For a man whose written output has often involved history and walking, it’s no surprise that Alistair Moffat takes a keen interest in what’s under his feet. It’s rare for an idea to come from literally tripping over something, however – and just as unusual that it would take a quarter of a century to percolate. But that’s exactly how his new book The Secret History Of Here began.

Although Borders-born, Moffat spent much of his working life in Edinburgh, first as director of the Edinburgh Fringe and then later as Director of Programmes at STV. But in the early 1990s, he and his wife bought a dilapidated farm near Selkirk. Bordered by roads with names such as Top Track, Bottom Track and Long Track, and once walked over by prehistoric hunter-gatherers, Roman legionaries and 13th century crusaders, it’s the ‘Here’ of the title and it’s where, in the early days of the farm’s renovation, the idea for the book was seeded.

“I fell over what might have been a little standing stone just south of the house,” says Moffat, taking up the story. “It was all nettles and willowherb because we had basically just bought the ruin. That was the first time I felt this was an old place, this is a place with some atmosphere. What always attracts people, or attracts me anyway, is that genius loci, the spirit of a place.”

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It’s the spirit of Moffat’s place which gives The Secret History Of Here its heft. For him that spirit is a combination of many things: the farm’s history and landscape, the lives of the people who lived there before him or simply passed through, and the stories to be told and truths to be guessed at based on the things they left behind. The very many things they left behind.

The book is written in the form of a diary. It follows the march of the seasons – how could it not? – and allows Moffat to delve into both his own family history and the history of the Borders landscape. It opens in the early hours of January 1 with a reflection on the phrase ‘Auld Year’s Night’ and ends on December 31 with that story of slipping on something and discovering in the nettles a large, oblong stone which had once sat upright. Who raised it and when? What did it mean to them? Why did it fall?

Those questions planted a seed in 1992 but the seed needed something to germinate it. That came only years later, in the form of Maidie, Moffat’s West Highland terrier.

“When you have a place like this you’re usually doing something,” he tells me. “You’re dealing with animals, fixing a fence, chopping logs. You’re working it. But I started looking rather than doing when I got my wee dog.”

Maidie isn’t a lockdown dog. Moffat chose her from a litter of five pups born on a sheep farm near Hawick back in 2016 and the year he’s writing about – the year he started looking instead of doing – is 2018. Not that the pandemic would have featured much had it been 2020 he had committed to diary form.


“There was no material change for us,” he says when I ask how the pandemic affected life on the farm. “We don’t commute anywhere. Also the horses and the sheep and the dogs don’t know there’s a pandemic, they’re just living their daily lives. So the rhythms of life didn’t change at all, What did change was that a lot more vans came up the track delivering stuff. But we don’t go anywhere, we don’t take holidays because we have all these creatures to look after. So it didn’t signal a big change for us.”

The significant others in Moffat’s narrative all have two legs. They are Grace, his five-year-old grand-daughter; Walter Elliot, an old friend and a fount of knowledge about the local area; and Rory Low, a newer (and younger) acquaintance and a keen metal detectorist.

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There’s also a starring role for Bruce and Walter Mason, brothers who ran a bakery in Selkirk in the 1920s but whose real love was ‘field-walking’, ambling through recently-ploughed fields to see what had been thrown up in the way of artefacts and historical objects. They also had the foresight to conduct a small but important act of sabotage against the war effort in May 1940 when the manager of the Commercial Bank in Selkirk obeyed a directive to remove combustible paper stored in attics and started to burn the contents of his.

Unfortunately the building had once housed the offices of the town clerk so among the documents were 400 years of historical records, some with their royal seals still attached. The Masons saved a good deal of it. They passed their knowledge, their passion and the bulk of their precious archive to Walter Elliot.

“They really helped me make it come alive,” says Moffat of Elliot, Low and the long-dead Mason brothers. “Walter essentially gave me a lot of the artefacts that have been found here because he was given them by the Mason brothers, who were archaeologists and autodidacts in terms of history. I hate it when they’re called amateurs, it has an implication of them not being any good but in fact they’re better – amateur in the old definition means loving it and that was exactly why they did it. So you get this passion and this rigour from these guys.”

Low, meanwhile, turned up a wealth of finds as the year and the book progressed, among them one of Moffat’s favourites – a Zippo lighter inscribed with the names of a Polish soldier and his Scottish sweetheart – and a medieval sword pommel.

Edward I passed through the land on which the farm lies on July 24 1301, taking his army up the Long Track towards Selkirk. He camped nearby long enough for some of the silver coins he distributed to his 7000 strong army to be lost in the mud – and then found hundreds of years later. As for the sword pommel, an inscription implying its owner had been on a crusade gives a vital clue as to its possible owner.

“I think it belonged to one of the Savoy Knights from Edward I’s household and I think it might be this guy Otho de Grandison, who was definitely at Carlisle in 1301,” says Moffat. “That just made me shiver.”

Through Grace, meanwhile, the reader experiences the delight of a child exploring a landscape and sees in the relationship between her and her doting grandfather the continuation of a kind of through-line: if the Mason brothers handed the torch to Eliot and Eliot in turn to Moffat, then it’s Grace who will pick it up. It’s Grace who will inherit Moffat’s love of the farm and his desire to understand and celebrate it.

“She’s the child of this place and that’s what so moved me,” he says. “And she’s interested because these are stories. I wouldn’t say she’s interested in history because she doesn’t know what it is, but she does understand stories.”

In front of Moffat as we talk is an old flint arrow-head, one of a bagful of such items given to him by Walter Elliot and mostly found on or near his land. He also has something much less ancient but considerably more deadly, even in unskilled hands: a base plate from a hand grenade. “It’s got a big Q on it because it’s made by a company called Qualcast who are much more famous for making lawn-mowers.” He also has a prehistoric spindle whorl. “Someone has tried to make it into a sun by scoring rays onto it. It’s a beautiful object and yet the sharp-eyed Mason brothers picked it up about 100 yards away from here.”

The finds continue. Just last autumn Moffat uncovered a perfectly-preserved medieval dagger blade next to a gate, quite by chance. Because of the clay soil it was hardly corroded at all. He thinks it must have been turned up by moles.

With fewer and fewer people living in the countryside, our connection with the land is weakening, however. That saddens Moffat, though he sees it as inevitable. “The land is losing its memory because it’s only in the minds and habits of individuals that it keeps its memory,” he says.

He gives an example in the form of Tile Field, which sits to the south of his farmhouse. How did it get its name? “I wanted to write that down because I didn’t want the answer to get lost because the answer isn’t a banal one. It talks of the tile factory, the people who worked there, what they made, where they came from. It was organically linked to the forestry around here, and the clay. If nobody knows the answer to these questions anymore then a huge amount is lost.”

More gruesome and vivid examples can be found in the nearby Thief Road, so called because it was favoured by the feared Border Reivers, and Slain Men’s Lea. Its name dates from September 1645, when Sir David Leslie’s Covenanter army bested the forces of the Marquis of Montrose at the Battle of Philiphaugh. An Irish regiment on the losing side was persuaded to surrender in exchange for their lives – and promptly slaughtered.

Of course not everybody has 80 acres of prime Borders land to range over. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a single acre or just a large garden it’s unlikely that Roman legionaries yomped across it or bored mercenaries in the pay of a Plantagenet king gambled away their pay within its boundaries. But that doesn’t matter, Moffat thinks. Walk around your city or town and you’ll find layers of history, each one giving on to the other. You can glimpse it in the foundations of a new building or as a road is dug up. You can see it peeping out from an old shop sign revealed during renovation work. You can find it everywhere as long as you take the time to look.

“What you’re looking at in a townscape or cityscape is the deposit of growth and of change. Why is a street called that name? It often references something that was there before. Also when you see the shape of the buildings, whether it’s suburbia or the city centre, what you see is the deposit of activity. All of these stories are there … Buildings hide things but they’re also the answer to questions, too. So it’s not unique to here, this approach.”

Curiosity is the key. “If you’re curious you find things out, and they will probably please you. You’ll be pleased to know them and pleased that it’s made you perhaps identify more closely with the place that you live … If I can write 100,000 words about a little place like this in a year, then there’s a heck of a lot for everybody else to find out about where they live if they just look hard enough.”

One other essential ingredient is a stout pair of walking shoes.

“I remember Jim Hunter, the great historian of the Highlands, talking about ‘the archive of the feet’. And he’s right. If you’re at ground level then you’re seeing what everyone else saw, whereas if you’re looking through a car window or a train or a bus or on a screen then you’re not experiencing it in the same way and I think that’s absolutely true. Also, it’s a banal point, but walking is good for you.”

For the inspired amateur historian willing to walk and wonder and apply their curiosity to their immediate surroundings, there’s a wealth of technological help to be had which the Mason brothers could only have dreamed of. Metal detectors are an obvious tool – “detectorists are finding stuff which is changing the view of history,” says Moffat – and online resources such as Google Earth can show the outline of ancient dwellings which aren’t visible at ground level. And, of course, there’s a website for everything these days: when Rory Low found an 18th century pin case such as an 18th century lady might keep her hat pins in, he also found an online forum dedicated to them.

“It’s a portal, a book like this,” says Moffat finally. “A window through which you can see an enormous amount and through which anyone can see a huge amount. There’s a huge story there. If you’re curious enough to find out, it’s all there right in front of you.”

And the more you find out about the place where you live, the more you identify with it. “You want to look after it and conserve it and see it be healthy. You begin to invest in it, as it were.”

Wherever ‘Here’ is for you, there’s a secret history waiting to be discovered there.

The Secret History Of Here: A Year In The Valley by Alistair Moffat is out now (Canongate, £20)