Thursday 26 July 2012

'A Wake for the Salmon'

Following on from last week's Salmon Queen festival, the boats appeared this week on Gardo Stell, next to the Old Bridge on the Tweedmouth side of the river. This is now the only salmon fishing stell in regular annual use. The camouflage effect of the boats' blue paint is not ideal for a photographer. I assumed this traditional colour was designed to hide them from the fish, but I'm told it is chosen as the colour most visible at night. One boat remains on the sandbank where they are based, not visible in this picture but exposed at low tide, while the other end of the net is attached to the second boat and a man rows round in a circle to spread it out. After waiting a while for the fish to swim into it the net is winched back in. Part of the process can be seen in the photo on the right, taken last year in admittedly failing light.

I was once walking across the bridge on my way back from the supermarket when I saw the men despatching a net full of fish on the sandbank by clubbing them. The contrast between my bag full of packaged, processed food and the emotionless killing of the salmon gave me a jolt. It had a primal quality which reminded me of Hemingway's novella, The Old Man and the Sea. It is easy to romanticise fishing, and I was probably guilty of this when I first came to Berwick, but it is a hard, tough trade which has to battle constantly against the vagaries of both nature and the commercial market. The Tweed is one of the great salmon rivers of the world, and the fish from here reportedly sell for astonishing prices in restaurants abroad, but not much of the profit reaches the men who catch them. Nor do the fishermen share my own love of the seals, since they are competitors for their livelihood.

Local photographer Jim Walker made a prolonged study of the salmon fishing industry. For this post I have borrowed the title of his best known book, A Wake for the Salmon. This is now out of print and the main collection of his work available is By Net and Coble. If you have any interest in the subject I advise you to look at this book. Jim's work has an elegiac quality because he was documenting an industry in steep decline, in the years immediately preceding the closure of the Berwick Salmon Fishing Company.

I'll end with an image from the float parade which concluded Tweedmouth Feast. Young Rebekah was chosen to wear the Salmon Queen's crown, according to the committee, because of her obvious pride in coming from Tweedmouth. So the place is far from finished yet.

P.S. The Berwick Advertiser had the cheek to get the chair of the Feast committee to ask us in her opening speech to send it any good photos we took of the event. It seems that nobody did, because the photos in today's edition are rubbish. Dream on 'Tiser, I'm keeping my photos for my own publication.

Thursday 19 July 2012

The Tweedmouth Salmon Queen

The main event to report this week is the crowning of the Tweedmouth Salmon Queen this evening. In the foreground of the picture is the boat in which the Queen and her attendants arrived, a type of boat traditionally used for salmon fishing known as a coble. For this event the boat is mounted on wheels and pulled by a van. On the stage set up in the public gardens on the river bank the new Queen waits to be crowned and her predecessor waits to give her farewell address, watched by sister royalties the Eyemouth Herring Queen and the Spittal Gala Queen, while the chair of the organising committee welcomes a formidably long list of local dignitaries. The local scout troop forms a guard of honour with flags.  A genuinely enthusiastic local crowd claps every speech and jockeys for prime photo-taking position. 

A group of bagpipers precedes the coble playing A Scottish Soldier, a song associated with the local regiment, the King's Own Scottish Borderers, who used to be based in the Barracks in Berwick. Yes, I know that Berwick is not in Scotland anymore and that Tweedmouth has never been in Scotland, but that's just the way things are round here. In fact a procession of swirling kilts and skirling pipes never really goes amiss anywhere. They performed again at the end of the official proceedings, with much pleasure to all.

The crowning of the Salmon Queen is the central event of the Tweedmouth Feast, a festival marking the feast day of St Boisil to whom the parish church is dedicated. The custom of having a festival on the feast day of the patron saint of the local church is widespread and ancient. St Boisil, also spelled Boswell, was a monk at Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders and has the distinction of having predicted a great future for the young Cuthbert, the most famous Northumbrian saint. Because salmon fishing was the main source of livelihood in Tweedmouth in times gone by the Feast developed as a celebration of the peak salmon run. The weather vane of the parish church is in the shape of  a salmon.

The custom of choosing a local girl as the Salmon Queen though dates back only to the 1950s. An exhibition on the history of the event held recently in the Guildhall made this clear. Although originally they seem to have been slightly older, the Salmon, Herring and Gala Queens are now always girls of 16 or so and a large part of the curious charm of these events comes from watching mature people with prominent positions in local society ceding precedence to a teenage girl. The great excitement this year is that the organising committee of Tweedmouth Feast has revived the practice of holding a parade of floats as part of the festivities. We look forward to seeing that on Sunday afternoon. For those readers not familiar with the concept of a float in this sense, it means a group of people in costume standing on the flat bed of a decorated lorry representing some organisation or theme, usually in a humorous fashion. They are called 'floats' because the concept dates back to the parades of decorated river barges of earlier centuries. So it would be even better if the Tweedmouth Feast could one day follow the example of our national Queen and put on a river pageant instead.

These are the two young attendants of the Queen in the back of the official coble. The excitement and sense of occasion on their faces is delightful. I really like the Salmon Queen event because it is a perfect combination of ancient custom, fairly recent custom and whatever people enjoy doing right now, without having had any false historical consistency imposed on it by the heritage industry. While waiting for the arrival of the 'principals' the crowd buys ice creams and burgers and listens to pop music over the p.a. system. After the crowning the vicar leads us in a prayer to 'God the creator of the salmon, the creator of the Tweed', and we all make a half-hearted attempt to take our hands out of our pockets and listen respectfully. Then the new Salmon Queen lays a wreath on the adjacent war memorial and a lone piper plays a lament, so the mood turns sombre for a while. But after that the 'principals' sweep away again in the coble and everyone who hasn't already been to the burger van makes a dash to the local chippie, your correspondent included. Great stuff. 

Thursday 12 July 2012

The Cross Border Twins

The story of the Anglo-Scottish twins has received extensive media coverage this week, and I've decided to join in. To read the full story, look at I can't show you any directly relevant photos without breaching copyright, so here are a couple of pretty pictures of bridges instead. One of them shows 'twin'  swans, geddit? Oh well, please yourselves.

The parents of these twins live in Wooler, a small town about fifteen miles south-west of Berwick. Their mother went into labour early on 1st July and gave birth to the first twin at home. An ambulance then took her to the nearest hospital, the Borders General, just outside the Scottish town of Melrose, where the other twin was born. Result: an English son and a Scottish daughter. Their father has joked about buying them English and Scottish football shirts respectively.

The only unusual thing about this story is that the unexpectedness of their arrival caused one of the babies to be born at home. Residents of the far north of England routinely receive treatment at Borders General hospital as well as Wansbeck hospital in mid-Northumberland. If you suffer a medical emergency and need to be rushed to hospital, the one you end up in will depend not only on the nature of your problem but on where exactly you live, where the ambulance has come from and which place you can be got to quickest in the prevailing road and weather conditions. During the heavy snow a couple of years ago one unfortunate woman in labour had to be air-lifted out of gridlocked traffic. And of course when a resident or visitor on Holy Island has a heart attack during the highest six hours of the tide, which seems to be a not infrequent occurrence, they can only be reached by air or boat. The air ambulance normally flies to a Newcastle hospital where there are helicopter landing facilities. On the other hand, if you collapse in Cornhill then a quick cross-border dash by road to Melrose will probably be the best option.

The future of health services in the event of Scottish independence becoming a reality is the greatest concern that residents of the English Borders have about the SNP referendum proposals. I hope that whatever happens we will never see a situation where any hospital would refuse to admit a woman in premature labour, no matter what her nationality might be. But it may very well be the case that an independent Scotland would not be prepared to pay for residents of England to receive routine health care in its hospitals. If that were so then people in Berwick, Wooler and the surrounding villages will face longer travelling times to hospital, a longer wait for emergency ambulances which are coming from further away and possibly even having to change their GP, because several GP practices have cross-border catchment areas. So far the SNP have said nothing beyond vague reassurances on this subject, and nobody believes that Alex Salmond has ever thought it through.

I once had a frustrating experience trying to get an SPCA inspector to come and rescue an injured bird in Berwick. The English branch based in Newcastle said that Berwick was too far to travel and the Scottish organisation said that they do not work over the border at all. Will we ever see the day when a phone call seeking help for an injured human produces the same response?

Thursday 5 July 2012

Larn Yersel' Geordie

A few weeks ago I promised that I would write more about the accents and dialects of the Debatable LandFor the title of this post I've borrowed the name of a well known comic publication from the 1970s which played on the popular 'Teach Yourself' series and purported to be a serious instruction guide to the Geordie language. The name Geordie only applies to residents of Tyneside, the southern limit of the range of my blog, but that gives me an excuse to show you some nice photos of Newcastle Civic Centre. The sculpture on the left represents the Spirit of the River Tyne. When the building was formally opened by King Olaf of Norway in 1972 this sculpture had water flowing continuously over it, but all that's left now is the rust marks. Not a bad symbol of cuts in local government funding.
What 'Larn Yersel' Geordie' did only humorously is now being done all too seriously. Local dialects are being described as languages and treated as if they were quite unrelated to the dialect down the road. The term 'Geordie language' can now be used with a straight face. There is a Northumbrian Language Society  run mostly by people too middle-class to speak that way spontaneously, or indeed to wish to be associated with Geordies, who hold 'gatherings' to celebrate 'the tongue' and publish small dictionaries. Once you get north of the border the 'Scots language' is described as Lallans, which is not in any sense, you understand, a dialect of English, but a distinctive Scottish language, just as much a real language as the Gaelic of the Highlands. Meanwhile here in Berwick the natives insist that they speak 'a unique dialect' and there is a booklet with that title in the tourist gift shops.

 Am I the only person who thinks all this is nonsense? To those of us who grew up in Northumberland and spent our formative years travelling regularly around the area between Newcastle and Edinburgh, it was obvious that the dialect of Tyneside changed by gradual and almost imperceptible degrees into the dialect of Southern Scotland. The strong throaty sound of the Northumbrian R changed into the Scottish R, sounded further forward in the mouth and more trilled. But these days only elderly men in Northumberland still retain that sound in their speech and an abrupt change in the pronounciation of the letter R now marks the border. (See post of 31st May for more details.) In terms of vocabulary though many words not found in Standard English are still used throughout this whole region on both sides of the border. To take a few common examples: 'bairn' for 'child', 'sneck' for 'doorlatch',  'gowk' for 'cuckoo' or, figuratively, somebody who's being daft. But the pressure is on to assert a distinctive 'culture' and to leverage that to get funding from the bewildering array of arts and heritage bodies, quangos who have been left to fill the gap created by the undermining of local government funding over the last thirty years, of which the rusty Spirit of the Tyne is such a useful symbol.

One irony here is that the University of Newcastle used to have a well regarded Department of Scandinavian Studies, but closed it down, due to the same public sector funding crisis, which would no doubt be a sad disappointment to King Olaf. The dialects of Northern England and Southern Scotland are closely related to the Scandinavian languages, and if only this department had still been in existence the university could have cashed in on the current popularity of the Swedish and Danish drama serials shown on the BBC4 television channel, which are wildly fashionable among the chattering classes. The first time I realised that a word very similar to 'bairn' is the Standard Swedish for 'child', I nearly cried with happiness. When Geordies say it, the metropolitan elite sneer. When Wallander says it, they swoon. There is no better illustration of what linguistics experts keep telling us: the difference between a dialect and a language is purely political.