It was Sir Walter Scott who made the Tweed famous, so that people in half the nations of the world learned about the beauty and lore of the Borders through his words. Yet by international standards the river is insignificant. It lacks the majesty of the Thames, the volume of the Amazon, the bustle and scale of the Mississippi. To any of these world famous rivers, Tweed is less than a brook; a shallow, slithering stream that can be waded in a hundred paces and that is barely navigable save by canoes and salmon cobles. Yet it is Tweed that makes the area what it is; it has a character all of its own, and is as welcome to a Gutterbluid as the sea to a sailor.
There can be few rivers that have as many stories attached to them, perhaps because virtually every bend holds a peel-tower, a historic church or the site of some half-forgotten skirmish. Many of the hillspurs that jut above the river hold the remnants of towers, while fields stretch between the sheltering forests, and stone-built towns proclaim their individuality at irregular intervals.
As a postman, I saw Tweed in all its guises, and even I gasped at the delicate beauty that it could display. There are many bridges in Peebles, both across the Tweed and its smaller tributary known as the Ecky that merged with Tweed near the centre of town. Most carry motor vehicles but there are a few that cater only for pedestrians. One such crosses Tweed just at the edge of Tweed Green, where housewives still hang out their washing and children and dogs vie with tourists to annoy the anglers. Of all the Peebles bridges, this one is the least picturesque, being little more than a humped structure of interlocked ironwork. Nonetheless, from mid April to early autumn the housemartins made this bridge their own as they swoop after the flies that hover above the shallow water. Their distinctive piping call is the sound of spring, and I often stood on the bridge to watch their aerobatics.
This bridge was also an excellent place to witness the dawn sun burning the mist from the water. From a river literally shrouded with a thick grey mass of moisture, it became a rippling friend, decorated with shreds of mist. In autumn rain the river was swollen and brown, hurtling at great speed between sodden banks and carrying all sorts of rubbish from the landward parts to the sea. It was common to see bales of hay, tree branches and the occasional baulk of timber thrashing in the water.
That was the time when the old rhyme came to mind:
‘Said Tweed to Till:
“How come you run so still?”
Said Till to Tweed:
“Though you run fast, and I run slaw,
For every man that you droon, I droon twa.”’
Till is another Border river, that runs in Northumberland, but the point of this story is not on the comparison, but on the fact of the drownings. In my time in Peebles there were a number of people drowned in the river; not one a year, which according to Jim Penrith, the local folklore expert and long-time postman, was the old sacrificial figure, but certainly enough to make one wary of treating Tweed with disrespect. Any natural thing can be dangerous, and at one time Tweed was a sacred river, like the Clyde, and Jim told me dark stories of human sacrifice that had been carried out to propitiate the spirit of Tweed. This spirit had been known to take a more tangible form, if the old legends were to be believed.
Back in the twelfth century a knight of Tweedale left his wife behind to join a Crusade. He spent years in Outremer, as Christendom termed the Holy Land, bearing his blade to the bounds of Bethlehem, fighting the Saracens to protect the Holy Places, but finally he returned home. After many adventures he arrived back in Scotland, to find that his wife had a baby boy playing at her feet.
‘And where did he come from?’ Asked the knight, somewhat naively, but his Lady had a ready answer.
‘From the Tweed,’ she replied. ‘His father is the spirit of the Tweed itself.’
Now despite the intense fervour of the Crusades, this was still a superstitious age, where kelpies and goblins mingled with the People of Peace in the imagination of even God-fearing folk. Whether the knight believed his wife or not, he seems to have accepted the child, and brought it up as his own. However, the boy branched out to start a new family, named after his real family, and the surname of Tweedie was born.
Floods were expected in Peebles, so people adapted to the possibility. It was the price charged by Tweed for the privilege of living by her banks; easier to pay than the ancient tribute of a yearly sacrifice but inconvenient, filthy and heart-rending for those whose houses were under water. Virtually every year Tweed Green would be inundated so that the householders, whose front doors opened onto what was surely one of the loveliest views in summer, watched the rising river with some anxiety.
In our first winter at Peebles there was an exceptionally heavy rainfall, and my wife Cathy and I became aware of a low rumble somewhere beyond the nearby road. Not quite acquainted with the geography of the town, we investigated, walking through the grounds of what had once been a private house but what was now a depository for an insurance company. It came as a shock to realise that the rumble was actually the sound of the Tweed, which had risen to drown its muddy banks. We watched for a while before returning home. Next day we had less distance to walk to view the Tweed, for it had risen further, and now swished menacingly at the lower boughs of the trees. We could see the branches in the water, gesticulating back and forth as the current alternatively dipped them in the water and released them.
‘I feel like Christopher Robin’ Cathy told me, obviously enjoying herself immensely as the river rose toward our house. I married a strange woman. I did not tell her of the stories that Sandy had been relating, of Tweed completely covering Tweed Green, of Tweed washing right over the flat ground where our house was built, of Tweed bursting her banks to cover half the valley. It rose day by day as the rain hurtled down, until it lapped on the fringes of the main road. Then came the day of mist; the river level stabilised and then began to fall. Each evening, Cathy and I used to take our son, for our youngest had not yet been born, to look at the accumulated rubbish left by the receding water and wonder at the power of the river. When spring had broken and the water level had dropped dramatically so that the river was its usual friendly self, Sandy finished his story.
‘All that I said was true, of course, but they built the Meggat Dam since then, and diverted half the water that used to run into Tweed. The water levels now are nothing like as high as they used to be.’
Remembering the turgid brown mass that roared out of the night, sweeping great amounts of debris before it, I wondered what it had been like in the old days, when Sandy was a boy.