One day in late July I was driving home from Northumberland. I was still south of the river Tweed on some unremarkable road when I spotted a sign pointing towards the site of the Battle of Flodden. I knew about Flodden but I had not realised I would be passing right by it and I had not planned to visit. Therefore, as often happens when driving, a potentially interesting thing just whizzed by and I thought: “Nah, too late now”, and carried on until a couple of miles later I saw another sign. Clearly, this sign was a sign now, so turned my dinky rental car to where it directed me.
Reminiscent of changing the guard at a remote watch tower I arrived at the battle memorial as a lone cyclist was leaving. We exchanged our good mornings and I was left gazing over the fields, cows, streams and the nearby village with my hands stuffed in my pockets. The monument was on a peaceful hill where the mild breeze carried nothing but the chirps of birds and the distant sounds of rural life.
I studied the information board and worked out where the Scottish troops were positioned on 9th September 1513. We lost a king that day. Slightly to my left on the high ground opposite was James IV, and the low ground in front of me was where everything then turned into carnage with earls, lords, knights, their sons and nameless soldiers being slaughtered by their thousands alongside James, the last king on the British Isles to die in battle.
And a curious thing: I felt a gust of sadness blow through me. That should not have happened. The battle was fought over 500 years ago by people that were not my kin at the borders of a country I am relatively new to. And yet I was sad for the King and his men.
Flodden kept returning to my mind in the following weeks. I thought that somehow the stop by the battlefield had a place here among my favourite things despite being rather more sombre than my usual encounters with all things ancient.
Evidence is accumulating that reading fiction develops empathy in children improving attitudes towards outgroups, and neuroscience is beginning to explore how fiction could wire our brains to better understand others. I was thinking that if made-up stories can give us such perspective, then surely history will too when it’s told right. Analysis is all well and good, but evidently the dusty old monuments and crubmling historic sites at the ends of bumpy roads in the outskirts of nowhere can have the same effect as fiction: they are there to supplement the facts with imagination and the tangible human story even when it is terrible, unjust, brutal or sad.
That “the North remembers”, as it were, must be why the Battle of Flodden belongs with the things that make me happy: that the site is looked after, that it is protected, that it is not forgotten; that in its own small way it is there to evoke empathy and perspective, both of which the world would seem to desperately need.