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Roaming The Scottish Border Marches

Bare rolling hills, hidden valleys and lonely tracks made the Borders a great haunt for robbers and rustlers. The graveyard above The Milnholm Cross highlights the problem of travelling safely through the Marches – you can see a long way but there are so many places to hide in ambush.

Scottish Marches was the term used for the England-Scotland border region during the medieval era, when violence and cross-border raids were a way of life. Hundreds of years ago, parts the Scottish Borders were known as the Debatable Lands where the locals, known as moss-troopers or reivers, raided the hills and valleys benefitting from being far from the reach of the law as they robbed, looted and stole cattle in the 16th century.

Despite the air of romance, it was a tough, brutal life and not one to envy. But it was one to explore and with the discovery of so many resources, it soon expanded into a journey through the variety of the Scottish Borders. The distances aren’t vast with both roads and landscape pretty empty.

Most of the Border towns, offering many diversions, lie along the course of the Tweed Valley; perfect for a leisurely break. Roaming around all points of the compass, we rather felt like raiders ourselves but we always paid our way.

As well as the drama of tales of murder and theft, there were more pleasant surprises such as the quaint, intriguing Liddesdale Heritage Centre. Home of the Elliot clan, Liddesdale was once the most lawless area in the borderlands and the eclectic collection took up more time than anticipated.

Looking across to Hermitage Castle, reputedly haunted by the ghost of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Hermitage Castle, by contrast, seemed to glower at us from an empty, forbidding landscape (once known as the bloodiest valley in Britain) as the rain swept over us. It was no place to linger.

Happily, by the time we reached Gilnockie Tower Reiver Centre, the wind had chased away the rain and we explored this superb example of a reiver tower house or ‘pele’. Reflecting on the dramas its walls must have seen, it was hard to believe we were in the Borders rather than in some remote, wild, lawless foreign enclave.

The Clan Armstrong Centre is based here and we love the link between the people of our turbulent history and the first man to stand on the surface of the Moon – adventurers all. I wonder how many hardy members of Border clans hacked out a life in the wilds of North America?

A surprise awaited us when we came across a taste of the Himalaya by the River Esk at the Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Centre and Monastery. Though visitors are welcome, it was too late in the day to explore but brought back happy memories of several months wandering through Nepal decades ago.

After the drama of the lawless past, it was time for a more contemplative excursion to Dawyck (pronounced ‘Doyk’) Botanic Garden near Edinburgh. Primarily an arboretum, we were late for the flower displays but one tree drew us and proved worthwhile. I’ve long wanted to see and touch a Giant Redwood but thought it unlikely that I’d make a special trip to California. Don’t need to now.

The Forestry Commission has done a great job in making vast areas available for us all to enjoy, particularly on two wheels. Glentress Forest is a real jewel in the crown and a magnet for mountain bikers.

Our visit was soured by being pulled over by the police just before we entered Peebles for driving too slowly (“between 35-40 miles per hour” according to the officer) on an A-road. Made us wonder how the cyclists managed.

By the time we’d explored the Town Trails and abbeys, our time was up. As with all good adventures, there was plenty left to discover.

Wat Scott was a handsome young man, caught whilst trying to steal a local lord’s cattle. About to be hanged summarily, he was given the option of marrying the noble’s daughter Meg instead, known as ‘Muckle Mou’d’ for her huge mouth and ugliness. They lived happily ever after and their story is commemorated in this carving above the Tweed opposite Elibank Castle.

Follow up

  • Abbotsford – once home of Sir Walter Scott.
  • Border Abbeys Way – a circular walk of some 65 miles passing by four 12th-century abbeys and through several towns; tackle a section using public transport or taxi to get back to the car.
  • Scottish Borders Explorer Pass – discounted admission to sites of historic interest
  • Forestry Commission – recreation opportunities galore
  • The Reivers Road – a virtual tour guide in the Scottish Borders of six unique, GPS-triggered audio storytelling tours.
  • Town Trails – waymarked around the main towns’ points of interest

All photos:  John Traynor

© John Traynor – from the Journeys of a Thousand Words series a

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