English Border Towns – Kelso, Roxburgh, Teviot, Kale, And Oxnam

COMING now to Kelso, with Melrose the most pleasing of the towns on Tweed,—we pass the meeting of the waters of Tweed and its largest affluent, Teviot. Kelso has a fine airy square, good streets, and an air of quiet gentility, neighboured as it is by Floors, the palatial seat of the Duke of Roxburghe, and by the trees of Springwood Park, the residence of Sir George Douglas.

We are now in the region of the clan of Ker of Cessford, from which the ducal family descends : while the Lothian branch descends from the Kers of Fernihurst. The name, Ker, is said to mean “left handed,” and like the left-handed men of the tribe of Benjamin, the Kers were a turbulent and grasping clan, often at deadly feud with their neighbours and rivals, the Scotts of Buccleugh. These, with the Douglases, for long predominant, were the clans that held the Marches, and freely raided the English Borderers, while they fought like fiends among themselves.

It is in the early sixteenth century that the chiefs of the two branches of Ker, or Kerr, and of the Scotts, become more and more prominent in history, both as warriors and politicians. From these Houses the Wardens of the Border were often chosen, and were not to be trusted to keep order ; being more disposed to use sword and axe. Within a century the chiefs throve to Earl’s estate, and finally ” warstled up the brae ” to Dukedoms. Meanwhile the Douglases, for long the most powerful House in Scotland, the rivals of the Crown, were crushed by James II, and of the Douglases, Sir George, of Springwood Park, is descended from the House of Cavers, (on Teviot, below Hawick), scions sprung from Archibald, natural son of the Earl of Douglas who fell at Otterburne (1388) and is immortal in the ballad. The whole land is full of scenes made famous by the adventures of these ancient clans ; they may be tracked by blood from Hermitage Castle to the dowie dens of Yarrow and the Peel Tower on the Douglas burn.

Sir Herbert Maxwell, in ” The Story of the Tweed ” (p. 139) not unnaturally laments the “sadly suburban” name of Springwood Park, standing where it ought not, in place of the ancient name of Maxwell, originally ” Maccus whele,” ” the pool of Maccus,” on Tweed. Maccus was a descendant of the primeval Maccus, who, before the Norman Conquest, signed himself, or was described, as Maccus Archipirata, ” the leading pirate.” To a later Maccus David I gave the salmon fishing at Kelso ; the pool, called ” Maccus whele ” became Maxwell, and the lairds “de Maxwell.” The Maxwells moved to the western Border to Caerlaverock and into Galloway ; and of all this history only the name, ” Max wheel,” of a salmon cast below the pretty bridge of Kelso, is left.

The name Kelso is of Cymric origin : calch myaydd,”Chalkhill.” To be sure, as the man said of the derivation of jour from dies, the name is diablement changé en route. The ruins of Kelso Abbey are the chief local remains of the Ages of Faith. When David I, not yet king, brought French Benedictines to Scotland, he settled them in Ettrick Forest. Here they raised the schele chirche : the Monastery, on a steep hill above Ettrick, (now Selkirk), and here they ” felt the breeze down Ettrick break ” with its chill showers, and wept as they remembered pleasant Picardy ; the climate of Selkirk being peculiarly bitter. David, when king, moved his Benedictines to the far more comfortable region of Kelso, or ” Calkow,” where they began to build in 1128. The style of their church is late Norman, and the tower was used in war as a keep in the fierce wars of Henry VIII. The place was gutted and the town burned by Dacre, in 1523 ; and suffered again from Norfolk, in 1542, and Hertford in 1545. Henry VIII chivalrously destroyed this part of the Border from the cottage to the castles of the Kers and the pleasant holy places of the Church, during the childhood of his kinswoman, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. His aim was always to annex Scotland ; and, of course, to introduce the Gospel. In 1545, after overcoming the garrison of the church tower, Hertford’s men wrecked the whole place, leaving little more than we see to-day ; though that little is much compared with what the Reformers have left of St. Andrews and Lindores.

Kelso saw more than enough of very ugly fighting in those days ; not even her monks stood aloof when blows fell fast and their cloisters were threatened. In 1545, twelve monks and ninety laymen gallantly held the Abbey against the English, and when at length Hertford’s guns created a practicable breach, they retreated to the church tower. Hill Burton says, in his History of Scotland, that then ” the assault was given to the Spaniards, but, when they rushed in, they found the place cleared. The nimble garrison had run to the strong square tower of the church, and there again they held out. Night came before they could be dislodged from this their last citadel, so the besiegers had to “leave the assault till the morning, setting a good watch all night about the house, which was not so well kept but that a dozen of the Scots in the darkness of the night escaped by ropes out at back windows and corners, with no little danger of their lives. When the day came, and the steeple eftsoons assaulted, it was immediately won, and as many Scots slain as were within.” So may Kelso Abbey be said to have been finally wrecked ; though, fifteen years later, the Reformers did their own little bit of work in the same line.

The Abbey buildings, however, or part of them, continued to be used long after this date ; from 1649 to 1771 the transept, roughly ceiled over, served as the parish church, but it was given up in the year last mentioned owing to a portion of the roof falling in whilst service was being held. The kirk ” skailed ” that day in something under record time; Thomas the Rhymer’s prediction that ” the kirk should fall at the fullest ” was in the people’s mind, and they stood not much upon the order of their going.

Kelso was the most southern point reached by Montrose in his efforts to join hands with Charles the First after his year of victories. The Border chiefs who had promised aid all deserted him ; the Gordons and Colkitto had left him, and he marched north to the junction of Ettrick and Tweed and the fatal day of Philiphaugh. In 1745, Kelso for two days saw Prince Charlie, in his feint against General Wade ; from Kelso he turned to Carlisle, his actual, and by no fault of his, hopeless line of invasion of England. The Prince’s own strategy, as he wrote to his father, was ” to have a stroke for’t,” as near the Border and as promptly as possible. He therefore wished to cross the Tweed near Kelso, and beat up the quarters of the senile Marshal Wade at Newcastle. If he discussed Wade to the same tune as he had settled Cope, English Jacobites might join him. Holding Newcastle, he could thereby admit French reinforcements, while, if defeated, he was near the sea, and had a better route of retreat than if he were defeated going by Carlisle and the western route, in the heart of England. His council of chiefs, unhappily, forced him to take the western route. Halting at Kelso, he sent the best of the Border cavaliers, Henry Ker of Graden, to make a feint on Wade ; he rode as far as Wooler, near Flodden. Next day the Prince marched up Teviot, and up Jed, to Jedburgh, with the flower of the fighting clans; then up Rule water, another of the tributaries of Tweed, to Haggiehaugh on the Liddell, and so into England near Carlisle. Of old he would have picked up the Kers, Elliots, and Scotts ; Haggiehaugh, where he slept, is Larriston, the home of the Elliot chief, ” the Lion of Liddesdale.” But the tartans waved and the bagpipes shrilled in vain, and the Blue Bonnets did not go over the Border. One of the writers of this book possesses the armchair in which the Prince rested at Haggiehaugh.

It was at Kelso, one remembers, that Sir Walter Scott first met James Ballantyne, with whose fortunes his own were after-wards to become so inextricably blended. Scott was then but a growing boy ; his health had been giving trouble, and he was sent by his father to stay for six months with an aunt ” who resided in a small house, situated very pleasantly in a large garden to the eastward of the churchyard of Kelso, which extended down to the Tweed.” During the time of Scott’s stay, Ballantyne and he were class-mates under Mr. Lancelot Whale, master of the Kelso Grammar School. The acquaintance then formed was never quite broken off, and all the world knows the story of its outcome.

We now follow Prince Charles into

” Pleasant Teviotdale, a land Made blithe with plough and harrow,”

a rich, well-wooded grassy land, cultivated of old under the Benedictines of Kelso.

Little more than a mile from that town, by the road leading to St. Boswells up Tweed’s southern bank, on a wooded ridge overhanging Teviot and separated from Tweed by but a narrow flat haugh, stands all that is left of Roxburgh Castle,—a few isolated portions of massive wall defended on the north and east sides by a ditch. At the west end a very deep cutting divides this ridge from the high ground farther to the west.

Ditch and cutting apparently were in former times flooded with water run in from Teviot, for even as late as the end of the eighteenth century remains of a weir or dam could still be seen stretching across the river. No trace of it now remains. Those who razed the castle took care that the dam should be broken beyond repair, and countless winter floods have long since swept away the little that may have been left. Close to the castle probably stood the once important town of Roxburgh, with its streets and churches, its convent and schools, and its Mint, where many of our Scottish coins were struck. Where are those streets and churches now? Not a trace of them is to be found. The houses were of wood, no doubt, and easily demolished, but the churches, the convent, and the Mint, one would expect to have been of build substantial enough to leave some indication of where they had stood. Roxburgh, more than any other Border town, experienced the horrors of war. Her castle was one of four great Scottish strongholds—Edinburgh, Stirling, Berwick, Roxburgh—and it mattered little whether it were temporarily held by England or by Scotland, on the inhabitants of the town fell the brunt of those horrors. Castle and town were continually being besieged, continually changing hands, sometimes by stratagem—as when on Shrove Tuesday, 1314, the Good Sir James Douglas, with sixty men, surprised the garrison and took the castle from the English ;—sometimes by siege and assault, as in 146o, when James II was killed by the bursting of “the Lion,” one of his own clumsy pieces of ordnance, a gun similar to that ancient weapon, ” Mons Meg,” which is still to be seen in Edinburgh Castle, To the Queen of James II was due the complete destruction of Roxburgh as a stronghold. The castle had been for something like a hundred years continuously in England’s hands,—a rankling sore in Scotland’s body. The knife must be used unflinchingly. Under her orders, therefore, when the castle was captured after James’s death, the place was thrown down and made entirely untenable ; and probably at this time also the dam across Teviot was cut, thus permanently emptying fosse and ditch. Roxburgh ceased then almost entirely to be a place of strength, and time and decay have wiped her out ; no man may say where stood any portion of a town which, in point of population, was once the fourth most important burgh in Scotland. Of the last siege, and the death of James, the historian Pitscottie writes : “The King commanded the souldeouris and men of weir to assault the castell, but the Inglischemen defendit so walieiantlie within, the seige appeirit so to indure langer nor was beleiffit, quhairthrow the King determinat to compell them that was within the house be lang tairrie to rander and gif it ower.” Reinforcements at this time arrived, “which maid the King so blyth that he commanded to chairge all the gunnis to gif the castell ane new wollie. But quhill this prince, mair curieous nor becam him or the majestie of ane King, did stand neir hand by the gunneris quhan the artaillyerie was discharge and, his thie bane was doung in twa with ane piece of ane misframit gun that brak in the schutting, be the quhilk he was strickin to the grund and dieit haistilie thereof, quhilk grettumlie discuragit all his nobill gentlemen and freindis that war standand aboot him.” Near at hand on the farther bank of Tweed stands, or until lately stood, an old thorn tree which is said to mark the spot where the King fell.

The ancient Roxburgh has utterly disappeared ;

” Fallen are thy towers, and where the palace stood In gloomy grandeur waves yon hanging wood ; Crushed are thy halls, save where the peasant sees One moss-clad ruin rise between the trees.”

But there lingers yet one relic of the days when her Markets and Trysts were famed throughout the country. St. James’s Fair, which was held at Roxburgh as long ago as the days of King David I, is still kept each August in the pleasant haugh by the ruins of the castle, between Teviot and Tweed. There, on a little eminence, the Town Clerk of Jedburgh each year reads this Proclamation :


Whereas the Fair of St. James is to be held this——th day of August 19——, and is to continue for the space of eight days from and after this proclamation. Therefore, in name and authority of Our Sovereign King George V, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, and in name and authority of the Honourable the Provost and Bailies of the Royal Borough of Jedburgh, and in name and authority of a High and Potent Prince the Duke of Roxburghe, and his Bailie of Kelso, I make due and lawful proclamation that no person or persons shall presume to trouble or molest the present Fair, or offer any injury one to another, or break the King’s peace,—Prohibiting all old Feuds and new Feuds, or the doing of any-thing to disquiet the said Fair, under the highest pains of law. As also that no person or persons make any private bargains prejudicial to the customs and Proprietors of said Fair,—Certifying those who contravene any part of said customs that they will be prosecuted and fined according to law.


In these degenerate days, the Fair lasts but one day in place of eight, and Feuds, new or old, are unknown. But not so very long ago the rivalry at this Fair of the neighbouring towns of Kelso and Jedburgh was very bitter. Roxburgh had ceased to be, indeed, but the Fair survived, and it chanced that the Provost and Bailies of Jedburgh —like Roxburgh, a Royal burgh,—having under some old charter acquired a right to “proclaim” the Fair and collect the market dues, duly came in state each August in order to exercise this privilege at the ancient stance. Now, Kelso in the course of time became a larger and more important town than Jedburgh ; it is, more-over, in close proximity to the ground on which the Fair is held, whereas Jedburgh was no better than a foreign land, miles removed—ten, at least,–from Roxburgh. Hence Kelso resented what it considered to be an outrage on the part of her officious neighbour. What was Jedburgh that she should oust them from those market tolls and dues ! A beggarly interloper, no less ! The outcome of such a frame of mind was generally what might be expected amongst men whose forebears for many hundreds of years had been fierce fighters. As the procession of Jedburgh magistrates, all in their robes and escorted by a compact body of townsmen, advanced towards the place of proclamation, taunts of ” Pride and Poverty ! “—” Pride and Poverty ! ” were hurled at their ears by the irritated men of Kelso. ” Doo Tairts an’ Herrin’ Pies ! ” fiercely retorted Jedburgh’s inhabitants. It is difficult now-a-days to see where came in the sting of the original taunt, or the appositeness of the ” Countercheck Quarrelsome.” But in those old days they were amply sufficient. Some man, more hasty, or less sober, than his neighbour would follow up the taunt by a push or. a blow, and St. James’s Fair was speedily as lively a spot as now could be any Fair even in Ireland. Kelso and Jedburgh were ” busy at each other “; and sometimes one prevailed, sometimes the other. An attempt that Kelso once made to hold the Fair on its own side of the river was utterly defeated ; Jedburgh marched across the bridge and made things so warm that the experiment of shifting the venue of St. James’s Fair has never been repeated.

No doubt, when Roxburgh ceased to be a Royal Burgh, its rights naturally devolved on Jedburgh, the only other Royal Burgh in the county. But Jedburgh tradition tells of a time when the English, taking advantage of heavy floods which prevented Kelso men from crossing the river, raided the Fair and carried off rich plunder. Then Jedburgh, coming to the rescue, smote the English and recaptured the booty, and for their gallant conduct were awarded those privileges which they still exercise.

The Kelso taunt of “Pride and Poverty” may possibly have originated from a custom to which the economical burgesses of Jedburgh seem to have been addicted. In a letter written in 1790, Sir Walter Scott mentions that when he himself visited the Fair in that year, he found that, there not being in possession of the men of Jedburgh enough riding boots to accommodate all the riders in the procession, the magistrates had ruled that only the outside men of each rank should wear boots, or, rather each a boot on his outer leg. Thus, as the men rode in threes, one pair of boots would be sufficient to maintain the dignity of each rank—a device worthy of Caleb Balderstone himself. It is easy enough to assign an origin to ” Pride and Poverty,” but the local custom which gave occasion for the bitter taunt of ” Doo tairts and Herrin’ Pies ” is baffling. There are many such taunts in the Border, hurled by town at rival town. ” Selkirk craws,” is the reproach flung at that burgh by its neighbour, Galashiels ; and

” Galashiels Herons, Iockit in a box, Daurna show their faces, for Selkirk gamecocks,”

is, or was, the jibe that stung Gala lads to fury.

Before quitting the subject of Roxburgh, it may be of interest to mention that in the churchyard of the present village of that name there is a gravestone to the memory of the original of Edie Ochiltree, the bluegown of Sir Walter’s Antiquary. Andrew Gemmels was his name. He died in 1793 at Roxburgh Newtown, a farm on the banks of Tweed a few miles from Roxburgh, at the great age of one hundred and six.

The first tributary received by Teviot on the right bank is the Kale Water, running through the parish of Linton, which was in King David’s time an appanage of Kelso Abbey. The church has been restored, but the walls are, like those of Kelso, Norman work, and in the porch is an enigmatic piece of sculptors’ work ; apparently somebody is fighting a dragon —Sir Herbert Maxwell suggests St. George, but St. Michael was the more orthodox dragon slayer. About the object grew an aetiological myth ; a Somerville of old times

” Slew the Worm of Wormes glen And wan all Lintoun parochine.”

The dragon-slaying story is found in most parts of the world, from Troy to Dalry in the Glenkens. Here the Worm twisted himself round the Mote, or tumulus (apparently the basis of an old fort), and was killed by the local blacksmith.

In 1522-1533, Linton tower was among the scores of such Border Keeps which the English destroyed. They could hold their own against a Border raid ; not in face of a regular English army. Roxburghshire was not so deeply tainted by Covenanting principles as Galloway, Lanarkshire, and the south-west, Ayrshire and Renfrewshire. Covenanters needed wild hills and wild wastes. They are said to have held conventicles in a deep glen of Kale ; but, as a rule, they knew enough to preach in places of wide outlook, where they could detect the approach of parties of dragoons. In the bed of a burn they would be at great disadvantage.

A tower more interesting than that of Linton, namely Ormistoun, fell when Linton fell ; but it must have been rebuilt, for here, in Mary Stuart’s day, dwelt the Black Laird of Ormistoun, James, with Hob, his brother, two of Bothwell’s most cruel and desperate ” Lambs.” The Black Laird was with Bothwell, Hay of Talla (on upper Tweed), and one of Bothwell’s own clan, Hepburn of Bowton, when they placed the powder under Darnley’s chamber in Kirk-o’-Field (February 9-10, 1567), and so, in the feeling words of Bothwell, “sent him fleeing through the air.” After doing another deed as treacherous as this murder, the Black Laird was taken, tried, and hanged in 1573. Bothwell was Warden of the Border, which he ruled from Hermitage Castle on the Liddel water, and all these loose Border lairds rode and slew at his bidding. They had probably, in that twilight of faith, no religion in particular ; Catholicism lingered in the shape of oaths, Calvinism was not yet well settled in these regions. But, probably in prison, the Black Laird ” got religion.” He professed to be of the Elect, and confident of his salvation, while he drew a dark enough picture of life among lairds of his quality. On the day of his hanging he said, ” With God I hope this night to sup. . . . Of all men on the earth I have been one of the proudest and most high-minded, and most filthy of my body. But specially, I have shed innocent blood of one Michael Hunter with my own hands. Alas, therefore, because the said Michael, having me lying on my back, having a pitchfork in his hand, might have slain me if he pleased, but did it not, which of all things grieves me most in conscience. Within these seven years I never saw two good men, nor one good deed, but all kinds of wickedness.”

This wretch, once on his feet, must have butchered some poor hind who had spared him. In reading Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials, and the Register of Privy Council for the period of the Reformation, we find private war, murder, and rapine to have been almost weekly occurrences, from the Upper Tweed to the Esk. The new Gospel Light made the darkness visible, and we see robberies and vendettas among the dwellers in the peel towers, of which the empty shells stand beside every burn in the pleasant lands then clouded with smoke from blazing barn and tower and cottage. The later Ormistouns had ” particularly deadly feud ” with the Kers of Cessford ; the Kers annexed their lands, and the last Ormistoun was a public hangman ; the ancestral Orm was a flourishing and pious gentleman of the twelfth century, a benefactor of the early monks of Melrose. Meanwhile, the castle of Cessford, the ancestral hold of that line,, is not far from a place called Morbattle in the Black Laird’s day, and now, more pleasantly, Morebattle. The name has no connection either with festivity or feud, and “More” is not the Celtic mor, “great.” “More” is “mere,” a lake, and ” botl ” is Anglo-Saxon, ” a dwelling.” Cessford Castle had the name to be only second to Bothwell’s castle of Dunbar, and Logan of Restalrig’s eyrie on a jutting rock above the sea, Fastcastle. In the great English raid of 1523, “Dand Ker,” Sir Andrew, the head of the clan, rather feebly surrendered the place, which was secure in walls fourteen feet thick.

An interesting find was made at Cessford in 1858. Whilst excavating, a few yards from the north wall of the castle, a workman unearthed a very fine old sword, and a dagger, both in fair preservation. The dagger measured about twenty-six inches, and bore on its blade the Scottish Thistle, surmounted by a crown. The sword was basket-hilted, richly carved and embossed in silver. It measured forty inches in length ; on one side of the blade was the Scottish Crown; on the other, the date 1511.

It was a Ker of Cessford, tradition tells, who in 1622 tried to carry off the goods and gear of Hobbie Hall of Haughhead, father of the famous Covenanter, Henry Hall. Hobbie, apparently, was quite able to take care of himself, as is testified by a large stone which stands on a knoll amid trees, near Kale water, on which is carved :

” Here Hoby Hall boldly maintained his right ‘Gainst reef plain force armed w. lawless might For twenty pleughs harnessed in all their gear Could not this valiant noble heart make fear But w. his sword he cut the formost soam In two : hence drove both pleughs and pleughmen home.”


The stone was repaired and restored in 1854 by Lady John

Higher up than Kale comes Oxnam (locally, Ousenam) Water, which joins Teviot hard by Crailing. Once a nice trout stream, there is not left at this day much to tempt the angler whose dreams are of giant fish, though doubtless many a ” basket ” can be caught of fingerlings. In none of the Border streams, unhappily, is any restriction made as regards the size of the fish that may be taken. Everything goes into the creel of the fisher with worm in ” drummly ” waters, and of the holiday sportsman ; moved by no compunctions, trammelled by no absurd qualms,–to them a fish is a fish ; and as the latter, at least, probably never even sees a big trout, he attaches vast importance to the capture of a ” Triton of the minnows.” The writer, who had one day fished a Border river with all the little skill at his command, and had succeeded neither with dry fly nor with wet in capturing anything worthy to be kept, once came upon a sportsman of this holiday breed, rigged out with all the latest appliances which should inevitably lure the wiliest of trout from his native element. He “had had a splendid day,” he said, in reply to enquiries. ” What had he got them with ? Oh-h, Fly.” But what fly, he would not say. It was just ” FLY.” “Might he see the basket?” the baffled enquirer asked. Proudly the lid was thrown back, and the contents displayed—a basket half filled with parr, and with trout, not one of which could have been six inches in length. Thus are the streams depleted.

It is a pleasant valley, that of the Oxnam. Across it runs the old Roman Road,—in days not very remote a favourite camping place of gipsies,—and up the valley to the south lies that noble sweep of blue hills, the Cheviots, smiling and friendly enough in summer, but dour and forbidding when the north-east blast of winter strikes their blurred and gloomy faces.

Did those “muggers” and “tinklers,” who of old frequented the Roman Road that runs south over Teviot and Jed and Oxnam, and away over the Cheviots down into Rede valley past Bremenium (High Rochester), did they ever come upon buried treasure or hoarded coins, one wonders. It is not many years since a well-known Professor, as he sat resting one day by the side of the old Road a little farther south than Oxnam valley, idly pushed his walking stick into a rabbit hole close to where he was seated. A few scrapes with the point of the stick, and something chinked and fell ; then another, and another. But this buried treasure consisted only of copper coins, a vast number, none very rare ; and no farther search revealed anything of value. Yet there must be plenty along that route, if one could but chance upon the proper spots. And surely, wherever there befell one of those countless fights or skirmishes that were for ever taking place in these Border hills, both in the days of the Romans and since, there must lie buried weapons. At Bloodylaws, up Oxnam, for instance. The name is suggestive ; but what occurred there, one cannot say—though there is the vague tradition of a mighty battle that left Oxnam for three days running red with blood. The country people, if you enquire from them the name of that hill, pronounce it with bated breath ;—” Bluidylaws,” they say in lowered voice. But I doubt that their tone is less the effect of old unhappy tradition telling how some great slaughter took place here, than the fact that ” bluidy ” is a word banned by the polite. This “three days red with blood,” too, is an expression curiously common in the account given by country folk of any battle of which they may have local tradition. You will find it used in connection with at least half a dozen other places in the Border-land besides Bloodylaws ; and in the ballad of “The Lads of Wamphray” there occurs the line : ” When the Biddes-burn ran three days blood.” Wamphray is in Annandale, and the fight alluded to was between the Johnstons and the Crichtons in 1593. But the affair was a mere skirmish ; “three days blood ” is but a figure of speech in this and probably in most other instances. Still, on a spur of Bloodylaws there exists a well-defined circular camp, and there may be foundation for the local tradition of some grim slaughter.