Issue 196
Winter 2016

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Feb 21, 2018
The Ultimate Travel Guide
Scotland's Stations - Northern Books

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    Wilson's rip-roaring Tales of the Borders

    DESPITE the dreich weather a very decent crowd have showed up at the Watchtower Gallery in Tweedmouth. We're all here for the launch of Volume Four of the revival edition of Wilson's Tales of the Borders, and we've just been treated to a moving rendition of 'The Legend of Fair Helen of Kirkconnel' by Poppy Holden, singer and authority on Border ballads.

    There's an exhibition of original artwork commissioned for this edition. One of the artists, Charles Nasmyth, is also exhibiting pages from his graphic novel, 'The Comic Legend of William McGonagall, the World's Worst Poet.'

    Now a figure in breeks and hose appears: it's 'Johnny Armstrong', a hapless stay-at-home from Alnwick, prised from the family seat by the prospect of an inheritance, as portrayed by Northumberland Theatre Company.

    But who was Wilson? John Wilson became editor of the Berwick Advertiser in 1832. Keen to increase circulation, he researched, wrote and then started to publish 'Tales of the Borders' in 1834. Week by week, not unlike a certain Sir Walter Scott.

    They were a rip-roaring success, eagerly awaited, and, crucially, suitable for family reading or declaiming, even on the Sabbath. Especially on the Sabbath, for, by suppertime, everyone needs light entertainment. In some households Wilson's Tales was one of only two books – the other being The Bible.

    Sadly, Wilson met his demise in 1835 at the tender age of thirty-one. Alexander Leighton, a man of letters from Edinburgh, kept the stories coming, all four hundred and eighty four of them. The style was distinctive, very much of its time, like this excerpt from 'Thomas of Chartres', set in France in 1298. The good knight Clelland is on a mission in the Charente Maritime.... "...pricking his steed through … .an interminable wilderness...clustered into impenetrable thickets shagged with an undergrowth of thorn, opening into long bosky glades. The knight, a lover of falconry and the chase, rode jocundly on through the peopled solitude; grasping his spear, as a fawn shot like a meteor across the avenue, or wild boar or wolf rustled in the neighbouring brake...." The tales describe, vividly and imaginatively, dramatic struggles for control of the 'The Debatable Lands', as well as the impact of great events including Crusades, Reformation, Jacobite Rebellion and Napoleonic Wars.

    All the ingredients of a ripping yarn are here – brave knights, damsels in distress, extreme weather, rogues, ghosts, fairies, treason and treachery. You might be thinking that this archaic style and the subject matter is not for you, but don't be put off.

    Each author has made the stories more accessible and some, including yours truly, have given them a very contemporary take, so that they remain fresh, readable and exciting.

    Illustrations are especially commissioned from invited artists. Fortunately Wilson had a vivid visual imagination, giving them plenty to choose from. Volume One is already a collector's item, with beautiful paperplate relief prints by Morag Eaton illustrating 'The Red Hall'. (see right)

    Set in Berwick in 1296, it describes the fate of Flemish merchants who, thanks to a trading deal set up by the Scottish King Alexander III, were doing rather too well for Edward I of England's liking. It all ended in worse than tears.

    Volume Two includes Priscilla Eckhard's delightful illustration for 'The Sea Skirmish.' In this love story suitor Tom feels too nervous to interrupt his young lady whilst she plays the piano, so he attracts her attention by walking up and down outside holding the branch of an ash tree!

    The project has inspired a short film as well as dramatic adaptations. It supports a website and a pop-up Museum, and adds to the Berwick Literary Festival. It's funded by donations, benefactors, and grants, including Arts Council England, and Northumberland Sustainable Development Fund.

    Future plans a more permanent display, and 'Wilson's Tales Trails'. Thanks to the leadership, drive and vision of Andrew Ayre, a Berwick accountant whose idea it was to recreate the Tales, they go from strength to strength, with four "Revival Editions" so far.

    Crucially the project offers a great platform for writers, accompanied by companion pieces outlining historical context. Original writing by children from local schools, selected by competition, is another important part of each volume. The delight of these revival editions is their variety, and the quality of surprise.

    As Andrew Ayre says, his approach is like the Edinburgh Fringe – inviting artists and writers to respond and interpret in very different ways. The last words must go to Wilson's page-turner. Imagine having to wait a week for the next episode!

    No wonder circulation of the Berwick Advertiser increased in leaps and bounds!

    "Towards evening, the sun disappeared in a veil of impenetrable vapour, mottled with grey, ponderous clouds, betokening an approaching storm. The thunder began to roll in louder and longer peals, when a loud scream of dismay and terror, blent with the infuriated howl of some wild animal, rose from the dell, and a young female, closely pursued by an enormous wolf, came rushing down the declivity, stumbled, and fell, swooning, into his outstretched arms..."


    More Volume Four available from Grieves Stationers, 1 Church Street and Slightly Foxed, Bridge Street, both in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

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    An extensive new preface by the Ross Herald of Arms, Charles Bunnett, Chamberlain of Duff House