A Walk in the Woods – part two.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Detail, Atlas of Scotland, 1654. Blaeu. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

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.

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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. 

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.

Lost origins of stones. A walk around Lauderdale.

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.

Thirlestane Castle
Thirlestane Castle

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.

Lauderdale. Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654.
Detail from ‘Lauderdale’. Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

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.

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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.