I have travelled miles by car, phone signal dead, peering for unknown landmarks along unknown lanes. It is one of those obscenely bright Scottish winter mornings, the shimmery fog suddenly dissipating to reveal astroturf coloured fields and neon highlighted hills in the distance that so suddenly turn to vague dark smeared shadows with these quick and shocking changes of the heavens over such a vast landscape.
I am also looking for a graveyard.
This might come as a surprise.
An old book about the area of Dumfries and Galloway mentions the abandoned manse of Senwick and the historic graves within and what is meant to be a short preamble around the scenic empty roads of Borgue turns into a Gothic roadtrip, a pretence into knowing more than you know about the landscape – those must be elm.. no…yews ahead, they are sacred ancient churchyard trees, we finally have found this ancient spot using Old Knowledge.
No it’s a random farm surrounded by factory farm conifers with a ‘Glamping Area’- The word ‘glamping’ , a word that seems to exist in pink comic sans in such a beautiful ancient and empty environment seems almost an insult- but I am the equivalent to a starry eyed viewer of the sea being dismayed by the flotilla of decaying fisherman’s rubber gloves- the detritus of the sea- the place that some people regard as a living, others stare mistily eyed upon and never want it to change despite the fact they only come to gaze mistily eyed at a short point in the summer, weather permitting.
A light interest in finding this graveyard becomes an enormous interest when I can’t.
Finally a hint of a direction due to a sudden short lived spurt of heavenly GPS, like a sudden sunbeam on a barren landscape and then the car is in a layby and I am walking blindly across fields- no not fields, lumpen, sodden hummocky Scottish moor and I have no idea where I am going. It was a bad idea to wear a three tiered net skirt today. I follow an old muddy trail not knowing if it was freshly laid by sheep and I wonder along it as blank and unknowing, just putting my feet into the same slots, the same grooves because something else has done the same before me. I hope.
I romantically presume it is a path worn by ancient feet in cracked leather stitched boots, grieving, mourning, tatters of gown seeping into the mud yet the mourners only thinking of the coffin ahead, the familiar yet now hideously unfamiliar form lying within, what they wished they’d said to them when they were alive and what they regretted saying or doing or not doing whilst that person so suddenly stateless between Earth, Land and Heaven was still alive. Hate and love flaring so brightly at someone so annoyingly dead and beyond it all.
This is why there are fights at funerals. So much to say, so much to regret but the person you want to say it to is gone. However their annoying brother is there who has the same nose and the emotions flicker so brightly, so much aggression, so many unresolved emotions over the small dry triangular sandwiches who everyone declares are very good indeed as they try to do the right thing despite hating the fucking sandwiches more than they could image possible, wipe the Pritt Stick claggy paste of their dry mouths with their tongue, decide not to have their usual sugar in their tea because the thought and effort of convincingly, effortlessly moving sugar from a canister to a cup without your hand betraying you is just too much right now.
In such a small community such as this, everybody would have known the person being carefully snaked down that grassy pass to the graveyard by the sea.
There may be however, a slight quashed down thought amongst some regarding the pleasingness of their form in black when meeting the widower farmer from over yonder. There is something about a funeral that makes one think about things that should not be thought of at a funeral, the rekindling of bodies still alive, a victory stab at those down below.
I am still looking for the graveyard, presume I am lost because I have travelled so far.
In front of me is a walled whispering wood and in front of that is the sea.
Then a sign, a wooden sign pointing back the way I have come- ‘To Senwick Church’.
I walk back along the wall, only the sound of the sea and the wood to be heard- nature is so loud when there is nothing unnatural to combat its frantic multi-hued soundscape. I have seen no animals or people for an hour now. A stone slab style slides imperceptibly into a wall and I climb into the land of the dead.
This is a peaceful ancient place where memorials lie toppled and I dare not look at what the many molehills have brought up. Placed betwixt field, wood and sea, the old graves bear no flowers, many slabs are just bare, their inscriptions evaporated or left enticingly vague due to the relentless march of time. Slate wiped clean.
Moss, lichen, a name, half a name, lichen, half a life, half a death, lichen, a curliculed letter peers out, an enticing part of a story but no, I bend down try to read more but it is gone, a story gone, a life departed again despite the careful carving into stone.
Lichen, nothing less to see on this old old grave but lichen, the old carvings lost forever more. Nature rules supreme here.
This smattering of forgotten lives, those tantalising glimpses into a life lived, a life gone, a few weathered letters that were once a name and that name was once a person and that person had emotions like you, felt terror, pain and joy, looked out over the same viewpoint from their grave whilst still alive, not knowing the future.
You stand in the feet of grieving relatives consigned to dust and gently disremembered by those who loved them as they in turn are quietly consigned to a grave which will eventually be ravaged by foul winds and intemperate climes which will be looked at by you, you not knowing the time or place of your demise but feeling it now, what you never really consider possible in the light playfulness of day is only considered in the night time, in hospitals and when in the old company of the dead.
These huge slab stones, redolent of significant monoliths from an even earlier age relay so much, almost too much.
These overbearing epilogues without the story, desperately relay so many lives, so many deaths.
They start with larger calligraphy, then with such an onslaught of the death of ages, the inscription of the dead and buried becomes gradually smaller like the frantic writings of a medieval scholar trying to fit everything important onto one page. No room for biblical quotes, a sorrowful quote etched in stone or the manner in which they passed, just a relentless litany of deaths, same surname, shorter lives.
But how did they all fit underneath?
The same surnames recur up from the most ancient of graves to the more modest and surprisingly recent and it is a pleasing knowledge that this kirk-less graveyard is still being used for centuries of local families.
On the outside of a tiny roofless ruin lies grandly broken esteems to the forgotten gentry, the Blairs.
Inside this broken place lies a tiny stone, a foot high like one of a much loved dog with just one small plain inscription to ‘Lady Gordon.’
Later I search for information about Lady Gordon but all I can find is references to other Gordons, male Gordans with links to the covenanters and bloody executions, supposably traitorous heads on spikes outside the Tower of London and maybe this is why she lies so quietly if her relatives died so loudly. More research and I find links to slavery in Jamaica and an obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine of a Lady Gordon of Earlston who died in 1824 and was buried here, such a small grave for such a woman from such a family of worth, intrigue and horror. Game of Thrones.
The Blairs tomb however is an extravagant thing to behold, white, curliculed, embossed and bright in this dark place of misremembering and decrepitude but with such a view of the sea, the mesmerising swoosh and whoosh of the dark walled woods so close.
According to legend, the crumbling church was, before the Reformation, a rich place renowned for its plate ( a collective name for objects belonging to the church made out of fine metals) However French pirates plundered it ( such a wonderful piratical word, plundered) and took off with their Scottish loot. In a pleasing twist of fate or a case of a grand Old Testament almighty Smiting, a sudden storm blew up just as they were leaving the scene of the crime, the ship floundered and they all died. History does not relate if the plate was ever found or whether the pirates ended up buried at the isolated place they so desecrated. The rock the ship was shipwrecked upon was named Frenchman’s Rock, possibly in a malicious centuries old version of schadenfreude- this was even better than someone falling over, ha ha, the plunderous French bastards died, let’s name the rock they died on, after them!
Didn’t the rock already have a name?
( I don’t actually know if the rock actually had a name to be fair)
Happy hours spent reading old books results in the discovery that two bodies in this isolated kirkyard, buried so near each other, are, father (William Maxwell) of the deceased (Mary Maxwell) and son in law (Alexander Blair) and due to a horse racing bet were adversaries in a bitter spectacularly complicated court case regarding whether a bet between two gentlemen regarding a local horse race was legally binding.
Now let us imagine more, let us think of Eastenders crossed with Game of Thrones continuing through centuries and everybody helpfully having the same name handed down generation through generation for centuries and it is thus written down in old Scottish court cases, very old Scottish court cases. In very old language.
I come up surfacing, desperate for an emoji to show how I am feeling rather than twenty pages of what can often appear to be foreign language minus the passion. Even witch burning becomes a dry worthy matter with so much worthy castigation on either side when reading into the fascinating, murderous yet dryly inscribed history of Dumfries and Galloway. It is easy to forget the interesting thing that caused the court case in the first place, to swerve away into other fascinating but boringly transcribed court cases, a wormhole of ancient amenities and unnatural deaths so commonplace as to be mundane- see the Eastenders reference again – they knew how to jumpe the sharke in olde Kirkcudbrightshire.
What lineage of Blairs and Gordons have I found? Are they the same as the ones on the grave I started researching? Why am I doing this? And what grave am I researching again? I fear mistakes, become confused, I have never written a book before and thought it would be challenging but the sheer face of History is almost too much, too much to write about, so many things impossible to ignore but then you are led down other strange fascinating obscure paths and you are suddenly far away from the original topic but you need to keep going, there are tangents and paths that cross, vital clues leading to fascinating conclusions but you are too stupid to find them, your knowledge of history is so suddenly shockingly poor.
All you wanted to do is write about interesting and ignored graves but the graves consist of a person and that person has an unwritten unknowable history yet their written history delves into other fascinating mires and all the tabs on your computer are full of archaic language and if you stop, you forget.
Too much is forgotten, yet, there is such a written onslaught of history combined with too much unwritten. You know both too much and too little. The same facts repeat themselves over and over in the same language, other things lost forever in the mire of a forgotten past.
The person is gone. You try to resurrect and get but a flimsy puppet of legend and folklore. This is a poor attempt of the archeology of a person, their favourite animals unknown, the clothes they loved to wear, the food that made them shudder in disgust, their feelings, their failings and their face, their actual face.
The daughter to the Lieutenant Colonel William Maxwell lies here, he who helped suppress the Rebellion of 1715. He who impressed King William the Third so greatly that he was given a ring by him made with the King’s own hair.
All this in a tumbling kirkyard, inaccessible by road and only known by a few. Yet, it is Lady Gordon’s tiny insignificant grave that still intrigues me the most, such a minute grave for a Lady, a Gordon.
The Which Blair Project
Oh this is bloody ridiculous. How can you raise generations without changing a forename or surname? I once felt sorry for hypothetical people in the future trying to research someone from the modern ages lineage and personality without the ancient delight of finding in stuffy libraries and attics, old parchments tied with faded ribbon leading to a sudden secret glimpse into history- instead now an unflattering Christmas party Facebook pic, a shared funny cat youtube link and a meme bestowing fury on a vague unnamed person who is presumably was once their ‘friend’ before something very naughty occurred at a christmas works do.
However, this is just awful, mind-blowingly confusing and incomprehensible- too many Hughs, too many Blairs, too many Hugh Blairs, Alexander Blairs and an liberal irritating smattering of Johns and Davids. You start positively yearning for an Edie-Mae. Now add to this a wife called Nicholas and the fact that the women, a confusing gaggle of cousins and matriarchs seemed to randomly have a name but are often known as another name. They all seemed to have resided in the local area, sometimes lived in the same house, married each other and took each other to court like centuries of Jeremy Kyle but with pleasing frock coats instead of Primark. One suspects the teeth might remain the same.
Their lives often seemed to fade out rather than die, a vanishing from the history books rather than the mourning and funerals described for the men of importance, monetary value and heritage.
A grand ornate memorial dedicated to Hugh Blair, lies before me, the sea lying quietly behind it. It is inscribed that he was ‘a social benefactor and a kind and just master’ as mentioned in the first part of this chapter.
Interested by the story I researched the name online- Bingo! An eighteenth century Hugh Blair of a renowned and prestigious family of the immediate area renowned for his lack of high graces. The story came with interesting links about his potential autism, undiagnosed and unknown at the time and I was delighted to discover a whole book, Autism in History, The Case of Hugh Blair of Borgue had been written about the man. I purchased the book, read it with great enjoyment and fascination and was secretly slightly smug when I read about how the author had not found the grave of the man himself and prided myself on my local knowledge and my hidden timeslip graveyard. I fit the inscription on the gravestone to what I knew of the Hugh Blair I had ‘discovered’ online, start writing about my ‘find’ like I was being filmed for a documentary on BBC4 about ‘a stunning case of a first-time author’s fascinating find in a hidden graveyard in the depths of Dumfries and Galloway.’
Then I looked again more closely at the dates and realised that ‘my’ (yes, it becomes personal after hours of reading old obscure books) Hugh’s death and age of death was different to the Hugh written about in the book, not by a few years but a few decades.
I had the wrong Hugh.
But who was the Hugh in my genteely broken grandiose grave and where was the other poor local Hugh Blair of Borgue? How many Hugh Blair of Borgue can there be in this small isolated part of Dumfries and Galloway? Will the real Hugh Blair please stand up?
The book’s portrayal of the other Hugh Blair is fascinating- he had the family, title and riches as to be a laird but his lack of societal niceties, his gullibility, his basic form of speech, his personal habits made him treated with disdainful politeness by his peers, even when he rocked up on their land at uncivilised times. He was apparently treated with scorn and cruelty by his servants despite the fact he willingly served them and carried out the hard work they were paid to perform despite being mocked as he did so. I hope he never realised. Human cruelty is something that does not seem to change through the ages.
Hugh showed many traits of autism such as a fascination with collecting small worthless items of a natural bent, a delighted obsession with counting and did not appear to speak apart from in basic phrases -‘Hugh Blair ride’ when he wanted to ride his horse. His sister was also mostly mute but was apparently able to mask her symptoms, a common trait in females with autism, and thus sat politely in company, applied social conventions such as eating in the correct manner and apparently conveyed a calmer, more refined and intelligent front than poor bumbling confused Hugh.
Hugh loved a funeral and his feet in the past stood, just near mine admiring the timeless view across the bay- he did not wear the expected sombre black but whatever brightly hued and strangely ‘fixed’ or modified clothes he happened to have taken a shine to. But he was always there at a freshly dug grave, an intriguing pastime for one who struggled with emotions and the concept of death, even to those closest to him, almost like he did quite understand the conventions and the finality of a passing.
He told people that his sister was ‘very well’ even when she was clearly dying. Did he know she was ill but could not explain his feelings in the few words he could speak or was he just Hugh Blair, in Hugh Blair’s strange isolating bubble parroting the social answers that he knew?
His brother John despised his behaviour and may well have been considering his standing in the community with such strange deranged kin. His mother was also despairing and struggling financially due to large unpaid bills with local merchants.
But Hugh was to marry!
His wife to be’s father, Archibald Mitchell did not appear overly concerned with the state of the son in law- at least he was a wealthy landowner of good breeding. His daughter Nicholas ( yes, not a typo and definitely not a helpful name when already struggling) was reluctant but complied and remember this is the eighteenth century- what records do we have of women refusing to do what they are told, who wrote the records? What master of the family would have been happy for embarrassing incidences of insubordination in their family to be recorded? Who would have been told to put up or shut up?
John did not want the marriage to take place and claimed his brother was a ‘natural idiot’, in no way thinking of any inheritance going askew and claimed he was not capable of consent of marriage.
Thus a court case where poor Hugh was bewildered by all proceedings, made to answer questions in writing but only carefully copied the question in front of him, answered the same questions presented in different ways with different answers showing no idea of the implications or meanings of the questions or indeed his answers.
However Nicholas Mitchell, despite the official Court of Sessions Rule that their union was invalid, after several miscarriages gave birth to a David Blair a week later in June 1748.
It was said to have been a happy ‘marriage’, Hugh was known as being a kind gentle soul but then they then vanish into history, a frustrating history where there must be something about them somewhere, some clue in a record office but I am on my computer two hundred miles away sifting through the internet, feeling that is somehow cheating but have nothing else to tie me to this archaic departed family from a such a different time and place.
Hugh’s borish brother John is recorded as having a fight with a cousin, Alexander Blair due to some highly interested loans to their father and Alexander’s brother, Hugh Blair of Dunrod is also mentioned in this case. I say highly interesting, researching it is actually beyond boring, I can’t stand it but feel I need to do this because I am trying to write a book. I miserably scan reams of torturous language in old Scottish Court Case Dialect where everyone has but four names between them.
I know I am probably missing so many fascinating links between Hugh Blair of Borgue and Hugh Blair of Borgue and a better writer than me would discover a fascinating link between Hugh Blair of Borgue and John Blair of Borgue and their book would be reviewed to much acclaim at finding that missing link to something. I am just floundering in a sea of confusion.
I fear a slew of angry letters because I have missed out vital links, not noticed some obvious ties between the Blairs, should have known more about the Gordons. I tried. I went to a graveyard to write about history but History proved too much for me. There are fascinating links to the Galloway Levellers attached to these names and so much more but I am out of my depth, feeling I am missing out on forgotten intangible links and secrets, too busy trying to understand what’s in front of me than use my brain to discover any forgotten links and buried history.
We’re back to Eastenders again, I am standing at a different Hugh Blair’s grave, which my research seems to suggest is his cousins, it all ties in, in a myriad of complicated tangled weaves.
I would like to pay my respects to the ‘Dumb Boy of Borgue’ and his ‘wife’ but I do not know where he lies.
I hope he didn’t realise how people laughed at him.
I hope he lived happily in his mind and died a simple death surrounded by his treasures.And I hope Senwick Graveyard will stay isolated and beautifully decaying like something from a Manic Street Preachers lyric.