My first encounter with the Borders, 25 years ago, was a reassuringly odd one. Leaning on a fence overlooking a field in Kirk Yetholm, I watched as a sheep hopped clean over a stile. Before you write in, I know that sheep can’t do this (presumably it’s something to do with their lack of opposable thumbs, which means they can’t assembly the necessary trampoline). But it did. Either that, or I was experiencing an exhaustion-inspired hallucination, having just completed the 268-mile Pennine Way, which breathes its last breath in the village.
In my ignorance, I’d been surprised to discover that the path strayed over the Anglo-Scottish border. But Kirk Yetholm was an instructive introduction to a region brimming with the unexpected. The village once had a sizeable and influential gypsy community (a boulder paying tribute to them now stands on the village square) and while the Toblerone-shaped hills of the Cheviots rose to the south, to the north-east lay a finger of England.
The Borders today may be a political entity, governed by a local authority, but the real border resembles an electrocardiogram as it navigates rivers and hills on its seemingly contrary journey to the North Sea. Should Scotland ever grasp independence and choose to turn this into an internationally recognised border, the task of ironing things out and patrolling it could be a 13th labour for Hercules.
Arrival though, by the Pennine Way or other routes, is euphoric. The drive over the Cheviots to the border pass at Carter Bar on the A68 is breathtaking; as is breaching the eastern flanks, through Berwick upon Tweed, beyond which the A1, the East Coast Main Line and coastal path converge above a fracturing coastline.
The coast is where I started my latest journey, among a handful of weather-creased fishing communities huddled beneath cliffs coloured claret with sandstone. Eyemouth’s working harbour, canalised and rectangular, bustles at dawn with the unloading of fish against a backdrop of boats awaiting surgery in the boatyard’s vast aircraft-style sheds.
The windows of houses are squared off in pastel shades, the town still has a Herring Queen beauty contest, and – this is the seaside – the quality of ice cream is high and competition between rival outlets fierce. Be sure to try the freshly caught haggis, landed and served up the same morning.
The salmon-rich Tweed, which runs for almost 100 miles across the Borders, will stalk you for much of any visit. At its mouth, south of Eyemouth, stands Berwick, the English town with a Scottish football team and handsome Elizabethan walls. Historically these lands and its people have overlapped. Berwick changed hands 13 times before finally becoming English in 1482 and, four miles west of town, the border drops from north of the Tweed to the middle of its fast-flowing waters.
Here I came to the first of a production line of glorious Borders country and stately homes, Paxton House. Made with great Palladian symmetry from handsome sandstone, it was built by Patrick Home for the woman he loved: that love went unrequited and he sold up, heartbroken. No one has yet promoted this tale as The Taj of the Tweed, but I’m happy to start the campaign right here.
That sandstone may seal your own love affair with the Borders. You encounter it everywhere, in civic buildings, Georgian townhouses and most gracefully in the many honey-coloured bridges that arch over valleys and rivers. At times the topsoil, too, is almost blood red, as if capillaries rather than rainwater are feeding the abundant barley and wheat.
But the Borders have not always appeared so serene. This has historically been a land of migrants and marauders, saints and sinners, poets and princes. All too often it’s been a riotous place, overrun by reivers – warring clans and families, sheep rustlers and general ne’er-do-wells – as well as marauding armies headed north and south and various other opportunistic pillagers. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, these were the badlands of the British Isles.
“To say the area has a turbulent history is something of an understatement,” says Davy Ladd, a local guide. “The area has very rich farmland, you have people, sheep, cattle and horses – everything you need to create majestic wealth. Everyone wanted a piece of it. It was lawless.”
The Borders became known as the ‘debatable lands’ – contested in perpetuity, with its benighted, beleaguered inhabitants switching allegiance, depending on who had the upper hand.
Coldstream has one of those gorgeous bridges, but historically it was the one border outpost that didn’t need one, because the Tweed can be forded when the water level is low. As you can guess, this has proved Coldstream’s undoing, and five miles out of town stands the site of Flodden, where a crushing defeat in 1513 saw the death of James IV, and 10,000 Scots killed at the cost of 1,000 to 4,000 English. A simple stone cross pays tribute to ‘the brave of both nations’. In one of those juxtapositions that travel throws up, I returned in sombre mood to the nearby village of Braxton, where I stumbled upon what claims to be the world’s smallest tourist information centre, inside a red – unmanned – telephone box.
One consequence of all this conflict was an awful lot of damaged but beautiful buildings. These include the quartet of great abbeys founded in the Borders in the 12th century by David I at Jedburgh, Dryburgh, Melrose and Kelso. The abbeys were intended to drive the local economy by producing ink, wool, meat, fruit and cereals; they were also a useful buffer against the marauding English. Each has its own charms and all are must-sees: Kelso is the most ruined; Dryburgh is the most substantial and somehow supports a quivering, wafer-thin rose window; Melrose has surreal gargoyles (look for the pig playing the bagpipes) and, some say, the heart of Robert the Bruce; Jedburgh’s high arches appear to be invisibly supported.
The towns of Kelso, Melrose and Jedburgh are exquisite, boasting fine architecture, crammed with local shops and expressing an individuality long lost in most British cities. Kelso’s great cobbled square is almost Flemish, Melrose looks a little like Trumpton. The civic pride is palpable, and reaches a crescendo every summer with the Borders common ridings, where each town stages a festival and people ride out the bounds, reinforcing the edge of their territory on horseback. This is a land where the old county names of Berwickshire, Selkirkshire and Roxburghshire still have a resonating currency. Each town is rugby mad, and it was Melrose that gave the world the sevens form of the sport.
Melrose, like many Borders towns, learnt to hide away from the outside world. I struck out from the town, making for Scott’s View, a vantage point beloved by Sir Walter Scott, who is buried nearby at Dryburgh. His home, Abbotsford, will reopen to the public next year after restoration, but from the brow of the hill Melrose is invisible, tucked away in a steep valley by the Tweed. What you can see, though, are the Eildon Hills, three volcanic plugs of lava, known to the Romans – who also made it here – as Trimontium.
Journey’s end was Peebles. The town is an absolute delight, the high street bookended by two church spires, the most impressive, close by the Tweed Bridge, being the old parish church, with fine gothic stained-glass windows. The legacy of the Border’s tweed industry thrives here, with shops selling cashmere textiles, as well as fine art. You can pick up homemade pies, sausages and pastries at butcher-baker WTS Forsyth.
When you’re worn out by all the shopping and have taken in even more graceful views of the Tweed, you can mop your brow in Cocoa Black, a chocolatier serving beautifully presented chocolates and the high-society equivalent of jammy dodgers and fudge fingers.
If that all sounds a bit twee, Peebles does know how to let its hair down – as must any town that was a favourite of Oliver Reed, who was an all-too-frequent guest at the town’s Crown Hotel.
Don’t rush by
I left the Borders by a different route, heading north over the Lammermuirs. The land was punctuated by castles and towers that appeared to have been scaled up from textbook models. Along the way, I was delighted to discover a river called the Blackadder, and visited the kirk in Greenlaw, where the church spire still has the Rapunzel-esque bars in place from its former role as the village jail. Then, finally, I went to the hamlet of Longformacus and on to Gifford across a moorland landscape of extraordinary grace, but devoid of people, pinpointed by lonely hill farms.
I was reminded of something Davy had said. “People are so fixated on getting to Edinburgh,” he’d sighed. “They rush through and miss the Borders. They’re in search of the ‘real Scotland’ – bagpipes, kilts, whisky, claymores. They’re missing out here on beauty, colour, great food and great places to visit.”
Constant warfare between England and Scotland during the Middle Ages saw hundreds of skirmishes, raids and sieges in the Border region. Two of the largest battles took place in nearby Northumberland. In 1388, a raiding Scots army heavily defeated the defending English, losing 500 men to the enemy’s 1,500. The battlefield lies just west of Otterburn on the A696. In 1513, fortunes were utterly reversed at Flodden Field, with Scotland’s James IV becoming the last monarch from within the British Isles to be killed in battle. You can find the battlefield near the village of Branxton just off the A697.