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The best things to do in the Scottish Borders
Home to ancient abbeys, splendid stately homes and a heritage textiles industry, the Scottish Borders are worthy of your time, so don’t miss these highlights
The Scottish Borders, that green region of sloping hills and patchwork pastures that follows the serpentine shape of the River Tweed, forming a natural border with England, is a quiet part of southern Scotland but one that still manages to hold a surprising number of attractions.
The River Tweed, which gave its name to the Scottish fabric that originated here, once powered the many water mills of the region, and has also long provided a picturesque backdrop to the many beautiful castles and estate houses that line its banks.
But things weren’t always so harmonious here, and the Borders Abbeys of Melrose, Jedburgh, Dryburgh and Kelso are testament to a time of huge unrest. Built during the reign of David I in the 12th century, they once represented Scotland’s might and power, yet they all suffered at the hands of the invading English armies.
For a journey through the Borders from past to present, here are the places you should visit in the Scottish Borders.
Best things to do in the Scottish Borders
Melrose Abbey, Melrose
The first and the most famous of the Scottish Borders Abbeys, the ruins of this abbey give a good sense of the scale and prestige of the once grand church. Melrose Abbey was held in such esteem that it was here that Alexander II was buried after his death in 1249 and where Robert the Bruce’s heart was supposedly brought to be buried (his body was interred at Dunfermline Abbey, in Fife).
Whether it really is the legendary king’s heart lying in the Chapter House is hard to prove either way, but it doesn’t stop people coming to visit this sacred place, just in case.
As the name suggests, this restaurant, just a 15-minute walk outside Melrose, focuses on seasonal dishes using produce sourced as locally as possible. Its opening hours are limited (just Fridays and Saturday evenings at present), and it is popular, so do book ahead.
The Hoebridge, Gattonside
Another fine restaurant just outside Melrose, the interiors of the Hoebridge are as fresh as its small plate dishes, which change monthly depending on what’s in season. It’s a great place to support Scottish producers, with fish and shellfish from Ross Dougal in Eyemouth to organic flours from Mungoswells in East Lothian and beer from the Borders’ own Tempest Brewing Co.
SCHLOSS Roxburghe, Kelso
Approached via a long tree-lined driveway, this revamped hotel resort (left), well placed for visits to Floors Castle, is without a doubt the most luxurious place to stay in the Borders. Once part of the Roxburghe Estate, the building has been a country house hotel for some time, but locals will tell you that it was a bit tired and old fashioned. Not so anymore.
Thanks to an ambitious renovation project under its new owners, the 12.18. Group, the new-look SCHLOSS Roxburghe is a delight, with a new-look bistro-style restaurant in Charlie’s, which overlooks the outdoor heated pool, from where you can swim into the peaceful yet jaw-dropping spa to relax before trying out the scented sauna, hot tub or plunge pool.
Rooms are large with modern-style four-poster beds, freestanding baths, and rainfall showers, while a more traditional atmosphere can be felt in the cosy fire-lit lounges and the hidden away bar (see above). On-site activities include golf on the Championship course.
Kelso and Floors Castle
Another Borders Abbey can be found in the pretty market town of Kelso, where Sir Walter Scott spent much of his childhood. It has fabulous views of turreted Floors Castle, both from the bridge over the river on the way in and on the drive between Melrose and Kelso.
Though it looks like something from a fairytale book, Floors Castle is home to the 11th Duke of Roxburghe, making it the largest inhabited castle in Scotland. You can take a tour of the castle itself or walk the expansive grounds, which include a Victorian walled garden.
If you are arriving into the Scottish Borders along the Borders Railway from Edinburgh, then alight at Tweedbank and you can reach Sir Walter Scott’s cherished home on foot in just 20 minutes. Like a museum of the writer’s life and interests, it’s a chance to see his personal library, delve into his fascination with Scottish history and more whimsical pursuits, and hear the story of the house, whose stones, in Scott’s own words, “speak both of triumph and disaster.”
For a hotel with history in the Borders, try this castle hotel, built in 1860 by renowned architect David Bryce. In many ways the hotel is the epitome of the Scottish baronial castle hideaway, with Bryce’s trademark style of crow-stepped gables and small towers, an extravagantly grand dining room (right), and 28 acres of parkland and woodland to explore.
However, its tasting menu, which changes daily, helping to keep things interesting as well as sustainable with very little wastage, uses produce from either a single-source producer or the hotel’s kitchen garden, and really makes it stand out from others in a similar mould.
Taken over by New Zealand-born Bill Cross and his wife in 2019, who had already successfully run a Cotswolds hotel, the hotel is gradually going through a refurbishment programme – a new nature trail has recently been added and next up is the conservatory – which will both bring some welcome updates to the hotel and estate while being very sensitive to the history and aesthetic of it all. In keeping with its traditional setting, the hotel can organise piped dinners, shooting, fishing, and falconry, while guests are free to play croquet, boules, and pitch-and-putt on the lawns.
Mill shops & Distillery, Hawick
Birthplace of Scottish tweed, Hawick, the town where the rivers Tweed and Teviot meet, is where you can learn more about the evolution of the Borders wool and manufacturing industry, from its 18th-century origins through to being the go-to place for many couture designers working with tweed and cashmere today.
There are lots of mill shops where you can buy textiles to take home, from household names like Johnstons of Elgin (which as its name suggests began life in Moray but set up shop here in 1980); to fashionable Hawico, renowned for its vibrant colours; and Lovat Mill, which weaves Estate and Regimental Tweeds for more than 50 private estates and military regiments. While in the town, take a tour of the Borders Distillery, which is bringing whisky-making back to the region for the first time since 1837.
Great Tapestry of Scotland, Galashiels
The brainchild of Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, this huge tapestry tells not only of Scotland’s key moments in history but also the stories of everyday people, from mill workers to herring girls, on a canvas that carries many references to Scotland’s natural landscape.
McCall Smith worked closely with both Andrew Crummy, the artist behind the Prestonpans Tapestry, and historian and writer Alistair Moffat to piece together what and who should be included.
The result is an extraordinary homage to Scotland’s past and an embodiment of the nation’s pride, with panels created by 1,000 stitchers. It can now be viewed in its permanent home in Galashiels.
This is an extract, read the full future in the September/October issue of Scotland, available to buy here from 18 August.
Published six times a year, every issue of Scotland showcases its stunning landscapes and natural beauty, and delves deep into Scottish history. From mysterious clans and famous Scots (both past and present), to the hidden histories of the country’s greatest castles and houses, Scotland‘s pages brim with the soul and secrets of the country.
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