Thornielee Forest lies in the valley of the Tweed halfway between the towns of Galashiels and Innerleithen. Nearby sits the former mill town of Walkerburn. We drove here, but it seems local buses stop here on request. Sadly, the nearby Thornielee Station, on the now-vanished Peebles railway, closed as early as 1950 so catching a train isn’t an option.
We stopped here on our way back from our abandoned plan to walk around St Mary’s Loch, having been put off by the crowds. I’m so very glad we did. Thornielee Forest, under the stewardship of Foresty and Land Scotland (the old Forestry Commission), is a gem of a place. Part of the Tweed Valley Forest Park, there is much to explore. There are two walks here, apparently: a gentle Meadow Trail, described as ‘easy’ – mostly flat alongside some pastures renowned for butterflies, and; the Cairn Trail – described as ‘strenuous’. We took the strenuous path (of course we did) and I again struggled, panted and sweated my way to the top. The slope through the trees is pretty much a continuous, long climb, punctuated by very welcome flat parts – but these are few and far between! Stopping every now and then, though, was a joy simply because you are surrounded by forest, with the sunlight streaming down in shafts between the trees. The trail is very broad at times and, unlike many other older plantations, the trees are spaced out, allowing other plants to grow on the forest floor. It felt gloriously alive.
Near the start of the trail is a curious, weather worn sculpture. The interpretation plaque states that this is Muckle Mou’d Meg – heroine of a local legend which, not surprisingly, Sir Walter Scott wrote about!
Meg – or Agnes – Murray, to use her apparent Sunday name – was daughter of the Laird of Elibank, Sir Gideon Murray – master of one of the great and troublesome Border families which gave successive Kings of Scots a headache, due to their warring, cattle-stealing and thuggish, lawless activities!
Meg was one of three daughters of the family and was, it is cruelly put, Scotland’s ugliest woman. She was muckle mou’d – large mouthed – in looks, but in temperament and disposition a happy, smiling soul. Indeed, folk mocked that we she did smile, the smile covered the whole of her head. Poor Meg!
The Murray’s neighbours – and sworn enemies! – was the family of Scott (of course!) of Harden, whose tall castle of Aikwood still stands, restored, today.
One dark, winter night, William Scott of Harden decided to raid Elibank and steal their cattle – the great moneymaker of the Border Reviers – but instead of sleeping guards, found them alert and ready for him. He was defeated after a short battle, captured and imprisoned.
He was sent to the castle dungeon until dawn, while the Laird of Elibank pondered his luck. The Lady of Elibank thought the young man a possible solution to their seemingly impossible Meg problem. And so, in the cold early light of morning, the young William was brought, tied and bound, before the Laird in his great hall. The Laird, sitting in his high oak chair in front of the fire, looked at the young cattle thief for some time. Then, he gave William a dilemma. As the nineteenth century poet James Ballantine would later recall, the lad was offered a choice: hang for his crime, or marry Meg. William was horrified; Meg’s appearance was infamous.
And so, he chose death, by hanging.
Now, the Laird was canny and sent him back to his prison, to think again one last night. On the second occasion he was hauled into the Laird’s hall, perhaps he feared death more than marriage to Meg. Perhaps, he saw something in Meg that others could not. It is said that Meg stood by, watching this drama unfold, tears in her eyes; tears which melted the heart of the handsome lad. Whatever the reason, he chose Meg and the two were wed.
Syne muckle-mou’d Meg pressed in close to his side,
An’ blinkit fu’ sleely and kind,
But aye as Wat glower’d at his braw proffer’d bride,
He shook like a leaf in the wind.
‘A bride or a gallows, a rope or a wife!’
The morning dawned sunny and clear –
Wat boldly strode forward to part wi’ his life,
Till he saw Meggy shedding a tear;
Then saddle an’ munt again, harness an’ dunt again,
Fain wad Wat hunt again, fain wad be hame.
Meg’s tear touched his bosom, the gibbet frowned high,
An’ slowly Wat strode to his doom;
He gae a glance round wi’ a tear in his eye,
Meg shone like a star through the gloom.
She rush’d to his arms, they were wed on the spot,
An’ lo’ed ither muckle and lang;
Nae bauld border laird had a wife like Wat Scott;
‘Twas better to marry than hang.
So saddle an’ munt again, harness an’ dunt again,
Elibank hunt again, Wat’s snug at hame.
James Ballantine, Muckle Mou’d Meg, Poems, 1856. Scottish Poetry Library.
Despite the unfortunate start to their marriage, by all accounts the two lived…um…happily ever after! William would thrive, being knighted by King James VI and the two had at least four children. Accounts say that they had a long, happy marriage. They could have looked out over the Ettrick Forest from Elibank Tower, watching the hill of Thornielee change through the seasons.
Thornielee is marked on Blaeu’s 1654 maps – not a great length of time after Meg and William – as Thornyly and is shown as having a castle or tower house – one of ten in close proximity here along the valley of the Tweed. There is no trace of the castle now and no mention of it in the annals of the Tweed valley. Like most of the simple, square peels, it has disappeared from the land as surely as it has disappeared from history. There may be remnants of a tower hidden within the present Thornielee Farmhouse – or at the ruins of Old Thornielee farm, higher up the hill.
On the opposite side of the valley, however, it’s possible to spot the gaunt ruins of Elibank Tower – also shown on Blaeu’s map as Elybanck – from the modern sculpture of Meg and her William. It’s a lovely, startling, sculpture and a reminder not to judge by appearances!
There may not be any sign of a castle on the hill of Thornielee, but there are other remains or earlier farmsteads although mostly hidden at this time of year beneath the heather, brambles and bracken. Over from Thornielee, very large clearance cairns and unusual earthworks indicate human habitation that might stretch back into prehistory.
The paths climb ever higher, until the crest of the hill appears. The woodland comes to an abrupt halt beside a long stone dyke, beyond which is rough pastureland and moors. The Views are spectacular and well worth the climb. Some of the path is a bit muddy and steep, so care is needed and even on a quiet day, the paths are popular with mountain bikers, so care is needed.
We were chuffed to notice that at the top, the view stretches as far as our own Wedale – the windfarm at Long Park clearly visible. This view is really only accessible by foot, as the roads linking Stow with Ettrick are low and twisty. I’m glad we made the effort to see this and highly recommend the trip. Given the crowds of people sticking to the more obvious, roadside stops, the Tweed Valley Forest might still offer an escape from the staycationers. Just don’t tell anyone, aye?
Near the top, I spotted this stone (lefthand photo) – which is almost certainly part of a dyke that had collapsed, but there’s something about it I really liked. In my head, I can clearly see worn carvings on the surface – there’s something of a double-ended Pictish rod and discs, surely? Or maybe a salmon? Or both! Probably not, but fun to imagine.
Also nearby are the supposed Shepherds’ Cairns, of which I could find very little information.
This was a brilliant route to walk on a wonderful sunny / breezy day which, apart from one bloke on a mountain bike and a family of three, we had to ourselves for the couple of hours it took. Far, far better than squeezing our way through the crowds jammed around Saint Mary’s Loch. There are a good few other walks in the Tweed Valley Forest Park I hope to do soon – and, of course, a return trip to see Meg’s old home at Elibank, too. That will need to wait for another time.