Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
As we were driving north today from the Lake District, we passed through the town of Troutbeck, and I was reminded how much of my knowledge of the UK derives from songs and poetry. In this case the song was:
D’ye ken John Peel, wi’ his coat so gray?
He lived at Troutbeck once on a day
But now he’s gone, gone far far away,
Wi’ his hounds and his horn in the morning.
It was in a book of folk songs we had as a kid, along with a picture of John Peel like this one:
As I was living on a cattle ranch in the American West, this represented another planet to me, a world where men rode saddles without saddle horns, and used their horses to chase foxes instead of cattle … so I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to chance to go through Troutbeck on our way to Scotland. What towns in Scotland do I know from songs?
The only town I can think of is from the Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, a ballad about the ocean, which begins:
The king sits in Dumfermline town.
Drinking the blude-red wine: O
‘O whare will I get a skeely skipper,
To sail this new ship of mine?’
O up and spake an eldern knight,
Sat at the king’s right knee:
‘Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That ever saild the sea.’
We might get to Dumfermline town, it’s a bit north of Edinburgh. As a sailor, the song impressed me because whoever wrote it knew a lot about ships. In particular, they describe something only a sailor would recognize, a procedure called “fothering”. Fothering is used to plug a hole below the waterline of a ship, and I’m glad I never had to do it.
To fother a hole below the waterline, you tie ropes to the corners of a piece of canvas, and you pull the canvas underneath the ship to where the hole is. The pressure of the water pulls the canvas into the hole, and the ropes from the four corners keep the canvas from being sucked inside. Here’s the description from the ballad.
He hadna gane a step, a step,
A step but barely ane,
When a bout [bolt] flew out of our goodly ship,
And the salt sea it came in.
‘Gae fetch a web o the silken claith [cloth],
Another o the twine,
And wap them into our ship’s side,
And letna the sea come in.’
They fetched a web o the silken claith,
Another o the twine,
And they wapped them roun that gude ship’s side,
But still the sea came in.
O laith [loathe], laith were our gude Scots lords
To weet their cork-heeld shoon [shoes];
But lang or a’ the play was playd,
They wat [wet] their hats aboon [also].
Any mony was the feather-bed
That flattered on the faem [foam],
And mony was the gude lord’s son
That never mair cam hame [home].
But I digress … we rolled north through the pastoral glacier-smoothed countryside to Vindolanda, the Roman fort along Hadrian’s wall, that dates from around the first century AD. It was the perfect day for it, overcast and rainy … I can see why the soldiers might not have cared for the duty along the northern frontier of the Empire. The fort is quite impressive, covering a large area.
It’s easily distinguished from the ancient local stonework because that is mostly laid without cement, that amazing Roman invention, while the walls of the fort and the buildings were all mortared into place.
There is a most engrossing museum at Vindolanda of all of the things that they’ve found excavating the fort. For whatever reasons, much of the leather goods have survived, and are in the museum. And wandering around the museum, the thing that struck me the most is how little our basic human actions have changed in 2,000 years. For example, look at the lovely workmanship on this pair of leather shoes:
With their graceful lines, they’d be high fashion on the streets of Rome today. What I learned was that humans, then and now, have been driven to design things, not just for utility, but also for the sheer style and beauty. Here’s the sole of another pair of shoes:
The Roman cobbler 2,000 years ago could have just put the nails in a random pattern, or in squares, or whatever. But noooo … he put them in a lovely, graceful pattern, so whoever walked with those shoes left lovely footprints.
Here’s an axe, from the same time. Check out the lovely lines. It could have been just an equally functional but ugly chunk of iron, but whoever made it built a thing of beauty:
From the “nothing new under the sun” department, here’s a Roman safety-pin brooch …
… and a brass necklace with an exquisitely wrought chain:
At one time I earned my living making jewelry, and although I’m a decent silversmith, I can assure you that the making of such a chain by hand requires someone with much, much greater skill than mine … and that although you can buy a chain made along the exact same lines today, with equally fine chainwork, it will have been made by machine.
One of the stranger finds was a ladies wig, which the label said was made out of “hair moss”, whatever that might be:
Note the combs. The design of that double-sided comb has remained unchanged until this very day.
The other thing that was amazing were the collection of letters (written on wood rather than paper) that have been excavated. The concerns of the soldiers back then are just the same as the people of today—friends, and debts, and birthdays. They’re all online here, and are fascinating in their ordinariness. Here’s a sample:
… I have sent (?) you … pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants, two pairs of sandals …”
My main conclusion from the museum was that while we have come a long way in the last two millennia, the things that impel us and drive us, the things that we value and create for our own use, the things that we care about, haven’t changed much at all—lovely objects, and warm socks …
After that we drove out to see Hadrians wall. The Romans did like straight lines … mostly though, I was impressed by the scope of their imagination. I mean, if I’d been in charge of the northern defenses, I don’t think that my first thought would have been “Hey, how about we build a giant stone wall that cuts the whole country in half, yeah, that’s the ticket … and oh, yeah, we’re gonna complete it in six years. OK, andiamo, boys, we don’t have much time … “
In any case, here’s a section of Hadrians wall …
I can understand why they abandoned it after only a few decades … heck, it’s only about a metre tall, what good would that do against even the shortest of Scottish barbarians? …
We’re up in Glasgow now, tomorrow we’re turning east, off to see the famous Falkirk Wheel. At least it’s famous to me, one of the few places in Scotland I knew much about before coming here.
My best to all, thanks for all of the support,