The tyranny of history?

On the same site as the original bridge commissioned by Lady Devorgilla (circa 1210-1290), today’s Devorgilla Bridge in Dumfries is a pedestrian walkway into the past

We ambled along the same routes that Robert Burns would have taken two hundred and fifty years ago, as we twirled around the town of Dumfries yesterday on our busman’s holiday*. We visited the imposing mausoleum erected some thirty years after his death, that replaced the original simple stone slab marking his burial site. We proceeded past the statue of Jean Armour, Burns’ Bonnie Jean, and on to the Burns House and the tranquil garden across the cobbled road. Along the way we must have passed dozens of representations of the famous Robbie Burns profile, and a couple more statues.

We crossed the newer Buccleugh Bridge over the River Nith and moved left along the river bank towards the Burns Museum where we marvelled at various artefacts of the Scottish bard’s life. Then we crossed the Devorgilla Bridge on our way to the Caven Arms for a couple pints of Orkney IPA and a lunch of crispy fried starters.

The town of Dumfries is certainly rich with history, combining ancient kingdoms and more recent contemporary provenance like the garden birthplace of Peter Pan, now Scotland’s National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling. But as we walked around through a dilapidated central district, filled with charity shops, gambling establishments, vaping stores, and copious posters asking passers-by ‘What can we do with this place?’ we wondered, what has gone wrong here? Is this ghost town the legacy of the pandemic lockdown, or has it been deteriorating for some time? Is it, perhaps, trapped in the historical resonance of the leading lights of another time?

We didn’t see any statues of Lady Devorgilla, a huge eminence of the 13th century, matriarch of kings. But her legacy lives on in the eponymous bridge connecting us in an unbroken, if punctuated, line back into the beginnings of the Middle Ages. As the centuries roll on, I wonder if all of the statues of famous sons will survive, if their writings will still be remembered, taught, lauded and revered, eight hundred years, nine, a millenium hence.

Or might they too become subsumed in the mists of time, their legacy becoming a bridge for time travel by those intrigued with history? Might new creative endeavours arise in the town that has pickled its laureate in aspic, or will such enterprises be stifled by the overwhelming presence of previous greatness?

Perhaps, some weekend in the near-future, we shall be able to visit Moat Brae, where Peter Pan arose from J.M. Barrie’s imagination as he remembered play in the garden, and experience some new creativity with our grandsons. We might remark on the statuary, even of the boy who never grew up, but with any luck we will transcend the historical bonds together.

We might be able to continue to create some new thoughts, hopes and imaginings for the contemporary age in which we live. That would, I suspect, bring us much more joy than we could find by dredging too compulsively in the past, as illuminating as these historical narratives are.

*A busman’s holiday is typically thought of as a day-trip taken by a bus driver on a bus driven by someone else. We had quite an adventure with the busses, yesterday, but that’s a story for another time, another place.

One response to “The tyranny of history?”

  1. Love the pic of the Degorvilla Bridge. I love history but I am also a critic of the presentation of history to present generations. I enjoyed the descriptions of sites & figures from your walk through history & the questions you raise. You may have heard of the restored & ongoing restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, VA.  I’ve been there 3x. Two visits were with Connie 35+ years apart. She didn’t enjoy being with a history lover who stopped to read every informational plaque. Needless to say I could never persuade her to go again. Perhaps I come under the spell of a historical tyranny when I visit such sites?

    I had to wonder how such an important colonial center & town could be totally forgotten & allowed to fall into a derelict state. It not only adjoined a growing post-colonial day Williamsburg but also the Campus of William & Mary. Did Virginians ignore the Colonial town bc so many British loyalists lived there? It would be nice to have you & Carrie amble through historical Wmsburg & get your reflections  in the written word on what you see there.

    BTW your touring & writing whets my appetite for British history. I look forward to more Joy as you tour & reflect. Write on, Henry


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