A Land o’ Cakes…and Castles

It was the eighteenth century Scots poet Robert Fergusson who noted Scotland as a Land o’ Cakes, in his poem, “The King’s Birthday in Edinburgh“, when he wrote

“Oh, soldiers! For your ain dear sakes
For Scotland’s, alias, Land o’ Cakes.”

His fellow poet in Scots, inspired by him, the better-known Burns, would use the phrase in his work, too. Perhaps the phrase was understood at the time as a synonym for Scotland, although in the brief research I’ve completed I can find no earlier reference. It may be gently mocking. The cakes suggested may not have been sponges, gateaux or even Dundee varieties, but rather the rough oatcakes first noted in the 14th century by Froissart, during the reign of Robert II, King of Scots. The term has popped up now and then, including as a suitable slogan for bakery advertisements and at least one pub name.

Other romantic nicknames for Scotland, if not simply Caledonia or Scotia, include the questionable Land of Golf and the even more questionable Land of Scotch – both of which have a whiff of 1950s advertising to them. Come to think of it, they sounds like slightly dodgy warehouses in out of town retail parks.

There is, though, another title that seems (to me at least!) to be fitting. Up alongside Korea’s Land of the Morning Calm (which I misread as clam and was disappointed to discover my mistake), Japan’s Land of the Rising Sun and Finland’s Land of a Thousand Lakes, Scotland could very sensibly be called Land of a Thousand Castles. Or, Land of the Three Thousand Castles, to put an alternative number on them! Various sources note that there are between 1,500 and 3,000 castles or sites of castles in the country – apparently more per square mile than any other nation. Reflecting the turbulent history of the land, and the risk of wars and invasion, these ranged from the earliest of fortified sites, to the grandiose elegance of the early modern period and a transformation into country houses. May are now lost to history, remembered only as features on historic maps or strange lumps and shapes under turf. Other are the shattered ruins, preserved for posterity – but all were designed to be used for defence or lived in. Many ruins have been restored and lived in once again or put to some other useful purpose. I’ve been obsessed by castles since a young age – transfixed by Nigel Tranter’s seminal The Fortified House in Scotland – and lucky to have parents who took me visiting castles and historic houses at the weekends and on holidays. I still have many to tick off the list, though.

I started musing about this, simply because of the walks we have taken since new Covid-19 travel restrictions came into force at the end of last year. We are lucky to have a number of beautiful walks from our own village with a number of castles and historic monuments on the way, including a dramatic site that has taken us three years to get round to.

The landmark above the valley of the Gala Water now known as Bow Castle is a very ancient place, perhaps dating back some three thousand years. An original hill fort was built over, perhaps twice, including, in the Iron Age, one of only three brochs to be found in the Scottish borderlands. I’m a massive broch fan. They are unique to the land we now know as Scotland and are mostly found in the north and west of the country. How or why three (that we know of) were built this far south remains enigmatic. A fourth may also have once been found in the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, even further to the south.

We’ve visited all three in the region and all are very different. The most impressive is Edin’s Hall (which features on the Tales from Wyrd Scotland podcast) and is well worth the hike. Bow Castle is, sadly, very ruined. Stone has been removed over the centuries for building material or lies tumbled down the steep slope below. Modern cairns have been built on one side, which are useful features on the landscape but have no antiquity. However, the shape of the round broch can still be seen, as can the hidden embankments by which the older hillfort was secured. It’s a hugely impressive spot to visit, with spectacular views.

There are dozens of hillforts in the Borders, all dating back at least two millennia, which add to the rich history of the region. At Bow Castle, the broch may have been abandoned around the 2nd century C.E. when the Romans invaded and occupied this territory. 2nd century Roman pottery fragments and an enamelled brooch were found here during excavations. It may be that the local tribe were defeated by the Romans, their broch abandoned afterwards.

Nearby, as the crow flies at least, is another of the southern brochs – at Torwoodlee. Like Bow Castle, this may also have been abandoned around the 2nd century and is thought to have been systematically deconstructed. It may have been built and never fully completed. There are low foundations still in place, within an older hillfort enclosure. Again, the views towards Galashiels and the Eildon Hills (and Roman Fort site at Trimontium) are worth visiting.

The Torwoodlee estate is one of the ancient homes of the local Pringle family. Here, a short walk from the broch, can be found the ruins of a much later type of fortification, a Scottish towerhouse. These were once much more numerous in the Borders, many of which have been ruined, then demolished. Some, like Elibank or Dryhope still stand tall, although ruined. Others, like Ewes Castle, for example, in the valley of the Lugate Water, have vanished except for slight remains. Muirhouse Castle, near Stow, was demolished by a farmer in the early 1800s and has entirely vanished.

Torwoodlee Tower was abandoned in favour of a new, more modern country house in the 18th century. Torwoodlee or Torwartlie was mentioned as far back as 1456 and the ruins that can still be seen were built in 1601 to replace an earlier, simpler tower.

The ruins have been stabilised by the Pringle family, with interesting interpretation panels showing that this was once an impressive home, arranged around a courtyard with elegant terraced gardens leading away from the castle down the slopes. Unlike another nearby Pringle residence, Buckholm Tower (see here for the ghost story!), I can’t find any mention of phantoms at Torwoodlee!

We still have many more old castles to visit. And more stories to uncover!

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