Once a battlefield of the Scottish and the English, the Borders today attracts those in search of spectacular ruined abbeys, world-class fishing and majestic market towns.
For centuries scotland and england battled for control of the scottish borders. today tourists have replaced warriors and they come to enjoy the spectacular ruined abbeys, world-class fishing, picturesque market towns and the swathes of history that ripple through a region with an intoxicatingly tumultuous past.
Spreading its tentacles over 1,800 square miles, the Scottish Borders stretches from the rolling hills and moorland in the west, through gentler valleys to the high agricultural plains of the east, and on to the rocky Berwickshire coastline with its secluded coves and picturesque fishing villages. Swirl in chocolate box pretty market towns, dramatic ruined abbeys and some of the UK’s most attractive country houses and it is easy to understand why people fall deeply in love with the region.
Jon Salton, a native Scot who runs a tour company that work in the area, neatly sums up the appeal. “This unique corner of Scotland is on a political and historical fault line that has left a remarkable legacy and its scenery is up there with anything else I’ve seen in the UK. Come here once and I guarantee you will want to come back.”
Mankind has always been smitten with the Borders, with raids and counter attacks between jealous rivals in England and Scotland the norm for hundreds of years. On occasion these skirmishes escalated into all out combat, with deadly results for King James IV of Scotland and his son and heir King James V. The former died at the Battle of Flodden near Coldstream, while a routing at the Battle of Solway Moss near the River Esk in 1542 is reputed to have finished off his son. Even after the ‘last’ border war between the English and the Scots in 1571, the local threat from neighbouring landlords keen to seize a bit more of this coveted territory continued as well as the tradition of the wild Border Reivers who still crossed the border in the hunt for booty.
This turbulent history is commemorated today in the annual Common Ridings (also known as the Marches) that take place across the region. In all 11 festivals hark back to the bygone days of the 13th and 14th centuries when townsfolk were forced to ride to their town’s boundaries on horseback to make sure that their rivals were not encroaching on their common land. One of the most colourful historic re-enactments takes place in Selkirk every June, where the highlight is a colourful cavalcade of hundreds of horses and riders.
Selkirk’s rich history is also intertwined with the life of perhaps the Borders most celebrated citizen, Sir Walter Scott. The world-famous writer who penned romantic classics like Rob Roy, Ivanhoe and Waverley, served as the town’s sheriff between 1804 and 1832. Today visitors to the Borders can also tour his grand old Abbotsford mansion, in one of the region’s most scenic corners. It was this outstanding wild natural beauty – tourists can still see his beloved ‘Scott’s View’ – that was so inspirational for Scott as he crafted his remarkable historical novels and poems, some of which are on display in both his former home and Sir Walter Scott’s Courtroom in Selkirk.
The seminal architect Robert Adam is famous name synonymous with the Borders. Fittingly the region is also the location of one of his most renowned creations, Mellerstain House. Eulogised for its striking elegance, grand ceilings and handsome library, the house was actually built on the work already done by Adam’s father, with this immense masterpiece taking more than 50 years to complete.
Adam himself would have drawn inspiration from the Borders’ treasure trove of ruined abbeys. These grand old dames may have been sacked over the centuries, but their romantic remains stand proud and are open to ramble around. Once the grandest of these ecclesiastical structures, Kelso Abbey was devastated as the land disputes between Scotland and England raged on. Despite this its striking Romanesque design still reveals itself. Jedburgh Abbey also endured centuries of attack, yet even today its majesty is a reminder of King David I of Scotland’s message to England who, with such a grand design, wanted to prove that his country held sway over the Borders.
Enveloped by a protective layer of trees and reclining serenely on the banks of the River Tweed, the striking ruins of medieval Dryburgh Abbey provide an insight into the cloistered life of a monk. It is also a place of pilgrimage for those who admire the work of Sir Walter Scott, as the great man’s grave lies here. The grand ruins of Melrose Abbey meanwhile ensure that the ghost of perhaps Scotland’s greatest warrior king lives on, as it is the place where Robert the Bruce is believed to have been laid to rest.
They may be famous for their ruined abbeys, but the market towns of Melrose, Jedburgh and Kelso – picture postcard gems, located on the banks of rivers and flanked by undulating hills – also capture the essence of the Borders. Reclining majestically on the banks of the Tweed, Peebles is another eye-catching oasis. One of the greatest pleasures in this handsome town is easing out along the riverside trail that leads to Neidpath Castle, a striking 14th-century fortification that conjures up the region’s wild and troubled past.
Resting just outside the main urban centres, the Borders’ stately homes rank amongst the most impressive in the UK. A mile west of Kelso, ostentatious Floors Castle is the largest inhabited stately home in Scotland. Although it was sculpted by William Adam back in the 1720s, today’s structure is largely the work of William Playfair, who transformed the original Georgian structure into an imposing 19th-century Baronial mansion.
Near Peebles, Traquair House, meanwhile, lays claim to be ‘Scotland’s Oldest Inhabited House’. This architectural marvel is every bit the grand country manor, awash with tall tales and intriguing legends. One of the most romantic relates to the firmly shut Bear Gates. After bidding farewell to the Jacobite Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, the 5th Earl of Traquair vowed not to reopen the gates until the Stuarts were returned to the throne. As a result the portal has been closed for more than 260 years. The house also boasts its own microbrewery.
Hermitage Castle, meanwhile, has fared less well over the centuries. This bleak and imposing semi-ruined castle, seems ill at ease with the beautiful Hermitage Water alongside which its sits. Although it had fallen into disrepair by the 17th century, this dramatic cube-like structure found fame as a desolate ruin that helped fuel the darker aspects of Sir Walter Scott’s literature.
A visit to the Borders, however, is not all about the rich history that it is cloaked in. For many it is the alluring nature that keeps bringing them back. A region carved by the force of its tempestuous rivers, dotted with rolling hills and mature forest, the Borders were made for walkers. In the northeast, the heather clad Lammermuir Hills are perfect for a gentle stroll, while farther east the rugged coastline between Lamberton and Cocksburnpath brings vaulting sandstone crags, small coves and the bird-lined sea cliffs at St Abbs Head. Long distance paths include the 212-mile Southern Upland Way (which crosses Scotland coast to coast) and the spectacular St Cuthbert’s Way, which sweeps 62 miles from Melrose Abbey to Lindisfarne in Northumberland.
All this unspoiled countryside is also a haven for cyclists. The Tweed Cycleway takes riders on an 89-mile journey that makes the most of the region’s stunning nature and passes through its market towns as it follows the snaking route of the mighty Tweed. For anglers, of course, the river is all about its world-class salmon fishing. The local lochs meanwhile brim with rainbow trout and sea fishing adventures await off the Berwickshire coast.
Golf is another way that visitors choose to immerse themselves in the Borders landscape, and, as might be expected in a country that is the home of golf, there are a flurry of courses to play. The water hazard on the seventh hole (the ‘Stank’) at Kelso is legendary, while the views from the 11th hole (Dunion) at Minto and the 6th at Eyemouth both offer breathtaking panoramas. The latter has also been voted ‘Britain’s Most Extraordinary Golf Hole’. Since opening in 2001 Dave Thomas’ Cardrona course (the Borders’ newest golf course) has, thanks to its dramatic setting and challenging holes, earned itself the moniker ‘The Gleneagles of the South’. For those who like their outdoor pursuits to be of the more white-knuckle variety Cardrona also neighbours the Glentress Forest, one of the UK’s premier mountain biking destinations.
Hungry after all this physical activity? Fortunately the region has been synonymous for centuries with first-rate produce. While the local farmers reap bountiful crops the fi shermen enjoy bumper catches. The biggest fishing fleet is at Eyemouth, where you can enjoy seriously good fish and chips as well as some more sophisticated fare in the harbour side pubs and restaurants.
While salmon, trout and seafood caught in the Borders may be divine, it is for its world-class lamb that the Borders is legendary. Relaxing with a juicy rack of tender Borders lamb after a day spent rambling around romantic abbeys and stately homes, it is hard not to fall in love with a once troubled land that is as popular with tourists today as it was with warriors all those centuries ago.
Scottish Borders information
- Abbotsford, melrose: sir walter scott’s grand mansion rewards visitors with its stately rooms, historic artefacts and the writing of the great literary figure. Tel: (01896) 752043
- Floors Castle, kelso: home to the duke and duchess of roxburghe, this palatial 18th-century mansion and its estate overlooks the river tweed and the cheviot hills. Tel: (01573) 223333
- Manderston House, duns: scotland’s finest edwardian country house, built for sir james miller by scottish architect john kinross. Tel: (01573) 410225
- Melrose RFC, melrose: rugby is at the heart of borders culture and there is nowhere better to watch a game than the home of the rugby sevens. Tel: (01896) 822993
- Peniel Heugh, near jedburgh: this impressive 150ft tower was built in the early 19th century to commemorate the battle of waterloo. t Roxburghe Hotel & Golf Course (3-star), kelso. reclining on the banks of the river teviot, this hotel also has its own championship golf course. Tel: (01573) 450331
- Scott’s View, near melrose: scott reckoned this to be the finest view in the borders and it is stunning. t Sunflower, peebles. This warm and welcoming cafe serves delicious local food. Tel: (01721) 722420; www.thesunflower.net.
- Thirlestane Castle, lauder: this stately castle is one the borders’ most historic and attractive. tel: (01578) 722430
- Traquair House, innerleithen: the oldest inhabited house in scotland, dating back to 1107, with stunning gardens and maze. Tel: (01896) 830323
For details of what to see and do and where to stay in the
Borders, tel: (01835) 863170; www.visitscottishborders.com.
Tourist Information Centres: Abbey House, Abbey St, Melrose
TD6 9LG; Murray’s Green, Jedburgh TD8 6BE; Town House,
The Square, Kelso TD5 7HF; High Street, Peebles EH45 8AG.