The Scottish Borders
The Scottish Borders cover a vast area, stretching from the rugged east coast to rural Dumfriesshire and from the more populous Lothians to the border with England. Although there are no very high mountains in the Southern Uplands, the Borders have always attracted walkers keen to explore the varied countryside, scenery and topography found here, as well as the fascinating ruins of abbeys and castles, the grand estates and the rich literary heritage of the area. There are also several long-distance walking trails which traverse the region, including The Southern Upland Way, The Borders Abbeys Way, St Cuthbert’s Way and the Berwickshire Coastal Path, which link together many Border towns. This guide contains 40 routes, the majority offering easy to moderate walks, with a few more challenging hikes to the top of higher hills. There is no claim to be comprehensive; the walks selected here are merely a sample of what is possible.
The routes are divided into five sections. The first features walks along the east coast and inland towards Lauder; the second explores the Upper Tweed Valley from West Linton and Broughton down towards Galashiels; the third centres around the Ettrick Forest, the ancient royal hunting ground west of Selkirk; the fourth takes in the area around the four abbey towns of Melrose, Kelso, Jedburgh and Dryburgh; the final section looks to quiet Teviotdale and Liddesdale south of the largest Border town of Hawick.
The geography of the Borders means that different weather conditions often prevail in different parts of the region, so be prepared for every eventuality, particularly on longer walks over higher ground. Sturdy walking shoes or boots are recommended for all routes. The majority follow good paths and tracks, but in some cases the terrain can be boggy. Take wind- and waterproof clothing and ensure you have enough warm layers to enjoy the walk whatever the conditions. The sketch map accompanying each route is intended to help plan the outing rather than as a navigational aid. The relevant Ordnance Survey Explorer or Landranger map should always be taken. On longer routes that cross open ground, a compass and the knowledge to use it is a very useful thing. Some of the walks include sections along high and unfenced cliffs where special care should be taken, especially if you have children or a dog with you.
Although the main towns and larger villages in the Borders are well served by buses, there are many areas which are sparsely populated and less easy to reach without a car. While every effort has been made to include walks that can be reached by bus, this guide would be incomplete without routes in the harder-to-reach spots. Several of the walks utilise old railway beds; happily a section of one of them has been recently reopened, providing a link from Edinburgh to Tweedbank, north of Galashiels. Details of public transport in the region can be found at www.travelinescotland.com.
While the Borders countryside is a great resource for outdoor activities like walking and cycling, it also provides a living for many farmers and foresters. To avoid conflict between walkers and those who work the land, it is important to enjoy the great outdoors responsibly.
Walkers in Scotland have long enjoyed the right to roam on just about any land with no requirements to stay on defined paths or rights of way. This position was clarified by the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which gives everyone the right to access most land for purposes of recreation, provided they act responsibly. Always follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Some of the walks in this guide cross land where farm animals graze or deer and groundnesting birds live. If you take a dog, it is very important to keep it on a lead in such areas.
Occasionally you may encounter temporary access restrictions. This could, for example, be a forest track closed due to tree harvesting or a path shut because of erosion. Usually a diversion will be offered and if this is the case you should follow it. If there is no diversion, you may have to consult your map and work out an alternative route.
With its landscape of high moorland, lochs, woodland and coast, the Borders offer a diverse natural habitat for a wide variety of animals, birds, insects and plants. St Abbs on the east coast of Scotland is well-known for the thousands of fulmars, razorbills, kittiwakes, shags and puffins found here. Inland, the region’s small lochs attract ducks, swans and grebes and some also see visiting greylag and pink-footed geese. You may also spot heron and osprey fishing in the rivers and streams. Other birds of prey such as buzzards, kestrels and sparrowhawks hunt over the high moorlands which are also home to golden plover, curlew, meadow pipit, wheatear and mountain hare. Reclusive red squirrels and roe deer thrive in the mixed woodlands throughout the Borders. During the spawning season you will also see salmon leaping up the cauld as they make their way up the Yarrow Water and the River Tweed to complete their epic journey to breed.
The Romans arrived in the south of Scotland around 80ad and, after coming to terms with the local tribes, the Votadini and the Selgovae, built a network of roads and forts. Their largest encampment, known as Trimontium, was sited in the shadow of the three Eildon Hills at Newstead, near Melrose. Finding the rest of the country harder to conquer, however, they withdrew south to build a great wall from the mouth of the River Tyne to Carlisle. Without realising it, Hadrian’s Wall sparked the notion of two separate parts of Britain, with Alba – later Scotland – a distinct entity on the other side of that symbolic barrier. Over the following centuries, the people of the borderlands prospered and the stability of the region allowed for the building of four magnificent abbeys at Jedburgh, Melrose, Dryburgh and Kelso during the reign of David I. The booming wool trade with the Continent, through the port of Berwick-upon-Tweed, also led to the exchange of culture and ideas between Europe and Scotland in this golden era. Things changed with the accidental death of Scotland’s heirless King Alexander III in 1286. A prolonged and costly civil war between Scotland and England followed in which the biggest casualties were the people and economy of the Borders. During the Wars of Independence both Robert the Bruce and William Wallace used the Ettrick Forest near Selkirk as a base from which to attack the English. Independence was finally won at Bannockburn near Stirling in 1314, but the relationship between the crowns was never easy. Two centuries later, the disastrous Battle of Flodden near Coldstream saw the slaughter of thousands of young borderers and the resumption of hostilities which only ended with the Union of Crowns under James VI in 1603.
While royal authority was weak and marauding armies devastated the region, many local families took to stealing cattle and sheep and plundering everything they could from villages and towns throughout the Scottish Marches and down into Northumberland and Yorkshire. The Reivers, as they came to be known, rode through the darkest nights and owed no allegiance to their country or warring kings. These violent times left a legacy of castles and fortified towers, as well as adding the words ‘bereavement’ and ‘blackmail’ to the English language.
It is often said that this tumultuous history shaped the character of the typical borderer; strongly determined to remain independent and proud of what is theirs. Oral history was also important to the borderers’ sense of identity and there was a strong tradition of balladry and of romantic stories being recited by the firesides in farmsteads and villages. These old tales inspired two great writers, the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’, James Hogg, and Sir Walter Scott, and it was Scott who created much of the popular perception of Border history which persists today.
The rapid development of the textile industry in the 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise of Galashiels on Gala Water, Hawick on the Teviot and Selkirk on the Tweed, all drawing workers off the farms and into the mills. Land remains important to Borderers, however, and they remember their shared past in the annual Common Ridings which date back to the Middle Ages when young men, known as in these parts as ‘callants’, would ride out to secure their town boundaries. In many ways the Borders also remain a region apart, a cherished land full of history, character, beauty and romance.