Alexis steps off the plane at the Newcastle Airport in Scotland. For her 18th birthday, which is tomorrow, her parents are taking her to visit Hadrian’s Wall. Alexis has always been fascinated with historical sites. She had wanted to see Hadrian’s Wall ever since she first read about it.
After visiting the interesting Great North Museum the next morning, they trekked to the nearest remains of the wall. They walked along the wall for a while, and when they came to the top of a hill overlooking miles and miles of breathtaking rolling hills with small white spots of sheep, they stopped to rest.
While still catching her breath, her mom puts a letter on her lap. Finally! Alexis was wondering when her mom would give her the next letter from Grandma! For both her 16th and 17th birthdays she received a letter from her grandmother – and a pearl necklace for her 16th – and she had come to expect one. Alexis tore the envelope open and started to read the letter.
My dear Alexis,
Today I want to tell you about your ancestor, Blythe. Blythe was born around 118 AD in the Roman province of Britannia, a few years before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall began.
Alexis looks up into her parents grinning faces. So, that’s why they chose to travel to Scotland this year!
Blythe’s was the daughter of a Roman engineer, Atticus, who was in charge of the design and construction of the wall. Her mother, Eathelin, was a Britannia native, and the daughter of a local farmer. The two of them met one day when Eathelin, on her way back from the market, passed Atticus who was taking measurements for the wall.
During her younger years, Blythe’s family were always on the move. Her dad would oversee the wall construction, and her mom attended to the vegetable gardens which fed the soldiers who were building the wall. When Blythe wasn’t covered with mud from the gardens, she played in the limestone quarries or the forests where the soldiers cut wood to build the mile castles (forts). True to her name, she brought joy and cheer to everyone around her. The Roman legionnaires were very fond of her.
The northern Caledonian tribes did not approve of the wall construction – after all, it was built to keep them out. They were constantly spying on the wall construction. One day, when Blythe was about 14 years old, she was playing in the forest on the northern side of the wall. While trying to catch a little butterfly, she wandered too far away from home. Barbarian spies were sneaking through the forest and seeing her playing alone, they took their chance and kidnapped her.
They sent a ransom note to the commander of the fort, demanding that the Romans stop building the wall if they wanted to get her back.
While they were waiting for a reply, the barbarians kept Blythe in a cage in their village. A red-headed boy, named Niven, brought her food and water every day.
At first, the Roman commander tried to negotiate with the barbarians. They did not budge, and since the commander was under orders from Emperor Hadrian to build the wall, he was not in a position to give in to their demands. In the end, he had no choice but to leave Blythe to her fate.
Blythe’s parents were devastated. They tried many times to rescue her but to no avail.
As the weeks and months passed, Blythe and the red-haired boy became friends. Niven was the son of the village chieftain. He did not approve of their friendship, but out of respect for Niven, the chieftain made sure that no harm came to Blythe.
The villagers did not agree. They wanted blood. One evening, the riotous villagers demanded that Blythe be killed. They planned to decapitate her and to hoist her head on a pole near the Roman camp as a warning. The chieftain, no longer able to keep them calm, agreed that they would execute Blythe the next evening, after their feast.
Niven overheard the conversation and started to formulate a plan of escape. As luck would have it (or maybe by his father’s design) the barbarian guarding the cage the next evening was known for drinking a tad too much and then falling asleep. Niven made sure that the guard’s cup stayed full. When the guard fell asleep, Niven nicked the key to the cage from his neck and freed Blythe.
They snuck past the sleeping guard and the drunken villagers and headed into the forest. Niven knew that once the village found out that Blythe was gone, the villagers would presume that they would flee south towards the wall. He took Blythe west towards the mountains.
They found a small cave far away from the village and stayed there for a few months. Niven would hunt and fish during the day while Blythe gathered berries and nuts. At night, they made a fire for warmth and to cook their food.
When Niven thought it was safe and that the search for them must have died down, they started back towards the wall, making sure to steer clear of the village. On reaching Blythe’s home at the Roman camp, the Roman soldiers arrested Niven, charging him for Blythe’s abduction. Blythe explained how Niven had saved her life and she begged them for his freedom. Holding the northern Caledonian boy responsible, they forced him into slavery.
For almost a year, Niven worked day and night in the limestone quarries. The slave master was cruel and often let his whip loose on him. Luckily, the man guarding the slaves’ sleeping quarters was kind to Blythe, so he looked the other way when she snuck in to bring Niven extra food and to treat his wounds.
On Blythe’s 16th birthday, her grandmother visited them from Rome. As per tradition, she gave the string of heirloom pearls to Blythe. Grandma could sense that Blythe was extremely unhappy. Her granddaughter would only light up when she saw Niven, but a shadow would quickly be cast over her eyes to see his suffering. It was Grandma’s turn to formulate an escape plan.
Blythe’s grandmother came from an influential family in Rome. She told the commander of the fort that she wanted to travel to the Fort Pons Aelius (modern day Newcastle-upon-Tyne) to visit a friend and that she needed the young slave Niven to accompany her to look after the donkeys. The commander agreed but assigned two-foot soldiers to escort them. She hid Blythe in the donkey cart under some blankets, and Blythe only came out at night when the rest of the entourage was asleep.
When the party was about two days’ travel away from Pons Aelius, Blythe’s grandma bribed the two soldiers to look the other way while Niven and Blythe escaped. The soldiers only alerted the commander of the escape once they arrived at the fort, giving Niven and Blythe enough time to put many miles between them and the wall.
They fled north and finally settled down near modern day Aberdeen where they lived out the rest of their days. They were happy and led a simple life with their four children.
Blythe never saw her grandma again after that night. Years later, she found out that her grandmother had left for Rome shortly after arriving in Pons Aelius. She denied that she helped them escape, and without any evidence against her, she was never prosecuted. She passed away soon afterward.
The heirloom pearls were Blythe’s most prized earthly possession. Every night before she went to sleep, she would take out the pearls and thank her grandmother’s spirit for helping them escape and watching over them every day.
Just as the spirit of Blythe’s grandmother watched over her, so I will watch over you every day. Be wise. Be strong. Be brave.
Heirlooms are a silent testament to lives lived, and struggles overcome by former generations. Check out our shop if you would like to start your own heirloom pearl tradition.