ROAM THE WILD FRONTIER
Meander along the River Tweed, through the quietly majestic hills and historic market towns of the Scottish Borders, with a romantic tale at every turn.
Some years ago, while firmly entrenched in city life, I found myself escaping with increasing frequency to the fertile valley and hills of the Tweed. The city was Brisbane and the Tweed in question formed part of the Northern Rivers region that straddles the QueenslandNew South Wales border. Beautiful as it was, though, it was always my native Scotland that was on my mind.
Fast forward to today and my partner and I are living in the Southern Uplands, where we often explore the course of the original Tweed across the Scottish Borders – 97 miles of waterway, 17 of which also mark the boundary between Scotland and England.
The Tweed has influenced the texture of the Scottish Borders, both figuratively and literally – the eponymous rough, woollen cloth has been manufactured along its banks since the 18th century. This majestic river is also internationally famous for its salmon fishing.
Adorned by gracious abbeys, delightful market towns and ancient castles, the Tweed meanders across the old counties of Peeblesshire, Selkirkshire, Roxburghshire and Berwickshire. History abounds, with many a tale of daring raids by the Border reivers (the raiders of the 13th to 17th centuries) and of violent clashes with the English during the Wars of Independence. There’s also a fine literary tradition, from Sir Walter Scott to the Borders Book Festival held every summer at Melrose.
COAST AND COUNTRY
Our journey starts in the east, just across the border at Berwick-upon-Tweed, a handsome town that has ping-ponged back and forth between the Scots and English. Today, it has a character all of its own – it’s not quite ‘of’ anywhere except itself. Its mighty defensive walls make for a memorable walk. The Berwickshire Coastal Path runs northwards from here for almost 50 miles to Cockburnspath, which is also the start of the 212-mile, cross-country Southern Upland Way.
The small town of Eyemouth eight miles north of Berwick tumbles down the hill to the narrow streets around the harbour. St Abbs, four miles or so further on, is a tiny fishing village near the compelling 300-foot clifftops of St Abbs Head National Nature
Reserve, which provides penthouse accommodation for fulmars, puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots and more.
Inland, the Berwickshire Merse lies between the Tweed and the Lammermuir Hills in the north. The stretch of river that separates Ladykirk in Scotland from the Northumbrian castle of Norham is one of the most popular fishing beats, while at
Coldstream, where the small museum celebrates the raising of the Coldstream Guards in 1650, the river arcs southwards to enclose ‘Ba Green’ meadow. It is said that ownership of this small enclave was annually contested with a game of ba – a sort of medieval football – between Coldstream (in Scotland) and Wark (in England), with the winners claiming the meadow. Coldstream, with the larger population, always had more players and therefore always won, so the meadow became part of Scotland. Instead of running down the middle of the river, the border here now runs on the south bank.
North of Coldstream lies the pretty village of Duns, with market square and statue of Wojtek, the Syrian brown bear that became the unlikely mascot of the Polish Free Army, when it was encamped in the Borders during the Second World War. Head north beyond Duns and the brooding and desolate Lammermuir Hills rise to vast open moorland. For the full experience, turn up the volume and listen to Donizetti’s tragic opera Lucia di
Lammermoor, inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, as you head out into the wilderness.
Most of the Lammermuirs are managed as grouse moors and this is a good area to spot golden plovers, curlews and merlins. You may also see mountain hares.
THE BORDER ABBEYS
Beyond Coldstream, follow the Tweed upstream for endearing towns, historic houses and castles, and the Borders’ celebrated 12th-century abbeys. Superlative Kelso is charming: architecturally impressive, it not only boasts the largest cobbled square in Scotland but also the largest inhabited castle in the country, Floors Castle, which is perfectly set on the banks of the Tweed. Kelso Abbey was one of Scotland’s largest and wealthiest houses and its ruins are one of the most noteworthy
examples of Romanesque architecture north of the border.
A little further on, strikingly set at the foot of the distinctive peaks of the Eildon Hills, lies genteel Melrose – think cafés, delicatessens, bookshops and quaint cottages, as well as an abbey that was so beloved by Robert the Bruce that he chose to have his heart buried here. Melrose has come into its own in recent years thanks to the re-opening of the Waverley Route railway in 2015. Named after Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, the Borders railway service that runs from Edinburgh is the longest new domestic railway to be built in the UK in over 100 years.
In between Kelso and Melrose, in a dreamy riverside setting, lies Dryburgh, home to the most romantic of the Border abbeys, which was a favourite of Sir Walter Scott, who chose to be buried here alongside his wife. Close by, also on the banks of the Tweed, is Scott’s home, Abbotsford, a labour of love that was only completed after his death. From the hillside above Dryburgh you can take in the Eildon Hills from Scott’s
“STRIKINGLY SET AT THE FOOT OF THE PEAKS OF THE EILDON HILLS LIES GENTEEL MELROSE”
View, a suitably utopian vista for this key figure of the literary romantic movement. So frequently did Scott linger at this spot that, en route to his funeral, his horse came to a standstill here unprompted.
The fourth abbey, Jedburgh, occupies a grand position atop a hill in the centre of this small Royal and Ancient Borough, which lies just 10 miles north of the border at the Carter Bar in the Cheviot Hills.
The abbeys in this region are linked by the 64-mile Borders Abbeys Way circular walk, which also takes in the towns of Selkirk and Hawick, both known for their Common Ridings commemorating the custom of patrolling the marches on horseback. These annual events are as enthralling as the Borders’ other big passion, rugby (rugby sevens was invented in Melrose and each spring the championship is a huge draw). Hawick, known for its cashmere and knitwear, is also where you’ll find the region’s newest distillery, owned by the Three Stills Company, as well as an excellent presentation of the area’s textile industry at the Borders Textile Towerhouse.
Head further west and between Melrose and Peebles you’ll encounter a series of small villages strung along the banks of the Tweed. Here, too, is Traquair, where you’ll find Scotland’s oldest inhabited house dating back to 1107. Peebles itself is bustling, well-to-do and strong on independent shops. A little further on, at Eddleston, is the fascinating Mapa Scotland, the largest 3D relief map in the world.
The bonny valleys of Ettrick and the Yarrow make up much of the far west of the region and feel wilder and more remote than any other part of the Borders. This is an area to be savoured for its sense of isolation, its wildlife and sheer beauty. It is also fine walking country, replete with rolling and steep-sided hills grazed by white-faced Cheviot sheep.
At its centre lies St Mary’s Loch, which at three-miles long is southern Scotland’s largest natural loch. On a hill overlooking the loch, the lonely ruins of St Mary’s Kirk make an atmospheric setting for the annual ‘Blanket Preaching’ service each July, which recalls the days of the 17th-century Convenanters when religious upheaval led to many ministers preaching outdoors.
Sir Walter Scott used to pass through this area regularly and it was in these valleys that he formed his close friendship with James Hogg, the poet shepherd to whom he was introduced by his private secretary Willie Laidlaw (from whom I’m descended). A statue of Hogg stands at the southwest end of St Mary’s Loch. Head further west still, up into the
Lowther Hills, to end this trip across the Borders by paying homage to the delights of the Tweed at its source, Tweeds Well. The spot is marked by a cairn at a layby on the scenic A701 route from Edinburgh, and if you’re minded to follow another of Scotland’s rivers, it may help to know that both the Annan and the Clyde rise nearby. “Annan, Tweed and Clyde rise a’ oot o’ ae hillside,” goes an old Borders saying. It’s all a very long way from Queensland.
“JEDBURGH ABBEY OCCUPIES A GRAND POSITION ATOP A HILL IN THE CENTRE OF THIS BOROUGH”
TOP Fifteen sandstone arches span the Old Bridge, which straddles the river at Berwick-Upon-Tweed before it opens out to meet the North Sea ABOVE The White Wall was built in 1296 to protect Berwick Castle from an attack along the riverbank
TOP The Tweed curves through Coldstream, where its south bank marks the boundary between England and Scotland ABOVE The 12th-century Augustinian monastery Jedburgh Abbey mixes Romanesque and early Gothic architecture
TOP Abbotsford – the home of novelist Sir Walter Scott – is a Gothic masterpiece, filled with curios and artefacts, and set within sumptuous gardens ABOVE Once a lawless place, the Borders were peaceful by the time Floors Castle was built in 1726; the battlements are all for show
TOP Peebles is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that offers world-class salmon fishing ABOVE Ettrick Water is a tributory of the River Tweed, and is known locally as Wild Ettrick
TOP The views around St Mary’s Loch have been inspiring writers and artists for centuries ABOVE Forever watching the waters and skies, a memorial to the poet James Hogg stands on the bank of St Mary’s Loch