New project aims to ensure Border history and heritage is not forgotten

Andrew Ayre with the tombstone of Border poet John Wilson at Tweedmouth Church.
Andrew Ayre with the tombstone of Border poet John Wilson at Tweedmouth Church.

A COLLECTION of tales abut north Northumberland and the Borders that were hugely popular in the mid-19th century could be targeted at modern day audiences.

Wilson’s Tales of the Borders, and of Scotland were the minor publishing sensation of the time, achieving print runs of 30,000 in the 1830s.

“They were the soap opera of their day,” said Andrew Ayre, from Berwick, who is bidding to give them a new lease of life.

“You have to remember that the Victorians didn’t have the likes of television, radio and the internet so reading was one of the main forms of entertainment and Wilson’s Tales were hugely popular.

“I think they could be turned into radio plays, stage productions or taken on by reading groups. They could even be republished digitally which would take them all over the world.

“This could be Berwick’s Canterbury Tales and help put it and the wider region on the literary map.”

The collection of tales, stories, history and ballads were first drawn together and published in weekly instalments from 1834 by John Mackay Wilson, at the time also editor of the Berwick Advertiser and whose father came from Duns. This was a common method of publishing at the time, used by amongst others Charles Dickens and Walter Scott.

Within a year, their popularity was such that the print run had to be raised from 2,000 to 30,000.

Unfortunately, Wilson was not to enjoy the fruits of his success, dying less than a year later at the age of 31.

Wilson had contributed 66 tales to the collection before his death but the publishers, no doubt anxious to continue their success, recruited new contributors which raised the number of tales to 299.

“It’s a rich collection that represents a record of our history, heritage, lore and legend,” said Andrew. “They caught the imagination of their age and are due a revival, to be given new life and once more entertain a new generation before they slip further into obscurity.”

Andrew first became aware of ‘The Tales’ when he was about 10 and the concept has dwelt in the back of his mind ever since.

“I’ve always been interested in local history and heritage and, indeed, live performance,” said Andrew. “I’m fascinated by the tales of our forefathers and want to keep them alive.

“I don’t know whether it’s some sort of mid-life crisis or a growing realisation that having got to the more distinguished side of 50, that if I want to see my vision realised in my lifetime, I perhaps just need to pick it up and run with it - see where it gets to with a bit of enthusiasm and goodwill.”

He now plans to seek grant funding, matched by money from his own pocket and public sponsorship, to see what sort of interest the idea generates over the next nine months or so.

In the short-term, he wants to commission five stories to be retold in different media. The first story published, The Vacant Chair, could, for example, be retold by a Borders-based traditional story-teller.

The Flodden-based story, The Faithful Wife - which could tie in with this year’s 500th anniversary of the battle - could be a youth film project.

The Lawyer’s Tale could be retold in the style of a radio play, while Red Hall or Berwick in 1296 could become a stage play and The Ballad of The World’s Vanity put to music and sung.

In the longer-term he wants to make the works more accessible via an online database and perhaps make original copies available as a resource in libraries.

Reading groups could also take on one of the 24 volumes and give their feedback.

“There are so many different ways to make it work,” said Andrew. “There is a wealth of talent in the area that may find interest in ‘The Tales’ and have the skills and imagination to do something fresh with them.”

He hopes the project could also lead to the restoration of Wilson’s grave in Tweedmouth churchyard.

“I know this is quite an ambitious project to take on but those I’ve spoken to think it’s a good idea. Now we just need to spread the word.”

Anyone interested in the project should write to: The Wilson’s Tales Project, Mill Farm, Tweedmouth or email aa@wilsonstales.co.uk