WRITING recently for The National, Alan Riach noted how the Borders have “a different kind of presence”, one which makes him feel “refreshed and cautioned”. “It casts a charm and at the same time it reminds you of dangerous things,” he says. “The 'debatable lands' have been bloodily contested, and if in older times the bloodshed was literal and visible, there are questions just as vital about the way we live now.”
Euan Millar-McMeeken agrees the area has a special quality. Having recently moved from Edinburgh to just outside of Kelso with his wife, the writer and poet Ali Millar, and their growing family, the composer and pianist is in the midst of writing music for a three-stranded project about the area, its history and people. Millar will explore themes of borders and identity with her writing, while Alex Kozobolis will document the area with his photography.
Millar-McMeeken is basing his compositions on the rhythm of the seasons under his Glacis alias, the name he uses for his hauntingly minimal piano music, something he “fell into” after his old band The Kays Lavelle split at the start of the decade. Graeme Anderson from that band went on to form Book Group, while Millar-McMeeken “sat in a room, played a lot of piano and listened to a lot of modern classical like Nils Frahm and Olof Arnalds.”
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As well as collaborating with Ben Chatwin as the electronica-smudged Blood Language, who have a new album, Voices, set for imminent release, and with Matthew Collings on the spooked, atmospheric pop of Graveyard Tapes, who should have a new album out this year, Millar-McMeeken says it's Glacis that's the “one project I can really get on with”. He currently has a Kickstarter to raise funds for a vinyl release of The World Is A Little Lonelier Without You, a record with English musician Ed Hamilton written in the wake of the death of his father. The musician, who also runs record label mini50, says coming to live there from Edinburgh was an eye-opener.
“There's a hugely proactive arts community here but there's little support coming from above, and from the wider community,” he says. “You hope with the railway now, that people would be willing to come. There are really some nice spots where things could be held. For now, people don't seem to want to take the risk.”
As well as Glacis, Millar's writing and Kozobolis's pictures, the Borders project will feature a blog allowing the public to share their experiences and reflections of living in the area.
“The identity of people in the Borders is a very strong one,” he says. “If you're not from there, regardless of how long you're there, you'll always be an outsider, though the people are very friendly. It can feel like a place that people drive through to get somewhere else. But it has a fascinating sense of place and history of its own.
“Berwick's a really fascinating one for me. It's been handed back and forth forever and when you speak to people about their identity it seems to be very much dependent on so many different things. The history is really apparent; I went to see the Common Ridings for the first time last year, and especially the ones that set off from near us, around Kelso, there are points where they actually ride into England, in this really, 'this-is-our-land' kind of way.”
With Brexit and Scotref on the horizon, it's a place we can learn more about identity, and the shifting elements within.
“If you go to Coldstream, you meet people who are really, really Scottish, and if you cross the river, people are really really English. It's weird that a river can have such an impact. That's what the wider idea of borders is about.”