Border Brothers Inspiration, History And Research
The book is based on the story of Soltre Augustinian Abbey Hospital (now known as Soutra) on Fala Moor in the Scottish Borders.
With an international reputation for medical excellence, the Abbey came to a sudden, catastrophic downfall in mid-fifteenth century when a rogue Master was accused of various vague misdemeanours. Such behaviour, not unusual in senior churchmen of the time, seems an inadequate reason for such a comprehensive dismantling of the entire establishment.
Researching the surrounding events, it seemed to me as if much history had been expunged from the record, and the real story had been buried. 'Border Brothers' is my fictional reconstruction of Soltre's end.
Soutra was founded in 1164 AD by King Malcolm IV, but little is known of the event. It was built on the highest point of the main Royal Road - an old Roman road - between the Borders abbeys and Edinburgh. Over the next two centuries, the hospital was gifted with lands and wealth from grateful local families who had benefitted from treatment.
The wealth was used to minister to the sick and, especially in times of war, the wounded, as well as pilgrims, travellers and the needy. The hospital was dedicated as the 'House of the Holy Trinity' and run by the Augustinian Order. Remarkably, it was never the target of destructive invasion or pillage, unlike all the other Border abbeys. Its reputation was partly based on its impartial management of the wounded during the Wars of Independence.
Archaeo-medical exploration by Dr Brian Moffat and his team, SHARP, has continued since 1986, exploring medical practice of mediaeval times through well-preserved human and herbal remains. I have used some of his findings in my reconstructed fictional account.
Researching 'Border Brothers'
There were many topics I needed to explore to write a convincing story; Scottish history, the Augustinian Order, its code and daily routines, medical knowledge in the fifteenth century, as well as all aspects of daily life. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of writing historical fiction is how much is actually known about things that happened so long ago and the people who made them happen. As always, there is much more information about the big people, the leaders, the powerful and the wealthy, than about the masses of ordinary folk.
Being from a medical background, I was particularly interested in writing about old medical practice. I had read of a renowned Highland medical family called MacBeath, or variants of that name, originally from Ireland but then based on Islay, and who attended Kings of Scotland from Robert the Bruce onwards. The details of the family in the book are all taken from the record. I wanted my main character to be of that ilk, to impart a cultural tension between him and the Soltre community. Although Islay plays only a small part of the story, I did visit the island and Finlaggan, to see the remains of the MacDonald home in the lochan in the middle of the island.
The use of medicines in the Middle Ages I gleaned from many sources, including the SHARP reports on Soutra. I am especially indebted to Mary Beith for her book, 'Healing Thread,' particularly informative on a wide range of medicinal plants. However, although these sources told me which plants were used, they mostly did not divulge how they were used, most especially the plants used in obstetric practice. So here I had to let my imagination run riot. The physicians would have given medication orally, topically or as an enema. They could not use the intravenous route. They probably used instruments such as listening trumpets, forceps, specula, hooks and bone cutters. Certainly, these instruments were in use in the Islamic world as early as the eighth century CE, and there was exchange of knowledge between east and west, as happens in 'Border Brothers.'
Medicine in the western world was hampered by the Church's attitude, punitive and always discouraging of secular folk gaining too much knowledge. The Church was deeply misogynist, as shown in attitudes to childbearing and to midwives and 'wise women' who were readily suspected of witchcraft. For a time, priests were expressly forbidden to practise medicine, and it is surprising to learn the extent that the healing art was pursued within abbeys and monasteries.
The excavations at Soutra uncovered huge deposits of human blood, the reason for which was at first unknown. However, I thought it possible that the practice of venesection (blood removal) was done to calm unseemly physical passions in an all-male community, and included that in my book. I later found that this indeed was the reason for the accepted practice in some monastic communities, as well as the rest and food subsidies allowed following the procedure. Even less easy to explain was the finding of human foetal remains buried in the site, and this was explained by the SHARP team as abortion being practised by the Augustinians. However, I thought that very unlikely. If the remains were still identifiable as human infants after several centuries, then they must have been relatively mature, that is, they must have been near-term infants. Could they have been the result of induced delivery, and if so, why? And indeed, how? You will have to read the book to find out my version of events!
With so much material for a story, my first thoughts revolved around sensational, bloodcurdling, darkly mysterious events leading to Soltre's end. Perhaps my saintly Fergus was corrupted by a venal, hedonistic master, after which there might have been blood on the altar steps. But as so often happens, truth was probably more intriguing than fiction. I wrote in the way described by Alexander McCall Smith, of going off into a 'dwam' or dreamy state and letting the characters take over. But this had to be intertwined with what I was learning of Scottish history of the time, and as I progressed, the likely course of events began to map themselves out. Human nature was the same then as now. And whereas I found that detailed accounts of well-kent figures of the time - Kings, statesmen, Bishops, the penultimate master of Soltre, Thomas Lauder - were readily available, I could find nothing, absolutely nothing about the final 'Rogue Master,' Stephen Fleming.
My husband, Robin Howie, and I walked over the moors, around Soutra Aisle (as it now is), along the 'Deer Street' road, and down into Lindean Gorge. Particularly, we admired the amazing view from the hilltop. On a good day, you can seat least sixty major Highland and Grampian peaks, views of the Pentlands, Ochils, Lomonds, the landmarks in the Firth of Forth. It is, as Fergus found, a moving and compelling sight.