Escape to the Borders

by Robin McKelvie, 8th March 2022
Chain Bridge across the Tweed | Scottish Borders
Escape to the Borders

Any time of year is a good time to be in the Borders, but the start of March proves a corker. I step off the Borders Railway from Edinburgh bathed in warm sunshine. On the horizon looms the rugged outline of the Eildon Hills. I’m in the land of William Wallace, Sir Walter Scott and King Arthur – yes that one. It’s an oasis so spectacular and spirit-soaring that Robert the Bruce literally chose to leave his heart here for eternity. Join me now as we savour the Borders.

I’m a huge fan of hiking and as I type this I cannot think of anywhere else where one coast to coast long distance walk (the Southern Upland Way) breezes right through town, another (The Borders Abbeys Way) circles around here and a third (The St Cuthbert’s Way) starts right here at Melrose Abbey. And that is where I begin my walk in Melrose doffing my metaphorical cap towards the abbey where Bruce’s heart lies as I push off.

Melrose Abbey
Melrose Abbey, where Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried and where I set off for my walk.

The beauty of walking around Melrose is that there are just so many options. As well as the trio of famous long distance epics, Melrose Paths works hard maintaining a network of local trails. Given the glorious weather I tweak my plans to join the four-abbey Borders Abbeys Way, instead soaring above Melrose on the St Cuthbert’s Way up into those trio of Eildon Hills. I climb the most eastern peak, sharing chocolate with the Roman ghosts on the spot where they once held sway from a hill fort. I can make out the footprint of massive Trimontium, the largest Roman fort in Scotland, far below.

Made it! On top of the Eildon Hills with a spectacular view all around me.

It’s a spectacular start that just keeps on getting more spectacular as I descend to the Tweed. The cobalt river surges by with its salmon and trout and I catch sight of an otter. It’s the sort of day for idling on the sun-speckled banks watching the world go by, but I’m hungry so I push on to the remarkable charms of Main Street Trading in St Boswells. “A bookshop so perfect, you might have dreamt it,” said novelist Maggie O’Farrell of a café and bookshop that has been voted ‘Britain’s Best Small Shop’. I won’t argue, with its expertly-curated books brought to life with regular author talks and signings, with superb fresh, local produce in its café – suppliers are named on the menu.

I join the Borders Abbeys Way across the first chain bridge ever built in the UK, where I find the evocative neo-classical Temple of the Muses. It’s dedicated to James Thomson, the poet and playwright, author of the joys of nature espousing The Seasons and the lyrics of Rule Britannia. Thompson is one of the sixteen Scottish poets and writers honoured by the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.

Temple of the Muses, dedicated to poet and playright James Thomson.

I’m in search of another famous Scot, one who would probably not have been a huge fan of Rule Britannia. Hulking on the skyline over the lands he famously fought over is Scottish hero William Wallace. The statue was made of red sandstone by John Smith of Darnick and was built in 1814, soaring to a height of almost 10 metres. I push on up through the woods to meet Wallace. It’s just us. I share my Irn Bru with him as we survey an epic view over the Eildons, the Tweed and a whole swathe of the Tweed Valley. Neither of says anything; we don’t need to.

Strong and silent: the 10-metre sculpture of William Wallace surveys the lands he once fought over.

I spend the night in the shadow of another famous Scot – the Borders captivated so many – at the Dryburgh Abbey Hotel. It overlooks the eponymous abbey where Sir Walter Scott chose to be buried on the banks of the mighty tree-shrouded Tweed at this 12th century abbey ruin. I dine grandly at this grand, stately hotel in a manner I’m sure Scott would have approved of: Scottish smoked salmon followed by local pheasant.

Day Two

My second day brings an even longer walk. After a fortifying breakfast of haddock kedgeree at the hotel it’s off on the Borders Abbeys Way bound for Kelso and my third abbey of the trip. I set off following the Tweed ever east, rolling up hills and venturing along country lanes and forest tracks in search of Kelso. And then there it is. Walking lets me appreciate this market town in a whole new way, from the riverside. I feel the grandeur of its skyline and when I reach the main square I can imagine it in its medieval market bustle.

I try to picture the modern day Kelso town square in its days as a medieval market.

I’m struck by the soaring steeple of a church I don’t even know the name of, but my target is Kelso Abbey. It’s arguably got the most impressive façade of any of the quartet of ruined abbeys, but there is substance behind it too and a section of the cloisters remain. I’m meant to catch a taxi to my hotel, but after walking over 20km I’m on a roll and continue walking.

It proves a wise choice as I get to vault over a stone bridge across the Tweed dating back to 1805 and then an even older stone bridge sweeps me across the Teviot. I hadn’t realised the Teviot and Tweed meet so charmingly at Kelso and I get the joy of following the Teviot upstream in search of Roxburghe. I mean the hotel, but I stumble too upon the remains of the old Roxburgh castle, which used to be one of Scotland’s most important. The ruins of its rugged stone outline are all that is left in a lofty ridge above me, but it still fared better than the eponymous village, which was wiped off the earth.

I headed upstream from Kelso following the Teviot River.

I do find another small village of Roxburgh upstream, but not before I lose myself in a world of ducks, swans and herons. After a brace of anglers beneath Roxburgh Castle’s ruins I don’t see another soul. The village proves my launch pad for sweeping over the Tweed. Which I do on the Roxburgh Viaduct. Waving goodbye to the river I arrive at my grand abode for the night – SCHLOSS Roxburghe Hotel & Golf Course.

SCHLOSS Roxburghe Hotel in Kelso is undergoing a large extension including swimming pool and spa due for completion this year.

I’ve not been here for a decade and boy has it changed. It’s gone all Gleneagles, with a plush reception, beautiful decor and luscious bedrooms. I catch my breath in my four poster before peering out of my huge windows towards their Dave Thomas designed championship golf course. It feels like a hotel going places and I can see the scale of their ambition with a large extension finished this year that brings a heated indoor pool, 58 more bedrooms and a state-of-art spa.

The restaurant has come up several notches too. I dine with Jonathan Garrett, who wears twin hats as managing director of Kelso Racecourse and chairman of Visit Kelso. He enthuses me about both the racecourse and Kelso, telling me the course’s slogan is “A Warm Borders Welcome”. I feel that in Kelso – and throughout the Borders – and can also see why Kelso Racecourse is hailed as the friendliest in Britain. It also boasts the oldest sporting building in Scotland, in the form of its deeply historic grandstand, which dates from 1822. We feast on perfectly cooked scallops and pan fried halibut; proper fine-dining style.

Day Three

The ruins of Kelso Cathedral may dazzle, but the most impressive building in Kelso is Floors Castle. The home of the Innes-Ker family since it was fashioned for the 1st Duke of Roxburghe over 300 years ago in 1721, it is now in the hands of a new Duke, a 41-year-old at that. “He is building on the solid foundations of what went before, whilst breathing new life into the castle and the surrounding estate,” explains Matt Thompson, Operations Manager. I feel this palpable changing of the guard walking in the grand doors as there is a touching portrait of the jeans-clad Duke with his young daughter by Jamie Coreth.

Floors Castle, with portrait of Charles, 11th Duke of Roxburghe and his daughter.

Floors Castle still boasts a wealth of great tapestries, fine furniture and baskets weaved by Queen Victoria, but also lashings of new life. There is the Apple Shed deli and this summer a series of massive concerts descend on Floors’ grounds, with the highlight Tears for Fears and Alison Moyet playing to a crowd of 15,000 revellers.

Pushing on from Kelso I move down to often ignored Selkirk, a town with a typically inspiring Borders setting, set in the shadow of a hulk of improbably dramatic hills. I find South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project’s ‘The Eyrie’, which came about as the golden eagle population was worryingly low, but now through their reintroduction programmes there are now over 30 eagles living and thriving here, the most in southern Scotland for 300 years. I learn more through the informative displays and enjoy a delicious lunch in their bright new wood-clad Waterwheel Café here on the Philiphaugh Estate.

The Waterwheel Cafe on the Philiphaugh Estate with plenty of information about the South of Scotland’s Golden Eagle project.

I push on to find more new life at The Haining. This country house and estate dates from 1790s, a bolthole of the Pringle Family. In 2009 the house and estate passed to a Trust who have put the community at the heart of a volunteer-led rejuvenation. The revamped house will have space for community events, exhibitions and events, plus a café in the grounds. The loch here has already been opened up with accessible trails sweeping around its bucolic charms.

In Selkirk I also meet polymath Gethin Chamberlain. Not content with being a successful investigative journalist and foreign correspondent, he is an accomplished photographer and has also created a spectacular, bright and innovative self-catering escape in Selkirk: the Five Turrets. He is also involved in a community woodland initiative and Go Wild Scotland. They are a community interest company aiming to improve peoples’ lives through wildlife and nature conservation experiences, both through actual projects, but also guiding people towards spaces where they can experience the wild beauty of the surrounding area.

The Five Turrets – a self-catering gem in Selkirk.

My last day drew to an end filled with hope, filled with regeneration. I didn’t know much about Selkirk before, it’s not a town I often pass through. I meet members of their BID regeneration team, the local souter (shoemaker) and the recycling hub of the General Store. This Royal and Ancient Burgh sits high above the Ettrick and Yarrow Valleys in a wealth of scenery, but it is the small independent, community-minded businesses that most impress me. They have a proper butchers, a brilliant grocers, a glorious new gallery and a sprinkling of old world shops that prospered during Lockdowns when local people grew to really appreciate the quality in their midst. I also find the church where William Wallace was ordained as Guardian of Scotland.

Selkirk’s independent, community-minded shops impressed and delighted.

My last night is spent in the comforting charms of Melrose in a hotel I know well – the Townhouse. This family-run gem from the Hendersons offers quintessential Borders hospitality in the quintessential Borders market town. It’s been in the family for half a century. Writing this now I realise, though, that Melrose is just one of the Borders towns you must visit. Don’t miss Peebles. Nor Hawick, Jedburgh, Selkirk or Kelso. I’ve just tucked into a delicious meal of Borders lamb here at the Townhouse and my head and heart are full of rich history, gorgeous towns, world-class walks and the warmth of community. No wonder Bruce left his heart in the Borders.