Sandwiched between the Cheviot Hills on the English border and the ranges to the south of Edinburgh, the Scottish Borders offers beautiful countryside and a wild, violent history
When the Tudors reigned in England and the Stuart monarchs ruled Scotland, the border area between these two countries was a ferocious, lawless place. The families who lived here were known as the Border Reivers, from the old English word for ‘to rob’, and from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century English and Scottish riders on hardy horses raided both sides of the border, carrying off livestock, valuables and even human hostages.
Today the Borders still has a culture and an atmosphere that is quite its own – the legacy of these dangerous, daring people whose affinity with the land and the horse has shaped the region. And indeed the highlights of each year here are the Common Ridings, festivals with roots that go back to the days when the men of the town rode the boundaries of the surrounding common land to scour for signs of attackers and check defences.
The Borders bills itself as Scotland’s leading short break destination, and if you are travelling from London it is surprisingly easy to get a taste of the region in a long weekend. If you go up on the sleeper train you can spend all the travelling time dozing peacefully (with earplugs provided) in your own private cabin with cosy bed, woken on arrival in Edinburgh with breakfast brought right to your door.
It’s said that the Reivers raided as far as Edinburgh but you need to head south from here to get deep into Borders country. At the head of the River Tyne, a winding lane through rolling fields and past postcard-perfect stone villages will lead you to the remains of Crichton Castle, standing in splendid isolation overlooking the valley. A noble residence for some 200 years, from the late 14th century through to the close of the 16th century, the castle now rests in its sleepy corner of Midlothian and is a peaceful, picturesque place to visit.
South of Lauder you’ll come across the majestic Leaderfoot viaduct. Described as “immense” by Queen Victoria, its 19 elegant arches are built of brick and rustic-faced red sandstone and have spanned the Tweed since 1863, although it is no longer in use.
In the lush Tweed valley that lies between Melrose and Peebles all is serene and green – the emerald colour of the grass reflects the amount of rainfall, as of course this country isn’t known for its sunny weather. But if you’re caught in a wet spell it only adds to the romantic feel of the countryside, and the sporting pursuits that the region is famous for are enjoyable come rain or shine.
If it’s riding and horse events you’re interested in, the Borders is the perfect place to visit. I try out one of the many riding stables in the area – Nenthorn Equestrian Centre near Kelso – where the quality of horses is excellent. The lush countryside with its peaks and troughs offers exhilarating scenery to ride through, and it is easy to imagine the adrenaline and excitement of those who once rode at their peril on audacious raids.
Fishing is also hugely popular here and the beautiful River Tweed and other Borders rivers slice through the hilly landscape, water shining with the leap of trout and salmon. Some huge fish have been caught here, not least the 58.25lb monster on display in the 10th Duke of Roxburghe’s sporting room at Floors Castle.
The largest inhabited castle in Scotland, Floors is a family home that was built for the 1st Duke of Roxburghe in 1721 and has gorgeous sloping views down to the Tweed. For the past 40 years a section of the castle has been open to the public; you can explore the spectacular state rooms that are strewn with photos of the Duke and his family and packed with a range of priceless treasures. Foodies and shopaholics are also well catered for at Floors, with a choice of two simple but good eateries (the Courtyard Restaurant and Terrace Café) and a great variety of souvenirs to take home. You can even buy delicious castle kitchen produce, including kedgeree, local game pie and tempting terrines.
Part of the Roxburghe Estate and about four miles from the castle, The Roxburghe Hotel & Golf Course is the perfect base from which to explore all the surrounding area has to offer. A cosy country house, with 22 bedrooms, The Roxburghe is all about making guests feel as relaxed as possible. My pleasantly flowery bedroom has a balcony overlooking the gardens for when the sun comes out and a log fire ready-laid in case a chill sets in. The food here is also a real highlight, with beautifully presented dishes yet good-sized portions, and a satisfying range of locally sourced ingredients. Setting off to explore the grounds I come across a trout pond, nestled under a yellow wisteria tree and wriggling with fat tadpoles, and, further on, signposted trails into woodland bursting with purple azaleas. There is also a beautiful golf course here (the Roxburghe Championship Golf Course), said to be one of the best golfing experiences in the Borders and Northumberland region.
Kelso is the closest town, where the typical Borders’ honey-grey stone buildings surround a large cobbled market square edged by traditional family-run shops such as A Hume gentlemen’s outfitters, which opened in 1929. The town’s abbey is one of four in the Borders, along with Dryburgh, Jedburgh and the magnificent Melrose, founded during the reign of the pious King David I in the 12th century.
The 64.5-mile Borders Abbeys Way footpath was developed around these four as well as the location of an even earlier but short lived Tironsian Abbey in Selkirk. Although all are now ruins they are beautiful monuments to the many Cistercian and Augustinian monks who lived here. Melrose Abbey is particularly worth visiting – although destroyed by Richard II of England in 1385,what now exists is the 15th-century Gothic abbey that replaced the earlier monastery. It is purported to be the burial place of the heart of Scottish king Robert the Bruce.
You can climb the 74 steps to the top of the bell tower for wonderful views of the abbey, the pretty town of Melrose with its yellow bunting flying in the breeze, and the unmistakable hulking triple peaks of the Eildon Hills looming beyond.
The area around Melrose has been inhabited for thousands of years. The Roman army arrived in AD79 or 80 and built a major fort nearby named Trimontium, or ‘Place of the Three Hills’. A shrine or possible signal station was built on the summit of the northernmost hill. Today the small Three Hills Roman Heritage Centre in the heart of Melrose houses the Trimontium Museum, which is dedicated to Roman life in Scotland and features a Roman kitchen and pottery amongst other exhibits.
Long after they were gone, the most legendary Border Reivers were immortalised in folk song and ballads. And they were romanticised by writers such as Sir Walter Scott, himself a native of the Borders. Scott’s house, Abbotsford, has recently undergone a huge restoration. Her Majesty The Queen visited in July to celebrate the re-opening of what is now one of Scotland’s most important cultural landmarks.
Abbotsford is a fascinating place to explore – with walled gardens bursting with colour, views down to the river and a new state-of-the-art visitor’s centre and exhibition space you can easily spend a day here. The house is the highlight though, with rooms crammed full of the curiosities Scott liked to collect, including the Marquis of Montrose’s Sword, Scottish outlaw Rob Roy’s gun and a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair.
Visitors will see Scott’s study where he wrote many of his novels, and his library, which contains over 9,000 rare volumes – probably the house’s greatest treasure. A drawing room decorated with original Chinese hand-painted wallpaper was designed for Scott’s wife, whereas the imposing entrance hall is covered with armour and weapons from all over the world.
Abbotsford sits between Selkirk and Melrose on the Borders Abbeys Way, so you can always choose a direction to strike off on foot and lose yourself in Borders country.
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