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Issue 65 - The Whispering Tweed

Scotland Magazine Issue 65
October 2012


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The Whispering Tweed

John Hannavy completes his exploration of four of Scotland's great rivers with a journey along Sir Walter Scott's favourite

As he lay on his deathbed in September 1832, Sir Walter Scott’s last request was that the windows of Abbotsford be thrown open so that he could hear the whispering waters of his beloved Tweed.

Abbotsford stands on the banks of the Tweed, chosen and extended by Scott because of its idyllic setting by the river. It was his home for the final 14 years of his life, and just five months after his death, it opened to visitors for the first time. Currently undergoing a £15m restoration and due to fully reopen next year, Abbotsford has been a magnet ever since for anyone interested in Scott’s life and work.

As I mentioned last time, the Tweed, the Annan and the Clyde all rise within a few miles of each other north of Moffat, but what marks the Tweed out from the other two great rivers is that, while they all rise close together, the Tweed is the only Scottish river which crosses the border and meets the sea in England! Indeed, for several of its last miles towards the sea, it forms the border between the two kingdoms and was therefore, in medieval times, one of the most turbulent places in Scotland. In fact Norham Castle – on the English side of the river – was once described as the most dangerous place in all of England, so frequently was it under attack from the Scots! Along its banks, evidence survives of more than 300 years of Scottish history.

From source to sea, the Tweed is 97 miles long – 156 kilometres – from its source at Tweed’s Well high on Tweedsmuir, to the North Sea at Berwick-upon-Tweed. It is one of the country’s finest salmon rivers, and fishermen are often to be seen almost up to their hips in its clear brown waters.

For the first few miles, the Tweed Water flows north towards Peebles, overlooked, just before it reaches the town, by the austere tower of the 14th century Neidpath Castle.

Neidpath is one of the many locations in Scotland which celebrate their association with the ill-starred Mary Queen of Scots – in this case, a brief royal visit in July 1563. But the castle is, perhaps, better known as the onetime home of Jean Douglas, referred to by Sir Walter Scott in his poem of the same name as The Maid of Neidpath. According to tradition, Jean was forbidden to marry her suitor, the son of the Laird of Tushielaw, as he was not considered by her father, the Earl of March, to come from a suitable background. The suitor was sent away, and Jean’s health declined rapidly as she pined for him. When he did return, she was so ill and emaciated that he did not recognise her, only realising after she had died.

The story inspired both Scott and his contemporary Thomas Campbell to compose verses titled The Maid of Neidpath, while the parlous state of the castle when visited by William and Dorothy Wordsworth at around the same time, inspired Wordsworth’s verses Composed at Neidpath Castle in which he berated Lord Queensberry – referred to as ‘Degenerate Douglas’ – for allowing the castle to fall into disrepair.

Neidpath’s setting, on an escarpment high above the Tweed, is spectacular, but sadly today the castle is rarely open to the public, except to pre-arranged groups. You catch a glimpse of it through the trees from the A72 just before the road reaches Peebles, but sadly that is as close as most people get unless they are invited to a wedding or another event in the castle.

The river meanders towards Peebles which in medieval times had a considerable religious presence. Just north of the river as it enters the town is a tall tower standing alone in the midst of an ancient cemetery. This is all that remains of the medieval parish church of St Andrew, and the tower is said to be the oldest surviving building in the town. In the 16th century it was a collegiate church and was served by a chapter of canons endowed by local landowners.

Destroyed by the armies of Henry VIII in 1548, only five years after the collegiate chapter had been installed, it was, probably, the shortest-lived collegiate church in Scotland.

The Monks of the Order of the Holy Trinity – known as Trinitarians – had a priory in the town, but chose to build north of the Tweed by the banks of the Eddleston Water, known locally as the ‘Cuddy Burn’, just a few hundred yards before the confluence of the two rivers near the town centre. The ruins of the Trinitarian priory – locally known as Cross Kirk – still stand in a local park.

After a few miles flowing south east, the river is met by the Leithen Water at Innerleithen, a settlement which can trace its history back long before the Romans established a marching camp on the north bank of the Tweed. Just a short distance to the south between Innerleithen and Traquair, traces have been found of another marching camp at Eshiels. Remains of two Ironage hill forts have also been found.

Local tradition has it that the town was founded in the 8th century by St Ronan, and Sir Walter Scott’s novel St Ronan’s Well is set in and around this historic town.

Well worth a visit in the town is Robert Smail’s Printing Works, a rare survival of a letterpress printing shop, and now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. This is still a working printers, and visitors are encouraged to try out type-setting for themselves. It must be the only heritage site in Scotland, and possibly the United Kingdom where the guidebook is printed ‘in-house’.

Traquair House – more usually referred to simply as Traquair, and the oldest inhabited house in Scotland – sits just south of Innerleithen where the Quair Burn meets the Tweed. It has been there for more than nine centuries, and was probably originally erected as a royal hunting lodge. It is known that King Alexander 1 of Scotland signed a charter there in 1107, so the house certainly predates that event by some years.

As the river continues its journey east and south, it passes over some gentle rapids at Fairnilee, now a popular place for canoeing, before eventually turning north again towards Abbotsford.

Despite his love of the river, Scott only wrote one poem about it, On Tweed Water which features in the 1820 novel The Monastery, and it is by no means one of his best!

But the river inspired him in so many ways, and provided the background – in both sight and sound – for his most productive period.

North of Abbotsford, it flows through Tweedbank, between the towns of Galashiels and Melrose, before turning east again and skirting the north of Melrose.

In medieval times, this fertile landscape was an ideal location for the great Cistercian abbey of Melrose. The monks and their lay brothers farmed the surrounding lands, with their magnificent abbey as its centrepiece. Scott thought Melrose was the most beautiful monastic ruin in Scotland, but others (myself included) would give that accolade to the Premonstratensian Dryburgh Abbey just a few miles further along the river.

As befits a farming community, Melrose Abbey had its own corn mill, powered by a mill lade running from the Tweed to the lay brothers’ precinct. Most of the domestic buildings have, of course, long gone, but the beautiful remains of the abbey church dominate the town and draw visitors in their thousands.

Melrose can trace its history back to before Roman times, and of course the Romans built their huge fort at Trimontium – named after the three peaks of the Eildon Hills – near Leaderfoot. Indeed, a recent discovery on the plateau above the Tweed is the only known site of a Roman amphitheatre north of the border – underlining just how important the settlement at Trimontium was to Roman Scotland.

As if to underline the importance of the whole area over the centuries, the view from the amphitheatre is dominated by the Leaderfoot bridges – the modern road bridge carrying the A68, its 18th century predecessor, and the magnificent 19th century railway viaduct.

Amazingly, this magnificent 19 arch structure was not built for a main railway line, but to carry the Berwickshire Railway’s branch line running from Reston on east coast main line to St. Boswells on the historic and picturesque Waverley Route which ran from Edinburgh down through the borders to Carlisle.

The river follows a horseshoe route below Scott’s View, the high vantage point so beloved of the author with its spectacular views of the Eildon Hills, before flowing south towards St. Boswells and the beautiful ruins of Dryburgh Abbey, in the north transept of which the author himself lies buried.

When I first visited the site with my father about half a century ago, the remains of Dryburgh Abbey were clearly visible from across the Tweed, but are now screened by woods. The ruins themselves are extensive, offering one of the most complete monastic sites in Scotland. The site was first photographed in the mid 1850s, and has been a magnet for photographers ever since.

Dryburgh is only six miles from Abbotsford, and on September 21st 1832, Sir Walter Scott’s funeral cortege set off from his home by the Tweed, followed by a procession more than a mile long! Scott had, of course, held high office in the county, having held the post of Sheriff of Selkirk from 1799 until his death, so the procession included the local yeomanry, civic dignitaries and landowners, as well as hundreds of his loyal readers.

They reached the abbey late in the afternoon and, according to John Lockhart’s 1836 Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart., “the day was dark and lowering, and the wind high. The wide enclosure of the Abbey of Dryburgh was thronged with old and young; and when the coffin was taken from the hearse… … one deep sob burst from a thousand lips.” Thousands of fans of his writings still visit his tomb today.

At Kelso, the banks of the Tweed were once again chosen as the site for a medieval abbey – this time by the Order of Monks of Tiron – although only a fragment of their once magnificent abbey survives. King David I was responsible for the foundation in 1128, and it became one of the largest and richest abbeys in Scotland. It was also unique in having two sets of transepts, each with a tower above their crossings, but all that survives today are parts of the west tower and its transepts. All the rest of the ruins were cleared away in the early years of the 19th century.

Two Scottish kings were crowned in the abbey church – James III and James IV – but by virtue of its location in one of the most turbulent parts of the Scottish borders, it was frequently subjected to attack during the centuries.

Badly damaged and rebuilt several times in the 13th, 15th and 16th centuries – the last and most successful attempt to destroy it coming in 1545 – only part of the church survived to any extent, and this was used as the parish church for the town until 1771.

Around the time that plans were being made to remove the abbey ruins, plans were also afoot to build a new bridge across the Tweed, and the engineer chosen to design it was John Rennie from Phantassie in East Lothian.

What he completed in 1803 was a smaller version of the famous Waterloo Bridge over the Thames which he would design later in his career, and his Tweed bridge still carries traffic.

Dominating the town today, however, is Floors Castle, home of the Duke of Roxburghe.

This great stately home – possibly built on the In the pictures site of an earlier fortified tower house – was built in the 1720s, with all the towers and parapets added about a century later. It has commanding views across the Tweed and the town.

Nearby, but long gone, was Roxburgh Castle, where James II was killed in 1460.

From Kelso the river flows through Coldstream before becoming the border for several miles, passing Norham Castle and Paxton House, and eventually heading east into England.

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