Lockdown has now lasted for some five months, with the opportunity to spend only very little time spent outside of our small village. The early enthusiasm for walking, cycling and the great outdoors has dwindled a little, as the repetition of the walks became too frequent and too familiar. Instead, trashy movies, trashy books and chocolate digestives seem to have taken up more of my spare time of late, meaning shorts and t-shirts have become a little less roomy.
With waistbands tightening at an alarming rate, I thought it was time to become reacquainted with the great outdoors, so have set off on a few slightly longer walks recently.
One walk, organised by the great Scottish Borders Walks group, started off in the small town of Lauder, some five miles from home. Socially-distanced and limited in size, I was lucky to be part of the group of a dozen or so participants in this five hour gentle walk. Covering around ten and a half miles, the walk invluded roadside, moorland, fields and woodland.
Starting on the outskirts of Lauder, we walked around the estate of Thirlestane Castle – an interesting building and once home to the mighty Earls of Lauderdale. Lauder itself is a pretty wee town, a Royal Burgh, no less, and one that is blessed with picturesque architecture and independent businesses. Special mention to Flat Cat Cafe and Gallery and Purple Plum, both of which have been managing to survive the difficulties of the last few months.
We then slowly climbed upwards, skirting the plantation known as Elsinore (?!) then passing by the intriguingly-named Wanton Walls farmhouse which was marked as a castle on Blaeu’s famous map of the 17th century. It can be clearly seen as Wantonwaes. The hills that dominate the map, under the title Thirlstain, are more rugged and stern than the rolling hills that actually exist, but artistic licence is forgivable given how evocative and intriguing Blaeu’s maps are.
Many of the farms, castles and churches shown by Blaeu have long-since vanished or, at least, have become less obvious. Wantonwaes is seemingly hidden beneath where the solid farmhouse is today. Many of these had lasted for centuries, but the advance of larger estates and agrarian improvements from the 18th century onwards brought about the demise of hundreds of medieval farms and townships across the south.
We continued towards our destination, the tallest hill in the area Dabshead Hill. Dabshead gives impressive views of the surrounding country, looking down to Lauder and Thirlestane Castle, towards the Lauder Common which leads to Stow and beyond. The hill is also one of the hundreds in the Borders which feature the remains of a prehistoric fort. Dating back some 2-3,000 years, the fort here is of an impressive size: 600′ by 435′. The earthworks which once were ramparts are clear, although very difficult to capture on camera on the ground.
In the centre of the fort is a odd-looking ‘standing’ stone, although ‘drooping’ may be a better adjective. Placed here in the 19th century to celebrate a local aristocrat’s wedding, it is suggested that the stone itself – wherever it came from originally – is a much older monolith. There are several supposed cup marks on the stone, which will be familiar to anyone interested in prehistoric art. Original? Opinion seems a little divided on this. Given that the stone was set up here, on a new mound of rubble with iron supports (now rusted and failed), that’s understandable. One suggestion claims that it may have stood next to a nearby neolithic burial site, at Borrowston Rig. There bronze urns have been found under a low-lying stone circle, near a small number of cairns and further cup-marked stone.
This gives a possible origin of the droopy stone, in which case it has had a very long history indeed and is linked to the unknown rituals or knowledge of our long-forgotten ancestors.
The hilltop may look very rounded, soft even, from the valley floor, but the views are truly worth the climb.
We then proceeded downwards, towards the hunting lodge of the Duke of Northumberland, one of the many aristocratic landowners who own much of southern Scotland. His lodge at Burncastle stands roughly where another old peel tower once stood – the tall, gaunt defensive castles of the Borderlands, which can still be seen throughout southern Scotland and northern England. Burncastle, which also appears on Blaeu’s map, has disappeared apart from some tumbledown foundation stones in the grass. So too has has the adjacent medieval village of Earnscleuch at the head of the small river that shares its name.
After a fairly shoogly crossing of the Earnscleuch Water by way of old, shiny stepping stones, we followed a track alongside the Duke of Northumberland’s grouse fields. I was delighted to later discover, but wish I’d known at the time, that we were now following the Herring Road. This is a historic route, used mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries by the herring cadgers, carriers, walking from Dunbar and East Lothian to the Lauder marketplace. Quite a journey of some 28 miles, carrying creels of herring! More information can be gained through the wonderful Heritage Paths website.
Leaving the Herring Road, we walked close by the medieval farmsteads of Newbigging, and Huntington – with its prehistoric barrow – and crossing the Lauder Bridge back into town.
This was a great walk, organised by passionate, enthusiastic people and I’m very glad to have taken part. It reinvigorated my love of walking and encouraged me to go out again. It also reminded me just how much history – hidden history – is to be found just in front of our eyes. All we need to do is look.