On the face of it, Rory Stewart is one of the sturdiest pillars of the new British establishment. His name comes trailing clouds of ancient Scottish glory. He was educated at two of the poshest schools in England (the Dragon Prep School and Eton College). He served for a short while in one of the British army’s most famous and glamorous regiments, the Black Watch. He studied at Oxford, where he was briefly a tutor to the young Prince William and Prince Harry. He joined the Foreign Office and worked in Indonesia, Kosovo, and Iraq. He taught for a few years at Harvard, then returned to Britain and became a Tory MP. He now serves as minister of state at the Department for International Development in Theresa May’s government.
But that’s not all: Stewart is also an adventurer. His first book, The Places in Between (2004), tells the story of his thirty-two-day solo trek across Afghanistan in 2002. It’s politically astute about the different Afghan tribes and regions, and illuminated by passages of fine description. Although Stewart covered a great deal of difficult terrain, his book deals with just a part of the six-thousand-mile journey he made on foot across Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Nepal between the years 2000 and 2002.
His second book, The Prince of the Marshes (2006), describes his efforts as deputy governor of the Iraqi province of Maysan and senior adviser in the province of Dhi Qar to establish stable systems of government after the Iraq war. Here too he gives strong descriptions of the Iraqis he dealt with, whether sheikhs or farmers, making it clear that there the postwar policies of the Allied forces were often ignorant of both Iraqi culture and the damage that had been done by the war.
In view of all this, it’s hardly surprising that when people talk about Stewart in Westminster they mention him as a possible future prime minister, and when they talk about him in book columns they say that he reminds them of Lawrence of Arabia (one of Stewart’s heroes), or a character in Kipling’s Kim, or the writer-administrator John Buchan. Such talk is superficial. While Stewart’s upbringing was undoubtedly privileged, and his adventures are just as certainly swashbuckling, his writing is characterized far more by doubt about Western policies than late-imperial swagger. It’s as though his inheritance led him to expect that life would be a matter of durable traditions, fed by a profound understanding of the past, whereas the evidence of direct experience continually tells him otherwise.
When we look at his achievements in this light, they too seem as much a record of uncertainty as of anything else. He’s never done anything for very long, and the political questions that have most absorbed him tell a story of Western misunderstandings and missteps. They also suggest that despite the wide range of his experience, it has in fact been shaped by two unchanging preoccupations. The zigzags of his life cause him to ask “Who am I?,” while throughout his experience abroad he asks, “Who are they?”
Stewart’s new book, The Marches, is the latest installment of his inquiry. In the first part he describes a walk from the east coast to the west coast of England alongside the crumbling ruins of Hadrian’s Wall—a little less than two hundred miles—taken around the time of the Scottish referendum on independence in September 2014. In the second he tramps for thirty days at the rate of fifteen miles a day from his home in Cumbria in northwest England (where he has his parliamentary constituency) to his father Brian’s house near Crieff over the border in Scotland. In the last part of the book he eulogizes his father, who dies in the closing pages at the age of ninety-three. The aim in all three sections is to bring the region “back to life,” and to use its sights and sounds and histories as a means of asking what is involved when a person says he feels at home in a place.
But what sort of place is he talking about? Although he does at one point traverse a region that is actually called “The Marches,” the geography of the book is much better suggested by his father’s term “The Middleland.” Put simply, it includes the entire area on either side of the English/Scottish border—which is a distinct region, but mightily varied in appearance, the uses of land, and the accents and moods of the local people. Only in one area does it have a distinct geology: its northern edge was formed 400 million years ago when two continents collided, and then two further plates pushed up the “older schists and slates of rock…to form the Grampian Mountains.”
In other respects it’s a place that resists precise definition, and is best described piecemeal. It ranges from the Lake District in its southwest to the edge of the Highlands in the north. It includes several large towns—Newcastle, Carlisle, Edinburgh—and several smaller ones—Ambleside, Berwick-upon-Tweed. There is a great deal of open country—some mountainous (the Lakes), some rolling (the Cheviot Hills), some arable, some forested, some boggy and forbidding, some very beautiful and romantic and among the least spoiled of anywhere in the UK.
Because Stewart’s family has lived in this region for several generations, he enters it at the beginning of his book with a clear idea of what he hopes to find waiting for him. But from the outset things don’t go as planned. For one thing, he intends to walk the whole length of Hadrian’s Wall with his father, whose great age at the start of the journey (late eighties) means that actual companionship soon has to be replaced by e-mail and occasional meetings along the way. Despite this, Brian Stewart remains a powerful presence throughout. We get a strong sense of the affection that binds the two men together, partly through Stewart’s reminiscence about family matters in which he often casts himself as an almost childlike figure (he still calls his father “Daddy”), but mainly through the clever comparison he makes between his own and his father’s experience overseas. Brian’s career included World War II in Normandy—also with the Black Watch regiment—a subsequent posting to Malacca as secretary of Chinese affairs, then a long and distinguished career in the British Secret Service. His experience is presented as having uncanny resemblances to his son’s time in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Brian Stewart’s story also acts as a lens through which his son interprets landscape history along the length of the wall—Roman history, in particular. Work on building the wall began in 122 AD, following the emperor Hadrian’s one and only visit to his far-flung colony, and for three hundred years its forts and lookout posts were garrisoned by 15,000 soldiers drawn from various other parts of the Roman Empire. According to ancient wisdom, the reasons for its creation were so obvious that few contemporary Roman writers even bothered to refer to them: as Hadrian’s biographer wrote, it was there “ut barbaros Romanusque divideret” (“to divide the Romans and the barbarians”)—to mark the end, that is, of conquered and comparatively “civilized” territory and the beginning of uncolonized wilderness.
More recently, historians have questioned this view, suggesting that the wall was not so much “the frontier of an empire” as an almighty obstacle to cattle-raiding by Britons and “a useful place in which to house soldiers and keep them busy” with repairs and so on. Stewart’s own view of the wall is pragmatic and more pessimistic. He thinks of it as an emblem of colonial stubbornness, governmental conservatism, and political and military ineptitude. “The very existence of the wall and its forts,” he says, “signified failure. Egypt—a much wealthier and more populated Roman province—had needed only one legion to control it.”
Stewart keeps Hadrian’s legacy in view for most of the first part of his book, intending that it should provide him with a clear structure for his thoughts about the region. Encouraged by his reflections on more recent history, he wants to persuade himself that despite the wall’s existence as a physical barrier, and despite the English-Scottish border it almost follows, there are really “no permanent differences between England and Scotland, between my cottage in Cumbria and my father’s home in Scotland—that our histories and culture and soil [are] richly interwoven, with threads spreading far across the border.”
But Stewart’s search for evidence of this unity is repeatedly thwarted. For one thing, the comparatively few people that he meets on this part of his journey, including his own father, turn out to have very little appetite for talking with him about “British identity.” (This reinforces his view that “no one on either side attempted to revive—or define—[it]” during the Scottish referendum campaign itself.) For another, he begins to question how much people care about their history, even supposing they know it. His own efforts to discover more about himself and his present, through conversations with his father about their shared past in Scotland and overseas, seem like exceptions proving a general rule of ignorance about the past and/or neglect of it. The result of the referendum on Scottish independence, he implies, was just as likely to have been produced by cultural amnesia as it was by political purposefulness.
This conclusion to the first part of The Marches may disappoint the hopes that Stewart entertained at the start of his journey, but it feels honest, and to this extent benefits the reader. The second and longest part of the book, in which he walks from Cumbria to Crieff, continues in the same disillusioned vein. For all that, it has a calmer mood, as though Stewart has accepted that his ideals must give way to realities.
Paradoxical as this may sound, his writing intensifies as a result. Natural description, of which there’s been comparatively little along the wall, now becomes a major part of the book. But it’s not description for its own sake. It’s description in which the act of looking carefully implies that the objects of attention are fragile and perhaps likely to disappear. It’s description as a form of elegy. Outside Blencathra, for instance, he notices:
The colours were both more muted and more vibrant than I had remembered—cherry-brown grass and yellow-brown moss blazed scarlet and chrome. The raindrops clustered in their thousands on every knot and tip of heather. The orbs of glittering light pulled slowly away from their dark centres, so that each drop stretched into a crown and pendant, like an acorn on its stalk.
On this second walk (which he took in 2012, a year after the walk beside the wall), Stewart also does himself a favor by adopting more fully the methods that served him well in his two previous books. These mean keeping more or less strictly to his predetermined geographic route, but rambling freely in his head to discuss the subjects that are associated with it. In this way, we get to hear about such things as the aftermath of the Roman invasion, the various dialects that have been spoken and vanished in the region, the Viking invasion, Cistercian monks, the manufacture of cordite, the Battle of Flodden in 1513, and the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Surprisingly and regrettably, we don’t hear much about the Church of Scotland and its various offshoots. Something about the Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters, in particular, would have helped to map at least one sort of local coherence, and would have made Robert Louis Stevenson (who writes brilliantly about these things in Kidnapped) as large a part of the local history as he deserves to be.
Despite this lack, Stewart manages to deepen and broaden his focus on cultural heritage in the central part of his journey. His richest material flows from the conversations with people he meets along his way—among them a painter, a family on a modern estate, and assorted farmers. One especially telling encounter involves a shepherd named Willy Tyson, who at local country shows is celebrated for counting his flock in the ancient Cumbric dialect of Rheged, which the Victorians believed was
perhaps the last remnant of the lost aboriginal language of [the region], passed down through an oral tradition over forty generations…. “Yan, tan, tethera, methera, pimp, sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera, dick, yan-a-dick, methera, bamfit, gigot….”
This makes Willy seem like the embodiment of the ancient spirit of the place. In fact, Stewart discovers, Willy only came to sheep-farming after working for years as a highway engineer and then going to Afghanistan on a motorbike he bought from New Zealand travelers. He most often uses the sheep numerals as a party trick in the pub. “I challenge any other local to count to twenty for a pint of beer,” he says. “I’ve not lost in forty years.”
A similar sort of moral emerges from what Stewart has to say about the Border Ballads, many of which were collected by Sir Walter Scott in the first part of the nineteenth century with the help of the “Ettrick Shepherd” James Hogg, whose own mother could recite hundreds. Most were composed in the sixteenth century and variously celebrate, condemn, and mourn the Border raiders (or “reivers”) who waged a decades-long cross-border war during this period. In all probability such activities were vicious and monotonous—a tit-for-tat series of revenges and reprisals. But in Scott’s version they joined the company of his other apparently time-honored presentations to become “a central component of Scottishness, often contrasted with an England that was supposed to lack such romance and local history.”
The more people Stewart meets, the more powerfully he is drawn to confront the questions that dominate The Marches. On the one hand, borders that are created by governments are essentially arbitrary—as he proves in one of the book’s most memorable passages, when he wades with a companion across the Solway Firth, and in the process crosses from one country into another. This seems to point to a coherence and integrity in landscape itself that is larger and more vital than boundary lines drawn on a map.
On the other hand, Stewart cannot help but accept that the uses and values of landscapes are changeable. When he reaches Wedholme Flow, for example, a man working for the UK Environment Agency explains that the centuries-old practice of peat-digging is now prohibited, and that “drainage ditches had been blocked to flood the surrounding land deliberately,” so as to turn the old dairy pasture into wetlands that attract such birds as snipes, lapwings, and redshanks. At a nearby nature reserve the director tells him, “When we moved here twenty-two years ago we didn’t have any waders [i.e., shore birds such as herons].” Now they have sixty-five pairs.
Stewart grew up wanting to believe that Middleland landscapes, communities, and practices were as old as the hills, and should be honored and trusted as a result. What he finds in The Marches is that everything is provisional, many changes are opportunistic, and traditions are often manufactured. Drawing close to his father’s house in Crieff, he passes a sign at the roadside that says in Scottish Gaelic “Failte gu Alba” (“Welcome to Scotland”). Stewart immediately points out that “only 58,000 people in Scotland out of 5 million spoke Scottish Gaelic in 2012,” then goes on: “Almost as many spoke Polish; and there were twice as many people in Scotland of South Asian descent…. An invented nation had triumphed.”
Stewart begins his book by warning himself that “the myths passed on by fathers are fragile, and sometimes unreliable.” A little over halfway through, he admits that “my walk had often made me feel how modern Britain was: how bewilderingly mobile, how thin in identity, how unconcerned with history, how severed from its deeper past.” If such pronouncements were all The Marches had to offer, it might well read simply as a lament by a child of privilege whose time in the sun was over. As it is, the final pages—chiefly as an elegy for his father—remind us that Stewart is much more than nostalgic, and well able to match the lure of the past with an acceptance of the present. His father’s entire “approach to life,” he tells us, “his Get On With It energy…made him reinvent himself daily, even in his tenth decade.”
The funeral is a poignant example. It takes place in the grounds of the family house, where two buglers play the Last Post and a Black Watch piper gives the regimental lament. Stewart says, “An outsider might have been forgiven for thinking this was some traditional Stewart ceremony”; in fact the whole order of service was “entirely invented” on the spur of the moment.
“Reinvent.” “Invented.” The words show Stewart understanding that what seems to be a uniquely modern rupture is in fact proof of a repetitive process. People forget their history, then make up something else to fill the gap. A sense of cohesion is created as much by expediency as remembering. A landscape survives by adapting or being adapted. It may be a cold sort of comfort, but it’s a comfort nonetheless. And it suggests an open-mindedness in Stewart, a tolerance and flexibility, that could make him an exceptional politician while it also continues to define him as a writer.