The Marches by Rory Stewart review – farewell to an imperial class

Brian Stewart was a spy and British patriot, fond of tartan. As his son Rory walks the borderlands between England and Scotland he reflects on their relationship and its political contexts

It sometimes seemed to his son that Brian Stewart, once the second most powerful figure in the British intelligence services, was protesting his Scottishness too much. There had always been an enthusiasm for country dancing. In Kuala Lumpur, in between keeping an eye on the natives, he’d taught five-year-old Rory how to hop the steps of the Highland sword dance. Now, white-haired and rather frail, he wore tartan trews every day and spread a tartan blanket on his bed; he had lurcher called Torquil; next to the whisky on his desk lay oatcakes and a Gaelic dictionary; he ate porridge every morning and haggis twice a week.

Hail Caledonia! But also: Rule Britannia! Scotland was a hobby, but Britain was a state. Glenalmond, Oxford, the Black Watch, the Malayan Civil Service, MI6: that was more or less the précis of his life. He believed in the union and the empire and the force of arms. Before he was wounded in Normandy on 1 July 1944, he and his anti-tank platoon had destroyed a dozen Panzers. Four decades later, walking through the streets of Hong Kong with his young son, he suddenly swung around to lay a man flat with his fist, sensing (his son doesn’t say with what justice) that he was about to be attacked.

Rory was the late child of a second marriage, born when his father was 50. How could a son cope with having the equivalent of Richard Hannay about the house – a spy, a hero, a linguist and a patriot? Post-imperial children might have found a solution in rebellion and estrangement – drugs or a defiant career in millinery. Rory seems to have chosen emulation. Eton, Oxford, tutor to the princes William and Harry, a gap year (nine months) in the Black Watch, a Foreign Office posting to Indonesia, a looping 6,000-mile walk across south Asia, under shot and shell as a deputy governor in occupied Iraq, his present role as a Tory MP and junior minister: apart from the last, this by no means exhaustive CV had been achieved by the time he was 40.

A real-life Richard Hannay … Brian Stewart CMG, veteran of the second world war and MI6.
A real-life Richard Hannay … Brian Stewart CMG, veteran of the second world war and MI6. Photograph: Heathcliff O'Malley

It might be seen as an act of love. At the beginning of this book, the author recounts an incident from his childhood, when he showed his father a model plane he’d made and his father didn’t pay it sufficient attention. Rory then wrote a note: “Because you would not look at my plane … I am running away.” When Brian Stewart found it, his son writes, “I saw from his face how frightened he was. I realised how easily I could hurt him. I never wanted to see him like that again.”

This is a tender book sheltering under a robust title: the term “the Marches” usually applies to the English-Welsh border country, but here Stewart means the borderlands of England and Scotland as well as his two walks through them. He made the first with his father in 2011, when his father was 89. The intention was to walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall from east to west – or rather that Rory would do the walking while his father, for whom a half-mile stroll was now a bit of a stretch, did most of the distance by car. The two set out from Wallsend, Brian dressed in his usual garb of tartan trews and tam o’shanter cap, while Rory carries what he calls a “dang”, an “absurdly large Punjabi stick” that had been his companion crossing Asia 10 years before. But first he checks his father’s hearing aid. His hope is that they’ll have an extended conversation that will allow them to “explore and answer questions about Scottish nationalism, Rome, frontiers and empires”. They call each other “Daddy” and “Darling”.

Some truculence emerges. The senior Stewart is less interested than his son in finding parallels between the imperial Romans and the imperial British. In a typical exchange, Rory asks, “What were the particularly Scottish virtues of [the British] empire?” and his father replies, “I don’t know, in my day we didn’t talk too much about that kind of thing.” He’s far keener on a historical country of his own invention – what he calls the Middleland, described by his son as “an upland landscape, whose core is the Lake District hills, the Pennines, the Cheviots and the Scottish Borders … a land naturally unified by geography and culture for 2,000 years, but repeatedly divided by political frontiers”.

Hadrian’s Wall was the greatest of those divisions, the one from which every successive frontier took its hint as the nations of Scotland and England began to emerge from centuries of invasions and tribal and feudal rivalries. The present boundary between them was established in the 13th century. Does the Middleland lie underneath like an earthbound Atlantis? Brian Stewart hoped that his journey might reveal signs of it – he believed it “belonged particularly to us as hybrid Scot-Britons struggling with debates over Scottish independence”. Few traces of this civilisation are found, however; the notes he’s been making turn out to be for a new edition of his popular little primer You Know More Chinese Than You Think; and after a few days, Rory drives him back to the family home near Crieff in Perthshire, which the Stewarts purchased long ago from the profits of the Kolkata jute trade.

Another walk follows the next year, but this time Rory is alone, his father present only in his frequent 2,000-word emails. He takes a zig-zag route, 400 miles long, that leads from his constituency home in Cumbria to the Solway Firth, the Tweed and the Clyde valleys, ending on the edge of the Highlands. He says he finds his enthusiasm for walking rather embarrassing. “The truth, I think, is I believe walks are miracles – which can let me learn, like nothing else, about a nation, or myself – helping me solve disappointments, personal and political.” On this journey, the political disappointments seem to grow rather than shrink, at least if you want to believe, like his father, that the people on either side of the border, the children of Middleland, have been changed only superficially by the fact of their living in the different nations of Scotland and England.

Looking over Northumberland from Hadrian’s Wall.
Looking over Northumberland from Hadrian’s Wall. Photograph: David Noton Photography /Alamy

True, some aspects of this difference are recently created and false. “Fáilte gu Alba/Welcome to Scotland” say the road signs at the border, leading Stewart to point out that, while the people hereabouts (and a good way north) have over the past 2,000 years spoken Cumbrian, Welsh, Latin, Northumbrian, Norman French and Borders English, they have never spoken Scottish Gaelic and never called this place Alba. The real surprise is how much of a genuine difference there is. The geology may be the same, but patterns of land settlement are different and the accents are different; going north, haddock swiftly replaces cod as the chip shop’s favourite fish. Stewart speaks to a man and a woman who live within a hundred yards of each other, with the border in between. “His children’s university tuition, his medical prescriptions and his eye tests were free. She paid.” An ambulance or a fire engine summoned in Scotland would be reluctant to cross into England and vice versa.

How much Stewart regrets this growing apartness is hard to know from this account. The delight of it lies in his encounters with the specific rather than in ruminations about the general. He has an alert eye for the awkward detail – the things that don’t quite fit with the tone of a scene. It makes him an enjoyable and persuasive writer.

His father died last year, aged 93. “He had always been so old that when I was at school I had wondered if he might die, and if so whether I might miss my exams.” A piper plays at his funeral and Rory organises a dance on the lawn: an eightsome reel expanded into a 57some reel. First, they go back and forth in a circle, and then each goes off “in a giant accelerating chain of hands, racing to get back round to their partners”. There are kilts and blue bonnets among the mourners and many hyphenated names: Bill Drummond-Moray, Roderick Leslie-Melville, Thomas Steuart-Fotheringham. A certain kind of Scottishness is on display – landed, private-schooled, protesting too much, perhaps a little beleaguered, not ignoble. As well as a fine lament for his father, Stewart may have written the obituary of a social, military and political class.

Near the beginning, he recalls an incident where his father upbraids a young man who is in the act of climbing over one of the Stewart estate fences. The young man turns to confront him – he’s about 18, with “a shaven head and sheet-white face”. “Fuck you,” he shouts. “Do you want to fight me? Do you want to fucking fight me? I’ll take you …” His old father leans on his stick and stands his ground – “but there was uncertainty flickering through his eyes, as though this time he had picked a fight he could not win”.

A girlfriend restrains the angry 18-year-old. Father and son walk back to the house. “My father, and the land, seemed different. No longer were they courtly, dignified, nestled deep within the traditions of Scotland; instead, in this young Scot’s eyes, they were, apparently, despicable.”

The Marches is published by Jonathan Cape. To order a copy for £15.57 (RRP £18.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Ian Jack

The GuardianTramp

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