ONE summer when I was a student, I got onto a country train in Wiltshire. It was a slow, rattly journey in the sort of coach you see in war-time films: two rows of frowsy seats facing each other, with no way out between halts except by a wooden door onto the tracks.

The scene was like a chapter in The Darling Buds of May – trees in full leaf, sunshine sparkling on streams, fields of grazing cows. Surrounding me were local women heading to the nearest market town. Clutching baskets on their knees, they were dressed in much the same way as their grandmothers and maybe even their great-grandmothers.

I sat silently in my corner, pretending to read. We were only a few miles from Bath and yet, as the other passengers talked among themselves, I might as well have been in Bulgaria. I could not understand a word.

Their speech was a rolling burr with a treacly intonation, but I will never know if they were discussing Coronation Street or the Common Agricultural Policy. In terms of communication, it was a verbal hawthorn hedge, keeping eavesdroppers at bay.

READ MORE ROSEMARY: Is it time for a Jilly Cooper-style Holyrood bonkbuster?

Much has been said about the decline in regional accents and dialects since the First World War, but if these women were talking in a diluted version of an older tongue, God help incomers who moved to these shires before the days of the Somme.

I was reminded of this the other day when the painter-decorators were in our loft. Making the best of a rainy week to get on with indoor jobs long-postponed by lockdown, they rollered on the matt emulsion at lightning speed, despite having to stoop beneath the eaves.

This pair have known each other since they were boys. As they worked, I occasionally heard them chatting. The sound was a breath of pure Borders air, as blown from the direction of Galashiels.

For such a small region, the variation in accents is pronounced. If you have a linguistic ear – sadly I don’t – there’s no mistaking someone from Jedburgh with a native of Selkirk or St Boswell’s.

As with so much of Scotland – and the rest of these isles – many folk are bi-lingual, speaking conventionally when they’re with those like me who are from elsewhere, and the rest of the time in their natural voice. The Scottish education system can take much of the blame for ironing out people’s range of expression, but that’s another discussion.

READ MORE ROSEMARY GORING: Don't let politicians kill the dream of a place in the country

All this was on my mind when reading Rory Stewart’s travelogue, The Marches. His account of walking 600-odd miles along the English-Scottish Border in 2013 was an attempt to understand the mood of the region and the make-up of those who live here.

Since previously he had trekked across Afghanistan in winter, this venture was relatively untaxing. Despite its once formidable reputation as a lawless no-man’s land, the present-day Marches were unlikely to pose a mortal threat, unlike that which he faced from suspicious and sometimes trigger-happy Afghanis.

Walking is Stewart’s default state. This is a man who, when getting off the train in Dunblane, thinks nothing of hiking the final 20 miles to his family home. On the page he is great company, even though I don’t always agree with his conclusions. What he found in the Borderlands, however, was curious. In his view, there are three distinct localities: the area south of Hadrian’s Wall, the territory between the wall and the border, and the land immediately on the Scottish side of the line.

Reluctantly, he reached the conclusion that in the Scottish Marches, not only can very little be found of the traditional way of life, but also few individuals whose roots go far back.

READ MORE ROSEMARY GORING: It's not just the squirrels who are coming out of hibernation, we are too

“I didn’t meet a farmer in Roxburghshire whose family had been on the same farm for more than three generations. Many had moved there relatively recently, from Lanarkshire or the edge of Dumfries a hundred miles away. Despite the efforts of voluble local schoolteachers and antiquarians, it was difficult for me to feel any organic links here between the modern population and the distant past.”

As he trod the hills, moors and dales, Stewart’s focus was on the land. He concluded that a distinctive personality remains in the two English districts abutting Hadrian’s Wall – tourism in the Lake District, and remote, small-scale farming by families whose lineage in the area goes back centuries in the zone known as Bewcastle.

The Scottish Borders, in contrast, were “dramatically modern”. Farming was large-scale, mechanised and, by implication, soulless. The overwhelming impression he took away was that agriculture here was a commercial business, not a calling or an inheritance. Something similar, in terms of size, greets visitors to Dumfries and Galloway, where I’m always surprised by the industrial-scale dairy farms. These massive enterprises ruin the fond illusion of countryside filled with pocket-sized farms using age-old techniques.

Should you ever want to learn the reality about the past half-century of upland hill farming in Britain, James Rebanks’s memoir English Pastoral is an unbeatable guide. Having taken over the family farm in Cumbria, he is now working to revive and restore acres almost destroyed by pesticides and over-production. It is a laborious and precarious enterprise, yet rewarding on many levels so long as he doesn’t hope to get rich.

READ MORE ROSEMARY GORING: Lockdown spirits lift at the sight of spring lambs

While Stewart’s take on Borders farming might well be accurate – I don’t know enough about it to contradict him – the communities around Hoolet are filled with people whose forebears have been in these parts for ages.

What’s also noticeable is how porous this society is. Newcomers are welcomed, despite our accents. Indeed, half or more of Hoolet’s residents originated from far away. Even so, there is still a bedrock of rootedness, a sense of today’s Borderers holding a direct connection to yesterday’s.

I was struck recently by a journalist who was writing about “old families” such as his. By this he meant wealthy, landed, entitled. But every family in the world is old. It’s just that most of us have not traced our ancestors, or inherited a gallery of portraits to remind us of them.

Nevertheless, in the Borderlands the old and once feared surnames are still all around: Grahams, Armstrongs, Kerrs, Ridleys, Elliots, Taylors, Homes, to mention only a few. The local trade directory is not just a useful guide to who does what, but a mirror of the past.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.