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Quest for the Hidden Energy of Water – Drumlanrig

Professor David Munro led our quest on a beautiful Sunday at Drumlanrig Castle, where we explored the extensive grounds. Our walk followed the water systems, both natural and constructed, that make up the lifeblood of the estate, following paths that have changed over time and those that have remained constant.

As the geographer in residence for the Duke of Buccleuch, Professor Munro brought us inside the castle to see some of the maps in the archives there to start. The oldest was dated from the early 18th century and was a beautifully drawn plan used to design the gardens for the newly-built estate. These plans showed an intricate garden for several hundred gardeners to tend, based on square sections that surround fountains for easy watering. The view from the rear of the house draws the eye with a straight path leading to the cascade.

There are newer maps that show the planning of the extended grounds. It is setup to create vistas at the end of long straight paths cut through the forest. From these maps, the grounds look like a web of walking paths, at odds with the winding waterways that refuse to be confined to such simple linear routes. Although much of the water supply for the castle is based in these free flowing rivers and streams, simple modifications like dams are not always sufficient, so extensive amounts of piping and cisterns were built to allow for the water flow envisioned by the human design.

The maps that we were able to see from the massive collection showed the requirements of these significant features of a managed landscape throughout time in beautiful hand drawn detail. With this vision in our head, we set out to explore it for ourselves, taking in several subtle details in the architecture, like the flying heart motif, the angle of the railing columns, and an old ice house that has become so grown over it would look like a hill that was part of the landscaping near the house if we were not told what it really was.

There are only four gardeners now, so the gardens are certainly not as extensive as the original plans show them to be, but the general shape of the gardens have been retained in order to remain to true to the original vision and its first incarnation. Sometimes these shapes are merely implied with some creative grass cutting, leaving this open space available for the modern day play of children visitors. Much of the water in the design has been removed. The fountains have been replaced by statues, since their practical function can be met with modern conveniences like hoses. The cascade is now left dry.

site of cascade

As we wander further from the gardens and out into the trees of the wider grounds, the precise lines give way to paths that follow the curves the land more closely. Over time, the webs of straight-lined paths that cut bluntly and harshly through the tree line have softened as the ownership of the castle changed hands. Each one had a different vision of the perfect estate, based on their personalities, their preferences, and the changes in fashion over time. If I had walked about without having seen those maps, I might have assumed that these paths had always been there, gradually ingrained by passage through the trees over time until they were eventually widened and adapted for common use. Instead we saw the culmination of land management and how easily the green world can swallow up abandoned infrastructure so that it disappears, sometimes without a trace.

 

 

Our walk followed the water. We walked into the trees on a path directly over the piping that used to bring water from one of the many rather unusually housed cisterns to the castle. We walked by ponds made for water use and now commonly used for fishing; by rivers flowing free and rivers with dams; over bridges whose names have been changed through errors in record keeping; by the “Leaping Arch” artwork of Andy Goldsworthy near the abandoned hydroelectric power station; by the natural well hidden off the path; by the still usable water access for the farmers’ livestock; and over the now dry cascade.

 

Each pause is a place that could have easily been missed on a casual walk without such a knowledgeable guide. For example, the Bellstane, an erratic stone transported by a glacier and shaped like an upright bell, that could be easily passed by if Professor Munro had not stopped us. It requires viewing from the other side of the path to appreciate it fully. Its human connection may be unknown apart from the story of a group of boys playing too rough and breaking the curve it balanced upon, but that does not stop us from wondering whether it had more significant meaning to the people of the past or whether it was assigned meaning more recently when the area around it received druid names because that was the fashion of the time.

Although this stone is visible from the path now if we are looking for it, later in the season the plant life between it and the road can completely block it from view to be easily missed, just like the well. It is a small perfectly round spring of unknown origins known as the Duchess well. Set back from the path, it could be overlooked by the casual walker who did not know it was there. Its water is sweet and refreshing. These small features are gifts to the fertile imagination.

One of the most beautiful things about the walk is how the result of centuries of land management has resulted in a space that is so different and so connected. We can walk through a space that is fully enclosed in trees just to emerge at a pond or at a massive pasture with a ruined stone building used by some farmers’ predecessor. So, anything becomes possible to imagine, like the remains of a Roman fort on a hill that is now covered in sheep and this years lambs.

 

Our final stop is a recent discovery. There is a large stone that may have cup mark engravings from the bronze age in one of these sheep pastures. It had remained unnoticed for centuries, or found and forgotten again. The meaning of these engravings that must have required so much time and effort to create has been lost, and is left to our imaginations and musings for now at least. We let water flow from the cup down an unexpected path to the ground as we try to see if it could be lined up to a direction or constellation. Could the broken off section of the stone have occurred before its creation or was it originally a more extensive design that was lost when that portion of the rock broke away? Are the eroded parallel stripes a natural result of scraping from glacial retreat, or could the incomplete segments indicate a more deliberate creation? Perhaps one day these questions will all be answered, but either way we are left with an energy of thoughtful excitement from our trek even if our feet may be a bit sore.

Looking at the forest that is next to the walled pastureland, it is easy to imagine a landscape that has emerged and grown naturally. Yet these places are can still be the product of human impact and management over decades or centuries. We often see human management as an intrusion on a separate, natural world, forgetting how much each species interacts to create the world around them as it will be in the future. Together on this walk we had a glimpse of a world where human management is just another force of evolution that has brought about today’s landscape through time.

A Legend in a Landscape

Ascending Hartfell with Queensberry hill in the distance.

Ascending Hartfell with Queensberry hill in the distance.

This quest was a return trip for some, like our fearless leaders: Justin K Prim, an upcoming Merlin scholar, and Jan Hogarth, a landscape artist. For others, it was our first time hearing the legends and standing in the places where they are believed to have occurred. When I met Jan that morning, she welcomed me with her message: the story is rooted in the landscape, so it takes on new meaning when we explore the legends while in the landscape.

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Illustration by Alan Lee

The story was of Merlin. This was not the wand-waving Merlin supporting the legendary King Arthur that I had grown up with. This landscape told the story of a tribal leader’s bard named Myrddin. He may be credited with shamanic or druidic magic in some sources or hailed as a prophet in others, but this Merlin felt much more corporeal than the magician caricature presented in many modern retellings of the legends. His was the story of a simple man fleeing into the wild forests in the hills of Southern Scotland, ‘driven mad with grief’ or maybe PTSD, and seeking sanctuary from his trauma and the enemies pursuing him. As with any legend it was a quest of imagination, but I think it was easier to picture this man running from his suffering with the grasses of the hills beneath our boots and the breeze on our faces.

Our quest group met up in Moffat, the spa town that blossomed due to the healing waters of the well we were seeking: the spring on Hartfell Ridge. Together we crossed the hills that are divided up into farm plots for sheep and deer to graze. Our first real pause was by a row of evergreens. There Justin read his first selection to us. He shared some poetry that tells the story of Merlin wandering in the forests, searching for food, struggling to survive, and running from the King of Strathclyde.

It’s not difficult to imagine the rolling green hills covered in forests.

However, it is jarring to remember that even these green and brown hills covered in growth and life are so fundamentally different now because of human impact. The forests in Merlin’s time, just before 600 C.E., would have blanketed the entire area apart from the very tops of the hills, according to the poems around a century old. One of our scientific questers tells us that this is because the ground at the top of the hills would have been too wet and boggy for trees to be supported. Now the hills are adorned primarily by long grasses, although seedling trees remind us that it may change yet again.

Justin recites....

Justin recites Myrddin poetry from the Black Book of Carmarthen.

Our journey to the top of the hill is punctuated by these pauses. We stop to catch our breath. We stop to drink water or take off a sweatshirt, but mostly we pause to listen and discuss. Justin reads to us, telling the story of Merlin’s journey over the same ground. Our discussions have an emphasis on this man, but also an emphasis on humanity in general. We talk about how climate change is changing these hills. We discuss the accuracy of these stories that were only written down at least 500 years after the stories were to have taken place. How much were they changed by the people who passed them on? How much came from the monk scholars who finally recorded these stories?

Laura contemplating the landscape view at lunch

Laura contemplating the landscape view at lunch

We ate our lunch sitting on the hill above the valley where the water rushes up out of the earth and turns into a river. Together we pondered the allure of nature, whether truly wild or a manicured nature like this one. Nature is a solace for us, a place to go in a time of struggle. We could all share stories of being hurt or shocked by life and finding refuge in the arms of mother earth, just like Merlin did when he fled in grief.

Nature holds wisdom for people to seek out in times of struggle.

A guru lives isolated on the mountainside. The Buddha found Enlightenment while meditating under a tree. It is a common thread wound through society. A troubled person can leave man-made order behind and seek the life of nature. The seeker returns to their with a sense of peace or new meaning. Merlin was seeking solace for his pain. Today we were seeking Merlin.

We made our way down the hill and into that valley. Following the path of many pilgrims looking for the healing waters of a chalybeate well, naturally rich in iron and calcium to heal their various maladies. Here we listen to the end of Merlin’s story. He has wandered for 50 years in these woods, tormented by poor mental health and paranoid of being taken prisoner. He was known as a prophet having visions primarily of death and war. Was it predicting the future or were they flashbacks? Poor, tortured Merlin drinks from the Hartfell Well and is miraculously cured.

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Jan Hogarth talking about the healing spring from the chalybeate well.

Stream above Hartfell spring

Stream above Hartfell spring

The story says, his mind returns to him then and despite being offered places in court, Merlin resolves to remain in the environment that has sheltered him for the past 50 years. There is nothing for him in the castles of civilization anymore. Maybe that is the true message that we search for in nature, how to give up the conveniences of modern life and live immersed in the natural world. If it is, we haven’t reached that point yet. Instead we return after drinking from the spring together.

Our story in the landscape ends where Merlin’s began. We make a short drive over to Longtown, just over the border of England. Hidden away in more fields is the remains of a fort. All that is left are the hills, built up as embankments to add an extra layer of protection for the fort defenders. The defensive nature of the structure is easy to see, and through the trees to the north, you can just make out the hills we had climbed earlier in the day with a river connecting the two landscapes.

Entering the woods close to the fort at the site of the battle of Arfderydd.

Entering the woods close to the fort at the site of the battle of Arfderydd.

Merlin Academics believe that this was the location of the Battle of Arfderydd. We look to the south with the Cumbrian hills in the distance and imagine the armies of the King of Strathclyde spread out across the fields between us in 573 C.E. Here the bard, Myrddin or Merlin, watched his Lord Gwenddoleu die with many of his closest comrades. It was from here that he fled after the long and bloody battle and after three days of mourning for his fallen.

Fort at the site of the Battle of Arfderydd.

Fort at the site of the Battle of Arfderydd where Lord Gwenddoleu and Myrddin resided.

We imagine even more. Could his madness be from more than just grief or PTSD? Could it be survivor’s guilt? If Myrddin were a shaman rather than a bard, could it have been his duty to raise the druidic mist to protect the army during battle? If that failed could guilt over not protecting those who died have caused him to go mad? We can let our imaginations run free here, at the place where Merlin’s journey into the hills began.

People have a connection to the land they live on, whether it’s a land mostly untouched by human hands or if it’s built up into towns, cities, or skyscrapers. The land we live on shapes our lives, and I think most people would agree that the natural landscape invigorates us. On this quest we came together to travel over the hills. Through our imaginations we could travel even further, through time and into legend, each of us returning with something special and a day to remember.

Battle of Arfderydd, the root cause of Merlin's madness?

Battle of Arfderydd, the root cause of Merlin’s madness?

Laura Schrader is from the United States and is studying for an MLit in Environment, Culture and Communication at the University of Glasgow’s Crichton Campus in Dumfries. A big thanks to artist Katie Anderson for the stunning images.

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