Travel documentary. Michael Portillo meets the wild Border Reivers clansmen, witnesses a wedding in Gretna Green and visits a World War I munitions factory.
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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.
His name was George Bradshaw,
and his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.
Stop by stop, he told them where to travel, what to see
and where to stay.
Now, 170 years later, I'm making four long journeys
across the length and breadth of the country
to see what remains of Bradshaw's Britain.
Steered by Bradshaw's, my 150-year-old guide
to railway travel in Britain,
I'm headed north again to the Borders.
Today I'll be finding out about the wild Border clans of Carlisle.
The stone is the Archbishop of Glasgow's
curse on all these families,
because we got up to wicked deeds.
I'll be crashing a wedding.
-Does Gretna Green have a special feeling for you?
-It does now.
It definitely does. After today it will, yes.
And I'll be visiting a top-secret munitions factory.
What was this thing called devil's porridge?
Devil's porridge was a mixture of cordite and explosive,
mainly mixed by hand by women at the time.
All this week, I've been heading north from Preston,
up the west of England.
I'm now travelling into the once-lawless frontier country
before crossing into Scotland and moving on to Kirkcaldy.
Today I'll stop in Carlisle,
then carry on to Gretna Green,
before ending my journey in Glasgow.
I often visit Scotland, frequently by air,
but even when I go by rail, I rush through the Borders.
I never think of stopping there.
Today I'll be intrigued just to linger and see what's there.
When the first trains arrived in 1847,
passengers had to change at Carlisle,
making it one of the busiest stations in the country.
This magnificent station, with its Gothic arches
and with the plaques from locomotives
and different railway lines,
it's a Victorian wonder and a railway museum
and gateway to Scotland.
In Carlisle, even the public buildings are built like castles,
suggesting that this has long been a warlike place
with fearsome peoples.
For over 700 years, the English and the Scots
battled for control of Carlisle and its castle.
It wasn't until 1745 that the last Scottish uprising was put down.
Do you know why the buildings in Carlisle are like castles?
Because it was needed to be a defence from the Picts and the Scots,
The Picts and the Scots.
-There were vicious people in those days.
-Battling it out.
-Yeah, battling it out, really, oooh, terrible.
I've come to Carlisle to find out more about its troubled history
from artist Gordon Young.
Do you know, I'm delighted to be in Carlisle.
I had no idea it was such a beautiful city.
I think it's a really bonny city.
It's been fought over.
It's been fought over time and time again.
Both countries have laid good claim to it.
Scottish kings crowned in Carlisle.
An English parliament's been in Carlisle.
Strategically, it had importance and significance.
Loyal to the English crown, was it?
No, loyal to whatever army's in it that particular time.
But there was another group that was neither English nor Scots.
I hadn't heard of the Reivers living along the border
until I read about them in my Bradshaw's guide.
Gordon is one of their descendants.
In 2001, Gordon was commissioned to make this stone sculpture
as a tribute to his ancestors, a forgotten people.
Who were the Border Reivers?
They were the families that lived
either side of what we now acknowledge as the border.
The border, centuries ago, wasn't a single strip.
It was within 70 miles of what we currently know.
400 years ago,
the frontier between the English and the Scots shifted constantly,
as they vied for territory.
The Reivers operated within that no-man's-land
and took full advantage of its lawless state.
What kind of people were they?
Well, it's not good agricultural land.
It was hard land with hard people,
and they were pillaging, raping, robbing, thieving,
the Reivers were bereaving
and blackmailing and stealing and, of course,
to enforce English law would be a war.
To enforce Scottish law would be a war,
because where's the border?
Therefore this banditry was in the area.
This was our Border heritage, which was rough, tumble and bloody.
Neither Scottish nor English,
each Reiver swore allegiance only to his clan.
So these were the families and the family names
from specific valleys, towns, villages,
whether it's Irvine, Carmichael, Johnston, Nixon, Dixon,
Here's your name, Young.
Yeah. There's about 90-odd names
that are recognised as the families of the Borders, the Reivers.
There are also some very famous descendants,
like Richard Nixon and Neil Armstrong.
And then this stone. What's that about?
The stone is the Archbishop of Glasgow's
curse on all these families,
because we got up to wicked deeds.
The Archbishop wrote his 1,000-word curse in 1525,
hoping that disease and misfortune could avenge the Reivers' crimes.
As somebody with a good dialect would say,
it curses them standand and gangand and sittand and rydand.
It curses cabbages, it curses their heads.
This is really a pretty comprehensive curse.
Oh, there's pages of it. This is a fragment.
That's a fragment.
It goes on and on and on. He was very thorough.
There wasn't many things where he wasn't giving this great curse,
and it is an incredible piece of, I think, European literature,
let alone Scottish or northern British.
Bradshaw refers to the Reiver clans by their ancient name,
who lived in a wild landscape of rugged, rocky mountains
thrown together with beautiful valleys.
Many Reiver families still live here,
and through Gordon's Reiver grapevine,
I've found out about a party taking place
in the village of Hallbankgate.
A few centuries ago,
this would have been the very heart of Reiver territory.
I've come to sample Borders hospitality,
and to find out how the fearsome Moss-troopers sounded
when they were in party mood.
Good Lord, an amazing display of giant vegetables.
-Hello! Hi. How are you doing?
-OK, thank you.
So what - obviously a competition?
Bizarrely, the locals are engaged in a gentle vegetable contest.
Not the behaviour I associate with bandits and robbers.
But these are amazing! Do you weigh them or do you measure them or...
No, we measure them.
What they do, they measure them from this point here.
It has to be no longer than six inches,
and it has got to be as thick as you can get them.
-These are the winners.
-Mr Starkey is the winner.
-That's Mr Forster there.
-He was second.
-Congratulations to you.
What an amazing effort! Have you been growing them for a long time?
-Trying to, yeah.
20 or 30 years.
-I'm here for a Reiver song.
-The Reivers' song?
Do you know anything about that?
They're going to be singing very shortly.
The Reivers' songs were first made popular by Sir Walter Scott,
himself from Reiver stock.
Thank you very much. Cheers.
He travelled the Borders collecting battle songs and ballads.
-Hi, how are you all?
So you're going to do us some Reiver music this evening?
We're going to play a ballad about the Reivers.
Are you in the group, are you fearsome Border Reivers?
-I'm married to a Reiver.
-You're married to a Reiver?
In fact, he's out reiving at this very minute.
-What's the song called?
-The song's called Lock the Door, Lariston.
and it's about a feud between two of the reiving families.
I look forward to it. Thank you.
For such a fearsome people, they had very, very jolly music.
I think the Reivers have got an unfair reputation.
They were clearly fun lovers.
Although some of the Reiver traditions
still seem pretty scary to me.
I've been asked to ask you to dance.
-No, I'm not going to dance.
-He won't dance with me.
I heard you were a very good dancer.
No, you're wrong, you're wrong.
After a very good party, it's time for a new day,
and a new country. Crossing the border into Scotland.
Despite the slightly bleary head,
I'm glad I took time to stop in Carlisle.
So farewell, Carlisle. The Borders are interesting, beautiful and fun.
But now it's time to move on.
Next stop Gretna Green,
and Bradshaw's guide puts it finger on
why most of us have heard of that Scottish town.
"It's been for more than 80 years
"a place of the celebration of marriages
"of fugitive lovers from England."
Well, Gretna Green has gone on being celebrated for its weddings
for another 150 years too.
The marriage laws in Scotland
have always been more liberal than those in England.
When the railways arrived in Gretna in 1848,
the steady stream of young lovers crossing the border to wed
turned into a flood.
Today marriage is big business here.
This is really an extraordinary sight.
This is a tourist haven. This is the Las Vegas of Scotland.
This is a reminder that Gretna Green is a town built on love.
-How do you do?
-Hello, I'm Michael.
Alasdair Houston's family
have been farmers and blacksmiths in the area for generations.
What's it got to do with blacksmiths?
Well, it's not so much blacksmith per se.
The blacksmith, the fisherman, the weaver - a number of trades
could have conducted a quickie wedding in Gretna Green,
but it's location, location, location,
and the blacksmith's workshop was on this important crossroads,
so this rush of eloping couples
who would be trying to escape from the English law,
they would get here and this was the first building.
It quickly developed into the anvil becoming such
a strong symbol of weddings,
-Forging on the anvil.
Just so. I mean, as the blacksmith would use the anvil
and heat the joint to join metals together,
so it was said that he would join lives together in marriage.
But just as the train loads of lovers
began to arrive here 160 years ago,
the law changed.
My Bradshaw's Guide, which was probably written in the 1860s,
says that Parliament has recently passed a law
which requires residency in Scotland before you can get married,
and he says, "The blacksmith will now find his occupation gone."
That would be referring to an 1856 act
by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Brougham,
and it was called the "cooling off" act,
because what it said is that one of the parties to the marriage
had to spend 21 days in Scotland
before they could have a legal ceremony.
Still the same ceremony, simple declaration.
So that cooling off act was expected
to completely stop this flow of newlyweds.
Now, what, in fact, happened, is it sprung up all sort of guesthouses,
an early form of B&Bs, if you like.
My grandparents remember the farm workers
pitchforking hay and straw out of sheds,
and, "Ow! Ow!" There'd be somebody lying out rough in the area,
being woken up in the morning.
In Scotland, unlike in England,
you can marry at 16 without parental permission,
and these days you don't even have to be resident for three weeks.
So Gretna is still the most popular place for quickie weddings.
Bradshaw's predicted, 150 years ago,
that the blacksmith was going to be extinct,
but you're still banging out the marriages.
Yeah, I mean Gretna Green is still an important wedding destination,
happily for the area and for the whole region
because of this ripple effect,
so Bradshaw, I'm happy to say, was wrong.
-# Love is in the air. #
-Are you going to sing? Yes.
Today over 5,000 couples a year get married in Gretna Green.
That's one in six of all weddings in Scotland.
I guess you're here to play for a wedding, are you?
Er, I've got three weddings on today, yes. Aye.
And is that fairly typical? Do you do three weddings a day often?
Three weddings very often. Aye, sometimes four, five, six.
-Sometimes seven. Very busy.
-It's a kind of industry here, isn't it?
Oh, yes, very much so.
Why do they go to Gretna Green?
Oh, this is the romantic capital of the world.
Without a doubt.
BAGPIPES PLAY: "Scotland The Brave"
Lots of excitement, now
and people in their wedding best are pouring out.
It's very, very exciting and it's very, very British.
I see the bridesmaids in their lovely dresses.
-You're a very lucky man indeed.
-Thank you very much.
May I ask you, why did you choose Gretna Green?
Um, well, we wanted to elope,
but my family found out about it and they ended up coming with us.
And so it was originally going to be an elopement?
-How very romantic!
I didn't know that stuff happened any more!
Does Gretna Green have a special feeling for you?
It does now. It definitely does. After today it will, yes. Yes.
-Have the most fantastic marriage.
It started beautifully. Thank you. Bye-bye.
Gretna Green is nationally famous, internationally famous,
for its weddings.
But there's another part of this town
which played a really significant role
in Britain's military history,
and which, even today, is so secret
that very few people have had the peep inside that I'm about to get.
This strange landscape of bunkers and hills
was built to handle the explosives made and stored here.
The site was once key to Britain's survival,
although these days it's mainly a Ministry of Defence depot
managed by David Watt.
Why was this enormous site brought into existence?
During the Battle of Loos in 1915,
during the First World War,
the British army found itself very short of shells.
In fact, we almost lost the war due to the lack of shells,
so this huge ammunition manufacturing facility was built in 1916
and in fact, at one time there was 30,000 people worked here,
almost all of them women, making and packing shells,
in order to support the British Army offensive.
The factory was built at Gretna because it was remote.
But also, it had a fast rail link
to deliver shells and bombs to the Western Front.
Another internal railway carried the munitions around the vast site.
-How much track do you have through the site?
-About 20 miles.
It's quite an extensive facility
and this site here is mainly served by narrow-gauge rail.
At that time, there wasn't any motorways
and one of the main methods of moving heavy objects was by rail,
and ammunition is very heavy.
The women toiled around the clock, mixing devil's porridge,
a lethal paste of nitroglycerine and cotton.
At its peak, the factory produced 800 tonnes
of the deadly stuff every week.
What was this thing called devil's porridge?
It was a mixture of cordite and explosive,
mainly mixed by hand by women at the time.
Very dangerous mixture. Some of the chemicals in it are such
that their teeth were discoloured, their hair turned orange.
It was not a nice substance at all.
And they were literally mixing it by hand?
They were literally mixing it by hand, yes.
And this devil's porridge was used in what?
The filling of shells.
More explosives were produced here than anywhere else in Britain.
It involved extremely dangerous work.
So what was that tunnel?
The tunnel there was the escape tunnel between the traverses.
The whole idea of this area here is to protect the people who work here
and to protect the explosives.
If you can imagine a town full of explosives, the idea being,
if that blew, the blast goes up the way and not across the way.
And then if anything goes wrong, you escape through the tunnel.
Through the tunnel and hopefully you'll be safe through there.
After leaving the MOD site,
I'm catching my next train from Lockerbie,
a name remembered for tragedy.
Lockerbie is sadly known to all of us
because of the terrorist outrage against Pan Am 103 in 1988,
but a few miles down the track,
in 1915 there occurred Britain's worst ever rail disaster.
A troop train carrying soldiers bound for Gallipoli
collided with a local train that in turn was hit by the night sleeper
coming in the other direction,
and an enormous ball of fire engulfed the trains
and freight trains on either side of the line.
227 people were killed,
a figure never matched in railway history since.
The ball of fire engulfed three trains
and took 23 hours to extinguish.
Because of wartime censorship,
the terrible disaster went unreported at the time.
From then on, gas lighting on trains was banned.
So one important reform resulted from the dreadful death toll.
I'm now catching my last train of the day
to Scotland's largest city, Glasgow.
Hello, there. Can I have a cup of coffee, please?
Is it milk and sugar for you?
Er, just milk, please.
So what's better, Glasgow or Edinburgh?
Ah, well, I've got to say Glasgow, haven't I?
You ask anybody else on the train, and they'll say Edinburgh.
And what shall I eat in Glasgow?
-Fish and chips.
-Fish and chips!
'Ladies and gentlemen, now arriving at Central Station.
'Make sure you have all your belongings and luggage with you.'
Bradshaw talks about the famous rivalry
between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
"The ancient city of Glasgow is one of the most splendid in Europe
"and is not surpassed for beauty of architecture
"in its public and private buildings,
"the length, breadth and elegance of its streets, squares and crescents,
even by Edinburgh itself."
Feel the buzz of the city.
After all those lakes and hills and sheep and cows,
it's good to feel the throb of urban life again.
A city boy like me is never happy
unless I've got the whiff of carbon monoxide in my nostrils.
Today Scotland's two great cities still jostle for pole position.
How are you enjoying Glasgow?
It's a beautiful city with beautiful buildings.
-Have you been to Edinburgh yet?
And which is better, Edinburgh or Glasgow?
He's intimidated you, I know.
He's got you under his thumb.
Glasgow is wonderful.
Edinburgh is wonderful too.
The centre of Glasgow still pleases the tourists.
But I'm intrigued by another part of the city described by Bradshaw.
In a Victorian version of poverty tourism,
he sends visitors to the Calton,
which was and is one of its most deprived areas.
Hello. Hi, Michael.
-So this is the Calton.
-This is the Calton.
Janey Godley ran a pub in the Calton for over 15 years.
-Let me read you this from my Bradshaw Guide.
"Glasgow is supposed to offer few attractions, but this is a mistake.
"Old Glasgow, with all its dirt and discomfort,
"the swarming wretchedness and filth of the celebrated Saltmarket,
"the Goosedubs, the Gallowgate and the Cowcaddens
"is well worthy of a visit, if it were only to see how quaint
"and even picturesque in misery
"are the haunts of the poor population
"of one of the richest cities of the world."
Would it do as a description of the Calton today?
Partly it is still a description of the Calton today.
There is still some resonance with the poverty
and how people manage their lives,
although whether it would make a tourist attraction,
I'm not very sure.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries,
the Calton was a wretched place.
Several families would be crammed into each small house.
Cholera was a permanent threat
and killed thousands every year.
It's shocking to find that now, as in Bradshaw's day,
the area is notorious for its social problems.
The age expectancy is still incredibly hard to swallow.
I mean, the age expectancy round here is 55.
In Fallujah, Iraq, it's 65.
-Now, that statistic you've given is not a very happy one, is it?
I expected to find an area of narrow little streets and tenements
and I don't know what...
No, that's clearly not been here a long time.
I mean, the oldest buildings in the Calton
are just a couple that are dotted on the outskirts of the streets,
but by and large, it is all very new.
You wouldn't know that you were in an ancient area, you're right.
It doesn't really lend to itself.
In an attempt to deal with these difficulties,
the Calton was rebuilt in the 1980s.
But I'm glad to see that some of the great Victorian buildings
from Bradshaw's time have survived.
Janey, we've only come 100 yards from your old pub
and we're in a different world.
Yeah. Well, this is the People's Palace,
dedicated to the people of Glasgow,
and over there, of course, we've got the Doulton Fountain.
This is, um... the empire of Glasgow is right here,
personified in brick.
The one place where there is so much death and destruction
and yet, there's all this beauty,
and that kind of represents what the Calton is to me.
There is a backdrop of pain and difficult lives,
yet there is still the will to go on and a sense of regeneration.
I came out of the Calton
and a part of me makes me who I am that I lived here,
and I think I'll live forever because of it.
Glasgow has been through some dark times
and the Calton struggles still.
Elsewhere in the city, a renaissance has been apparent in recent years.
Sleek, contemporary museums now line the old docks.
The grand Victorian buildings of the West End have been restored.
George Square, Glasgow,
set out on the grand scale with its columns and towers and statues,
feels like a continental city,
as though Glasgow is saying,
"Well, we may not be the capital,
"but we will remind you that we are the biggest city in Scotland."
Glasgow is a top tourist destination with four million visitors a year.
A city that became truly great in Victorian times
retains its civic pride, spurred on by the competition from the capital.
A handbook 150 years old
is turning out to be a pretty good guide to Britain today.
It showed me how to crash a wedding
and led me to a good night out at the pub,
and here in Glasgow,
it's been a guide not only to the fine buildings of the city,
but even an insight on some of its social problems,
but for the sake of balance, I must now go towards the Scottish capital.
Next time I'll be braving the weather in Carluke
to see an industry being brought back to life.
Is it apple juice you make or cider?
Both. You might have to come back in a year for the cider, though.
I'll be searching for a famous Scottish basement.
I'm looking for a cellar
where the Act of Union may have been signed, according to my guidebook.
Right. Um, it's actually our ladies' toilets.
And I'll be realising a lifelong ambition.
It gives you an idea of the scale,
the height. It's a beautiful thing, isn't it?
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Michael Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook. In a series of four epic journeys, he travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed us, and what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.
Michael's second epic journey takes him north, from Preston to Scotland, on one of the first railways to cross the border. On this fourth leg, he meets the wild clansmen of Carlisle, the Border Reivers, witnesses a wedding in Gretna Green and visits a secret World War I munitions factory.