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Issue 66 - The Borders, Dumfries & Galloway

Scotland Magazine Issue 66
December 2012


This article is 5 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, Dumfries & Galloway

The autumn of 2013 will see a series of commemorative events in the Scottish Borders to acknowledge the 500th anniversary of a catastrophic battle which actually took place in England but which traumatised Scotland.

The Battle of Branxton Moor, more popularly known as the Battle of Flodden, was fought eight miles from Wooler in Northumberland. Everything had started so well for James IV, one of Scotland's most successful and universally beloved monarchs, leading a punitive raid against his brother-in-law, Henry VIII of England. It was a classic example of somebody who had done so well that he had started to believe he was invincible.

To be fair to him, he was doing what he believed to be right, living up to the terms of the Auld Alliance and trying to divert Henry's army from its campaign against the French King Louis XII. The Scottish army was well trained and equipped with the latest technology, but alas it was the medieval custom whereby the Scottish generals fought with their men rather than standing back that led to disaster. It also did not help that when the English circled around to emerge from the north, the Scottish artillery was facing in the wrong direction.

At the end of that drizzly September in 1413, 10,000 Scots lay dead, their numbers including 12 earls, 15 lords, many clan chiefs, an archbishop and King James himself.

Every family in Scotland lost husbands, fathers and sons that day, not least the communities of the Scottish Borderland, and hence the sombre 500th anniversary initiatives scheduled to take place in Selkirk, Jedburgh and Hawick next year.

Memories are long, especially in Scotland's Border Country, and there are those who believe that what took place just a hop and a jump into England ended mediaeval Scotland's golden age.

Strictly speaking, Scotland's Borders start as you enter Scotland at Coldstream, or across the moors at Carter Bar on the A68, so the traditions of border conflict and reiving (cattle rustling) are legion, being of serious concern to successive Scottish monarchs eyeing up threats of invasion from the south.

In olden times the eastern portion of this buffer zone stretched from the Berwickshire coastline across to Dumfriesshire, and then on to the Galloway Coast, and was often referred to as the Debatable Land, being claimed and fought over by both Scotland and England.

Between 1216 and 1660, maraudering English armies marched into Scotland nine times, and Scotland reciprocated three times. During that period, great abbeys were built at Jedburgh, Kelso, and Melrose, essentially to house Augustinian, Cistercian and Tironensian canons and monks, but also to serve as instruments of defence and governance in an age when the pre-Reformation church allied itself with successive monarchs, or the other way around.

Inevitably, great Borders families also dominated and controlled the land – notably the Douglases, the Kerrs, the Armstrongs, the Elliots, the Pringles, the Johnstones, the Scotts, the Maxwells and the Holmes – all of them leaving an indelible imprint on their ancestral lands.

Dotted in close proximity to the course of the River Tweed, busy towns such as Galashiels, Selkirk, Hawick, Jedburgh, Earlston, Kelso, Melrose, St Boswells and Peebles sprang up amid rich farmland, and were fuelled by the Victorian wealth of the woollen industry, notably in the small mill towns of Clovenfords, Walkerburn and Innerleithen.

A string of great historic houses are today open to the general public to explore: Mellerstain near Kelso, built by the iconic architects William and Robert Adam for the earls of Haddington; Floors Castle at Kelso, the magnificent home of the dukes of Roxburghe; Thirlestane at Lauder, once the fiefdom of the mighty Maitland earls and dukes of Lauderdale; the Duke of Buccleuch's home at Bowhill, by Selkirk; Traquair House at Innerleithen, visited by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 and closed after his departure, never to be re-opened until a Stuart once again sits on the throne of Scotland and Abbotsford at Melrose, the 19th century home built for the author Sir Walter Scott and paid for by a grateful nation.

There are also surviving and semiruined keeps and castles aplenty, for example: Aikwood Tower at Selkirk, once home to Michael Scott, the Wizard, and Neidpath Castle, loftily overlooking the river at Peebles and during the centuries occupied by the Tweedies, the Frasers, the Hays, and latterly by the family of the earls of Wemyss.

Surrounded by lush, undulating hills, rolling into the horizon, the Tweed Valley can be breathtakingly beautiful, with its flourishing fertile landscapes kissed by the warmth of summer sunshine. In the spring, the gardens of Dawick, near Drumelzier, are a blaze of yellow daffodils; at Kailzie, between Peebles and Traquair, Lady Buchan Hepburn has created an intriguing nature trail and wildlife reserve where there are now Ospreys to be seen as well.

Travelling up from England, the M6 Motorway cuts into Scotland from Carlisle, essentially separating the Borders to the east from Dumfries and Galloway to the west.

Since an Act of Parliament in 1753 forebade marriage in England to those under 21 without parental consent, legions of young lovers have fled north to Gretna Green to be married at the Old Blacksmith's shop.

At Thornhill, the Duke of Buccleuch has a second magnificnt stately home called Drumlanrig, inherited in the 17th century through his Douglas, earl of Queensberry ancestors. The first Duke of Queensberry, who commissioned it was so shocked at what it had cost him to build he spent only one night in it.

Created a Royal Burgh by David I in the 12th century, the attractive market town of Dumfries straddles the River Nith, and it was here in 1306 that the aspirant monarch Robert the Bruce allegedly stabbed and killed his cousin and rival to the throne, the Red Comyn. Having fallen on hard times, the Ayrshireborn poet Robert Burns farmed nearby at Ellisland and worked as an exciseman on the Solway Firth. He is buried in St. Michael's Churchyard.

Travelling west from Dumfries on the A72 by car, you can either follow the coastal road or turn off to encounter the Galloway Forest Park, wonderful and dramatic as it winds its way through high hills past Clatteringshaws Loch and Glentrool, an enchanted wilderness for hill walkers, bicyclists and naturalists. This is surely one of the great beauty spots of Scotland.

Along the Solway coast the climate is mild and gentle, making it a favourite escape for artists and craftsmen. At the start of the last century, Kirkcudbright housed an artists' colony predominantly from Glasgow and presided over by the Scottish colourists Edward Hornel and Jessie M. King. On Wigtown Bay, opposite the other small shoreline town of Gatehouse of Fleet, is Wigtown itself, designated Scotland's national Book Town in 1976. Today it has become home to twenty book-related business which each September host an enormously popular annual 10-day book fair.

In the 16th Century, Queen Elizabeth I of England was sufficiently alarmed by reports of the scale of Cruggleton Castle, also known as the “Black Rock of the Cree”, on the same inlet of water that she despatched spies to investgate its strength and size.

Tradition has it that she was extremely perturbed at its strategic and threatening potential. Built by the Lords of Galloway, the remains of this formidable stronghold can still be seen by following a woodland footpath from Galloway House, today a privately owned organic cattle farm.

Follow the A714 from Newton Stewart, the coastal road follows an old pilgrim route to Whithorn which is one of the oldest Christian centres to be found on mainland Britain. It was here that Saint Ninian landed in c.400AD and built his Candida Casa, the White Church.

The priory ruins here date from the 12th Century and there is a Whithorn Story Visitor Centre, open between April and October.

From Glenluce, the A74 carries on to the former west coast ferry port of Stranraer with its links to Belfast in Northern Ireland recently transferred to the deeper waters of Cairnryan further up the coast.

There are fine gardens to be visited here too: at Castle Kennedy (closed between October and February), the grounds of which were laid out in the 1730s by John Dalrymple, second Earl of Stair. At Logan Botanic Garden, open from March to October, and currently managed by the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, a wealth of exotic plants also flourish by courtesy of the passing, off-shore Gulf Stream.

In all, this is a vast area to encompass, largely unexplored by the casual visitor, but loved with a passion by those in the know. Much of Lowland Scotland is therefore a well kept secret, but nonetheless a thrilling challenge to those who are prepared to go out and about and see for themselves.