Exploring Eyemouth

by Robin McKelvie, 19th January 2024
Exploring Eyemouth

Travel writer and journalist Robin McKelvie explores history, world-class seafood and superb walking trails as he goes on tour on Scotland’s east coast in the Scottish Borders. Eyemouth and its surrounds offer a superb holiday in this often forgotten – but utterly gorgeous – corner of Scotland.

My first stop is an ideal introduction to Scotland’s border country. The Union Chain Bridge was built in 1820 by Royal Naval Captain Sir Samuel Brown under the guidance of Scottish civil engineers Robert Stevenson and John Rennie, as a grandiose link between the countries. It is the oldest and longest wrought iron suspension bridge still standing in Britain thanks to a revamp in 2022 that brought it back to its best. It’s quite an experience sauntering over the mighty Tweed across the line that marks the border in the middle of the river to be greeted by a large cheery sign welcoming you to the Scottish Borders.

Union Chain Bridge was revamped in 2022 to restore it to its former glory.

And I do feel welcome as a kilometre yomp along the river brings me to Paxton House and the warm handshake and smiles of Paxton House guide Jim Casey. Paxton House is a Georgian mansion set on a bluff overlooking the River Tweed that reclines in 80 acres of riverside woodland, parkland and gardens. Walks tempt year-round, with boat trips in summer taking in the Union Chain Bridge. Built between 1758 and 1767, Paxton was crafted by architectural luminaries John and James Adam in a graceful Palladian style.

Paxton House, built in the Palladian style by John and James Adam.

“It is the furniture that is the real joy,” beams Jim. I find the Borders’ coast and hinterland full of wee surprises. I expected Paxton would be a draughty, bare country house pile, but it is cosy inside and sports a remarkable collection of over 100 pieces of Chippendale furniture, Regency furniture by Scotland’s William Trotter and a breathtaking collection of 18th Century costumes brought to Scotland by Patrick Home from his time at the Court of Frederick the Great. If you’ve seen Chippendale furniture elsewhere these pieces strike not through their ostentatiousness, but by their stylish restraint. I take in the vaulting gallery too, which houses over 70 paintings loaned from the National Galleries of Scotland, with Raeburn, Wilkie and Lawrence among the highlights.

Inside Paxton House with guide Jim Casey.

Pushing on to Eyemouth (a fishing town of 5,000 with its roots way back in the thirteenth century) another cheery Borders’ soul greets me. Euan Scott from the Eyemouth Harbour Trust is passionate about the town, having returned to his beloved homeland after years spent working on cruise lines. “There is nothing like Eyemouth,” he smiles. “I’ve circumnavigated the globe five times, but it was here I chose to return. The Trust has big plans for the harbour that will benefit the community and help attract more visitors in.”

Euan Scott discusses the ambitions of the Eyemouth Harbour Trust to develop tourism.

Scott sweeps me off for a walk around the busy harbour. The deep sea trawlers are not quite as numerous these days, though they do still bring in haddock you can try in the local restaurants. “The big boom today are the shellfish boats that work hard bringing in crab, lobster and prawns,” Scott explains as he fills me in on the port’s ambitions and wider plans to develop Eyemouth’s tourism.

It is shellfish boats that offer the boom for Eyemouth these days but there is still some local fish to be had at local eateries.

There is nothing either quite like the lobster at the Rialto Coffee Co, where we enjoy lunch. Eyemouth is famous for its lobster, but here it is served with a cheeky difference – it’s vegan lobster, which is delicious, made with lettuce hearts smothered in a more traditional lobster-style sauce in a bun. Owners Michael and Eilyn Howes-Quintero pride themselves on their coffee and I can taste why.

My Eyemouth base is the cosy Home Arms, a family-run guest house where my room peers out over Eyemouth’s sweeping sandy beach. I take a wander along it and am struck by a surging bronze memorial. ‘Widows and Bairns’ is dedicated to the 129 Eyemouth fishermen who drowned tragically in sight of their home in a violent storm back in October 1881. It also marks dozens more souls who perished from outside Eyemouth. The tragedy devasted the Eyemouth community and is still felt in families all these years later.

Wives and Bairns memorial commemmorating the tragic loss of 129 fishermen in October 1881.

Dinner follows at The Ship. I cosy by the fire and tuck into plump Scottish mussels steamed in white wine, shallots and cream, served with crusty bread. The main course is a delicious lemon-infused prawn risotto – a great meal that weaves in seafood from Scottish waters. Eyemouth’s restaurants heave with the local seafood, especially in summer when the tourist demand is strongest.

The next morning I wake dreaming of contraband being smuggled around the coast outside my window. First stop then is vaulting Gunsgreen House, which dominates the south bank of the Eye Water and Eyemouth Harbour. Local ‘merchant’ John Napier was keen to avoid paying the eyewatering 119% tax on tea, so he had a house purpose-built for skullduggery.

Gunsgreen House was once the headquarters of a notorious tea smuggler.

Today’s smuggler-in-chief Tracy Duffy, leads me around a grand building that dates back to 1754, showing me the secret doors, wee hideaways and the remarkable tea chute used by Nisbet in his illicit dealings. The museum is closed for a revamp, but you can still stay in the gorgeous period bedrooms and pop along for their one-off events, like themed afternoon teas. And snare their excellent Gunsgreen Gin.

Lunch comes at the swish, award-winning Oblò Bar & Bistro on the harbour front. I tuck into prawn spaghetti in the contemporary space on the first floor and check out their well-stocked deli area. I eat well later too at the Contented Sole, a seventeenth century pub with heart and good seafood. I opt for the fried seafood platter, washed down with a local ale.

Eyemouth Museum is one of 20 points on the Smuggler’s Trail.

In-between the meals I work up an appetite by running on the Smuggler’s Trail, a three kilometer adventure that snakes around 20 points of interest, including the excellent Eyemouth Museum, Fort Point and the Old Cemetery where 100 victims of a cholera epidemic in 1849 lie.

Robin is joined by Mark Nicol of Discover Scottish Borders.

My last day is spent in spectacular style in the company of Mark Nicol of Discover Scottish Borders. I hike north up the Berwickshire Coastal Path to meet him in picturesque St Abbs, where the scenery goes into overdrive as we push towards St Abbs Head. Many people know St Abbs for its world-class scuba diving, or for being New Asgard in the Marvel Universe, but the hiking is superb too. We hike out along rugged cliffs that are alive with seabirds in summer. We’re lucky to catch sight of baby seals and we spot a feeding pod of bottlenose dolphins.

Superb views and possible marine mammal sightings await along the Berwickshire Coastal Path.

Over a lunch of Eyemouth-landed fish ‘n’ chips at the Old School Cafe Café in St Abbs, Nicol fills the coast with even more colour and has me desperate to return. My journey ends with a new beginning at Reston, the railway station that opened in 2023, making it easier than ever to access this wild and wildly beautiful coastline. What are you waiting for?