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Issue 89 - Tales of the Tweed

Scotland Magazine Issue 89
October 2016


This article is 2 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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Tales of the Tweed

Keith Fergus journeys the weaving course of the River Tweed

At 96 miles in length, the River Tweed is Scotland’s fourth longest river – even though a portion of its journey crosses the border into England. It is this straddling of the two countries that has bestowed the River Tweed with much of its intriguing history. The river has presented a boundary for thousands of years, but has also provided a means of passage between Scotland and England for trade, transport and marauding armies.

On the flip side, however, the gorgeous rural countryside that the River Tweed travels through includes scenery, wildlife and a sense of tranquillity that is easily on a par with the celebrated Scottish Highlands – a region against which the lowland landscape of the Scottish Borders has often been unfairly judged as a poor relation.

The term ‘lowlands’ is essentially a misnomer as the Border country has an abundance of higher ground (just not as high as the great mountains of the Highlands) that grants some superb walking trails, panoramas and wildlife-watching opportunities.

What’s more, the language of the Scottish Borders is distinct from that found throughout much of Scotland and derives from the tongues spoken there during the first millennium CE. At this time the region was populated by people of a Celtic culture, speaking an early form of Welsh, which can still be detected in names such as Kelso, Peebles, and Galashiels. The derivation of the name Tweed is vague, but possibly stems from the Brythonic ‘tau’ or ‘teu,’ which means strong, silent or flowing – unquestionably three words that could be applied to this amazing river.
The River Tweed rises amongst the untamed moorland backdrop of Tweed’s Well, near to the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway border, approximately six miles north of Moffat. It is a lonely setting and a number of little burns trickle down from the surrounding hills to join the infant but ever burgeoning Tweed as it travels north then east. Later on, several significant rivers, such as the Teviot and the Yarrow, flow into the River Tweed as it meanders majestically past the towns of Peebles, Melrose and Galashiels. Once across the border it then runs through Northumbria before entering the North Sea at the magnificent walled town of Berwick- upon-Tweed.

Throughout its voyage, one that is never less than enthralling, the River Tweed wanders alongside great swathes of fertile farmland and beneath the higher ground of Annanhead Hill; Broughton Heights; Drumelzier Law; the stunning Glensax Horseshoe; and the iconic Eildon Hills. All grant sumptuous viewpoints to witness a sprawling landscape where there is room to breathe and the surrounding countryside is alive with the likes of otter, kestrel, heron, kingfisher, bluebells and ramsons.

Over the centuries writers and painters such as Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg and JMW Turner have depicted the River Tweed in a favourable light that has drawn tourists to Scotland’s southeast corner. It is an attraction that remains to the present day.

Innovations in fly fishing by the Victorians meant that the region’s great rivers, particularly the Tweed, became incredibly popular with anglers and today it is considered to be one of the great salmon and trout rivers of Britain, providing around 15% of all salmon caught in Scotland. However, humans have exploited the landscape in and around the River Tweed for around 6000 years. The very earliest Stone Age and Neolithic hunter- gatherers used the river as a speedy means of transport and as a source of food – fishing the River Tweed is certainly not a recent trend.

The Bronze and Iron Ages saw more definite roots being laid down, particularly by the Votadini tribe, with forts being built on the likes of Cademuir Hill, near Peebles, and the Eildon Hills, above Melrose, which were home to a community of around 2000 people for many years.

The Romans were also attracted to the shapely outline of the Eildons, and when Julius Agricola led his army across the border in AD79 they paused near Melrose at Newstead (reputedly the oldest inhabited village in Scotland) and ended up staying for the next 150 years. They called their fort, located at the base of the Eildon Hills, Trimontium – literally translating as ‘The Three Mountains’ – which at its peak was home to around 1500 soldiers.

Christianity arrived again at Melrose when St Cuthbert began his monastic life here in AD65, and subsequent religious orders eventually led to the illustrious abbeys of Melrose, Kelso and Dryburgh being built along the banks of the Tweed. Great castles such as Roxburgh, Norham and Berwick were constructed primarily as a form of defence, but also as a focal point for bustling towns and settlements that sprang up along the river.

Again, the close proximity to the border was a double-edged sword. Trade links were strong with England, but Edward I of England looked longingly at Scotland. He arrived with devastating effect in 1296 and left a litany of destruction in his wake – a trend that sadly continued during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Major battles, like those at Flodden and Philipshaugh, took place near to the River Tweed at Selkirk, and the Border Reiving of the 16th Century led to a succession of governments proclaiming that the Borders were as problematic as the Highlands.

As the 18th Century and the Industrial Revolution approached, however, the River Tweed provided the source to a remarkable economic expansion along its banks. Although the Borders were far removed from the heavy industry of Central Scotland, the manufacturing of textiles proved to be an unqualified success, employing thousands of people. The production of knitwear, cashmere, hosiery, linen and tweed all flourished and by 1821 Galashiels alone was home to 10 mills.

While on the subject of textiles, it’s worth noting that it is often wrongly assumed that the river gave tweed cloth its name. Instead, it is thought more likely that the term was coined because of a misreading of the word ‘tweel’ or ‘twill,’ which is a type of textile weave. Today only a small proportion of the mills and workforce exist. Nevertheless, the renowned quality of the textiles has not diminished and is celebrated the world over.

The economy in the Borders was also helped by the arrival of the railway – many of the bridges crossing the Tweed today exist as a result of the extensive rail routes built during the 19th Century. The important Edinburgh to Carlisle line was constructed 1847 – 1862 and had a knock-on effect of generating jobs in industries such as coal exporting. Unfortunately many stations closed during the 20th century; however the opening of the Edinburgh to Tweedbank line in September 2015 has helped in drawing visitors back to this beautiful corner of Scotland.

Top Five Places To Visit Along The River Tweed

John Buchan Story Museum, Peebles
This superb museum gives a fascinating insight into the Governor General of Canada and the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Dryburgh Abbey, St Boswells
Dryburgh is perhaps the finest of the four Abbeys in the Scottish Borders. Both Sir Walter Scott and Field Marshall Earl Haig are buried in the grounds.

Abbotsford House, Melrose
The home, for much of his life, of Sir Walter Scott. Abbotsford House is one of the most popular visitor attractions in the Scottish Borders.

Neidpath Castle, Peebles
Built in the 13th Century, Neidpath Castle was caught up in a number of battles between the Scots and the English.

Town Walls, Berwick-upon-Tweed
A walk along the walls that have surrounded Berwick since the 14th Century offer a fascinating insight into the town’s history.