Celebrating Selkirk

by Robin McKelvie, 25th January 2024
Celebrating Selkirk

Journalist and travel writer Robin McKelvie jumped at the chance to tick Selkirk off his ‘To Overnight In’ bucket list. This Scottish Borders town vibrates with the legends of William Wallace and Sir Walter Scott, has an impressively strong sense of community, some great food and drink, and an array of life-affirming wildlife experiences. Join Robin as he experiences Selkirk in all its glory.

I start my explorations in one of the oldest Royal Burghs in Scotland on its wooded outskirts where the once vast Ettrick Forest wrapped its bucolic tentacles across swathes of the Borders. My first task is to enjoy a superb lunch that sets the tone for the excellent local produce I savour in and around Selkirk. Rory Steel – son of Borders’ political giant Lord Steel – has just saved the Cross Keys Inn, a real community fulcrum, from closure and I celebrate with a pint from Borders brewery Tempest and Eyemouth haddock ‘n’ chips.

Rory Steel at the Cross Keys Inn, Ettrickbridge

From Ettrickbridge I approach my base for the night, Aikwood Tower, which proves a real joy. I recline like a wealthy Borders Reiver with the run of my own castle. My family join me for a night and we spend it wrapped in Aikwood’s grand charms. We play table tennis in the games room and enjoy Selkirk Bannock (from local baker’s Camerons, of course) in the old world kitchen, before board games by the roaring log fire. There is even time to head outside, turn off all the lights and let the kids gawp in wonder at the vast night sky – we even catch sight of shooting stars.

Robin and his family enjoyed their evening at Aikwood Tower by the roaring fire.

The next day I push into Selkirk in the shadow of James Hogg – the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ – and the Tironian Monks who strove to set up the first Borders Abbey here, before moving to Kelso during the reign of King David I. History shrouds me straight away as I get out the car. An information board signals the spot where it is thought William Wallace was proclaimed Guardian of Scotland in the ‘Kirk o’ the Forest’ in 1298. I find further swathes of history in the courthouse where Sir Walter Scott once presided, the excellent Halliwell’s House Museum (housed in a glorious eighteenth century building) and in tales of the famous annual Common Riding.

Was this the spot William Wallace was declared Guardian of Scotland?

I could lose days immersed in Selkirk’s rich history, but passionate Gethin Chamberlain has other plans for me. This well-travelled former foreign correspondent set up Go Wild Scotland, a community interest company, to share his love of the local wildlife, which he tells me is, “up there with what you find in the Highlands.” When I look sceptical he explains: “We’ve got everything from red squirrels and pine martens, through to myriad deer, otters and golden eagles, and it’s all really accessible.”

Gethin Chamberlin, by the Ettrick Water, on the look out for red squirrels and other wildlife.

Gethin organises nature walks and volunteering opportunities where guests can get actively involved in conservation work and citizen science activities. We spend a couple of hours in search of his beloved red squirrels in the life-affirming local forests. Gethin also hosts events at the community wildlife project he has masterminded at Mauldsheugh Wood in Selkirk. We move on to get even closer to nature at the Philiphaugh Estate. Gethin introduces me to Edward Strang Steel, whose family is passionate about preserving the estate’s dramatic landscape and its wildlife. I knew about the Battle of Philiphaugh in 1645, but not about the Salmon Viewing Centre and the salmon ladder we visit. It’s time for birdlife next as I learn more about the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project at the Waterwheel Café, before a delicious lunch with spot-on homebaking and apple juice from the estate orchard.

Robin checks out the Salmon Viewing Centre on the Philiphaugh Estate.

Back in Selkirk I spend the rest of my trip concentrating on the town’s charming Market Square, the sort of community-driven, thriving space that has been lost in so many places. I walk by the busy Selkirk Distillers shop and into Tibbie’s, their new bar and restaurant in the former premises of the Courthouse Cafe. Owner Alan Walker describes Tibbie’s as ‘A Place To Share’, with cheeseboards, superb quality charcuterie, olives, nuts, crackers, cakes, tea, coffee and, of course, lots of gorgeous Selkirk Gin, including a Bannock Gin that is infused with slices of Selkirk Bannock.

Tibbie’s, located within the old Courthouse building where Sir Walter Scott presided as sheriff.

Market Square sports other inspirational independent businesses. There is Three Hills Coffee, who roast gorgeous coffee. And then a proper ‘souter’, or shoemaker. Selkirk was once known as the ‘Souter’s Toon’ so this is a glorious connection back through time. I make sure to return to the General Store, where the glorious force of nature that is Sue Briggs is hard at work. I love what they do here, selling second hand and recycled items in their shop to subsidise cheap repairs for the myriad items the community brings in. “We’ve just opened a community library too,” Sue explains. “Now anyone from the community can pay £25 a year and then borrow anything from hoovers and carpet cleaners, through to lawnmowers and hedge trimmers.”

Sue Briggs at the General Store which offers the community second hand and recycled items.

My base in town is The Five Turrets. This is another Gethin Chamberlain project. This grand heritage B-listed Scottish Baronial dame offers great views and interiors alive with contemporary design and style. It’s one of the grandest self-catering escapes I’ve stayed at in the Scottish Borders – and that is saying something. I enjoy a wee Selkirk Gin by the wood-burning stove and toast this lively Borders town.

Baronial splendour at the Five Turrets self-catering accommodation in Selkirk.

I lose my last morning at The Haining, making a pilgrimage I’ve long wanted to make. This glorious woodland houses a grand eighteenth century house that was bequeathed to the community in 2009. It is currently in the midst of a massive renovation that will see it reborn as a community space and an events venue. It peers out over a tree-shrouded lake. At the other side of the lake lies a bench. It is dedicated to Scott Hutchison, the late frontman of Selkirk band Frightened Rabbit, and is inscribed with his lyrics that state his aim of making positive ‘tiny changes to earth’. It is a fitting tribute to him from a town that shows what can happen when passionate people and a sense of community combine to make positive changes. I doff my metaphorical cap at Scott and vow this won’t be the last time I stay in Selkirk.

The lake in front of the Haining, which is currently being revamped as a community space and venue.