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Travel special – Scottish borders: On the edge

Johnnie Kerr on his fierce native country

26 May 2012

11:00 AM

26 May 2012

11:00 AM

It’s odd, but most of the English faces we see in our wee corner of the Scottish Borders are merely ‘stopping’ for a night or two on their way north. What is the point, they wonder, in driving all this way only to settle a hair’s breadth past that gaudy ‘Welcome to Scotland’ sign? If they must visit Scotland, they think, they might as well do the thing properly. The Borders aren’t really Scotland, after all — just that last tedious leg of the A68 on the way into Edinburgh.

They are, of course, gravely mistaken. You will find as strong a sense of Scotland here as in the grimmest Hebridean backwater. There is something surprising about the Borders, a quiet, unspoiled beauty, which sets them apart from the rest of the North.

In fact, the part of the map below Edinburgh is one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets. I think the poetry has something to do it: this was the home of James Hogg and Walter Scott, who spent their lives embellishing its myths and describing the bewildering romance of its grand rivers and gentle hills. It is almost impossible, if you’re not a poet, to convey a true sense of the Borders. But at its most elemental it is a land of soft beauty, fierce history and enduring myth.

Take the Eildon Hills. The Romans, who had a garrison there, called the mountain ‘Trimontium’, after its three peaks. Some say its peaks were cleft this way by a wizard, but all the legends agree that they are hollow, containing, among other things, the entrance to the realm of Mab, queen of the fairies, and the tomb of King Arthur.

More prosaic visitors do come to fish the Tweed, which remains unrivalled by any river in Scotland where salmon are concerned. But even for non-fishermen, it is a joy. Its lumbering surge rolls along for nearly a hundred miles, and on its high banks stand some of the oldest towns and most remarkable buildings in Scotland.

The best of the Borders, though, shouldn’t be seen from waders; you have to be on horseback. Between the Ettrick Valley, the Cheviots and the Lammermuirs, you’ll find some of the best riding country east of Ireland. Relative to population, there are more horses in the Borders than anywhere else in the country. It’s a craze that goes back, I’m told, to the 13th century, when our ancestors cantered about stealing one another’s cattle and goading the English into the odd massacre. We commemorate those mad times by galloping about the countryside: in Jedburgh, my home town, the entire population mounts once a year to visit the Capon Tree, on whose branches we used to hang the severed heads of Englishmen — after using them for footballs. You can’t help loving a place which cherishes memories like that.

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