New project documents the Tweed’s history and tradition

Photographer and videographer Jim Gibson.
Photographer and videographer Jim Gibson.

The story of the heritage, culture and traditions of the River Tweed, its tributaries and the people who have lived and worked in its catchment are caught in a new documentary ‘Our River - Stories of the Tweed’.

For over a year Norham photographer and videographer Jim Gibson has been capturing the essence of the Tweed in photographs and interviews and now the project, sponsored by Fallago Environment Trust (the Tweed Forum arm which runs the Fallago Rig wind farm community fund), has reached the edit stage. Once editing has been done and the narration and accompanying local traditional music recorded, the 60 minute film will be ready to view at local venues.

The Selkirk Standard bearer leads the cavalcade across the Ettrick.

The Selkirk Standard bearer leads the cavalcade across the Ettrick.

“It gives people a look at the Tweed and the chance to find out things they didn’t know about it,” Jim explained.

“We covered the whole catchment area - the Teviot, Slitrig and all the tributaries as far south as Powburn.”

Castles, abbeys and mansions houses, literature, traditions, the people, words particular to the area, the industry and the wider influence of the region (naval ships named after Borders towns) are all covered in the project.

“The Tweed and its catchment has had an important place in history from the earliest times when nomadic inhabitants followed game up the valley, through pre-history to the Romans and then with its turbulent part in Anglo-Scottish border rivalry, always with the river dominating the local economy,” said Jim.

“Our River - Stories of the Tweed captures this rich past through the built heritage, including some of the most historically important castles in Britain, fine abbeys, mansion houses, and the relics of the industrial past such as the woollen mills, the sheils of the net fisheries and the buildings of bygone agriculture.

“These images are mixed with the cultural heritage - the Border ride-outs commemorating past battles or raids by the Border Reivers, the formation of the Coldstream Guards, traditional music, the unwritten folklore and the published stories and poetry of Thomas the Rhymer, through James Hogg, writing in Scots and English, to Sir Walter Scott.

The Borderlands are steeped in tradition and there is a very clear starting point for many of those traditions.

“All roads lead to Flodden,” explained Jim.

So many of the Border towns’ traditional common ridings and festivals can be traced back to the 1513 Battle of Flodden, the largest ever fought between the English and the Scots, which took place a few miles south of Coldstream.

Alistair Bowden, project manager for Flodden 1513, a programme of events that marked the 500th anniversary of the battle, agrees with Jim that Flodden defined Borders culture more than any other event.

Mr Bowden said: “A classic example is Selkirk, where 68 men set out to fight with James IV but only one returned, a man called Fletcher, who, exhausted and speechless, simply dropped the flag he was carrying in his despair at the slaughter he had witnessed.

“Every year, we recreate that event during Selkirk’s Border Riding ceremony when a lone flag-carrier walks down the main street and then slowly lowers his standard in the town centre.”

In the past the river has formed the basis of the local economy with the woollen mills in the towns and the salmon net fisheries on the lower reaches. These industries are in decline or have disappeared altogether, and those who worked in them are getting older which is why Jim was keen to record their memories, dialect and local knowledge.

The link between the past and the present is explored - particularly when it comes to salmon fishing on the Tweed. “There is a propaganda war going on between the rod fishers and the net fishers,” said Jim. “Net fishing is the longest tradition of anything on the river and I think the river would be a poorer place without that tradition.”

The interviews, photos, music and places of local interest have been digitally recorded and edited to produce a sixty minute DVD of broadcast quality, which will be screened at venues throughout the river’s catchment.

“At the moment people are often not aware of the Tweed as a whole, just their immediate stretch of it,” said Jim.

The DVD will be given to community groups and schools and both the DVD and accompanying illustrated book will be available for sale locally and via the internet with proceeds going to the Tweed Forum.

Copies of the DVD and digital footage will be lodged with the local archives for the Scottish Borders at Hawick, and Northumberland at Berwick-upon-Tweed for use by the general public.