A Walk in the Woods – part one.

We set out to take a walk around Saint Mary’s Loch, the largest freshwater loch in the Borders.  It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday, blue skies overhead and a slight breeze keeping the atmosphere fresh. We drove the fifty minutes or so through some spectacular scenery, but noticed as we went that the roads were much busier than we’d expected.

When we got to the loch, we were horrified to see how busy it was:  the narrow A-Road was even narrower, thanks to all the cars parked on the verge; the dozens of tents pitched on the lochside showed that a lot – a lot – of families had decided to make this their Covid-19 summer holiday location; there seemed to be a rally of middle-aged blokes on motorbikes, modern-day Vikings of the Road, each vying to have the loudest silencer;  a charity sponsored walk looked like it was about to start.

The drive became a real life videogame, where the object of the game is to avoid the drivers in their cars pulling out in front with no warning or awareness of anyone other than themselves. It was horrible. It was crowded.  My natural dislike of crowds kicked in, but amplified through a TheyretooclosetogetherdonttheyKNOWtheresapandemic?! huff.

Looking online later, reading the local complaints about litter and people defecating by the lochside and in the rivers confirmed that we made the right choice.  Like at so many other natural beauty spots, the pandemic seems to have given free-reign to a selfish, stupid and utterly moronic section of society who clearly don’t give a shit about the environment or anyone else.  Ancient trees burned or felled for barbecues in the Trossachs, litter, tents and empty bottles abandoned where they fell in dozens of places; stuff like this makes me think that a chunk of humanity is incapable of change and undeserving of any sympathy.   We turned around sad and disappointed and headed back along the busy road.

We stopped off, though, not too far from the loch.  Nearby, stands a place I’ve long wanted to visit:  the little castle of Dryhope.

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A ruined, 16th century tower house, one of hundreds that stood tall in this turbulent part of Scotland, Dryhope stands some four storeys, but is an empty shell.  Unlike many which have been reduced to mere lumpy foundations covered with coarse grass, or built into new farmhouses, or which have entirely disappeared, Dryhope has been consolidated as a ruin and is free and open to the public.  The situation is pretty, although the modern farm buildings nearby are a reminder of the 20th century, so no chance of any time-travelling Outlander stuff here.  Turn around, away from the farm, and the quiet situation above the Dryhope Burn is a romantic one:  JMW Turner drew sketches of the tower on his way to the Yarrow Water and lochs, which are held by the Tate in London.

Standing on private land we followed the obvious path, not straying too close to the sheep and cattle grazing quietly nearby.  The place was utterly empty of people and tranquil.  We felt better immediately, compared to the frenetic feeling on the over-busy roads.  It was a short, easy walk to the tower, passing over the small burn with ridiculously picturesque Rowan, and up to the castle’s entrance.  I was pleased to note the Rowan guarding the approach to the castle, some stepping stones crossing the running water of the burn – two ways of keeping the witches out!

Dryhope is surrounded by history: immediately nearby are prehistoric hut circles and cairns and slightly further afield, the remains of old gold workings. Not too far from here stood once the castle or possible hunting lodge of Craig of Douglas, the earthworks of which stand prominently by the road.  This, part of the empire of the mighty Douglas family, was destroyed by James II as the Crown sought to curb the strength and ambition of the Douglas lords.  Dryhope, however, would be destroyed in part on order of a later king, James VI, following the involvement of its owners – a branch of the Scott family – in with some of his more troublesome courtiers.

There’s a thoughtful interpretation panel at the approach to the castle, right next to where the Southern Upland Way passes by.

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The tower is devoid of internal features:  all the floors have long-since fallen as has the original turnpike staircase.  However, what makes this tower different to most other similar ruins is the modern spiral staircase installed when the tower was consolidated at the turn of the century.  This allows the visitor access to the roof ,which is a rarity, especially for ruined towers that are privately owned.

Inside, modern construction is helping to keep the tower standing, so imagination is needed to get a glimpse of life when the tower was complete.  All internal floors and rooms have long-vanished, but the vaulted ceiling at the top remains.  It’s this floor that you can climb to, via the modern stairs, to reach the top. From there, the views are lovely.  After visiting the top, we walked back to Olga and set off for Thornielee.

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