Saturday, 28 June 2014

   Berwick’s golden age is usually said to be the 13th century, when its port was far and away the biggest source of revenue for the Scottish Crown, serving as a hub for the export of wool and grain (much of it deriving from lands belonging to the great Borders Abbeys such as Melrose, Kelso and Jedburgh), destined for major commercial centres in the Netherlands and elsewhere in northern continental Europe. Since that time however, the town’s economic fortunes have tended to be closely tied to the fishing industry, chiefly salmon from the river, and herring from the North Sea. For conservation and transport of the former, dotted about among the pretty streets, but near the river and sea-front especially, one can find Georgian ice houses, which allowed salmon production to advance in leaps and bounds in the 18th and 19th centuries. The phrase ‘kettle of fish’ meanwhile, originates from a popular manner of tossing live salmon into a boiling ‘kettle’, at riverside picnics that were thrown specially for the purpose around the same period. As for herrings, they were either ‘green’, meaning freshly caught, ‘white’, when pickled, or ‘red’, after a process of salting and smoking. In the days before the latter procedure was refined to give us the kipper, ‘red herrings’ gave off a rather pungent odour, and were used to train fox hounds, in the art of not being distracted by a false scent - hence the popular usage. So conceivably, Berwick-upon-Tweed might be called ‘the Home of the Red Herring’ - if it wasn’t a completely different kettle of fish.

   That Easter was as happy as any I can remember, and quite useful, from the point of view of giving a couple of short orations to the congregations of both the main Masses at Our Lady and St Cuthbert’s Church, outlining my pilgrimage plans and highlighting the importance of Mary’s Meals. Then in a slight change of plan, by spending Easter Monday at home I was able to visit Berwick Barracks, housing the regimental HQ of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (technically therefore based in England), and the museum/gallery there, where one is presented with a curious 18th century portrait by Thomas Hudson, of a young woman by the name of ‘Miss Mary Moneypenny’[1]. In the shop I was tempted to buy a pair of toy spy sunglasses, complete with ‘rear-view mirrors’, supposing they could be useful for walking along roads, but in the end resisted. No less important than all this though, the extra day allowed me to finish reading Tolstoy’s work of incontestable genius War and Peace, which I’d started a couple of months previously. I also paid two separate visits to pray at a little grotto, modelled on the one at Lourdes, behind Our Lady and St Cuthbert’s Church – first on Holy Saturday afternoon (seeing a pair of goldfinches), and again on the morning when I resumed the walk.

   On that Easter Tuesday, 2nd April 2013, dedicated to St Francis of Paula, and the 8th anniversary of the death of Blessed John Paul II, there remained only the odd patch of rather dirty, un-Kitzbuhel-like snow here and there. Virtually all motorists would miss it, but next to the road, a couple of miles along the A6105 leading north-west out of Berwick, is a large stone memorial, or cairn, to the Battle of Halidon Hill.

   No discussion of Berwick-upon-Tweed is complete without mention of the fact that it has changed hands between the English and the Scots over a dozen times; it is said that only Jerusalem has been besieged more often. And like Jerusalem, throughout the bloodiest centuries of Anglo-Scottish conflict (c. 1300 to 1550), even when it wasn’t actively being fought over, Berwick was a major hotbed of espionage and intrigue. Agents from England, Scotland and further afield engaged in all kinds of nefarious chicanery, which called for constant monitoring, subversion or stamping out by royal appointees of one kingdom or the other.

   By 1333, the year of Halidon Hill, the Scots had lost several of the key commanders who led them to victory at Bannockburn, including King Robert himself (his son David II was still a child), and his brother Edward, killed in Ireland. Perhaps no less importantly, Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, of Edinburgh Castle fame, had fallen victim to a suspected poisoning in the previous year. Significant also was the fact that Edward III of England was made of sterner stuff than his father Edward II, and that his army had a new weapon of no little menace, the longbow. Furthermore, as they set about besieging Berwick that summer, they had in their employ a very capable Flemish pirate/privateer called John Crabbe, who had served Scotland with distinction, when English attempts to retake Berwick had been foiled in 1319. But the final reason for the English victory at Halidon Hill lay in the fact that the Scots found themselves constrained, by the chivalric niceties of the day, to fight a pitched battle against a full-strength English army. It isn’t certain whether success at Bannockburn had bred a measure of over-confidence in the Scottish camp, but there does appear to have been a failure to grasp the implications of the fact that the tables were turned. King Edward was extremely fastidious in choosing the most advantageous terrain on which to fight, just as King Robert had been in 1314. Mind you, perhaps if the Scots had only thought of trying to sneak round the back of the English position…

[1] In this connexion, it’s perhaps interesting to note that the name ‘Fleming’ occurs with more than usual frequency in the history of Berwick-upon-Tweed, dating back at least to the 13th century, when a community of Flemish merchants was given special privileges by King Alexander III of Scotland. The town hall bears a prominent inscription ‘Restored A.D. 1857-8, Joseph Fleming, Esquire, Mayor’. This was not however the mayor who, in December 1966, is believed to have made a mutual declaration of peace with the London correspondent of Pravda, to bring an end to the Crimean War. Councillor Robert Knox is reported to have said afterwards "Please tell the Russian people through your newspaper that they can sleep peacefully in their beds" (Wikipedia).

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