Weaving Roman Tweed '“ a tale of conflict and union

Just over a year ago, we were motoring our way back toward Berwick along the almost unerringly straight road which runs from East and West Horton north towards Lowick.

Sunday, 13th March 2016, 10:04 am
17/09/2013, TSPL, Scotsman, Scottish Independence Referendam one year to go, Scottish English Border area. The river Tweed pictured from the Border bridge at Coldstream,. It is one year to go until the Scottish Independence Referendum vote takes place on September 18th 2014. Pic Ian Rutherford

With our five-year-old grandson in the car with us I’d decided it was time for an edifying grandfatherly remark. So, looking at the road ahead, I noted how straight it was.

Before I was able to utter my piece of improving educational erudition, the five-year-old jumped in: “It’s probably a Roman road, Grandpa; they always built them dead straight like this.”

The Union Suspension Bridge from Berwickshire to Northumberland

Many of you will doubtless know the piece of road I mean. It follows the course of the Devil’s Causeway, a Roman road renamed with that unlikely label, perhaps in Anglo-Saxon times.

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The Devil’s Causeway veers off one of the main Roman highways into Scotland, Dere Street (also a Saxon name), just after that highway crosses Hadrian’s Wall.

It’s likely that it finished at some sort of military station in what is now Tweedmouth; the only Roman discovery of any significance around Berwick now is at Springhill, just before Tweedmouth cemetery as one travels north. This was probably a tiny village dating from Roman times.

Both Dere Street and the Devil’s Causeway point to the strategic significance of the Borders over a period of at least two millennia.

The Union Suspension Bridge from Berwickshire to Northumberland

In AD 128 the great wall was completed between Segedunum – modern day Wallsend, next to Newcastle – and the Solway Firth, some 80 miles to the west.

The wall was built at the behest of the Emperor Hadrian, who even came to inspect this masterpiece of civil engineering on his visit to the cold northern edges of his empire. Although there is no conclusive evidence as to why he deemed its construction to be necessary, it remained a key frontier.

Less than 30 years later, a more northerly wall was built between the Firth of the Clyde and the Firth of Forth, this time during the reign of the Emperor Antoninus.

This wall, less immense in construction than Hadrian’s, was a vast turf dyke built upon stone foundations, again with periodic forts. It may have been constructed to halt raids from Caledonian tribes.

Abandoned only eight years after completion in AD 154, it was re-occupied briefly, following raids in AD 208.

This broad stretch of country was marked out from earliest times by these frontiers. Through its heart ran an equally impressive natural frontier in the course of the River Tweed.

The Tweed remains one of Britain’s most beautiful rivers and brings with it many resonances.

So, across the world, one of the most robust of clothing fabrics carries its name. The term tweed, for a stout woollen fabric, may have originated in a mistaken copying of the Scottish word ‘tweel’ by a Hawick mill owner fulfilling an order in the 19th century. Whatever the case, tweed fabric is known and coveted worldwide.

Then too, far upstream, the village of Broughton was the childhood summer home of Lord Tweedsmuir, better known to many as the novelist John Buchan. Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps is just one of a number of his novels which remain popular today. As Lord Tweedsmuir, Buchan went on to become Governor-General of Canada in the mid-1930s.

Or again, the Tweed is perhaps the premier, and certainly best known, salmon fishing river in Britain.

The course of the Tweed, rising in the Scottish borders, makes its way through Peebles, past the home of Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, on to Melrose, the great border abbey where the heart of Robert the Bruce is interred, on further to Bemersyde, the home of Field Marshall Earl Haig of World War I fame, and then to Dryburgh Abbey, where both Haig and Scott are buried.

Thereafter, it winds its way past Kelso and Floors Castle, William Playfair’s great mansion for the Dukes of Roxburgh.

From there it passes Coldstream, birthplace of the famous guards’ regiment and home of former Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home. The elegant bridge between Coldstream and Cornhill was the work of John Smeaton, the builder of the Eddystone Lighthouse which now overlooks Plymouth Sound.

Finally the Tweed and its tributaries reach the sea in the fine broad estuary flowing between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Tweedmouth.

So, reaching from Roman times, and indeed before, the Tweed has been a symbol of both conflict and union – the oldest suspension bridge in Britain still carrying traffic is the Union Bridge, a few miles upstream from Berwick.

The history of the Borders is legend. The river and the countryside through which it flows are an enormous asset to North East England and southern Scotland. Might it not be time for this remarkable swathe of country to become the Tweed and Borders National Park?

Think what this might contribute to the prosperity of this outstandingly beautiful part of Britain.