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Issue 54 - The Borders Dumfries & Galloway

Scotland Magazine Issue 54
December 2010

 

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The Borders Dumfries & Galloway

Charles Douglas takes us through a rich and varied area of Scotland

Too often visitors to our country fly into Prestwick, Glasgow or Edinburgh and immediately head north into the Highlands. Either that, or they motor up the A1, A68, A697 or M74 from England heading towards Glasgow and Edinburgh at speed and bi-pass some of the most varied and seductive scenery Scotland has to offer.

In the context of this regional focus, it should be explained that for centuries Scotland’s “Borders” formed the buffer zone with England, covering 1800 square miles and stretching from the rocky Berwickshire coastline, through high agricultural plains and moorland to encounter the rich forests of Dumfries and Galloway and the Solway Coast which leads to Scotland’s most southerly point, the Mull of Galloway. Ignore these Scottish lowlands, and you are missing out on some of the most fascinating pockets of Scottish history, and some of its finest scenery.

Since neither England nor Scotland was even remotely successful in policing the territory, great swathes of this wilderness countryside were known collectively in medieval times as the Debatable Land. Reivers, lawless cattle rustlers, ran amok both north and south of the Border, and taming the excesses of the great riding clans of the marches – the Douglases, the Maxwells, the Homes, the Johnstones, the Armstrongs, the Elliots, the Kerrs, and the Scotts – was a constant preoccupation with Scottish monarchs from Robert the Bruce to James VI.

For invading English armies during the intermittent Scottish Wars, the coastline of Berwickshire to the east, was essential for supplies.

Marching north from Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, which between 1147 and 1482 changed hands between the English and the Scots more than thirteen times, they relied almost entirely upon their ships to drop off provisions as the wily enemy deployed a scorched earth policy ahead of them.

Acting as the next obstacle to an invasion of the Lothians to the north were the Lammermuirs, the range of desolate hills extending from St Abb’s Head to Gala Water. Haunt of the ancient Votadini tribe, and compared by one Victorian writer to the scenery of Afghanistan, the Lammermuirs provided a natural shield against incomers, but then it worked both ways. Taking time out to explore Berwickshire can be immensely rewarding.

For centuries, only a single track (now the A68) led across them to the town of Duns in the foothills, birthplace of the Francisan Friar and medieval philosopher Duns Scotus. The world Champion racing driver Jim Clark who was tragically killed in Germany in 1968, grew up here and there is a museum in Newtown Street which honours his name.

There are three notable mansion in the immediate vicinity - Duns Castle, acquired by the Hays of Drumelzier family in the seventeenth century; Manderston, a lavish stately home with marble halls built in 1903 by the son of a trader who had amassed a great fortune in Russia, and Paxton House, close to Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is considered to be the finest example of an eighteenth century Palladian country mansion in Britain. The latter contains a pre-eminent Scottish collection of Chippendale furniture and serves as an outstation of the National Galleries of Scotland Between 1216 and 1650, Scotland was invaded by England nine times, and repaid the compliment on three occasions. It is therefore only to be expected that Borders folklore is stocked with such traditions as the Common Ridings, held annually in Selkirk to commemorate the sole local survivor of the Battle of Flodden in 1413. Indeed, horse riding being an immensely popular pastime in the Borders, similar rituals are enacted at Duns, Hawick, Jedburgh, Melrose, Galashiels and Kelso in celebrations of various long ago minor triumphs against the common enemy.

My preferred route for travelling into Scotland is by Carter Bar on the A68, if only to take in the breathtaking drama of its moorland scenery. Continuing north, the first stop is Jedburgh, a Royal burgh. The red sandstone abbey here was founded in 1138 by David I to house Augustinian canons from Beauvais in France, but being in the front line of invasion, only the picturesque ruins remain.

In 1561, Mary Queen of Scots passed this way to open the Justice Eyres and visit her lover, the Earl of Bothwell, at Hermitage. The 16th century house in which she stayed overnight is now a museum, as is the castle jail, situated above the town.

To the west, Kelso is an attractive market town with an elegant square, situated on the River Tweed and centred on Floors Castle, the ancestral home of the dukes of Roxburghe. Some four hundred yards from the present building is the notorious spot where James II of Scotland was killed by an exploding cannon while laying siege to Roxburgh Castle which, in retaliation, his widow raised to the ground. Situated eight miles to the north is Mellerstain House, considered to be one of the finest examples of the work of the father and son architects William and Robert Adam. Also located to the north is Thirlestane Castle at Lauder which for centuries has been held by the powerful Maitland family. All three of these stately homes are open to the public and popular venues for weddings and conferences.

Hawick, where the River Teviot meets the Slitrig Water, is where the Scottish textile has thrived for a hundred years, and among the internationally recognised brand names which set up here during the 1800s were John and Robert Pringle, with Lyle & Scott dating from 1874.

Situated in the award winning Wilton Lodge Park, Hawick Museum and Gallery provides a lively programme of art and museum exhibitions throughout the year as well as a number of fascinating permanent displays.

Further north, Selkirk is yet another ancient Royal burgh and overlooks the Yarrow Valley. The author Sir Walter Scott was Sheriff of Selkirkshire from 1800 to 1832, and his statue stands in Market Place outside the Court House. Maternal ancestors of the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt are buried in Kirk o’ the Forest, and in close proximity to the town is Bowhill, one of the the sumptuous homes of the dukes of Buccleuch. It too is open to the public and features a large range of visitor activities and attractions throughout they year.

I have always had an affection for the town of Galashiels, although like most Border conurbations, its streets can seem a drab contrast to the glorious scenery on all sides. A busy manufacturing centre which grew out of the nineteenth century textile industry, it is currently preoccupied with computer components, printing, and engineering activities.

The immensely impressive Heriot- Watt School of Textiles and Design is located here Nearby Melrose, in contrast, is an extremely pretty town, also dominated by an Abbey which fell into disrepair after the Reformation.

The heart of Robert the Bruce is interred here, having been brought home from a Crusade. However, much of Melrose’s fame can be attributed to Sir Walter Scott who built the house of Abbotsford, a crazy mixture of romantic architectural styles, and which is now cared for by the National Trust for Scotland. A fine collection of armour, Scott’s writing desk presented to him by George III, and a silver urn given to him by Lord Byron are just a few of the treasured to be seen here, and it is perhaps a fitting tribute to its celebrated resident that Melrose now annually hosts an increasingly popular Book Festival.

Taking the A72 from Galashiels, twisting and turning along the banks of the River Tweed, brings a sense of leisure to the landscape. The mill towns of Clovenfords, Walkerburn and Innerleithen are dwarfed by the surrounding hills. Between Innerleithen and Peeblesshire is Traquair, the oldest continually inhabited house in Scotland, and which boasts of having sheltered no less than twenty seven Scottish and English monarchs since 1107. An avenue of sycamores leads from the famous Bear Gates, locked after Bonnie Prince Charlie passed through them in 1745, and are not to opened until the Stuarts. Almost next door are the lovely gardens of Kailzie which are open to the public, and where the owner. Angela, Lady Buchan Hepburn, has ambitious plans to create a wildlife reserve.

There is an old saying that “Peebles is for Pleasure” and although that was obviously associated with it being a popular health resort in the Victoria era, it remains a delightful town with the gargantuan Peebles Hydro Hotel on a hillside, more or less the only reminder of its past.

Again, as is the case throughout the Borders, it is the countryside that dominates, and explorers can find many gems hidden in the narrow roads which weave throughout the rolling hills, notably into Glentress or the manor Valley. High above the River Tweed, for example, sits the fourteen century Neidpath Castle, built for Sir William de Haya, an early Sheriff of Peebles. Further west is Stobo Castle, built for Sir James Montgomery in 1805, but now transformed into a luxury health spa.

Towards the source of the River Tweed is Drumelzier, where legend has it that Merlin the Magician of Arthurian legend is buried.

It is inevitably the motorway from Carlisle to the outskirts of Glasgow that splices and separates the east and the west halves of Scotland’s Borders country, almost as if it was a natural fault line chopping off the lower neck that is the region known as Dumfries and Galloway..

Since 1753, when an Act of Parliament forbade marriage for those under the age of twenty one without the consent of parents, the gateway village of Gretna Green has catered for runaway marriages. The 1753 Act did not apply in Scotland which has its own legal system, and it was therefore entirely legal for boys to marry at fourteen and girls at twelve years old with or without parental consent. Elopement soon became big business in the first Scottish village over the Border with marriage services conducted in the Old Blacksmith’s Shop, and Gretna Green, with its visitor centre and shops, continues to be a romantic location for weddings.

At Thornhill is Drumlanrig Castle, another of the Duke of Buccleuch’s spectacular homes built for his ducal Queensberry ancestor in the seventeenth century. It is said that the 1st Duke of Queensberry, whose title was to pass through marriage into the Bucleuch portfolio, was so appalled at the cost of this venture that he spent only one night there after it was completed.

That said, it is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s finest residences.

Created a Royal burgh in the 12th century by David I, the handsome town of Dumfries on the River Nith, has today become a bustling modern centre for commerce and industry.

The past, nevertheless, is always inescapable and it was at the Kirk of the Greyfriars that Robert the Bruce stabbed his cousin and rival, the Red Comyn, in 1306. Although it was undoubtedly one of Bruce’s followers who finished the unfortunate Comyn off, it was this infamous deed that led to Bruce being excommunicated from the Church of Rome.

In 1791, the poet Robert Burns, having unsuccessfully tried his hand at farming at nearby Ellisland, came to live in Dumfries where he worked as an exciseman, controlling the Solway coast. To begin with he lived in a flat in Bank Street, but later moved to a larger house in Burns Street, as it is now known. Although his name is largely claimed by his Ayrshire credentials, Dumfries now boasts a Burns Museum which contains manuscripts and memorabilia associated with the bard, and his imposing statue outside the modern Greyfriars Church.

To the north, the region of Dumfries and Galloway marches with Lanarkshire, to the south lies on the northern shores of the Solway Firth, and, to the east, the Irish Sea.

Seven miles to the south at New Abbey are the ruins of Sweetheart Abbey, built in the thirteenth century by the Lady Devorguilla, the wife of John Balliol after whom the distinguished college at Oxford University is named. It was their son who became Scotland’s “puppet king” under Edward I of England .

At Arbigland, twelve miles to the south, is the John Paul Jones Cottage Museum, indicating that this was weher the founder of the American navy was born in 1747. It can be visited from April to September.

Travelling west from Dumfries, there is the option of taking the A75 through Castle Douglas to Newton Stewart, eventually reaching Stranraer, or following the A712 through the awesome Galloway Forest Park. This wonderfully dramatic journey takes you through a hinterland of high hills with thickly wooded slopes and destinations such as Clatteringshaws Loch and Glentrool. The Glentrool Visitor Centre is considered to be the gateway to the Galloway Hills, and a notable monument near the A712, commemorates the shepherd’s son who became a professor of oriental languages at Edinburgh University.

The Solway climate is consistently warm and welcoming and, for a glorious period at the turn of the last century, the small harbour town of Kirkcudbright became an artist colony led by the Glasgow-trained Edward Hornel and Jessie M. King.

At Gatehouse of Fleet, on an inlet of Wigtown Bay, there were once six cotton mills, a tannery and a brewery, but today, the local economy depends largely on tourism. On the far side of the bay is Wigtown, which with over 20 book-related businesses in situ and hosting an annual Book Festival, has evolved as Scotland’s National Book Town.

Fronting onto the same bay further down the coast is the small port of Garlieston, founded by the seventh Earl of Galloway whose father, the sixth Earl built the nearby Galloway House. Close by are the ruins of Cruggleton Castle which in the 12th century was the headquarters of the all-powerful Fergus, Lord of Galloway.

Taking the A714 south from Newton Stewart, the coastal road follows the old pilgrim route to Whithorn, one of the oldest Christian centres on mainland Britain. Here St Ninian landed around AD400 and built his Candida Casa, believed to have been the first stone built church in Scotland. The present priory ruins date from the 12th century and a visit to the Whithorn Story Visitor Centre is highly recommended.

From Glenluce, the A74 runs towards the sheltered ferry port of Stranraer which connects mainland Scotland to Belfast in Northern Ireland. Three miles to the east are the gardens of Castle Kennedy which are open to the public.

As in the Solway Firth, the climate on the Rhins of Galloway is the mildest in Scotland, courtesy of the passing Gulf Stream, and at the Logan Botanic Garden, which is run by the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, plants from warm and temperate regions thrive. There visitors can enjoy their food out-of doors as late as September.