In the Footsteps of Giants – on the Hunt for Castles in the Scottish Borders and Midlothian

Following my reacquaintance with the road last week in West Lothian, my path promptly continued east and south as I went chasing memories. We all have an interesting relationship with time this year – it’s been both irrelevant and cherished. Irrelevant in that so many days have been largely the same, cherished in that we have placed an enhanced value on those memories and on our future plans, and on the freedoms we’ve recently enjoyed post-lockdown. I’ve personally longed for rural days behind the wheel, under the sun. Gently rolling landscapes and sharp turns, interspersed with the odd hilltop ruin and whiff of legends that have traversed these lands in centuries’ past. Stalking castles in the Scottish Borders – I’ve been looking forward to this one. And from William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie to….Tom Hanks, it’s an illustrious trail to traverse sure enough.

The Road South Through Midlothian

Temple

Legends do not come more irresistible than that of the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, and it was serene Midlothian that became the principal Templar seat in Scotland way back in the 12th Century. The Knights Templar were of course a Catholic military order (though few were actually knights), loyal to the Pope and headquartered in Jerusalem. Their reach extended as far as our much chillier climes, though, and the small village of Temple takes it name from their ageless mystique.

A single street climbs steeply from the Esk valley up to the village and passes the evocative Temple Church en route. It offers plenty to aid the imagination.

temple church midlothian
Temple Church

Rosslyn Chapel and Castle

The plot thickens with a visit to nearby Rosslyn Chapel. Legend, fuelled by the works of Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code, has it that the Templar hid the Holy Grail somewhere around this little treasure-trove south of the capital. Indiana Jones could certainly have saved himself some time. Edinburgher Sean Connery should have given him a nudge, to be fair.

rosslyn chapel midlothian

The Chapel of today is a 15th Century masterpiece. Its extravagant, story-telling stonework is the top prize as you find yourself swept up in what is a neverland of possibilities and tell-me-mores. This includes the ‘apprentice pillar’ who’s intended master mason creator was upstaged on the sly by his apprentice to the point of the latter meeting his death at the wrong end of his master’s angry mallet! The Chapel was one of the few buildings in Scotland not to be flattened by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in the 1600s but has still required extensive restoration and preservation works ever since. Featuring at the climax of the Da Vinci Code (Hanks was here for filming) and still offering weekly services, this is one of Central Scotland’s true gems.

Near-neighbour Roslin Castle, an easy stroll away, has historically fared less well and was repeatedly destroyed to the point that it now hangs largely in ruin on its precarious perch overlooking luscious Roslin Glen.

roslin castle midlothian
Roslin Castle

Hunting Castles in the Scottish Borders

Traquair House

The autumn wind whistles enticingly through the trees like the Jacobite whispers trapped within Traquair’s 900-year-old walls. This tranquil masterpiece holds tightly to the title of Scotland’s Oldest Inhabited House, with good reason. For this is no museum. It does not sit in sad silence outside the hours of 9 and 5, waiting for the heavy metallic sound of the key in the door to spark it into temporary, supervised life once more. Rather, Traquair is a home.

traquair house scottish borders

Nearly 100 acres sprawl around its site alongside the River Tweed, encompassing the old Ettrick Forest lands that hid outlaws and homed the wolf, bear and wild boar that Scotland’s monarchs hunted so excitedly. In all, 27 of those monarchs have visited Traquair dating back as far as the 1100s when it was used as a base for the mighty to administer local laws. The House, grand yet remarkably thin in design, spans centuries of Scottish medieval life. The residing family loyalty to the Catholic Stuart cause is the most prominent legacy, however, and there lingers a melancholy that such loyalty was ultimately never rewarded. The Bear Gates outside remain steadfastly closed as the family continue to await a Stuart retaking the throne.

The interior today is a feast for the discerning eye. The thrilling possibilities of Traquair’s secret escape stairways – think torches and pitchforks – compete with the more sedate but truly exquisite furnishings. A state bed slept on by Mary Queen of Scots during her visit, a stunning 17th Century harpsichord from Antwerp and evocative, pensive libraries. Spilling from the main house sits a small chapel heavily perfumed with the magnificent hoppy alure emanating from below, none less than a 300-year-old, on-site working brewery!

traquair library
Traquair Library

A special thanks to the current resident, Catherine, the 21st Lady of Traquair, for showing me around. She is bearing the heavy responsibility of big family footsteps very well indeed.

The Borders Abbeys

That four places of such extraordinary atmosphere exist, in such proximity, is something very special. Front-line medieval playthings trapped between Scotland and England, they all have troubled stories to tell. The frantic footsteps of scampering monks and the clink-clink of treasures being secreted away as raiders batter at the doors can still be heard if you listen closely enough. Each Abbey is different in its scale, setting and feel. While Kelso is calming and Dryborogh is alluring, Melrose is powerful and Jedburgh is inspiring.

All I can promise you is that one will never be enough…..

jedburgh abbey
Jedburgh Abbey
melrose abbey
Melrose Abbey under the Eildon Hills
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Harris at his first Abbey

Fatlips Castle

So named, apparently, as a consequence of the over-gregariousness of the occupiers when it came to greeting guests, this curious little place has somehow managed to stay under my radar until now. A woodland wander up Minto Crags is rewarded at the summit with a panoramic view across much of Southern Scotland. Destroyed during the Rough Wooing 16th Century conflicts between Scotland and England, the Castle benefitted from extensive restoration works in the 19th Century and now stands in excellent condition. Why it isn’t better known is a complete mystery to me.

fatlips castle drone
Fatlips Castle Scottish Borders

From the times of the Romans to those of the Longshanks, you’re standing in the spot where warning scouts would have gaped in horror as armies advanced north.

Greenknowe Tower

Greenknowe is likely to have replaced a much older relic, quite possibly the first castle of the Clan Gordon. Better known as mighty overseers of the north east and allies to Robert the Bruce, their origins were actually in these southern parts. Surrounded by rural marshland and sentineled by wise trees, the relic of today clearly wasn’t built in anticipation of besieging armies and the later owners, the Pringles, would have seen it as more of a romantic and serene status symbol. Quite right too.

greenknowe tower drone
Greenknowe Tower

Hume Castle

One of the most distinctive ruins in Scotland is another of those delightfully under-the-radar spots that few are even aware of. The formidable walls, complete with dramatically decorative crenelations, were 18th Century upgrades but the castle’s origins date back to the 12th and were home to the Hume family. It spent almost its entire history jumping between Scots and English occupancy, most notably being visited by James II in 1460 and by Mary Queen of Scots in 1567.

hume castle scottish borders
Hume Castle Scottish Borders

Nearby Floors Castle (the Castle is closed until 2021) is an entirely different beast. The seat of the Duke of Roxburghe, this gigantic country house and estate was built in the 18th Century by celebrity architect William Adam. Its aromatic Gardens remain open for visitors, and nose-led puppies.

The Monuments

As if the castles, towers and houses of these parts were not enough, I was keen on visiting two particularly notable historic tributes.

William Wallace, Scotland’s Guardian and heroic victor of the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, stands 31 feet tall with the grandest of views towards the Eildon Hills. While Stirling is seen as the epicentre of his legacy, he spent a huge portion of his life – generally in hiding – in the densely forested borderlands of Southern Scotland. For students of this mega-chunk of Scottish history, there is no more majestic a place for a solemn nod to his sacrifice and reflection of his forever-uphill struggle for freedom.

wallace statue melrose
Wallace Statue

The Waterloo Monument, meanwhile, is an unexpected hilltop beacon between Jedburgh and Melrose commemorating the momentous defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte by the Duke of Wellington’s allied forces in 1815. A fitting tribute given that warning beacons on the Borders’ hilltops were used during the Napoleonic Wars as the defence system against any surprise French invasion. Another serene forested walk – 20 minutes or so – leads to the 150-foot tower, another of the best vantage points upon which to survey the diverse and colourful flatlands of the region.

drone waterloo scotland
The Waterloo Monument

Towards the Coast

Jim Clark Motorsport Museum and Driving Route

The road continues east into Jim Clark country, in the dusty wake of a more contemporary famous son of the Borders. The much-admired and down-to-earth 20th Century Formula One racing icon was happiest here, in the rich farming lands that he was never quite ready to say goodbye to, despite his extraordinary career and countless victories. Visitors can follow the dedicated new circuit route, starting in Duns at the excellent new Museum and via Chirnside, on the way to my final stops for this trip.

St Abbs Head and Coldingham Bay

On arrival at the coast, the ‘seabird city’ of St Abbs Head is base for a riot of squawking winged colonies. Guillemots, shags, fulmars, razorbills, puffins and kittiwakes can all be spotted at various times in the year. Start at the Visitor Centre then take on the straightforward 2-hour looping walk that encompasses plenty of cliff-top drama, a Stevenson lighthouse and superb views up and down the coast and over the North Sea.

scottish borders coast st abbs
St Abbs Head looking over the village

Beach lovers are covered too and can ogle at Coldingham Sands, that spreads from the mouth of the Buskin Burn and stretches for a golden kilometre.

Fast Castle

But not so Fast, the castle trail is not complete yet. The lighthouse-like, sea cliff-set shards of this particularly exposed relic would be right up there with the Tantallons and Dunnottars in the jaw-drop stakes were more of it still standing. Having spent most of its history in English hands, yet having also passed through Hume ownership, the half-mile stroll from the car park exposes you to the wrath of the North Sea on a blustery day as the ominous drops of 150-feet underline its secure status in the face of any medieval attack that dared.

fast castle scottish borders coast
Fast Castle, just visible on the very edge of the headland

Gulp down the icy air history lovers, your watch is ended.

Eating and Sleeping

In or around Melrose is ideal as far as location goes for Borders castle exploring and self-catering under the majestic gaze of the Eildon Hills made for an easy choice. Eildon Holiday Cottages was both extremely comfortable and practical, as well as dog friendly. Blessed with a truly glorious setting and with all of the facilities required for a home-from-home mindset, it’s also within walking distance of Melrose centre.

Particularly nervous as I was about introducing Harris to his first dining experience, I needn’t have worried. Excellent dinner options are to be found in Melrose itself and I can thoroughly recommend both Marmions and Burts Hotel. The former keeps things simple yet classy by merging perfectly cooked ingredients with that inimitable Italian touch; the latter has a menu packed with British favourites thoughtfully moulded to suit all palates. Impeccable service at both too.

It isn’t easy for any in the hospitality industry in these Covid-dominated times. The extra steps that staff have to work through and the reduction in customers means many in the industry are temporarily doing double the work for half the business. Hats off to them, all of the above did a magnificent job, and did it with a smile.

Do note that some visitor attractions in the area remain closed until at least 2021. Those that are open currently require advance booking, face masks and social distancing within. Do check them out online ahead of visiting to avoid disappointment and any surprises.

Disclaimer

This blog has been part of a paid promotional trip I recently undertook in partnership with Scotland Starts Here. The aim has been to showcase the best of Midlothian and the Scottish Borders and to remedy why Southern Scotland – for some inexplicable reason – remains one of our more underestimated regions. All opinions and recommendations included are based entirely on honest opinion and genuine, recent experience. I love this stuff, no fibs.

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