'TWEED: Border Ballads' courtesy of Tania Kovats
'TWEED: Border Ballads' courtesy of Tania Kovats.

By Tania Kovats and Mary Modeen

The River Tweed speaks instantly of borders, of unity and division, but also of warp and weft, telling us much about its shapeshifting character. This living marker of national meanings and historical boundaries flows eastwards 97 miles from the Lowther Hills to Berwick-upon-Tweed, descending 1,440 feet over that length. Its source rises 40 miles north of Scotland’s westernmost border with England. The river enters the sea two miles south of the border’s easternmost point. There is a ring of geological predestination to this bordering identity. It’s as if the Tweed exists as a sturdy trace of the ocean that separated Scotland and England 520 million years ago.

The hills in which it rises, and along whose northern margin it meanders, are the deposits of that ocean, thrown skyward by the collision of the two continents, Laurentia and Gondwana, in the Ordovician era, 450 million years ago. The English Lake District and the entirety of the Southern Uplands are the remnants of that collision. In spite of centuries of cross border strife between their respective peoples, there is much that is shared, including ancestry. It is very telling that on the map of Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum results, a striking bulwark of “No” (to independence) voting constituencies form a thick line north of the border, coinciding with the Ordovician geology. The warp and weft of cross-border communities is strong, and the Tweed unifies as much as it divides.

Kovats says of the work:

TWEED started by me following the river. Tweeds Well is a lonely place in the Lowther Hills, where the river rises, traveling for just under one hundred miles before entering the sea at Tweedmouth. I believe all rivers have their own voice. Some rivers run through you, your conscious and beyond-conscious mind. Tweed is a bilingual river that travels along a border, a historic, geopolitical, psychological and metaphoric boundary. For TWEED, I brought together a set of writings and drawings in the form of a unique newspaper publication that were part of an exhibition in the summer of 2019 at Berwick Gymnasium in the exhibition Head to Mouth.

Border ballads are a discrete song form of the landscape that the river Tweed runs through and lent TWEED its form. In TWEED I expressed the narrative of the river as a tortured love story between he/she, north/south, that ultimately ends in separation. The shapeshifter Tam Lin lent his liquid identity to the narrative. This ‘border ballad’ of drawings and writing addressed the fragile state of the ‘Union’ as a metaphysical love story and a test of internal and external boundaries.”

Tania Kovats comes to the River Tweed with that deep sense of time, able to unite its geological agency with its geopolitical resonance. Her work, TWEED, addresses the specificity of this national river and the fluidity of identity that it prompts in its communities. The work also takes its place within the broader arc of her work with, and about, water. Her 2014 exhibition Oceans, held at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, foregrounded the significance of water on a planetary scale. A scan of the Earth’s surface reminds us of what we as land creatures too easily forget; the ocean’s waters cover 71 percent of the planet and underpin the freshwater systems on land that enable all life. Rivers, her permanent installation at the Jupiter Artland’s boathouse, shifts to a national scale, housing samples of water that the artist collected from 100 rivers across the UK. TWEED zooms in further, and expresses Kovats’ immersion in the geography, mythology, social history and of course balladry of this nationally significant river.

The work that follows here is a set of Tania’s ink wash drawings with the text of the border ballads that accompany the artworks. Her focus on water, fluidity, atmosphere, and the character of the river come to the fore in this work.

'TWEED: Border Ballads' courtesy of Tania Kovats.

‘TWEED: Border Ballads’ courtesy of Tania Kovats.

'TWEED: Border Ballads' courtesy of Tania Kovats.

‘TWEED: Border Ballads’ courtesy of Tania Kovats.

All images courtesy of Tania Kovats.

View TWEED on Issuu.

Further reading:

Holt, Ysanne. 2019. “On Watery Borders, Borderlands, and Tania Kovats’ Head to Mouth.” Arts 8 (3): 104.

Recommended Citation

Kovats, Tania and Mary Modeen. 2021. “TWEED.” Open Rivers: Rethinking Water, Place & Community, no. 20.


Download PDF of TWEED by Tania Kovats and Mary Modeen.