The Angry Corrie 46: Jul-Aug 2000

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The Cheviot, the flags and the black, black soil

THERE HAVE been wars over mountains. Italy entered the First World War to regain the Terra Irridenta, the lands of the South Tyrol Alps which they claimed as their natural frontier. And Scotland has its own terra irridenta - in fact three such. Until 1346, the Isle of Man was part of Scotland, and really that means there should be another Graham to add to the list, making a neater 225. The whole area of Cumbria, which had been part of the kingdom of Strathclyde, was claimed by Scotland until much later. With a bit of creative accounting, this could bring the real tally of Scotland's Munros up to the 300 mark - and leave the Southrons with none.

But even if we were to agree that such claims were only of historical interest, it recently occurred to me that a real injustice had been committed and that there were 220 Corbetts, a satisfying number. Frontiers are defined by rivers and watersheds, and the Scottish-English border violates this principle in the Cheviot Hills, which separate the eastern marches of the two countries. The watershed is curiously re-drawn to include the summit of the Cheviot - the highest point in the chain - wholly in England.

Pete and I were at a conference in New Lanark, on the 16th-century Scottish cartographer Timothy Pont, the first to list and draw many of our mountains. Since we were in the (rough) vicinity, why not, we thought, make a trip to the Cheviot and claim it as our own little terra irridenta, in the manner of the border reivers of old? So we headed for Kelso as our base, where the local youths and youth-esses appeared to have little interest in reiving and spent the night in a drunken riot outside the hotel window - the kind of thing which would have brought a rapid response unit to the streets of Glasgow with batons flashing.

Next day we trundled up Auchope Rig, tired and bemoaning the spiritless national youth, recovering from hangovers instead of righting ancient wrongs. We approached the border, disinclined to steal any English sheep (the price is so low nowadays anyway) and at a hut on the southern side found no shepherdesses or milk- maids to ravish. So we trundled on up past the Hen Hole to Auchope Cairn. Here Scotland - and it seemed the known world -ended.

Like a set from a First World War film, a length of duckboards stretched out in front of us across a morass of mud and peat bog the like of which I have never seen. We passed across this, meditating on the consequences of a slide off into the quagmire, and reached a veritable branching-tree of a signpost informing us that the summit of the Cheviot was 11/2 miles further on. After the black, black soil came the flags: long lines of stones deposited in the squelchy ooze. These took us most of the way through the thickening mist - out of which we expected whizz- bangs to come - to the vicinity of the summit, where a sign asked us to avoid erosion. Erosion! The landscape was the most naturally eroded I have ever seen, and human feet could make little impact on it.

I had been worried by the guidebook saying the traverse to the trig point, perched on a handkerchief of dry land, was not actually dangerous "except in wet weather", and that a line of fenceposts could be used as life-support. We were spared this tricky traverse by the extension of the flagstone path to the very summit - but I could see what the writer meant. If there is a landscape closer to hell on this earth than the summit of the Cheviot in mist, I have yet to visit it. For all the world one expected to see maimed bodies, barbed wire and to hear the sound of battle.

On our retreat I began to meditate silently about my errors in being motivated by chauvinist expansionism of the kind which had led to the slaughter of the First World War, and all it took was an encounter with a lovely Geordie lad (with an accent different but a vocabulary similar to my own north-east Doric) for my proletarian internationalism to return in full force. I informed Pete that the English could keep the Cheviot after all. As usual, more pragmatically motivated than my own high idealism, he agreed - but for the reason that the hill was hardly worth annexing. It was, he said, probably the Scots who drew the border to avoid having the Cheviot, rather than the English who stole it.

Like a front-line survivor, I still have nightmares about the mud and the duckboards - and I know that, though I am glad to have done it once, I will never return to the Cheviot, the flags and the black, black soil.

Ian R Mitchell

Ed. - How often have writers averred in print that they have no desire to return to a particular hill? One other example that comes to mind is Hamish Brown, in Climbing the Corbetts, albeit for other reasons: "I don't really want to do Quinag again. How can you improve on the perfect day?"

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