Castles and Culture in the Scottish Borders

The Scotlanders are at it again, this time swinging south to the Scottish Borders – a land of immense beauty and fascinating history that is vastly underrated by most visitors to Scotland. In peak season, a time in which Edinburgh’s streets are full to bursting and Highland motorways can feel like city centre jams, it was a breath of fresh air to venture amongst the rolling hills, charming towns, and countless castles of the Borders. It’s a sprawling region with a staggering amount of historic, geographical, and cultural variety, and even between us three Scotlanders we were only able to cover a slice of it. For a family-focused approach take a look at Kim Kjaerside’s post; for an outdoors and sports-centric itinerary Neil Robertson is your man; and for history and castles (what else), it’s yours truly.  

CYCLING THE BORDERS

Since the re-opening of the Borders Railway in 2015, the Scottish Borders have become infinitely more accessible for travellers dependent on public transportation and pedal-power. Prior to that I had hardly explored the Borders at all, and now I visit the area at least once a month whenever I feel like castle hunting without straying too far from home. It’s less than an hour by train to Galashiels or Tweedbank from Edinburgh Waverley, and the density of historic sites all throughout the region – from abbeys and castles to standing stones and ancient burghs – means that whatever part you focus on, there will be plenty to see and merit returning for.

This time around my focus was on Hawick and Jedburgh, each a little over two hours by bike from Tweedbank. The first stretch was the most challenging as I ascended the road alongside the Eildon Hills (always good to get the biggest climb done early). The distinctive outline of the Eildons were a landmark for the Romans, who established a massive fort nearby at Newstead. They would later be a muse for for Walter Scott, whose home of Abbotsford stands at their foot. The rest of the cycling journey was quintessential Borders – rolling hills but nothing too severe, open fields and quiet roads, and a landscape at once expansive and intimate. If you’re keen on cycling through Scotland’s history but are daunted by the precipitous ascents of the Highlands, the Scottish Borders are an ideal training ground.

HAWICK

Had I journeyed to Hawick from Tweedbank five centuries ago, I likely would not have made it in one piece. This, after all, was the bloody heart of reiver country. The reivers were effectively organised crime syndicates operated by Borders families such as the Elliotts, Scotts, Armstrongs, and Johnstones (to name but a few), whose raids targeted Scots and English alike. We get the word ‘bereaved’ from having been a victim of the reivers, masterful horsemen who ‘shook loose the Border’ with constant pillaging, thieving, and blackmailing. If you ask Hawick locals what most embodies their town’s identity they’ll almost invariably answer with the Common Riding, an assembly of hundreds of riders who ceremonially patrol the boundaries of the Marches (a term for the division of the Borders into distinct regions – East, Middle, and West March) which remains an extraordinary and hallowed spectacle to this day.

The common riding proceeding through Hawick in an 1890 painting by James Tait.

The best way to learn about Hawick’s history and community is to visit a trifecta of attractions in the centre of town. Within a stone’s throw from each other are three institutions that collectively comprise the Heart of Hawick – the Heritage Hub, where amongst other things you can access archives and research genealogical records; the Tower Mill, an entertainment venue, cinema, cafe and hot desk venue (ideal for freelancers like me); and the Borders Textile Towerhouse, which tells the story of the foundational industries of the Borders within Hawick’s oldest surviving building, historically known as the Black Tower of Drumlanrig or Drumlanrig’s Tower, dating from at least the thirteenth century.

Hawick is really setting an example for town across Scotland with this trio, as it became evident to me very quickly that they function not only as attractions for visitors but as a key part of the local community’s cultural and economic prosperity. While I caught up on some research on my laptop in the Tower Mill’s work space I noted how many folk were coming and going, using it as a social, professional, and educational environment. I confess that I’ve been underwhelmed by some places calling themselves the ‘heart’ or ‘hub’ of certain places, yet the pulse emanating from the Heart of Hawick was immediately tangible.

It was a beautiful summer’s day and I had a few spare hours, so I popped over to the nearby Hawick Museum with its beautiful gardens and local tales and then to the earthen remains the Mote, a motte-and-bailey castle, before joining Neil and Kim for dinner and live music back at the Tower Mill. The Mote, incidentally, has one of the coolest examples of creative interpretation I’ve seen anywhere – an explanatory catapult! It’s upon this seemingly humble mound that the Common Riding formally commences when its leader, known as the Cornet, ascends the Mote at dawn. 

The fountain and gardens around the charming Hawick Museum

After dinner it was time to ride my two-wheeled steed on to Jedburgh. It’s a little under fifteen miles from Hawick to Jedburgh and the gentle route takes you past a number of tower houses and kirks, the most remarkable (and hilariously named) of which is surely Fatlips Castle. Unable to resist a hidden castle, I sought out the remains of Cavers House in the wooded hills east of Hawick before pressing on to my overnight accommodation just as the sun settled beneath the hills to the west. 

JEDBURGH

Jedburgh’s charm runs deep and sinks in quick. Small lanes, historic buildings, and a Goldilocks-style balance between quaintness and practicality defined my visit. After enjoying a coffee with views across to Jedburgh Abbey, I made my way to the Mary, Queen of Scots’ Visitor Centre. It’s housed within Jedburgh’s sole surviving tower house – where Mary actually stayed during her time in Jedburgh – so that’s another castle crossed off the checklist! The story of Mary’s life and death is an enduring drama and tragedy, whose unfurling is expertly told at the centre with a combination of artefacts, information panels, and an audio guide. Perhaps the most striking object in the collections, alongside her final letter, is a death mask cast after her beheading – it possesses a regal, dignified, yet haunting quality, a testament to her dignity in the face of adversity and brutality.

While it has become a running joke that there is hardly a castle in Scotland that Mary didn’t visit, this one played a role in one of her most daring ventures when she set out from Jedburgh on horseback to console the injured Lord Bothwell at Hermitage Castle, twenty-five miles away over high, boggy moors. She was thrown from her mount and nearly died of the chill she caught from plunging into the morass. Returning to Jedburgh, her survival was in real doubt as described by the Bishop of Ross:

“Hir Majestie swounit agane and failzit in hir sicht, her feit and hir neis was cauld. About sax houris in the morning on Fryday hir Majestie become deid and all hir membris cauld Ene closet, Moth fast and Feit and Armis stiff and cauld.”

The Bishop’s dire prognosis of death was not to be, however before facing the executioner’s axe twenty-one years later she famously opined, “Would that I had died in Jedburgh.”

Climbing the hill from the Mary, Queen of Scots’ Visitor Centre brings you to a remarkable site which, honestly, I’m embarrassed that I did not know about prior to this trip. The Jedburgh Castle Jail & Museum is a monumental castellated complex with commanding views over the town and surrounding area. It is on the site of Jedburgh’s early medieval castle, though no trace of that remains, as well as the old Gallows Hill where many a reiver faced ‘Jeddart Justice’, a term for execution without trial that was inflicted on many a reiver.

The impressive and imposing entrance to the Jedburgh Castle Jail & Museum

Inside is an extensive exhibition on what I’m now calling the capital of crime and punishment in the Scottish Borders. You can wander into the prison cells, learn about the punishments doled out to inmates (ranging from solitary confinement in ‘black holes’ to hard labour and attempts at ‘moral’ reform. Fun the for whole family!) In fact, it’s precisely the kind of place that would make for a darkly entertaining family visit, with plenty of ghost stories in the audio guide and neuks and crannies galore. Though I spent nearly two hours within its confines I’ll certainly be returning as the jail, museum, and grounds easily merit a longer stay. Along with the Mary, Queen of Scots’ Visitor Centre and other attractions such as the famous Jedburgh Abbey, Jedburgh is an ideal hub for exploring the turbulent history of the Scottish Borders.

ACCOMMODATION

As a solo traveller and someone who is inclined to explore from dawn to dusk, I find self-catering accommodation to be the way to go. I’m no stranger to stingy hostels and cheap B&Bs next to train tracks, so it was with unbridled delight that I pulled into the polar opposite of that – The Laurels, just north of Jedburgh – at the end of my long day of cycling. Easily the comfiest and most stylish accommodation I’ve had in a long while, I shared it with Neil and we had plenty of room to spare. A combination of modern yet rustic decor made it easy to settle in, and the location made it feel like a country cottage while being only two miles from central Jedburgh. While it’s certainly a ‘treat yourself’ type of accommodation rather than the sort I’d regularly rely on, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it for your stay in the area, especially if you’re a couple or small family.  

The couches on which I promptly collapsed at The Laurels

Disclaimer

My visit to the Scottish Borders was part of a paid promotional campaign with Live Borders, an organisation dedicated to promoting the cultural, historic, and civic vibrancy of the Borders based in Hawick. Accommodation at The Laurels was also generously provided. As mentioned above, I regularly travel to the Borders for my castle hunting trips and I was delighted to help draw attention to the region, particularly in light of recent conversations about over-tourism in certain areas of Scotland. That’s a theme that myself and other prominent Scottish writers and travel bloggers will be tackling more in the months to come, and expect the Scotlanders to return to the Borders for a more extensive adventure in 2020.