some of the others started to look interested in us.

“If the baby gets trampled to death by bulls then it’s YOUR FAULT,” I told Ross, forgivingly. Ross brandished his stick again and said, “Ha!” I tried to look non-threatening, while also shaking with laughter. The bull looked disappointed again. I felt a bit sad for him. We would love to play with you another time, little bull, but we have to get to Kelso for an event. You know how it is…

We made it out of the land of bulls. We walked right by a big posh house, whose grounds we suddenly thought maybe we weren’t supposed to be in. We paused to admire their gate-sculptures.


We headed to the riverside again. The annoying thing about fishermen’s paths is that quite often they just go as far as a fishing spot, then end. We kept having to backtrack. At a point quite a bit east of Makerstoun we realised we weren’t going to make it to Kelso on time on foot. Annoyingly, we had to turn round and backtrack a couple of miles to the nearest road and settlement, so we could get a taxi to pick us up there and take us to Kelso Town Hall.

At the Town Hall, the room we should have been in was out of action, because the lights had blown. We were moved instead to the wood-panelled registry office – where they do weddings. We’d got a reasonable audience. We rearranged the chairs into a circle and began.

Today’s storyteller was Andy Hunter again, and our specialists were Brian Wilkinson from Britain from Above again, and John Murray, landscape architect and poet.

Andy told a lovely story of Thomas and Maggie of Tollishill and the Earl of Lauderdale. I loved this for the light it cast on how the storytelling tradition treats both gender roles and the feudal system.

Brian had brought some iPads along and showed old aerial photographs of Kelso, which got everybody talking.


John read some poems inspired by the Tweed and by salmon fishing, and explained what had inspired them. Both of these were fab – I loved the hubbub as people exclaimed over the photos – “Oh, that’s where such and such used to be” and so on. And I particularly loved John’s explanations as he was full of interesting thoughts about salmon and fishing. The Tweed is all about the salmon really, but we haven’t had anyone talking about that yet. Ross hasn’t had time to edit the audio yet (cos he is in the pub, while I am slaving over a hot laptop. Sniff.), but when he does we’ll get those up here too.

The audience told us their tales – this is when we learnt all about the Ram Sales. Sally from the Southern Reporter was telling us that yes, indeed, relationships do begin on Ram Sales night. When I realised that we were up against this high spot in Kelso’s calendar, I was amazed we’d got any audience at all…

All in all, it was a great event, with just the unexpected connections we hope for, and we went home tired but happy.

Day 12 – Melrose to St Boswell’s

Miles walked: 7

Weather: Sunny when we were indoors, then drizzly when we were outdoors. Yeah, I know.

Day 12

Today was supposed to be a day off. But then we looked at the map and realised we had 18 miles to walk on Friday, so we decided to get some of it out of the way today.

Of course, I wanted to get a bit more caught up with the never-ending blogpost backlog. And of course I continue in the delusion that THIS one I’ll be able to write quickly. So I insisted on dealing with emails and writing a blogpost first. So all day – while it was gorgeous and sunny – I toiled away inside. All the while thinking I’d be finished ‘in ten minutes or so’. Then about 3.30pm, just as dark clouds rolled in, I declared myself done for the day, and suggested we head off for some walking.

By the time we’ve got ready and made our way to our start point, it’s well after 4pm and decidedly damp. I’m kind of wishing we weren’t walking today. Then I’m thinking maybe we’re allowed to just walk a mile or two and then give up for the day. I know that’ll just give us a headache the next day, but I’m in denial about that. I just don’t feel like walking. And getting rained on.

We set off walking from Melrose. After about half an hour it starts to rain. The baby starts to cry. I can tell by the breast pins and needles that it’s ages since he’s fed. There’s no pub or cafe or other warm, dry, indoor type facility nearby. Unless we turn round and go back to Melrose – too depressingly self-defeating to contemplate – it’s miles until we get to anywhere we can go indoors.

We pick out a sheltering sycamore tree and I settle down to feed the baby, sat on the muddy ground at the side of a field. They lied to me about the beauty of motherhood. Recently he’s started going for longer between feeds, but feeding for a long time when he does. So we’re stuck here for half an hour. It’s not a terribly interesting stand of trees. But there are a lot of spiders.

We are near the site of the Roman fort of Trimontium.20130915-110348.jpg

Also near the Leaderfoot Viaduct. 20130915-110435.jpg

Disappointingly, you can’t walk across the viaduct. But we want to go the other way anyway, following the dismantled railway to St Boswells.

There’s a certain sort of rain that my friend Liam (who’s from West Wales) calls ‘fair rain’ – he says it’s because you often get it at the same time of year as the fair. Fair rain is when it’s not quite that rain is falling, more that the air is wet. And you think you don’t really need a coat, but if you don’t wear one you end up soaked through. It was raining that kind of rain.

The dismantled railway path kept disappearing when it hit roads. Or being blocked with barricades of rubbish. Or barbed-wire, by the golf course. I was very tempted to scrawl, “Right to roam you fuckers!” across their “Strictly Private. No Entry” sign. But I wasn’t sure enough about my knowledge of Scots Law. And I didn’t have a permanent marker.

We went down one field, only to be turned back by barbed wire and a ditch. We trudged along the side of an A road. In the rain. We backtracked, and bickered and got rained on.
Then, we emerged from some trees, right by the Tweed, and realised it had stopped raining. The only sounds were water dripping from trees and the lap of the river. We looked up and realised that the sun had broken through and there was a rainbow across the river. We both just stood there, tasting the moment.


After that we were totally down with today’s walk. We chattered about how nice it is to walk in the evening, as if we’d been loving it all along. It was nice not having an event we needed to get to, so we could just walk, without worrying about time. There was a golden light and a serene air to everything. At one point we were walking through dappled woodland, where all the undergrowth was giant hogweed. Alice in Wonderland meets primordial forest.


We’ve heard a lot of stories about people getting taken to the land of fairy – Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin, a young woman called Jane… Is fairyland particularly easily accessible in the borders? And why is it always seen as such a bad thing? Maybe it would be pretty cool to go to fairyland. Especially if your normal existence is being a medieval peasant.

Day 11 – Grange Hall nursing home

Miles walked: None, woohoo!

Weather: Mainly sunny

Today was a rest day, but we’d decided to fit in another event. So it wasn’t quite a day off. But at least we didn’t have to do any walking, so our sore feet and limbs got a rest. (Actually we aren’t walking that far each day, so our limbs are fine. Although your feet, and backs, do get a wee bit sore.)

Our event today was at Grange Hall nursing home – which, as it turns out, is about 300 yards as the crow flies from the cottage we are staying in. It’s a bit further by road, but not far away. The nursing home is in a gorgeous, and rather grand, old building.


We were a bit intimidated, but they couldn’t have been more welcoming. We had a big audience – mainly of old women, with a few old men. Jane, our storyteller for the day, did a sterling job. She got them all singing old songs, and had everyone entertained with her stories.

Max Coleman from the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh came along and talked about Himalayan Balsam – it’s an aggressively invasive species, but is it as harmful as some think? This was quite a coincidence as we’d seen Himalayan balsam on the Tweed for the first time the day before and chatted about that with several people.

When we walked the Trent we saw it loads – huge banks of it, 20 metres long or more. Whereas here, we’d only seen a few scattered plants as we got towards Melrose – and none further up the valley. Max told us that the Tweed Foundation have spent a lot of money trying to eradicate it along the Tweed – so maybe that’s why we haven’t seen it.

I told some stories about our adventures so far along the Tweed, which got a few laughs. But of course, as usual, we were upstaged by the baby. Everyone (including the staff) wanted to coo over him. I guess you don’t often get babies in old people’s homes. We often live in an age-segregated world in western society. It’s a shame. I’m sure both old and young would benefit from more contact with each other.

The old people weren’t perhaps as able to engage as I’d hoped. Some of them were quite confused. But I think they enjoyed it. I was glad we’d visited them.

We found out a few random interesting facts about the building:-

  • The River Leader (a tributary of the Tweed) flows through its grounds.
  • It used to be a catholic seminary called St Andrew’s College.
  • Famous alumni of At Andrew’s College include Cardinal Keith O’ Brien. Yes, that one.
  • One of the downstairs rooms had a fresco of the Tweed. They think it must have been painted in 1887, when the house was built They’d only discovered it, underneath the wallpaper, when getting some decorating done (who on earth would paper over such a thing?!). Since then they’d had it exposed. It goes all across two walls of a sizeable room. It was worth doing the event there just to see it.