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Issue 15 - Great Scott! It's the write way to cross the border

Scotland Magazine Issue 15
July 2004


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Great Scott! It's the write way to cross the border

Sir Walter Scott Way is a 93 mile long footpath. Sue Kendrick was among the first to complete it. Here she reports on her amazing journey

The way was long, the wind was cold …”

The Lay of the Last Minstrel is one of Scott’s most famous Border poems and this line describes, with uncanny prescience, the Sir Walter Scott Way, a new long distance footpath stretching from Moffat in the Annandale Valley to Cockburnspath on the east coast.

The Way is, in fact, 93 miles long, and even on the warmest day, the chill wind blows on the bleak stretches of the Minch Muir and other upland expanses that form the path. However, on the other side of the coin, you’ll see some of the most stunning and varied countryside likely to be found anywhere in Scotland.

In early June, when we became the first to complete its length, this beauty was displayed to rare advantage. Long, mainly sunny days, painted the wide open spaces with great splashes of cloud shadow that lit the hills and glens with a dazzling, throat clutching, beauty.

Each step of the way we gazed over rich, rolling farmland stocked with Cheviot and black faced sheep and hardy black and red cattle with young at foot. Fields of barley rippled with silken languor under skies wider than cathedrals while upland pastures of dark grouse moors marched step for step alongside acres of forestry commission woodland.

Stunning as the scenery is, to walk the Way for the landscape alone would do Scott, the Borders and this footpath a grave injustice for the Sir Walter Scott Way is more than a pleasant walk in wonderful countryside.

Rather, it’s a literary journey that explores Scott’s life and works, both factual and fictional, through an experiential tramp over the hills and valleys he knew so well, and it gives a rare insight into the heart and soul of the man that became largely responsible for the romantic vision of Scotland still prevalent today.

The footpath mainly follows the eastern half of the established Southern Upland Way so is easy to follow, although it would be foolhardy to go without appropriate maps.

It begins at the Black Bull, Moffat. A 16th century Inn with a chequered and somewhat violent past in that it was the headquarters of the infamous Graham of Claverhouse. Bloody Clavers as he soon became known, spent three years persecuting and putting to death Covenanters who refused to adopt the new prayer book introduced by Charles I.

The Inn was also a frequent haunt of Robbie Burns and one of the rooms is full of Burns memorabilia including a copy of a window on which he scratched a poem. Snug and low ceilinged it is easy to imagine Burns and Scott discussing literary matters over a companionable pint, but in fact there is only one known meeting of Scott and Burns and that took place in Edinburgh.

But who cares for historical correctness when we are exploring the landscape of imagination! In his quest for the old ballads and folk tales, Scott travelled the Borders extensively.

There is a recorded incident of him waiting out a thick fog at the Grey Mare’s Tail, a nearby waterfall, and it is likely that his duties as Sheriff of Selkirk would have taken him to the town even without the tales of Bloody Clavers’ exploits.

Leaving the easy comfort of the Black Bull, a 20 mile stretch sees us tackling the highest point on the way, Ettrick Head at 1739 feet. A steep-ish climb but the scenic rewards are well worth the effort and bring us into the countryside of James Hogg, otherwise know as the Ettrick shepherd
and one of Scott’s contemporaries.

From the very beginning of this literary journey the voice of the illiterate shepherd who taught himself to read and write and gained favour from the highest circles has whispered in the shadows. At the Black Bull he features alongside Burns and now, as we make the descent to St. Mary’s loch and the welcome sight of the Tibbie Shiels Inn, his presence grows stronger.

Tibbie Shiels, now there’s a name. Alice’s rather fey cat may have been so called, but in fact it was the maiden name of the Inn’s founder, a
Mrs Richardson.

The Inn remained in the family for many generations who provided, as now, clean beds and a good meal for the footsore wanderers that arrive at the door, and yes, there is a cat in residence, a rather nice tabby called Tabatha.

St. Mary’s loch is just over three miles in length and is the largest natural loch in the South East of Scotland. The name is taken from the small church of St. Mary of the Lowes which dates back to 1292.

On a dull day with poor visibility the loch has a sombre, watchful atmosphere, an ideal backdrop to James Hogg’s darkly disturbing tales of enchantment and bewitchment. This is the country of faerie, brownies, changelings and the dark and terrifying forces of the supernatural.

Both Scott and Hogg were fascinated by the old Border tales and met frequently at Tibbie Shiels to swap stories.

Hogg, who has a nearby memorial, makes the loch central to the poignant, but spine tingling tale of Mary Burnett, a changeling child that who knows, maybe to this day dwells yet in the Eildons, those not so far-away hills.

On pleasant, grassy paths, it’s a mere 14 miles to Traquair. In spite of weary legs we make a short detour to Traquair House. This is the oldest occupied house in Scotland. Fictionally, it is Tully Veloan, the home of Baron Bradwardine and features prominently in Waverley, an exciting romance of the ‘45 uprising. It is easily identifiable from the bears that guard the entrance gates and it is said that in deference to the lost cause, the gates will remain closed until a Stuart monarch regains the throne.

The walk to Galashiels begins with a steep ascent and brings us onto the drove road that crosses the Minch Muir. The spectacular views are dominated by the first sighting of the Eildons or the Fairy Hills if you prefer.

These three distinctive mounds dominate the landscape and will watch our progress for the next few days.

Scott would have known them well since they are rife with folk lore and legend. The famous Border seer, Thomas the Rhymer was said to have dwelt there for seven years before returning with the gift of prophesy.

They even lay a claim to the final resting place of King Arthur who lies sleeping, awaiting the nation’s time of need.

We travel this stretch of the Way with the walk’s founder, John Henderson, who runs a walking support service from Melrose and has already established the Rob Roy Way further to the north. His local knowledge brings fresh colour and a modern slant to Scott’s fictional and historical landscape.

“There are plans to build a wind farm up here,” he tells us from a desolate stretch of the Minch Muir. “The turbines will have arms the size of jumbo jets.”

He goes on to speak of industrial decline and the need for new industries to bring employment to the area.

Further on we climb the peak to the Three Brethren, huge cairns that mark the boundaries of three districts. John points out distant Clovenfords, where Scott once lived, but for now we are more interested in the border ride which will see the Selkirk standard bearer and his followers pass by as they ride the town boundaries.

Incredibly, several border rides take place during our walk and such is our itinerary that we miss them all!

For many, the highlight of the walk will be Abbotsford. This is the house Scott built as his family seat.

A large home of stately proportions it overlooks the River Tweed and is well worth a visit, though to do it justice you need to allow more than a short stop off from your walk.

We pass places such as Lauder, Longformacus, Abby St. Bethans, Smailholm Tower, Twin Law, the Black Dwarf, Wolf’s Crag, Waverley, Redgauntlet, the Bride of Lammermuir.

The names keep our feet firmly in the present, but Scott’s tales of bloody deeds and unsung heroics let us glimpse the romantic landscape of his 17th century borders until, after six days walking, our journey ends at Cockburnspath having first reached the sea at Pease Bay.

Here the gossamer thread that has held us spellbound in Scott’s world of enchantment and high adventure shimmers slightly and dulls in the harsh reality of a sprawling caravan site with all its attendant humanity.

Complete with boots and backpacks, the occupants cast us curious looks as if we’d arrived from another world.

As indeed we have, the Last Minstrel’s world of “… brown heath and shaggy wood, … of the mountain and the flood ...”

It seems that the timeless Border landscape and the rich imagery of Scott’s writing has made poets of us all.