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The Secret History of Here: A year in the valley, by Alistair Moffat

by
30 July 2021

History is about shared experience here, says David Chillingworth

THIS is the story of a year. It has daily entries; so it’s a diary. But Alistair Moffat says that it could be “any and all years”; for “cracks of time will continually open up as the past slips through and onto the pages of the present.”

The Secret History of Here is a delightful and richly personal account of life on his small farm in the Scottish Borders, near Selkirk. He says, “At least three hundred generations have called our farm home and since then they have whispered their stories to whomever stops to listen.”

His small dog, Maidie, “showed me where I lived” on their daily walk together. Coins and medals unearthed and old maps reveal more. History is not so much a linear record as a timeless world of shared experience. He can imagine the terror caused by the arrival of the Romans. The farming families would literally have taken to the hills: “. . . they shivered through the long nights, whispering, listening for hoofbeats, the echo of shouted orders, the jingle of harness.”

The seasons of life are there as well. All of us who teeter on the edge of the eighth decade can resonate with his “lump in the throat” relationship with Grace, his three-year-old granddaughter. “Grace took my middle finger in her hand . . . and I felt tears prickle. . . I realise that I will probably not live to see the little one fully flower into a sparkling young woman.”

It is the nature of the writing of this kind of diary or journal that it touches on many things. Part of Moffat’s distinctive style is a pointed and pithy end to the entry for a day.

I reflected for a long time on “You don’t make old friends.” He is preoccupied with “our dying planet”, but declares himself “by nature an optimist”. Writing of the Black Death, which arrived in 1348, and its subsequent return in 1361 and 1369, he remarks, maybe with unconscious Covid foreknowledge, that “The past is fascinating, but sometimes not a time I would want to return to.”

The charm of this book is that it is rooted in Moffat’s lived experience. But, in his gracious humility, he sees himself as just one more of those 300 generations.


The Rt Revd David Chillingworth is a former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

 

The Secret History of Here: A year in the valley
Alistair Moffat
Canongate £20
(978-1-83885-113-2)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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