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Issue 64 - Aikwood Tower - A Steely Dwelling Place

Scotland Magazine Issue 64
August 2012

 

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Aikwood Tower - A Steely Dwelling Place

Charles Douglas visits this Border house near Selkirk

It is twenty years since I first visited Aikwood Tower, then to see a play based on Maister Michael Scott, the tower's 16th century builder, and incorporating tales of his ancestor, the 12th century wizard Michael Scott. The script was written by Judy Steel, the talented wife of the former leader of the UK Liberal Party, David Steel, and the Steels were in the process of restoring the old tower house which they had recently acquired from the 9th Duke of Buccleuch.

It was a memorable performance, taking place on a chill October night. I remember that there was a full moon and since the action occurred both inside and outside of the house, the audience were given blankets to keep themselves warm. Flaming torches lined the drive and we were also treated to mugs of mulled wine.

It was my first experience of this remarkable medieval fortress, and my first introduction to the world of necromancy occupied by this legendary Lowland laird who had translated the works of Aristotle from Arabic into Latin, the original Greek versions having been lost.

Somehow, as the actors raced around us in the night air, we were all transported back into the past as if we were part of it.

Aikwood Tower is located four miles from the town of Selkirk in Ettrickdale. So far as we know, the land on which its sits was gifted in 1517 to Scott by the infant James V of Scotland, presumably in return for services rendered.

The Scotts are descended from Uchtred Fitz- Scott (Uchtredus Filius Scoti) who is known to have lived during the reigns of Alexander I and David I in the early 12th century. However, nothing much is known about Aikwood, until 1455, when the name was listed in the accounts of the Lord Treasurer of Scotland as a “forest steading.” The oldest part of the building that we see today dates from 1535, and there is a marriage stone fixed into a wall which dates from 1602. This commemorates the marriage of Robert Scott of Aikwood to Elspeth Murray of Elibank, thus preserving the union of two influential families of the Scottish Borders. As was the practice, such families feuded, raided each other's cattle and intermarried on a regular basis, and yet another union between the Scotts and the Murrays of Elibank took place later in the same century when William Scott of Harden was caught and given the choice of being hanged or marrying “Muckle Mou'd Meg” (Big Mouthed Meg) of Elibank, presumably his cousin.

Unsurprisingly, William chose the second option, and a descendant of this union was the great writer Sir Walter Scott, who featured Aikwood in his first epic poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel. The eldest son of William and Meg, who inherited Aikwood Tower, was a staunch Convenanter, taking part in the religious wars that devastated lowland Scotland in the ensuing years. Meanwhile Aikwood, passing to the Scotts of Harden, remained with that family for three centuries, often called “Oakwood” from which their barony originates.

Modest in size in comparison to some other Scottish Borders fortresses, the elevation that confronts you as you approach is stark and formidable, reflecting a turbulent past when occupants of such edifices had always to be on their guard. Nevertheless, with solid walls and small, narrow windows designed for defensive purposes, the occupants must have at all times felt safe.

Eventually, however, such requirements became less important, and Aikwood Tower's use as a dwellinghouse was abandoned by the family in favour of the more accommodating castle of Harden, which stands near Hawick on a tributary of the River Teviot. A plan of 1814 shows proposed alterations to a beautiful little farmhouse on the site of what became Aikwood's byres: in it the tower is referred to as "the auld tower" and use of the vaults as milkhouse and pantry are annotated. In 1835 substantial repair work was carried out, but thereafter the buildings were made use of solely for agricultural purposes. In the last century, the tenant farmer restored one room in an attempt to live in the tower, but dampness drove him out after only one winter.

Then in the late 1940s, Lord Polwarth, head of the Scotts of Harden family, sold the farm to his kinsman, the eighth Duke of Buccleuch, after which it remained uninhabited (and uninhabitable) until 1989 when David Steel (now Lord Steel of Aikwood), who had represented the Roxburgh, Selkirk & Peeblesshire constituency as the UK Member of Parliament since 1976, was given the opportunity to acquire it for restoration. Assisted by an army of local craftsmen, and architects Pollock Hammond, he and his wife Judy set about this daunting task as a labour of love which has culminated in Aikwood Tower winning no less than five architectural awards, including the prestigious Europa Nostra.

For the past 20 years, it has therefore been the Steel family's home, serving as a busy centre for artistic creativity and a political meeting place.

However, in 2011, Lord and Lady Steel decided to move to somewhere more manageable for them in their retirement and to hand Aikwood over to their youngest son Rory and his wife Victoria who have considerably upgraded its facilities to create a superb venue catering for exclusive corporate events and weddings.

Aikwood Tower is in close proximity to Bowhill, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Buccleuch & Queensberry. Surrounded by the rolling hills and woodland trails of the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys, there are many opportunities for walking, mountain biking or horse riding, with rivers ideal for fishing or kayaking. A rich diversity of flora, fauna and wildlife is on the doorstep, including opportunities to see the ospreys that have recently returned to the region.

Rory and Victoria have refurbished the interiors with imaginative verve and vitality, creating a stylish contemporary look without endangering the sense of antiquity.

There are four double bedrooms in the main tower, the Master Bedroom being the most luxurious, and there is a fifth in the extending byre.

The Great Hall, with roaring fire, and the vaulted ceiling ambience of the dining room and kitchen, provide an informal atmosphere for guests to relax. There is a small reading study with panelled ceiling which provides tranquillity and a place read. To meet the requirements of the modern world, the upper floor has television, DVD and business facilities.

I much enjoyed my return to Aikwood and I could not help thinking that Maister Michael Scott and his ancestral namesake would, despite being understandably bemused by the dramatic innovations of the 21st century, be rather impressed by what Rory and Victoria have achieved.