English Border Towns – Galashiels And The Gala, Lindean

AND now we come to a once beautiful stream, of which, in the present condition of its lower stretches, it is not easy to speak with due moderation.

” Deil take the dirty trading loon Wad gar the water ca’ his wheel, And drift his dyes and poisons down By fair Tweed side at Ashiesteel.”

It is not the Tweed at Ashiesteel, however, that in this instance is injured, but the Gala at Galashiels, and Tweed below that town. “It would,” says the Official Report issued in 1906 by H.M. Stationery Office, “be impossible to find a river more grossly polluted than the Gala as it passes through Galashiels,”—a verdict with which no wayfarer along the banks of that dishonoured stream will be inclined to disagree. The grey-blue liquid that sluggishly oozes down the river’s bed among stones thick-coated with sewage fungus, is an outrage on nature most saddening to look upon. He does wisely who stands to windward of the abomination. It is true that of late years much has been done, much money spent, in the praiseworthy effort to bring purity into this home of the impure; but to the lay eye improvement is yet barely perceptible. ” Fools and bairns,” however, they tell us, ” should never see half-done work.” The filter-beds of the extensive sewage works are said to be not yet in working order, and so one may not despair of even yet living long enough to see Gala as Gala should be.

In the meantime, and till the entire sewage scheme is in full working order, there are—if one may judge from reports in the daily Press,—a few minor improvements not quite out of reach of the inhabitants. On 15th July, 1912, an evening paper published the account of “another” dead pig which at that date was lying in the river “immediately in front of the main entrance to the Technical College.” The carcase, we are told, was ” much decomposed, and attracted huge swarms of flies.” This paper, in commenting on the corpse of an earlier defunct pig, which a few days before had reposed in the same tomb, rernarks that “it has been the custom up to now for all kinds of objectional matter to be deposited on the river banks or thrown into the bed of the river to await the first flood to carry it down to the Tweed.” “The river,” the journal continues, “is at present at its lowest summer ebb, and during the heat wave the smells arising from decomposing matter have been overpowering.” In an arctic climate, there may perhaps be some excuse for the proverb : ” the clartier the cosier,” but it seems scarcely applicable to Gala ; and there might, one would imagine, be other and more modern methods of dealing with decomposed pigs than that of floating them into outraged Tweed. The condition of “fishes that tipple in the deep” and quaff cerulean dyes in every stream, is not likely to be improved by a diet of sewage fungus and decayed pig, any more than is the health of human dwellers by the banks likely to benefit by the proximity of decomposing animal matter.

The history of Galashiels is mainly industrial, mainly the history of the” Tweed” trade. There were mills of a sort in the town as early as 1622, but even a hundred and fifty years later the trade cannot have greatly harmed the river ; only 170 cwt. of wool were then used in all the mills of Galashiels, and there was no such thing as the manufacture of modern “tweeds.” All the wool then used was made into blankets, and “Galashiels Greys,” (whatever fearful fowl they may have been). The term “tweeds” came later, one is given to understand, and arose through the mistake of an English correspondent of one of the Galashiels manufacturers. This gentleman misread a letter, in which the Scottish writer spoke of his ” tweels.” The Englishman, having read the letter some-what carelessly, and knowing that Galashiels was somewhere near the river Tweed, hastily concluded that the goods under discussion were termed ” tweeds,” and gave his order accordingly. The name was universally adopted in the trade, and now—as the professional cricketer said about “yorkers,”—” I don’t see what else you could call them.”

Galashiels has a tradition to which it clings, that it was once a royal hunting seat. Mr. Robert Chambers says that the lodge or tower used by the Scottish monarchs when they came here a-hunting was pulled down only so recently as about the year 1830. It-was called the Peel, a strong square tower with small windows, “finer in appearance than any other house in the whole barony, that of Gala alone excepted.” From it a narrow lane called the King’s Shank led to the town. I cannot say if the name survives in Galashiels.

But there is another tradition in which perhaps Galashiels takes greater pride, the tradition connected with the plum tree in the Town’s Arms. (Though what the little foxes are doing at the foot of the tree, and what they have to do with the legend, none can say. Perhaps they are English foxes ; and they got the plums —sour enough, as it turned out.) The incident commemorated is said to be this : During one of the invasions of Edward III, a party of his soldiers had taken up their quarters in Galashiels. The country no doubt had been pretty well harried and laid waste—Edward’s men had plenty of practice—and they may have been careless, with the carelessness begotten of over-confidence. Anyhow, they straggled through the woods, looking for wild plums, the story goes—though one would imagine that the only plums they would be likely to find there would be sloes, not a fruit that one would expect to tempt them far afield. But perhaps, as some say, they were robbing an orchard—if there were orchards in Scotland in the fourteenth century. In any case, a party of Scots, either a passing armed band, or, as Galashiels would fain believe, the inhabitants of the town themselves, swearing that they would give the southern swine sourer plums than any that had yet set their teeth on edge, fell on the English, drove them in headlong rout to the banks of Tweed opposite to where Abbotsford now stands—the Englishmen’s Dyke, they call the spot—and slew them to a man. “Soor Plums in Galashiels” has for centuries been a favourite air in the town, though the words of the song have perished.

Gala as a stream has been badly misused by man—at and below the town poisoned by sewage and mill refuse, above the town overfished, and poached, almost to the extinction of its trout. Matters now, however, are, I believe, vastly improved as regards sport ; the Galashiels Angling Association works with a will to make things what they should be in a stream once so famed, and one hears that its efforts are meeting with the success they deserve. But it can never come back to what it must have been ” Lang syne,” say in Sir Thomas Dick Lauder’s day. That gentleman records that he and a friend fished one day from Bankhouse down to Galashiels, and turning there, fished Gala up to its junction with the Ermit Burn, then followed the latter to its source on Soutra Hill, and found at the end of the day that they had filled three creels ; their total catch was over thirty-six dozen trout. A good many were caught in the burn with worm, of course, and most of the trout taken were probably very small, but it shows what possibilities these small Border streams might hold if they were well treated. Nobody, however, one may hope—no reasonable mortal out of his teens, that is—now wants to catch over four hundred trout in a single day under any circumstances. Even to the very juvenile schoolboy there can be but the very minimum of sport in jerking fingerlings on to the bank. If a fixed limit of size could be imposed ; if the close season were continued for another fortnight or three weeks in Spring ; and, above all, if the sale of trout could be prohibited by law until at least the beginning of April, our Border fishing would be improved beyond recognition. Great takes are made now, with worm, early in the season, when the waters are discoloured and the trout lean and ravenous; and long before they are in anything like condition either to give sport or to be decently fit for food, vast quantities of fish from the Border streams are sent off to the English markets. If those markets were kept closed a few weeks longer, many a trout would have a chance to reach maturity that is now sacrificed in extreme youth to put a few “bawbees” into a poacher’s pocket. The great takes at the season’s opening are not made by fair fishing. The writer was informed, three or four years ago, by the solitary porter of a very small Tweed-side railway station-himself a keen and skilful fisher—that on 2nd March of that year two men had consigned to Manchester from that one little station one hundred and ten pounds weight of trout. How were they caught? Certainly not by fair means. They are not fishers who take trout after this fashion. These are the men who, to suit their immediate wants and their own convenience, would deplete every stream in the Border and put a speedy end to all sport. As things are at present there is practically nothing to prevent them from taking what they please from any water.

However, to return to Gala. Here, as everywhere in the Border, vast are the changes that the past sixty or seventy years have wrought on the face of nature. Even at a time so comparatively recent as that when the present North British line of railway from Edinburgh to Carlisle was being constructed down the valley, Sir Thomas Dick Lauder remarks on the revolution that in his own experience a few years had made. ” We know of no district,” says he, ” which has been so completely metamorphosed since the days of our youth as that of Gala Water.” In his boyhood, “the whole wore a pastoral character. Crops were rare, and fences hardly to be met with.

Not a tree was to be seen, except in the neighbourhood of one or two old places, and especially at and around Torwoodlee and Gala House, near the mouth of the river. Everything within sight was green, simple, and bare.” Then he contrasts this with the appearance of the valley at date of his writing, when ” the whole country is fenced, cultivated, and hedged round. Thriving and extensive plantations appear everywhere.” Could he see it, he would find the change even more marked now, with the “thriving plantations ” grown and extended, countless trains thundering up and down the line day and night, and above all with his little village of ” two thousand two hundred and nine inhabitants ” grown into a great and busy town.

In ancient days, this valley through which Gala flows was called Wedale,—the Dale of Woe, the Valley of Weeping, for here says Professor Skene, was fought one of King Arthur’s great battles against the Pagans. At what is now the village of Stow—the Stow (old English, ” place,”) of Wedale—the Bishops of St. Andrews had a palace ; and here, by the Lady well at Torsonce, stood in Arthurian days a church famed for its possession of fragments of the True Cross, bestowed, it was said, by King Arthur himself. Here, too, were preserved in great veneration, long years after Arthur had passed away ” to be king among the dead,” portions of that miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin which, the old historian Nennius tells us, the king bore into the stress of battle that day among the hills of Wedale. And here, till about 1815, lay a very large stone on whose face was the well marked impression of a foot, said by tradition to have been the imprint of the foot of the Virgin. To be converted into road-metal has doubtless been its fate. There are still, I believe, in Stow, the remains of a very old church, not, however, those of the original church of Wedale.

Leaving Galashiels by road past Boldside, with a glimpse of the Eildons and Abbotsford to the left, three miles from the town and immediately above the junction of Tweed with its tributary the Ettrick we cross the former river. Hard by, to the right, in a wood on top of Rink Hill, are the remains of a very fine British camp.

Here for the time we again quit the banks of Tweed, and proceed up Ettrick. A mile from the junction of the rivers, we pass near the old churchyard of Lindean, where once stood the ancient church in which, the night after his assassination in 1353, lay the bloody corpse of Sir William Douglas, the Knight of Liddesdale, slain by his kinsman.

In connection with this churchyard, there used to exist a belief that greatly troubled the minds of country folk in the surrounding district. Away back in those evil times when the Plague raged through Scotland, very many of its victims were buried in a common grave in Lindean churchyard. But the church was demolished after the Reformation, and the churchyard gradually fell out of use as a place of burial. There came a time when the people had no farther need for it; why, thought some practical person, should it not be ploughed up and cultivated? There was but one thing that saved it from this fate ;—not reverence for the ashes of the rude fore-fathers of the hamlet that lay here at rest, but the sure and certain belief in the minds of their descendants that in the event of the soil being disturbed, there must inevitably be a fresh outbreak of the dreaded Plague. It is curious and interesting to read of the blind horror with ‘which our ancestors in their day regarded this scourge ; but their horror is not hard to understand. Sanitation did not exist in those times, medicine as a science was impotent to curb the ravages of the dreaded pestilence. The people were helpless ; to save them-selves there remained only flight. And in what remote spot might flight avail them in a Plague-swept land ! In that out-break during the seventeenth century, temporary houses, or shelters, were erected in many parts of the Border, and into them were hurried persons smitten by the pestilence—and often, no doubt, persons suffering from some very minor ailment which their panic-stricken neighbours diagnosed as Plague. It is not to be supposed that once there, they would get much, if any, attention ; they would simply take their chance—a slender one—of recovery. And if they died, so great was the dread in the minds of the living that, in many instances, to save unnecessary risk, the authorities merely pulled down the building over the dead bodies, and heaped earth on top. At a period even so late as in the writer’s boyhood, there were many spots—perhaps in very remote districts there may yet be a few—where the Plague was said to be buried, and where to disturb the soil was believed to be a matter of extreme danger ; the pestilence, like some malevolent fiend long held down, would inevitably break loose, and again Grim Death would hurl his darts broadcast at old and young, rich and poor. In his Scenes of Infancy Leyden alludes to the belief :

” Mark, in yon vale, a solitary stone, Shunned by the swain, with loathsome weeds o’ergrown ! The yellow stonecrop shoots from every pore, With scaly sapless lichens crusted o’er : Beneath the base, where starving hemlocks creep, The yellow Pestilence is buried deep.

Here oft, at sunny noon, the peasants pause, While many a tale their mute attention draws ; And, as the younger swains, with active feet, Pace the loose weeds, and the flat tombstone mete, What curse shall seize the guilty wretch, they tell, Who drags the monster from his midnight cell.”

All manner of precautions were adopted to hinder the spreading of the pestilence. Orders were even issued forbidding the assembling together of more than three or four persons at any one place, but the Privy Council Records of the time show that this regulation was obeyed only when it suited the people to observe it. There were limits to the dread in which the pestilence was held, and even fear of the consequences did not always reconcile the Borderers to such an interference with their liberty. It is on record that, in 1637, when, in the execution of his duty as Convener of the Justices of his county, Sir John Murray of Philiphaugh went to Selkirk, he found that a marriage was about to take place, and that most part of the community had been invited to be present. Sir John at once forbade the assemblage, and, later, he sent for the father of the bride, a man named James Murray, and informed him that on no account would more than four or five guests be permitted. But James was not to be thus coerced. ” Na, na ! ” he cried, ” If ye be feared, come not there. But the folk are comin’.”

So Sir John called on the bailies to commit the offender at once to prison. The bailies, however, were probably included in the number of the wedding guests, and were looking forward to the “ploy” with as great pleasurable anticipation as was even the most irresponsible of those invited. They paid no heed to Sir John’s demand; “there was no obedience given thereto,” say the Records. And next day, when the postponed wedding took place, ” there was about four or five score persons who met and drank together all that day till night.” Whether Sir John remained to take any part in the festivities we are not told, but of this at least we may be very sure : his interference did not tend to lessen the amount of liquor consumed on the occasion,