Our tips on where to go and what to do in the Scottish Borders
Scotland Starts Here asked us to share some of our favourite places and what makes living and working in the Scottish Borders special. An edited version appears on their excellent website as part of their Live Local With series, which features plenty more suggestions. For a fuller local roundup, read on. It's not a definitive list and there are plenty of other wonderful places to go which are featured elsewhere in these pages, but it's a start.
Where better to start than the hills of the Southern Uplands? From the windows of The Five Turrets you look out over the Ettrick valley to a vista of hills as far as the eye can see. We’ve included some of our favourite walks on our website, but for a view to die for you can’t beat the walk up to the Three Brethren from our doorstep. It takes you up through the forest at Corbie Linn (don’t miss the waterfall hidden among the trees on the left) and then out onto the open heather-clad hillside up to The Brethren themselves, three huge cairns dating back to the 16th century. From there you can enjoy a 360 panorama, with lovely views of the Eildon Hills to the east.
The Eildons make a splendid walk in their own right, with some walking routes also taking in the banks of the nearby Tweed. Legend has it that the Eildons mark the entrance to the land of the elves and it was there that Thomas the Rhymer, the 13th century seer, is said to have met the Queen of the Fairies (the spot is now marked by the Rhymer’s Stone). Thomas is credited with a number of successful predictions, among them Scottish victory at Bannockburn, though like many he doesn’t appear to have seen Covid-19 on the horizon.
The Romans had a signalling station on the top of Eildon Hill North (though the Selgovae got there first, with a hill fort dating back to 1000BC) which still comes as a surprise to those who recall being taught at school that the legions never made it into Scotland. They did, of course, and established a fort at the foot of the hill at Trimontium - ‘the place of the three hills’ - with infantry and cavalry garrisons. You can’t see much of it these days, because the previous excavations have been covered up again, but it is said to be the largest Roman complex in Scotland and remains an atmospheric site with information boards and vantage points around the edges to help visitors imagine it as it was in its heyday between 80 and 211 AD. There’s an amphitheatre and as an added bonus you can sometimes see otters in the Tweed around the nearby Leaderfoot viaduct.
The absolutely best bit of Trimontium though is the little museum run by the Trimontium Museum Trust in Melrose. There’s some impressive artefacts from the excavations on show but it’s just one of those small museums that you can’t help loving for the enthusiasm and quiet expertise of the people involved. They’re currently camped out at Abbey House in the town while the regular museum in the Ormiston building gets a makeover.
One of the joys of living at the heart of the Borders is the ability to strike out into the surrounding countryside and be fairly certain of coming across some of Scotland’s iconic wildlife. Red squirrels have been having a tough time of it in recent years but there are encouraging signs that they are making inroads again along the Tweed and Yarrow valleys, pushing up to the edge of Selkirk and now with sightings beyond. They’re quite elusive, but I’ve been lucky with sightings recently on walks through the woods and forest of the Bowhill estate. You really can’t beat seeing a red squirrel: the moment you spot one bouncing through the trees or along the track in front of you I challenge you not to smile. You can also see roe deer there and in the surrounding countryside, along with woodpeckers, buzzards and - if you are really lucky - an otter in one of the lochs.
Venture up into the Yarrow valley and there’s a good chance of seeing an osprey; they can sometimes be seen fishing on St Mary’s Loch or flying along the valley and I’m still waiting to see my first red kite there (friends have reported sightings and they become more common the further west you travel). The Tweed valley is equally fertile ground for wildlife sightings, with red squirrels popping up regularly around Innerleithen and Cardrona and in normal years the Tweed Valley Osprey Project viewing centre at Glentress provides an opportunity to watch live camera footage from one of the nearby nests. Take a mountain bike along and you can tackle some of the world class mountain biking on offer there. We’re hoping to get our Go Wild Scotland tours up and running later in the year to showcase some of this wonderful wildlife.
I mentioned Carolynn’s weaving earlier: apparently you just can’t have too many looms and experiments have shown that suggesting 10 is surely enough is certainly unwise and possibly dangerously foolhardy. For those who share her passion for the ways of the warp and the weft - and the former owner of The Five Turrets certainly did, founding the Brydone and Brown spinning company and building the Yarrow Mill - then it is hard to beat the Borders Textile Towerhouse in Hawick. It’s another of those small museums packed with things you didn’t know you wanted to know and it brings to life 200 years of textile history, which is a lot more interesting than I’m making it sound. I’ll try again. It’s in a 500 year old tower! It dates back to the time of the infamous Border Reivers! And you can get married there! (You really can).
It also happens to be very close to the excellent new Borders Distillery and it would be rude not to stop by to say hello to them after all the effort they’ve gone to to open the first whisky distillery in the Borders since 1837. For those who simply cannot get enough tartan, tweed or cashmere, there’s an entire textile tour around the central Borders, which includes Selkirk’s own Lochcarron, down the hill from The Five Turrets, where you can get a tour of a working mill.
And that brings us back to Selkirk, where I find myself torn between the claims of two of Scotland’s most famous historical figures - William Wallace and Sir Walter Scott. Scott sat as sheriff in the town for the best part of 30 years and his courtroom is a great little tourist attraction, particularly when staging recreations of some of his cases. The great writer’s influence on the town is profound: his statue dominates the market place and the Scottish Baronial style of his home a few miles downriver at Abbotsford (where the guided tours really bring the place alive) had an unmistakable impact on the architecture of some of the key buildings in Selkirk, including the County Buildings (containing the Sheriff Court), Ettrick Lodge and - of course - The Five Turrets.
Wallace, meanwhile, doesn’t feature anywhere near as prominently, yet Selkirk has a strong case as the location of the Kirk of the Forest, the place where he was made Guardian of Scotland and I like to wander into the ruins of the Auld Kirk from time to time to stand on the spot where the great man probably stood all those centuries ago.
Wallace is also known to have holed up in the nearby Ettrick Forest for several years fighting a guerrilla campaign against English forces. The newly-restored statue of him at Bemersyde is a new favourite viewpoint looking out over the Borders countryside. Halliwell’s House Museum in the cobbled close off the Market Place is a lovely little place to round off a tour - it’s another of those small and quirky museums where you can learn about the casting of the colours, the annual ceremony commemorating the Battle of Flodden, regarded elsewhere in Scotland as something of an unmitigated disaster but in Selkirk as a score-draw after the one man to make it back alive brought with him a captured English flag.
Personally, I’d round the day off with a stop at the Fleece Bar and Kitchen. They’re one of the great local businesses we work with - they provide the personal chef service for The Five Turrets. The food’s great, the hosts are welcoming the drinks are very fine, particularly the magnificent Bannock Gin from Selkirk Distillers. It’s gin! And fruit bread! Together at last!
You’ll leave happy, and that’s all you can really ask for.
The Five Turrets features in the latest 'Live Local With' series of blogs from the Scotland Starts Here website promoting tourism in Midlothian and Scottish Borders. The website was developed by the Midlothian and Scottish Borders Tourism Action Group.