In terms of physical size, Scottish Borders is the 6th largest of Scotland’s unitary council areas. It is only the 18th largest in terms of population, reflecting the largely rural nature of the area. For accommodation in the Scottish Borders.
The Scottish Borders extend from the North Sea coast north of Berwick-upon-Tweed in the east, to Annanhead Hill, only a mile and a half from the M74 motorway, in the west. Travelling south to north it extends from near Canonbie to the spine of the Pentland Hills and to the North Sea at Cockburnspath.
Historically, the phrase “Scottish Borders” was applied to the whole of the border between Scotland and England, and to the areas on both sides of it, though the alternative term “Scottish Marches” was often used. These were divided into an East March, a Middle March and a West March in Scotland, and a mirroring set of Marches in England. Between bouts of periodic open warfare that ravaged the area for over five centuries until the late 1600’s, the area was a happy hunting ground for cross-border feuds and banditry by border reivers. The East March in Scotland eventually became the traditional county of Berwickshire, and the Middle March became the traditional county of Roxburghshire.
Roxburghshire, also known as the County of Roxburgh, was one of the 34 traditional counties into which Scotland was divided for administrative purposes. It was the most south easterly of Scotland’s counties and provided a long stretch of the border with England. For much of its history this area was fought over, either by the armies of Scotland and England or during frequent periods of lawlessness, by border reivers.
The main settlements in Roxburghshire were Melrose, Kelso, Jedburgh and Hawick. The county town was Jedburgh. Roxburghshire was also home to the four great border abbeys, Melrose Abbey,Jedburgh Abbey, Kelso Abbey and Dryburgh Abbey. A notable absentee from the list of settlements in Roxburghshire is Roxburgh itself. Today, Roxburgh is a small village about three miles south west ofKelso. In 1400 Roxburgh was one of the most important royal burghs in Scotland, but the frequent conflict between England and Scotland weakened it, and the permanent capture of Berwick-upon-Tweed by the English in 1482 was the final nail in the coffin. Roxburgh was largely abandoned and today little remains beyond traces of the ramparts of its once magnificent castle.
As the crow flies, Smailholm Tower lies almost exactly mid way between Melrose and Kelso. Access is either from the village of Smailholm, whose fine Norman church is worth a visit, or from the B6404, four miles north east of St Boswells. A minor road leads you through the farmstead of Sandyknowe and along a track past an old millpond to the parking area for the tower. From here you have a choice of steep or less steep grassy paths for the final hundred yards.
The landscape that immediately surrounds Smailholm Tower is remarkable. Though the tower lies less than two miles north of the River Tweed, the surrounding chaos of rocky outcrops would actually be quite at home at the opposite end of the country, in north west Sutherland.
It is very easy to see why this site suggested itself for the construction of a defensive tower house. For five hundred years, the border between England and Scotland was witness to repeated wars both large and small, and even in nominally peaceful times, cross border banditry was the norm rather than the exception.
Smailholm Tower stands on a rocky crag that is just large enough to support the tower and the courtyards to its north east and south west. These were surrounded by a tall barmkin wall, now standing to anything like its original height only at the south west end. (Continues below image…)
The tower was once the centre of a thriving settlement. The west courtyard was originally home to a hall and a kitchen, though in the 1650s the hall was replaced by a house. Outside the barmkin wall would have once stood cottages, stables and cattle enclosures, and traces of some of them can still be seen on the ground. There would also have been a mill, on the site now occupied by Sandyknowe Farm to the south east of the tower. The millpond still exists.
The only building now standing is the tower itself. This is a fairly typical tower house with five storeys, each of one major room, piled on top of one another. The building has stone vaulting between the second and third floors, and at roof level: indeed, today’s roof is in effect as a vaulted ceiling, which has been given an outer cladding of living grass.
The ground floor is now the Historic Environment Scotland reception and shop, while the mezzanine floor, originally used for storage, has a range of visitor displays and an excellent cut-away model of the tower. The upper three floors originally provided accommodation for the laird and his family.
The main focus of castle life would have been the hall on what is confusingly called the first floor. Above this would have been a main bedroom, with one or more further bedrooms in the top floor under the roof.
Doors from the upper floor give access to two wall-walks, one on the north west side of the tower, the other on the south east side. These would have formed an important part of the tower’s defences when under attack. The location gives staggering views from the wall-walks. Other signs that the tower was not just for show include a gun loop allowing the west courtyard and main gate to be covered, and another above the main door to the castle.
And Smailholm Tower certainly saw its share of action. It was built by the Pringle family in about 1450 and remained in their hands until 1645. During the 1540s Smailholm was attacked repeatedly by English raiders, the raids only ceasing when in 1548 the Laird, John Pringle, became what was called an assured Scot. In return for a promise not to raid England or to help efforts against English raiders in Scotland, his lands would be left alone.
Cross border conflict ought to have ceased with the Union of the Crowns in 1603, but in July 1640 a group of Covenanters successfully defended the tower against an attack from Royalists during the Civil War.
In 1645 the tower was sold to Sir William Scott. The Scotts built a new house in the West Courtyard. This remained in use until the early 1700s, when the family moved to a more comfortable and less exposed house they built a few hundred yards to the east at Sandyknowe.
The most famous member of the Scott family was Sir Walter Scott. As a child he spent time here with his grandparents recovering from polio, and it was at Sandyknowe and in the shadow of Smailholm Tower that Scott came to love the ballads of the Scottish Borders.
The upper three floors of Smailholm Tower are today used as a permanent exhibition of costumed figures and beautiful tapestries that recall Scott’scollections of ballards and the turbulent past of the area.
A particular bone of contention between Scotland and England was Berwick-upon-Tweed. On the north bank of the River Tweed and the county town of the traditional Scottish county of Berwickshire,it was logically Scottish. But logic played little part in the politics of the day and in the two centuries up to 1482 the town changed hands no fewer than 14 times. Since then it has remained a part of England.
The first settlement on the coast north of the English border is Burnmouth, a village mostly hidden at the foot of the cliffs surrounding its harbour. A few miles north is Eyemouth, a busy and attractive fishing port and seaside resort whose fortunes and tragic misfortunes have been closely linked to the sea since the 1200s.
From Eyemouth the A1107 provides a quieter alternative to the A1 for those heading north, passing through Coldingham, complete with the church and other remains of Coldingham Priory. Just north of the fishing village of St Abbs, at St Abb’s Head, the coast turns to follow a generally westwards direction along the southern shore of the Firth of Forth. Three miles along the coast are the clifftop ruins of Fast Castle. West of St Abbs the A1 runs past Cockburnspath and close to the hidden gem of Cove
Inland from the North Sea Coast and the A1 lie the Lammermuir Hills, with the villages of Gifford to their north and Duns to their south. West of Berwick-upon-Tweed is Paxton House and the nearbyUnion Chain Bridge. while on the English side of the border is Norham Castle, where some key moments in Anglo-Scottish history were played out.
Two miles east of Duns is Manderston, the epitome of the Edwardian country house, while a little further east again is the Norman Edrom Arch. Seven miles south of Duns is its long term rival for the title of county town of Berwickshire, Greenlaw. Just to the east of Greenlaw is the Richard Hillary Memorial, while to the south is Hume Castle. North of Duns are a series of small village on the southern flank of the Lammermuirs. These include Longformacus and Abbey St Bathans, both on the route of the Southern Upland Way.
Following the main A68 road from Darlington to Edinburgh you cross the border at Carter Bar and descend towards Jedburgh, Smaller and more traditional in feel than Hawick, Jedburgh is overshadowed by the remarkably complete remains of Jedburgh Abbey, just to the south of the attractive centre of the town. Of the castle that once played such a central part in repeated Anglo-Scottish wars, nothing now remains, though the Victorians did build the Castle Jail on the site.
North of Jedburgh the A68 passes through St Boswells. From here it is possible to follow minor roads that loop round to another of the great border abbeys, Dryburgh Abbey. To its north is the William Wallace Statue and the magnificent Scott’s View. A couple of miles further to the north east isSmailholm Tower. There is a fine church with Norman origins, Smailholm Church, in the nearby village of Smailholm. A little north west of St Boswells is Newton St Boswells. Nearby is the fine old Bowden Kirk.
East from St Boswells the A699 takes you to Kelso, which also grew up around its abbey. Kelso Abbeywas once the most powerful and impressive of the four major border abbeys, but thanks to repeated invasions by Henry VIII during the “rough wooing” (see our Historical Timeline) it is the least well preserved of them today.
On the edge of the Cheviots south east of Kelso lie the twin villages of Town Yetholm and Kirk Yetholm, the latter being best known as being the start or finish of the Pennine Way. Also close to the border south of Yetholm is the hamlet of Hownam. North of Hownam is the more substantial village of Morebattle, while two miles to the latter’s west is the ruin of Cessford Castle.
Like Kelso, Coldstream lies on the River Tweed as it makes its way to the sea at Berwick. The town is best known for giving its name to a regiment of the British Army, the Coldstream Guards, formed in 1650. Coldstream lies just half the width of the River Tweed away from England and has had an eventful history as a result.
North of Hawick lies Selkirk, on a tributary of the Tweed, the Ettrick Water. This was the site of a royal castle from the 1100s but remained a small village until 1791 when it began a century of dramatic growth with the building of woollen mills along the river valley. The woollen industry which was once so important to the Scottish Borders has declined. But parts of the industry still thrive. Lochcarron of Scotland relocated to Selkirk from Galashiels in 2006, and Andrew Elliot Ltd’s Factory and Mill Shop is another excellent example of a working mill.
Further west is the A708. Attractions along this little used road include the James Hogg Monumentoverlooking St Mary’s Loch, and Tibbie Shiel’s Inn. Yarrow Kirk in the tiny settlement of Yarrow has a very unusual plan, while the nearby Yarrow Stone is a very early Christian memorial with a Latin inscription.
An alternative route through the area is provided by a minor road running close to the English borderalong Liddesdale to Newcastleton. This is an estate village built in 1793 for hand loom operators and the street pattern has changed little since. North from Newcastleton is the broodingly forbidding Hermitage Castle, in our view one of the two spookiest castles in Scotland (the other is rather more modern). Nearby is the Chapel of Hermitage.
The attractive town of Peebles lies on the north bank of the Tweed. Its broad High Street leads toPeebles Old Parish Church, built in 1887 and incorporating parts of an older church. The ruins of a still earlier church, Cross Kirk, can be found on the western side of the town, while St Andrews’ Tower, part of a parish church dating back to 1195, also still stands. Peebles is home to the excellentTontine Hotel, while nearby is the John Buchan Story.
West of Peebles, the River Tweed curves south above its confluence with the Lyne Water, passing Stobo Castle and Stobo Kirk on one side, and the Dawyck Botanic Garden on the other. The scattered settlement of Lyne, on the north side of the valley of the Lyne Water, is home to Lyne Church, and to the remains of a Roman fort and, at Abbey Knowe, a dark age Northumbrian cemetery.
To the south is Tweeddale and some of the most remote countryside anywhere in Scotland. In the tiny hamlet of Tweedsmuir near the A701 is the very attractive Tweedsmuir Kirk.
Ten miles north west of Peebles is the attractive village of West Linton with its unusually fine St Andrew’s Church. Heading back towards Peebles you find the village of Eddleston. This is home to the Horseshoe Inn. Between Eddleston and Peebles is the outstanding Cringletie House Hotel.Meanwhile, a minor road to the south west passes close by White Meldon, home to an important hillfort, and to the remains of the hut circles of the Green Knowe Settlement. After leaving Peeblesthe Tweed passes Innerleithen, which grew in the 1700s around its mills. A short distance south ofInnerleithen is Traquair House. This started life as the Palace of Traquair, a favourite retreat of Scottish Kings as far back as 1107.
Galashiels lies not on the River Tweed, but on the Gala Water. It grew as a mill town. Further up the Gala Water is the ancient village of Stow. If you travel east through Galashiels and past the confluence of the Gala Water with the Tweed you come to the very attractive town of Melrose: en route passing the home of Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford.
Melrose is perhaps best known for being the home since 1883 of a rugby tournament, the Melrose Sevens, held in April each year. In the heart of the town lie the remains of Melrose Abbey, originally founded here by the Cistercians in the 1100s. Melrose was on the route of more than one marauding army from the south, and much of what remains dates back only to the 1400s. And quite a lot does remain, including a fair part of the Abbey Church, said to be the final resting place of Robert the Bruce’s heart. Forming part of the abbey is the excellent Commendator’s House Museum. Melrose is also home to two National Trust for Scotland gardens, Harmony Garden and Priorwood Garden, and to the Trimontium Museum, celebrating the town’s Roman heritage. On the flank of the Eildon Hills south east of Melrose is the Rhymer’s Stone.
North along the A68 from Melrose is Earlston, with, beyond it, Lauder. Lauder is a traditional market town which lies on the western side of the Lammermuir Hills, and is the departure point for the Southern Upland Way as it heads north east to traverse them. On the edge of Lauder is Thirlestane Castle, built to an unusual design in about 1590 and converted into a palace in the 1670s and a grand country house in the 1840s. Also in Lauder is its Old Church. Five miles north is the remote Channelkirk Church, while still further north is the fascinating Soutra Aisle.