Friday, 24 January 2014


A slightly different version of the below was published in Border Voices on Border Ruins an anthology from Borders Writers Forum.

When does a place you live in, but weren’t born, become home?
Is it measured in years?  Or does the place of your birth and more than likely the formative years of your childhood always hold sway wherever you lay your hat.
In other words can you ever really put down roots anywhere else?
Answers on a postcard please!
All this is a bit of a clue to the fact that where I live now, Selkirk in the Scottish Borders,  isn’t the place of my birth.
I was born and brought up in Chapelhall, near Airdrie, in the Central Belt but have lived in the Borders for nearly half of my life now.     
So taking that into account what would I write if I sent a postcard to myself?
Something along the lines of?   
Digging deep and putting down roots.  
Digging deep.  That is the key for me. 
Digging deep to make the connection with myself.    
Roots though have to be nourished and encouraged and for me letting the history of the town itself enter my soul and feel it connect with the living present started the process.

Selkirk town is like a calm river on a windless summer’s day at times. Other times it is a buzz of lorries and cars winding their way through the too narrow streets and twisting their way around tight corners.  This snake like progress is because the A7 cuts through the centre of Selkirk leading the one way to Carlisle, the other way, Edinburgh. Other times it is a buzz of tourists searching, maybe, for momentary peace from the rush of city life through the historic roots of present day Selkirk and the Borders.    

One place they should head for just like I did is the ‘Kirk in the Forest’ and the old graveyard. 
Here the remains of the old church dominate the graveyard and gives testament to the history of Selkirk through the ages. Graves and memorials here remembering folk from the thirteenth to the twentieth century. Graves and memorials all various shapes and sizes, some grand and imposing, most not.
It is a graveyard with houses along one edge, a car park along another and a road outside its main gate.  Still it seems detached from all of these things.
An oasis of stillness.  Noises that are yards away barely intrude.
Or maybe that’s my imagination too busy making connections between the people laying here and the living souls going about their daily life just a short walk away.   
The graveyard occupies different levels not only regarding the ground level but in the people buried. 
Death it is said is the great leveller.
Morbid though it may seem I think it’s in the graveyards that you get a real sense of what a place was, and in doing so, a sense of how a town came to be the place you live in now.   
The Borders is rightly famous for its four abbeys at Melrose, Dryburgh,  Kelso and Jedburgh but the ruins of this old church for me hold as much interest as any of them.
On the famous folk side of things it was here they say that William Wallace was made Guardian of Scotland in 1298.  It’s also here that some of the maternal ancestors of Franklin D Roosevelt, President of United States of America during the Second
World War, are buried.  
On his mother’s side he was related to the Murray’s of Philiphaugh.
The Murray’s have a whole alcove to themselves in the church.  A mini Westminster Abbey with vines curling up the crumbling walls for added effect.  Here the Lord’s and Ladies and General’s, the good and the bad are buried. 
One of the (maybe)  ‘bad’  of the clan was the ‘Outlaw Murray’ , John Murray (could he be a relation??!! You hope!) killed in 1510. 
Other famous folk include Andrew Park the brother to the Explorer Mungo Park.
This is only one level though.
For when you step though the archway gate leading into the graveyard you step out of the twentieth first century and travel back through time and get a sense that it’s not just the great and the good that make up history and are responsible for the progress and changes that take place through the centuries. 
And changes there have been.  The Borders, including Selkirk, are a bit like the surrounding hills.  You think they’re not moving or changing.  But like the earth, or life under those still waters, things are changing and developing all the time. 
Like yourself settling into the rhythm of the place you don’t notice because you’re moving as well, changing, developing.
In this graveyard you get a sense of all the people who have gone before. Not only the rich and famous but the many who walked the same streets as them.  
As you.
All living and dying and passing on their hopes and dreams down the centuries.
That’s where I make the connection with the present.  The past is not a foreign land.  Social conditions, even language, might have been different but those hopes and dreams and the feeling of struggling to get by are fundamentally the same.
For to get a true sense of this place you must not only take on board all that life that has gone before but remember that life that is taking place only a few hundred yards away with the cars and lorries twisting and turning along the main A7.  
Connect up the past with the people now putting their own roots, coming and going along Market Street, disappearing down alleyways, and shortcuts, that have been there and known for centuries.  Streets, alleyways and shortcuts that have been trod by feet some of whose memory lies in the Kirk In the Forrest cemetery.
Maybe some of those feet were walking hand in hand with loved ones. Maybe some were running for their lives or from the law, not wanting to come before Sir Walter or his equivalent today.
Whatever soon all those now hurrying, or stopping to chat on the twenty first century Market Street, will join the Ghost walk and be replaced by future generations following in their footsteps.  
For although ghosts and cemeteries are associated with night and dread I think the ghosts come out during the day, as they did in life, not at night.  They walk the same streets they always walked.  They walk beside us shaking their heads at our so familiar tales of worry and woe. They are like spirits caught in the background of photographs.
I stand before a grave now and wonder about the person lying there. Most of the markings have been scraped away by time. Like a lot of these old gravestones.    
Still you can make the connection with the people who lived the history. All you have to do is take a rest for a moment from the daily rush and acknowledge that they existed.  That they’re not really truly dead and gone as long as the gates of this graveyard are kept open for folk to discover and step back in time for a short period.   
For me getting a true sense of a place is by bringing the past and the present closer together through all the levels of folk that have built it to what it is today.
It also helps to stop thinking or worrying too much about the future.
At least for a short while. For it never really comes.  It’s always the present. 
The past contained in the present.


  1. Beautiful, evocative writing. As a writer living in Tasmania but not born here I can relate to identification with home as forged and maintained as much as inherited. I am coediting a new online journal and would like to extend an invitation to you to submit. If you are interested in discussing this further please feel free to contact me on
    Jane Williams

    1. Thanks Jane for the kind words. I really enjoyed writing the piece as it focussed a lot of thoughts and feelings. Thank you for the invite to submit to the journal, I'd be delighted. Will be in touch. Cheers Tom.