AT THIS time of the year, all kinds of readings and experiences come together. The first I remember was when I had just come back from Scotland, staying with friends at Kinloch Rannoch. This was, in fact, a retreat for a party of eight friends, including two botanists, in a big, white, lonely house above Loch Rannoch, and backing on to Rannoch Moor, one of Britain’s mighty desolations.
One of these annual walks was no more than two miles from a deserted stone village which belonged to the notorious Highland clearances, when landowners such as the Duchess of Sutherland preferred sheep to men. There it lay, a biggish place with crofts and barns and tracks and drovers’ roads, by a flashing burn, with sheep in residence and the strong pattern of long habitation by men, women, and children, ancestors now of prosperous folk in Canada and New Zealand.
Then, my neighbour, Mr Brown, died, aged 100: born at Michaelmas, died at Michaelmas. When he was three, his father had hired a train which brought this Ayrshire family from the Lowlands to the south-east of England, and the little boy heard and remembered the kicking of the plough horses in their box, as the special train, hired for £10, brought everything they possessed: farm gear, stock, chattels, and their corn seed, to East Anglia.
He only once returned to Scotland, and this was in his seventies: he took his grandson to see the obelisk commemorating their ancestor, on the moor. The young crofter was shot by Claverhouse’s men for being a Covenanter. One of Mr Brown’s constant requests when he came to talk to me, once a week, was to look up Scottish words in the glossary at the back of my book of Burns’s poems; for he was in his nineties, and they were slipping away from him. At his funeral, the church in which I gave the address was filled with Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex Scottish farmers of the third generation of immigrants.
When I first walked in Scotland during my twenties, my Bible was Boswell’s life of Johnson and his tour of the Hebrides. It was the notoriously unpromising first encounter of these two unlikely friends which brought John Clare’s grandfather into focus. The great man Johnson was 54, and his biographer was 23. Boswell was longing to meet Johnson while having tea with Mr Davies, a bookseller in London.
The door was darkened by a terrifying figure, and Boswell went to pieces.
“Don’t tell him where I come from,” he begged Mr Davies.
“From Scotland,” the wicked bookseller said.
“Mr Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I can’t help it.”
“That, Sir, I find is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help.”
The year was 1763, and, 20 years after this, Dr Johnson was telling poor Boswell: “Sir, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road to London.”
The effects of all the diaspora, artistic as well as socially, are incalculable. John Clare is often thought of as the epitome of the English village voice, but Clare’s grandfather came from Scotland: not a ploughman, like Robert Burns, out of rural poverty, but a schoolmaster.
How and why he entered Helpston we may never discover. He walked along the Great North Road, and played the violin, and was educated by self-reading; and, bit by bit, he came to be the greatest rural poet of England.