Strange places in the Scottish Borders 3: David Ritchie’s Manor Valley

 

(c) Benediction Classics

 

Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 novel The Black Dwarf begins in promisingly atmospheric style.  In 1707 two young men, farmer Hobbie Elliot and the more aristocratic Patrick Earnscliff, are returning home one evening across a desolate moor in the Scottish Borders.  At a spot on the moor reputed to have supernatural associations, they encounter a dwarf, cantankerous in nature and so strange in appearance that they wonder if he might be an apparition or fairy.  Both are curious enough to return there the next day, where they find the dwarf again and discover him in the process of constructing a hut out of the surrounding rocks and stones, having decided for some reason that this wild place is where he’s going to live.  The dwarf, Elshie – Elshender the Recluse as he’ll become formally known – is described thus:

 

‘His head was of uncommon size, covered with a fell of shaggy hair, partly grizzled with age; his eyebrows, shaggy and prominent, overhung a pair of small dark, piercing eyes, set far back in their sockets, that rolled with a portentous wildness, indicative of a partial insanity…  His body, thick and square, like that of a man of middle size, was mounted upon two large feet; but nature seemed to have forgotten the legs and the thighs, or they were so very short as to be hidden by the dress which he wore.’

 

Once settled on the moor, Elshie keeps to himself, remains curmudgeonly towards his neighbours, and quickly acquires a reputation for having supernatural powers.  Despite his unsociability, however, he prescribe cures for the various illnesses that local people succumb to – though as he explains to the good-natured Earnscliff (the neighbour he’s most tolerant of), he doesn’t see these deeds as acts of kindness.  Rather, he says, he’s inadvertently causing mischief because, revived and restored, those people are free to create more misery for all around them.  Elshie’s cynicism is borne out when one of the folk he’s cured of illness, the lawless Willie Graeme of Westerburnflat, known too as the Red Reiver, razes Hobbie Elliot’s farmhouse, drives away his livestock and carries off his sweetheart.

 

And that’s as good as the novel gets, unfortunately.  Thereafter, it becomes bogged down in a sub-plot involving another set of characters living in the district, the weak-willed Richard Vere, Laird of Ellislaw, his virtuous daughter Isabel and the villainous Sir Frederick Langley, who has designs on Isabel.  Vere and Langley are Jacobites conspiring to put James Stuart, the Old Pretender, on the throne with the help of a French invasion fleet.  Elshie, meanwhile, comes to look on Isabel with considerably more kindness than he does other human beings and it’s he, highly improbably, who rescues her from Langley’s clutches.  Scott adds a final and feeble twist about Elshie’s true identity that sadly undoes the uncanny atmosphere he’d managed to build in the book’s opening pages.  Elshie was much more interesting when he was a potential, and grumpy, apparition.

 

It’s well-known that Scott had a real person in mind when he created the character of Elshie.  Indeed, he says so in the novel’s introduction.  Born in 1740, David Ritichie was ‘the son of a labourer in the slate-quarries of Stobo’ in the Borders county of Peeblesshire.  He was ‘bred a brush-maker at Edinburgh’, but ‘wandered to several places, working at his trade, from all which he was chased by the disagreeable attention which his hideous singularity of form and face attracted wherever he came.’  One particular deformity he had were his feet, which were too misshapen for ordinary shoes and had to be bound in cloth.

 

Ritchie eventually returned to his home county, where he set about building a cottage ‘upon a patch of wild moorland at the bottom of a bank on the farm of Woodhouse, in the sequestered vale of the small river Manor’.  Ritchie was obviously as stubborn and disdainful of human protocol as the fictional Elshie was.  Although the land belonged to Sir James Naesmith, Ritichie didn’t bother to ask him for planning permission and his cottage was ‘placed there without right or leave asked or given.’  However, Scott recorded that Naesmith, bemused by Ritchie’s audacity, ‘readily sanctioned the harmless encroachment’.  When the cottage was finished, its doorway was only three-and-a-half feet high.

 

And that was where Ritchie spent the rest of his life.  He cultivated a handsome garden by his cottage and always seemed willing to accept charitable donations and manual help from his neighbours, though out of typical bloody-mindedness he was loathe to thank them for their generosity.  Because of his appearance and reclusiveness, ‘some of the poor and ignorant, as well as all the children, in the neighbourhood, held him to be what is called uncanny.’  Scott himself managed to visit Ritchie – Bow’d Davie as he was known to the locals – in 1797.  He died in 1811.

 

The Manor Valley, whose entrance is a mile or two west of the town of Peebles, remains one of the most scenic and unspoilt valleys in the Scottish Borders.  A little way into it stands a handsome kirk and David Ritchie’s grave is easily found in the kirkyard – it’s off the right-hand end of the building as you come through the gate and is marked by a prominent headstone that’s possibly taller than its tenant was when he was alive.

 

 

Woodhouse Farm is still there, further up the valley – you soon encounter it after you venture along the road signposted for Manorhead.  More modern cottages stand near the farmstead now, ‘at the bottom of a bank’, which might have been the site of Ritchie’s miniature abode.

 

 

Unfortunately, on the day that I headed down the Manor Valley to take some photographs to accompany this entry, the weather was dismal and the light had the texture of used dishwater.  Grey and smudgy though they are, however, these pictures should indicate that the place hasn’t changed much since the days when David Ritchie used to tend his garden, terrify the children and look upon his normally-proportioned neighbours with ill-concealed contempt.

 

 

A boob on the road to democracy?

 

In recent months this blog has said little about Tunisian politics.  Actually, due to how depressing the subject had become, especially with the assassination of the secularist politician Chokri Belaid in February, I’d started to think that if I stopped following it, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

 

I guess my logic was like the phenomenon of observation in quantum mechanics.  Scientific experiments have suggested that the behaviour of a beam of electrons is affected by the very fact of their being observed, and the more they are watched the greater an influence there seems to be on their behaviour.  So perhaps if I didn’t observe Tunisian politics, expecting bad stuff to happen, then bad stuff wouldn’t happen in Tunisian politics.

 

But needless to say, my hands-off approach hasn’t worked.  Bad stuff has continued to happen even though I’ve done my best lately to ignore what’s been going on in this country.  Back in April there was the episode in the Mount Chaambi area, on the border with Algeria, where Tunisian soldiers were badly injured – some lost limbs or were blinded – by mines planted by Jihadists believed to include members of the Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia.  And last month there was trouble in the town of Kairouan when the government banned Ansar al-Sharia from holding its annual congress there.  A rally held in support of Ansar al-Sharia in the Tunis suburb of Ettadhamen ended in more violence and a protestor’s death (http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/tunisias-moderates-lose-patience-with-ansar-al-sharia#full).

 

On top of everything else there’s been the affair of Amina Sboui, a Tunisian woman associated with the Ukrainian feminist group Femen, who first came to prominence when she posted pictures of herself on Facebook in which she was topless and had painted across her skin the declaration, ‘My body belongs to me and not to the honour of others’.  She then turned up in Kairouan on the day that Ansar al-Sharia was banned from holding its congress and graffiti-ed a cemetery wall near the Great Mosque (which coincidentally is part of a UN World Heritage site) with the word ‘Femen’.

 

Ms Sboui was subsequently arrested and put on trial in Kairouan, charged initially with carrying an ‘incendiary object’, which turned out to be a can of pepper spray that a foreigner had given her for her own protection.  A can of pepper spray, it should be said, would have been little use against the horde of religious protestors who were soon demonstrating outside the Kairouan courthouse and venting their ire against her (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22714130).  She now faces more serious charges of offending public decency and desecrating a cemetery.

 

Meanwhile, non-Tunisian members of Femen have hurried into the country to express their solidarity with Ms Sboui.  Two German women and a French woman have just gone on trial inside Tunis’s Palace of Justice, charged with offending public decency a week ago by staging a topless protest outside the building.  And it seems that a founding member of Femen, Aleksandro Shevchenko, was arrested in Tunis yesterday and deported to Ukraine, presumably before she could offend Tunisian public decency with a bare-breasted protest of her own  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/06/05/two-femen-trials-underway-femen-leader-reportedly-deported/).

 

Well, there’s certainly an argument to be made that flashing a few naked boobs on the street and scrawling a word on a wall are far less harmful than the things that the religious extremists who’ve emerged from the woodwork in the last two-and-a-bit years in Tunisia have done.  They’ve attacked TV stations, galleries, campuses, Sufi shrines, bars, embassies and schools and generally made life miserable for a lot of people who’d naively assumed that after they’d chased Ben Ali out of the country in January 2011 they’d be able live their lives with rather less interference and intimidation from sociopathic thugs.  However, while there’s a struggle going on in Tunisia between those who want their society to be secular and liberal and those who want it to be restrictive and pious, I imagine most liberal Tunisians would prefer it if Femen took their provocations elsewhere.

 

Having representatives of a particular brand of feminism piling in from Europe and trying to antagonise the more sanctimonious sections of Tunisian society by waving their boobs at them isn’t helping those liberals who’d like to win the debate in a sober and reasonable manner.  Rather, it’s playing into the hands of those bearded, gimlet-eyed extremists who’d like to convince the more swayable members of the population that tolerating even a little bit of liberalism and feminism in Tunisia is the thin edge of the wedge – which will finally lead to a hellish situation where all your daughters are running amok, topless.  Also, it’s worth remembering that Tunisia, for all that the Salafists have tried to change it, is still probably the most liberal country in the Arab world.  As one commentator said on the Internet recently, women get treated an awful lot worse in Saudi Arabia – why don’t Femen go and protest there?  (http://www.democraticunderground.com/10022925795.)

 

It also perplexes me that Femen should be using topless protests to highlight the supposed oppressiveness of Tunisia when, in fact, if a lady whipped off her blouse and bra on a street in a Western European city, it wouldn’t be long before she attracted the censorious attention of the police there too.  Indeed, not so long ago, if a woman had done such a thing in Ireland, she’d probably have ended up incarcerated in a Magdalene Laundry.

 

Still, when you see some of the religious specimens ranting against Ms Sboui, it’s difficult not to feel a spasm of anger at the underlying injustice of it.  Organised religion has created a huge amount of human suffering over the centuries, by propagating ignorance, encouraging bigotry and – witness the recent revelations about the Catholic Church – quietly permitting child abuse on an industrial scale.  Furthermore, religion has inspired wars and mass persecutions (e.g. the Crusades, the Inquisition) that have resulted in vast numbers of deaths.

 

On the other hand, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever been killed by a tit.

 

(c) The Daily Telegraph

 

Oh, hold on.  I take that back.

 

No more riding on the storm

 

One item I forgot to mention two days ago when I did my round-up of the past month’s news was the passing, on May 20th, of Ray Manzarek, co-founder of and keyboardist with 1960s rock legends The Doors.  In the decades since The Doors’ heyday, much of the attention given to the band has focused on their singer, would-be shaman and (depending on your point-of-view) decadent poetic genius or pretentious head-up-his-own-arse berk, Jim Morrison.  For my money, though, Manzarek’s keyboards were more responsible for The Doors’ distinctive sound than Morrison’s vocals, darkly soulful though Morrison was when he was on form.

 

Maybe I’m just biased.  I’ve always had a weakness for a band who weren’t afraid to push their keyboard-sound to the forefront, such as The Stranglers, those baroque old 1970s pub-rockers who finally sneaked into the British charts by pretending to be punks; or the Inspiral Carpets, third-place contenders – very distant third – for the title of Greatest Madchester Band in the late 1980s, after the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays.

 

When you listen to a Doors song like Riders on the Storm and ignore Morrison’s half-baked lyrics, you realise how much of its drive, atmosphere and all-round eeriness is derived from Manzarek’s keyboard-playing.  And it makes you realise that there’s a case to be made for the idea that The Doors were the world’s first Goth band – in fact, Riders on the Storm conjures up more genuine spookiness in a few minutes than any number of later, affirmed Goth bands (see Gene Loves Jezebel, Alien Sex Fiend et al) managed to do in their entire careers.

 

I’m too young, believe it or not, to remember The Doors when they were together.  I suspect like many people my age, I only became properly aware of them in 1991 when Oliver Stone released his much-hyped film about them.  Stone did his usual thing when telling the band’s story, i.e. he simplified, omitted, embroidered, exaggerated and at times downright lied.  He also added extra Red Indian shamans and – shudder! – Billy Idol.  Manzarek was particularly angry about Stone’s take on the band – not so much about the indignity of being portrayed in the film by Kyle MacLachlan in a big blonde wig, but about the unflattering light in which Morrison was presented: “It was not about Jim Morrison.  It was about Jimbo Morrison, the drunk.  God, where was the sensitive poet and the funny guy?”

 

Manzarek was no doubt right, and I can understand why Stone upset those people who’d actually been there at the time.  But as an interpretation of The Doors the legend, rather than The Doors the real-life band, I always thought Stone’s rumbustious, rollicking and way-over-the-top movie was pretty entertaining.  Val Kilmer is, of course, brilliant as Morrison, and – something that the critics seemed to miss – it’s also very funny.   No more so than when Morrison finds himself at a party with his long-suffering girlfriend Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) and his rock-journalist piece on the side Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan) and, hoping for the best, tries to introduce them.  Courson’s response (“My God, Jim, you actually stick your dick in this thing?”) indicates it isn’t going to work.

 

Maybe the reason why The Doors-the-movie is so divorced from reality is because Oliver Stone started listening to the band whilst serving amid the chaos and carnage of the Vietnam War – after that experience, he couldn’t give them a conventional biographical treatment.  Vietnam has been described as ‘the first rock ‘n’ roll war’ and the Doors, with their trippy on-the-edge sound and vaguely dangerous undercurrents were the perfect Vietnam-War band.  No wonder Francis Ford Coppola used The End, their paean to patricide and incest, for the brilliant seven-minute opening sequence of Apocalypse Now (1979).  Here it is: