Rethinking the border

Cinema Sark
Cinema Sark, John Wallace
photo, James Wyness

Borderlands: The Historical and Cultural Significance of the Anglo-Scottish Border

13 December 2013, Gallery North, Northumbria University.
Convened by Dr Ysanne Holt (Northumbria University) and Dr Angela McClanahan (Edinburgh College of Art)

On 13 December Claire, Jules and I attended ‘Close Friends’, the first in an ESRC seminar series hosted by Northumbria University on the theme of assessing the impact of greater Scottish autonomy on the North of England. The programme can be consulted here and an account by our close friends in Dumfries and Galloway, who spoke at the seminar, can be read here

My impression of the event was that it offered a forum for meaningful and incisive discussion on a range of topics that are not easily covered by those representations of debates (dressed up as real debates) which take place in television studios. Nor are such meaningful discussions likely to happen in the village and town halls of the Borders. This was yet another excellent opportunity, following the series of discussion events hosted by the Environmental Arts Festival Scotland in the autumn of 2013, to listen to a range of speakers covering topics of critical importance to the margins, edges, centres and borderlines in, around and between the counties of Southern Scotland and the shires of Northern England.  The complexity of cultural, social and economic relationships between the regions was aptly described as a set of superimposed Venn diagrams, not dissimilar to a living ecosystem.

Without echoing too much what has been said in The Commonty (above), we learned that the whole notion of ‘North’ is up for fresh discussion in the light of moves towards Scottish independence. Regardless of the referendum result, preparations, both practical and intellectual, will have to be made by those regions adjoining Scotland. Both Northumberland and Cumbria might very soon, in the face of possible Scottish independence or at least a process of moving towards greater autonomy, find itself on the extreme Northern fringes of a different England, itself independent of Scotland. And paradoxically or if you prefer, reasonably, professionals are looking with great interest at topics of mutual interest to regions on either side of the borderline: land use and (crucially) food production, tourism, transport, cultural strategies, not to mention differing policies, attitudes and initiatives relating to health and education. In addition Northumberland and Cumbria might themselves be forced into a new East/West dialogue, again looking at areas of mutual interest in the wake of their (possible) increasing isolation from London following the production of new abstract spaces along the border.

As a discussion around the arts and individual arts projects we were treated to illustrated accounts of projects from Dumfries and Galloway (John Wallace’s Cinema Sark, shown in the image above), North Northumberland (Northumbrian Exchanges) and the ghost town of Riccarton near Hawick. There is a long and deeply embedded tradition of cross-border cultural merging and collaboration, a well-oiled machinery of processes and institutional methodologies that are set to grow and develop over time in spite of national political changes. There is no University of the Borders which represents the needs of the creative and cultural community on the Scottish side – any notion of advocacy or mediation on the part of Edinburgh or Glasgow is fanciful. It would therefore be apposite (and again wonderfully paradoxical) to look to institutions like Northumbria University for such advocacy and mediation, not only because they have already begun the work of cross-border collaboration, but more importantly because doing so subverts the notion of border as a produced space implying exclusion, exclusivity and divisiveness.

Any discussion of Borders and Borderlands is of great interest to projects like Working the Tweed, for obvious reasons relating to the topography and political geography of the river, less obviously perhaps in view of the fact that Scotland’s Land Use Strategy is currently being piloted in the Scottish Borders and Aberdeenshire. The Borders pilot, in adopting an ecosystem approach, will be considering the following:-

•Provisioning services: e.g. food, fibre

•Regulating services: e.g. water quality, soil carbon

•Supporting services: e.g. biodiversity

•Cultural services: e.g. recreation, sense of place pilot looking at cultural strategy as a subset of the main heading.

While all of these areas are of interest to artists like ourselves engaged with a working river, the last field of investigation sits especially well alongside many of the key points discussed at the seminar. This study will undoubtedly be met with great enthusiasm by the ‘cultural sector’, which includes artists and arts administrators working in the region, but the initiative also carries the potential to encourage new perceptions among the wider community of scientists, educators, landowners, food producers and, hopefully, politicians. We look forward with to Northumbria University’s proposed conference in 2014.

James Wyness

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Indicator species

Ecologists have taken four species to act as indicators of the ecological health of the Tweed catchment: Salmon, Lamprey, Water Crowfoot and Otter. Conversations with specialists at Riverside Meetings prompted me to make a series of drawings. These were ink on perspex, and were shown in the project space at Harestanes last October.  Combined with field visits, making these drawings let me develop knowledge and become more observant. I now also understand these species better within my own life – as indications of time of year, of place, of change.

Water crowfoot

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

In summer Water Crowfoot (various species of Ranunculus – the buttercup family) can grow into great mats that include other plants. I learnt these are called ranunculion  – assemblages that can alter river flow and sedimentation pattern, sheltering the locality downstream. How had I never noticed them up till now?

I learnt the five species found in the Tweed Catchment have underwater leaves with varied branching patterns, examples below.

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Details from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

These species show great plasticity – their form is very variable according to environmental conditions. Water Crowfoot readily hybridises, so its precise identification is complicated. I need to look closer to see patterns in ranunculion.

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Photograph by Kate Foster 2013

Lamprey

Three types of Lamprey spawn in the rivers of the Tweed Catchment: Brook, River and Sea. The photo below shows electrofishing at a fish rescue by The Tweed Foundation and Tweed Forum at Eddleston Water in July 2013, where mature lamprey were found.

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Photograph by Kate Foster 2013

Primitive jawless fish, that I had never before seen. Through google I learnt they sift microscopic organisms from silt in the riverbed in the larval form.

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

The larger two species (River and Sea Lamprey) mature and migrate to the estuary. They are parasitic and attach to fish to suck their flesh.

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Each of the three species has its own characteristic mouthparts (diatoms slipped into the picture).

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

The drawing became about what lampreys eat, and what eats them.

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Spawning time is when lamprey are most visible – look out for birds gathering to feast at the river’s edge in spring.

Salmon

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Photograph by Kate Foster 2013 with acknowledgements to The Tweed Foundation

Scientists at The Tweed Foundation explained to us what a fish-scale can reveal – you can see more here  about how the scales of Atlantic Salmon show how they move to cold northern waters to feed and grow.

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

 The drawing above is taken from a prediction of expanding scope for navigability, opening the arctic up for human commerce. I have learnt that the Tweed is one of the best salmon rivers anywhere – and also that researchers are speculating about future patterns of Salmon migration in a warming Arctic.

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

As the Arctic opens up to ships, what paths will these cold-water migrants take? Can they adapt?

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Researchers do not leap to conclusions: – they take a long view, and trust to salmon’s resilience.  I am chilled all the same.

Otter

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Otter on the Tweed Catchment are becoming more common, but it takes skill to interpret the signs they leave.

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

What for example is the difference between otter or mink scat? or dog and otter footprints?

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

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Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Infra-red videos used in camera traps give more information into how otters behave.

Findlay Ecology have made a long-term study of a natal holt, where otter cubs are nursed. It was found that that the male otter regularly stayed in the same holt as the breeding female and her cubs.

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Image © Findlay Ecology Services

Now in my mind, being an otter becomes a sociable kind of thing.  I imagine the parents underground with their cubs, and traversing long sections of river to maintain territory and fishing rights.