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Issue 42 - The Borders – the beautiful South

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 42
December 2008


This article is 9 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The Borders – the beautiful South

This year will see the spotlight shine fully on the Borders and the south of Scotland. Dominic Roskrow explains why.

It’s long been a source of frustration for Lowland Scots that they have never quite afforded quite the same levels of respect that their Highland counterparts receive. It’s as if in the minds of some they’re not quite proper Scots. This is ridiculously unfair on the many Lowland residents whose ancestors fought so fiercely to maintain their borders against invaders from the south.

But the demands of modern tourism have done little to help correct this common misconception. These days most visitors arrive by plane into the airports of Edinburgh and Glasgow, with a smattering also using Prestwick. And once set down on Scottish soil the eyes invariably turn northwards. Once out of the big cities tourists beat a path north, perhaps stopping off at the House of Bruar, barely sparing a glance to the wonderful regions around Stirling, Dundee and Pitlochry, never mind down south to Dumfries, Galloway and Ayrshire.

This is a shame because there is much to recommend the Lowland areas.

Unsurprisingly given the bellicose nature of the residents south of the border, there has been centuries of bloody history to recognise and record. Not that it’s all been about violence, however, for it’s in this region that the artistic and literal side of the Scottish psyche has been given its freest rein. The region boasts Scotland’s finest book shops and some of its finest libraries and art galleries. It is blessed with sedate and pretty rivers, superb walking terrain and picturesque villages.

And perhaps most importantly of all, it is home to the Burns Trail. For in these regions Scotland’s greatest poet was born and bred. It’s for this reason that 2009 may see the reappraisal of the entire region as Scotland gears up to celebrate Homecoming Scotland, a year of cultural events to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the great Rabbie Burns. Where better to do that than by visiting the Burns National Heritage Park in Ayrshire?

To mark the momentous occasion work has started on the complete renovation of the park. A new museum, called the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum will be built to house the most important Burns collection in the world.

During the extensive work the park will be open for business as usual, and visitors will be able to enjoy all its delights. These include seeing the cottage Burns was born in. Built in 1757 it has been fully restored to its original condition and the tour includes audio-visual interpretation of Burns’ life as a child.

The park’s museum includes a wide range of artifacts including the original manuscript of Auld Lang Syne, letters and gifts to his many lovers, Lord Byron’s personal volume of Burns’ poems and items used by Burns in his ‘other’ careers.

These include the pistols he carried when an exciseman and the rods he used as a surveyor.

Laser-disc technology and theatrical effects are employed to bring to life Tam O’Shanter, and a modern visitor centre offers a gift shop, air-conditioned restaurant and an acre of landscaped garden.

You can also visit the eerie Kirk Alloway, featured in Tam O’Shanter and the burial place for Burns’ father, William Burnes, and Brig O’Doon, the bridge from which Tam’s mare Meg made her heroic leap for freedom, leaving part of her tail in the clutches of Nan, the ‘Cutty Sark’ witch.

If you fancy moving on beyond the influence of Burns, then the region offers some great and undervalued historical ruins and castles. Castle Threave, for instance, is a fascinating site that requires some effort to reach. It is sited on an island in the River Dee and must be reached by ferry. Furthermore, the car park is a good half a mile from the ferry point.

But the castle is definitely worth the effort. Probably taking its name from the Old Welsh word ‘tref’ meaning homestead, indicating that there was some form of dwelling on the site back in the 500s, when residents prior to the arrival of the Gaels spoke Old Welsh.

The castle may have first been built as a fortress at the end of the first millennium but the structure of today’s ruins was built in 1369, by Archibald, the 3rd Earl of Douglas.

Archibald is better known by his English nickname of Archibald The Grim and he turned Threave Castle into a highly defendable castle capable of repelling sizeable armies. It us unusual in that it has a garrison built into its third floor.

Another site of historical importance lies close to Lockerbie – that of Lochmaben Castle. In fact there were two Lochmaben castles, one built by the Bruce family, who were the Lords of Annandale in the 12th century, and the other some 200 years later by Edward I.

In fact Lochmaben symbolises well the struggle between English and Scots, with the castle passing back and forwards over the years. It was under Scottish control when Robert the Bruce took it, and again after the Battle of Bannockburn. Old Archibald The Grim showed once again what a pain he was to the English when he, too, managed to take it. Today the castles are in ruins but you can see the structure of the fortifications with the help of a VisitScotland map.

If this all sounds a little military for your tastes, then a visit to Sweetheart Abbey close to the village of New Abbey, five miles south of Dumfries, might be the perfect solution. It is a monument to undying love, having been built in 1273 by Lady Devorgilla in memory of her late husband John Balliol, who had died four years before.

Eventually she would dedicate an Oxford College to him and so intense was her love for her husband that she had his heart embalmed and carried it around with her.

When she died she was buried at the abbey with her husband’s heart by her side.

The abbey lived a charmed life, surviving attacks by English forces and falling under the protection of our old friend Archibald The Grim. It was run by Cistercian monks.

Its official role as an abbey ended with the Reformation in 1560 but under the control of Lord Maxwell, a Catholic, it continued to practice unreformed religion in defiance.

Another abbey that seems to have escaped the ravages of the English armies marching north is Dundrennan Abbey, which lies six and a half miles south-east of Kirkcudbright.

It was built in 1142 and it, too, ceased being an abbey in 1560 at the time of the Reformation, though it served as a church for a further 200 years.

Dundrennan is unlike many other Scottish abbeys in that it was built of the stark and austere local freestone ashlar rather than the warm-coloured sandstone seen elsewhere.

Although little of the ruin stands at any height it’s possible through the founding stones to get a strong sense of how the abbey would have been in its prime.

The region also boasts one of Scotland’s most impressive whisky distilleries at Bladnoch, meanwhile Wigtown is a literary centre and home of one of Britain’s best loved book festivals. The whole Borders region is blessed with fabulous beaches and rivers, great golf courses and scenic walking environments. The area is rich in walks and offers great bird-watching and fishing, and it offers more modern motorised sports, too.

More traditional museums include the Stewartry Museum, which tells the story of the people of Eastern Wigtown and includes Britain’s oldest sporting trophy, a gun given to the town by James VI of Scotland and James I of England.

And before you dismiss the Borders as flat an uninteresting, why not visit Scotland’s highest village at Wanlockhead at the top of the Mennock Pass, where you can tour a traditional lead mine?

With the focus of Scotland turning towards Burns Country this year there can be no better time to explore a wonderfully diverse and under-appreciated region.

Perhaps in the coming months, the area and its residents will get some of the recognition they deserve.