English Border Towns – St. Boswells Green, Melrose, Darnick, Abbotsford, And The Ellwand

ALL the way up Tweed from a mile below Mertoun Bridge, up past the cauld where the pent water spouts and raves ceaselessly, along the bank where lies St. Boswells Golf Course, round that noble sweep where the river holds Dryburgh lovingly in the crook of its arm, up by the boulder-strewn streams above, and round the elbow by the foot suspension-bridge, past the lofty red scaurs and the hanging woods to the Monk’s Ford, trout fishing—at least from the right bank–is free. And though it goes without saying that pool and stream are “sore fished,” yet it is not possible by fair angling to spoil Tweed. Many a fisher may depart, empty and downcast, but if he persevere, some day he shall have his reward. To him who patiently teaches himself to know the river and the whims of its inhabitants, to him who studies weather and time of day—or, may be, of night—there must at length come success, for many are the trout, and large. The writer has known a yellow trout of 8 lbs. 12 ozs. to be killed with fly hard by the golf course. The weight is of course exceptional, but many a beauty of 2 lbs. and over is there to be taken by him who is possessed of skill and patience ; and to me is known no more enticing spectacle than one of these long swift pools of a summer evening, in the gloaming, when the water is alive with the dimples of rising trout.

And what a river it is, however you take it ! What a series of noble views is there for him who can withdraw his attention from the water. Let him climb, in the peaceful evening light, to the top of the red and precipitous Braeheads behind the long single street of St. Boswells Green, pleasantest of villages, and there gaze his fill at the beautiful Abbey far beneath his feet, sleeping amongst the trees across the river. Or let him go farther still, up by the leafy path that overhangs the rushing water, till he come to the little suspension-bridge. And let him stop there, midway across, and face towards the western sky and the three peaks of Eildon that stand out beyond the trees clear-cut against the warm after-glow. At his feet, mirroring the glory of the dying day, a broad shining sweep of quiet water broken only by the feeding trout ; on his left hand, high in air the young moon floating like lightest feather; above the fretful murmur of some far-off stream, a bird piping to his mate. And over all, a stillness that holds and strangely moves the very soul. I think that if there be one with him attuned to his mood, an hour may pass and the gloaming have deepened almost to dusk, and neither of them shall have spoken a word, or noticed that the time has sped. And still they will linger, unwilling to break the spell.

At Leaderfoot the river is crossed by two stone bridges, one, the lofty naked viaduct of the Berwickshire Railway the other, older and more pleasing, carries the picturesque road that, breaking out from the leafy woods of Drygrange and leaving on its left hand the hallowed site of Old Melrose, leads past St. Boswell’s Green and the Kennels of the Buccleuch Hunt, over by Lilliard’s Edge to Jedburgh. Between, and immediately above, the bridges at Leaderfoot are some glorious salmon casts, where nigh on a century ago Scrope was wont to throw a fly. Strange that during twenty years, in all that magnificent water fished by him, from Kelso to Caddonfoot, he never once landed a salmon of thirty pounds, and but few as heavy as twenty. There may have been more fish in his day,—one cannot judge; they got more, but then they took them not only with fly, but by “sunning” and by “burning ” the water, and by many another means that now is justly considered to be poaching. But they seldom caught a salmon approaching in weight those which are now commonly taken in Tweed every season. Thirty pounds is a weight by no means noticeable now-a-days, and scarcely a year passes that fish of forty pounds And over are not taken by some fortunate angler ; even above Melrose cauld, an obstruction that checks the ascent of many big fish, they have been got, far up the river, as heavy as thirty-eight pounds. Floors Water, at Kelso, I believe holds the record as regards size; in 1886 a fish of fifty-seven and a half pounds was captured. And as to numbers, though it is of course possible to labour for a week or more in Tweed—as elsewhere—even with the water apparently in good order, and with plenty of fish up, fresh from the sea, and meet with no manner of success, on the other hand there is on Makerstoun Water the pleasing record of twelve, fourteen, fifteen and sixteen salmon killed by one rod on four consecutive days ; fifty-seven fish in all, and seventy-three for the week. And in a similar period in November, 1903, Upper and Lower Floors Water produced between them one hundred and forty-three fish, the average weight for Lower Floors being nineteen pounds.

A little above Leaderfoot, on the opposite bank, is Newstead with its Roman camp,—though the visitor will he disappointed with what he may now see ; there are no walls, no remains of buildings, such as exist at Bremenium, or down on the Roman Wall in Northumberland. Behind Newstead, high on the nearest peak of Eildon, are well-defined remains of a Romo-British station. Where they got a sufficient supply of water at that elevation is puzzling : it is a large camp, and could not possibly be held by a numerically weak body of men.

From the head of that ” brae ” by Newstead that overhangs the river, you will look on a scene typical of Tweed. Far through the broad and smiling valley the river winds towards you, like a ribbon shot with silver ; a mile away, across green fields, lies the venerable abbey, dreaming in the sunshine—” thy ruins mouldering o’er the dead.” And, up stream, the distant belching chimneys of Galashiels cause one fervently to thank Heaven that beside the old monastic pile there are no tweed mills to foul the air, and to pollute the lovely stream more even than is now the case.. Mercifully, as regards trade, it is still at Melrose as it was when the ” solemn steps of old departed years ” paced through the land with youthful vigour. The little town is yet guiltless of modern iniquities—except as regards the railway and the inevitable Hydropathic, both of which are nô doubt necessary evils (or blessings ?) of these latter days. And except, also, that the modern villa Is overmuch in evidence. A hundred years ago, when there was little of a town but the open Market Place hedging round the Old Cross of Melrose, it must have been a better, or at least a more picturesque place. On to the Abbey itself now the town’s houses jostle, treading on its skirts, pertly encroaching. There-fore it lacks the charm and solitude of Dryburgh. Yet is its own charm irresistible, its beauty matchless,—” was never scene so sad and fair.” To the halting pen, it is the indescribable. In the deathless lines of the Wizard himself, its beauty lives to all time. But a thousand years of purgatory might not suffice to wipe from their Record of Sin the guilt incurred by Hertford, and Evers, and Laiton, in 1544 and 1545 when they wantonly profaned and laid waste this dream in stone and lime, wrought by ” some fairy’s hand.” Nor in later days were our own people free from offence in this respect. The number of old houses in the immediate neighbourhood is probably very small into which have not been built stones from the ruined abbey. Even across the river they are found ; in the walls of a mouldering old farm-house there, pulled down but a few years ago, were discovered many delicate bits of scroll work and of finely chiselled stone.

A mile to the west of Melrose lies the village of Darnick. Here is a fine old tower dating from the sixteenth century, the property still of the family that originally built it. Fain would Sir Walter Scott have bought this picturesque old building after he moved to Abbotsford, and many another has looked on it with longing eyes, but no offer has succeeded in divorcing it from the stock of the original owner, though the surrounding lands have melted away. Somewhere about 1425 a Heiton built the earliest tower. That, naturally, could not stand against the all-destroying hand of Hertford in 1544, but the Heiton’s descendant repaired, or rebuilt, it in 1569, and ever since it has remained in the possession of the family, still, I believe, is occasionally inhabited by them. It is now probably the finest existing specimen of the old bastel-house. From its watch-tower may be had a glimpse of Tweed at Bridgend, where Father Philip, Sacristan of St. Mary’s, took his involuntary bath. This is the Bridgend mentioned in Sir Walter’s Notes to The Monastery. The ancient and very peculiar bridge over Tweed which gave to the hamlet its name is described in the text of the novel. There is now no trace of such a bridge, but in the early part of the eighteenth century the pillars yet stood. They are described in Gordon’s Itinerarium Septentrionale (1726), and in Milne’s account of the Parish of Melrose published in 1794, there is a full description. Those pillars yet stood, he says. “It has been a timber bridge ; in the middle pillar there has been a chain for a drawbridge, with a little house for the convenience of those that kept the bridge and received the custom. On this same pillar are the arms of the Pringles of Galashiels.” In Sir Walter’s day, only the foundations of the piers existed. He tells how, “when drifting down the Tweed at night, for the purpose of killing salmon by torch light,” he used to see them.

A Heiton of Darnick fell at Flodden. His successor played no inconspicuous part in the bitter fight by his own tower side, on Skirmish Field, scene of that memorable encounter in 1526 between Angus and Buccleuch, when the stake was the person of the young king, James V. Turn-Again, too, is in the immediate neighbourhood, on the lands of Abbotsford, where the Scotts turned fiercely on their pursuers, and Ker of Cessford was slain. It is curious to note that beneath what is now a lawn at Darnick Tower many skeletons were dug up some years ago, and beside them were swords. Doubtless the skeletons were those of men slain in this fight ; but why were their swords buried with them ? Over the hill, at Holydene, an ancient seat of the Kers of Cessford, there was also unearthed years ago within the walls of the old castle, a gigantic skeleton, by its side a very handsome sword. Were their weapons, in the sixteenth century, laid convenient to the grasp of the dead warriors, as in Pagan times they were wont to be ?

Bowden Moor and Halidon are but over the hill from Darnick. It was from this direction, by the descent from Halidon (or Halyden, modern Holydene), that Buccleuch came down on Angus, after Cessford and Fernihirst and Home had ridden off. But the Homes and the Kers returned, and spoiled the play for the outnumbered Scotts.

” Now Bowden Moor the march-man won, And sternly shook his plumed head, As glanced his eye o’er Halidon ; For on his soul the slaughter red Of that unhallowed morn arose, When first the Scott and Carr were foes ; When royal James beheld the fray, Prize to the victor of the day When Home and Douglas, in the van, Bore down Buccleuch’s retiring clan, Till gallant Cessford’s heart-blood dear Reek’d on dark Elliot’s border spear„”

Less than a couple of miles to the west from Darnick, we come to that which Ruskin pronounced to be “perhaps the most incongruous pile that gentlemanly modernism ever designed.” I fear that even the most devoted Borderer must admit that Abbotsford is an incongruous pile. Nevertheless it is hallowed ground, and one may not judge it by common standards. It reminds only of the gallantest struggle against hopeless odds that ever was made by mortal man ; it speaks only of him whom everyone loved, and loves. “The glory dies not, and the grief is past.”

But what a marvellous change has been wrought over all that countryside since “the Shirra” bought Abbotsford, a hundred and two years ago. Undrained, unenclosed, treeless and bare, covered for the most part only with its rough native heath—that was the character of the country. And the house; ” small and poor, with a common hail-yard on one flank, and a staring barn on the other; while in front appeared a filthy pond covered with ducks and duckweed, from which the whole tenement had derived the unharmonious designation of Clarty Hole.” It does not sound enticing ; and already offers had been made to him of a property near Selkirk, where, among fields overhanging the river, was a site unsurpassed for natural beauty of prospect, whence Ettrick could be viewed winding past ” sweet Bowhill,” far into the setting sun. It was Erskine, I think, who urged him to buy this property—land which then belonged to the writer’s grandfather and great-grandfather. But it was too far from Tweed, Scott said ; “Tweed was everything to him—a beautiful river, flowing broad and bright over a bed of milk-white pebbles,” (pebbles, alas ! that, there at least, are no longer milk-white, but rather grey with sewage fungus and the refuse of mills). In spite of all its manifest drawbacks, ” Clarty Hole,” appealed to Scott. It was near the beautiful old abbey, and the lands had been abbey-lands. An ancient Roman road led through the property from Eildon Hills to that ford over Tweed which adjoined the farm, (and with this ford for sponsor, he changed the name from “Clarty Hole” to “Abbot’s Ford.”) Over the river, on the rising ground full in his view was the famous Catrail ; and through his own land ran the Rhymer’s Glen, where True Thomas foregathered with the Queen of Faery. Bit by bit, Scott added to his land, bit by bit to his cottage, regarding which his first intention was ” to have only two spare bedrooms, with dressing-rooms, each of which will on a pinch have a couch-bed.” And his tree-planting had begun at once. When the property was first acquired from the Reverend Dr. Douglas of Galashiels, there was on it but one solitary strip of firs, “so long and so narrow that Scott likened it to a black hair-comb. It ran,” says Lockhart, “from the precincts of the homestead to near Turn-Again, and has bequeathed the name of the Doctor’s redding-kame to the mass of nobler trees amidst which its dark, straight line can now hardly be traced.” I do not think that ” the Doctor’s redding-kame ” now survives as a name, even if the original trees be still to the fore. In any case they would attract no attention, for what Sir Thomas Dick Lauder says was then “as tame and uninteresting a stretch of ground as could well be met with in any part of the world,” is now rich in woods, and everywhere restful and pleasing to the eye—though it may be conceded that Galashiels has stretched a villa-bedecked arm farther up Tweed’s left bank than might have been quite acceptable to Sir Walter.

At Boldside, of whose ” ruined and abandoned church-yard ” he writes in his introduction to the Monastery, there is now a railway station, and suburban villas, large and small, dot the landscape ever the more plentifully as one approaches that important manufacturing town which a century back was but a tiny village peopled by a few industrious weavers. No longer, I fear, can it be said that Boldside’s “scattered and detached groves,” combining with “the deep, broad current of the Tweed, wheeling in moonlight round the foot of the steep bank . . . . fill up the idea which one would form in imagination fora scene that Oberon and Queen Mab might love to revel in.”

The Fairy Folk have fled from scenes tainted by an atmosphere of railway and modern villa. Even the Water-bull has ceased to shake the hills with his roar around Sir Walter’s ” small but deep lake ” at Cauldshiels. Yet as late as the time of our grandsires people told gravely how, one warm summer’s day, a lady and her groom, riding by the sullen shore of this “lochan,” ventured a little way from the edge in order to water their thirsty horses, and were immediately engulfed in the Kelpie’s insatiable maw. If such a tragedy ever did happen, no doubt the explanation is simple enough. Without any warning the hard upper crust would give way beneath the horses’ feet, and, struggling vainly, they would sink in the fathomless, spewing, inky slime below. Once trapped in that, no power on earth could ever bring them out again, dead or alive. A like fate nearly befell the writer when fishing alone one day in a gloomy, forsaken, kelpie-haunted Border hill loch. Dense fog came down, wreathing over the quiet water, hiding the dripping heather and the benty hill. A bird of the bittern kind boomed dismally at intervals, and a snipe bleated. It was a cheerless prospect ; and the temperature had fallen with the coming of the fog. But through the mist could be heard the sound of trout rising in the little loch, and one bigger than his fellows persisted in rising far out. The sound was too tempting. The fisher waded out, and still out ; and ever the big trout rose, luring him on. Another step, and another ; it was no longer stony under foot, and the bottom began to quake. Still the footing was hard enough, and nothing happened ; and again the big fish rose just out of casting distance. One more step would do it; and what danger could possibly be added in so small a distance ? So one more step was taken, and—without a second’s warning the crust broke. Only one thing saved the fisher ; instinctively, as he sank through the fetid slime, he threw himself on his back, striking vigorously with his arms. But it took many an agonised, almost despairing, stroke ere his legs sucked out of that death trap. Nor, as long as there was water shoreward deep enough to swim in, did he again attempt to wade. His rod had not been abandoned—which was matter for gratulation ; but, soaked to the skin, chilled to the very marrow, and reeking with the stench of putrid swamp, it was no thing of joy that day to make his devious way home over an unfamiliar hill that was wrapped in impenetrable folds of dense mist.

There is an origin, likely enough, for the Water-Bull. A great volume of marsh-gas, bursting from the bottom of a swampy loch, might be seen some still, foggy day, or in the uncertain evening light, suddenly to boil up on the surface far out. The wallowing upheaval caused by the belching gas would readily suggest the part-seen back or side of some formless monster, whose gambols were agitating the water and causing billows to surge upon the weed-fringed shore ; and a bittern’s hollow boom quivering on the still night air, would easily be construed by the credulous and ignorant as the bellow of this fearsome monster that they thought they had seen wheeling and plunging. If he was anything more substantial than gas, what a beast he would have been to troll for !

One should not forget that it was by the shore of Cauldshiels Loch that Scott wrote the exquisitely sad lines that yet so vividly paint the scene :

” The sun upon the Weirdlaw Hill, In Etrrick’s vale is sinking sweet ; The westland wind is hushed and still, The lake lies sleeping at my feet. Yet not the landscape to mine eye Bears those bright hues that once it bore ; Though evening with her richest dye, Flames o’er the hill of Ettrick’s shore.

With listless look along the plain, I see Tweed’s silver current glide, And coldly mark the holy fane Of Melrose rise in ruined pride. The quiet lake, the balmy air, The hill, the stream, the tower, the tree, Are they still such as once they were, Or is the dreary change in me

It is only a little above “the holy fane of Melrose ” that there enters Tweed on the northern side an interesting little burn, the Ellwand, or Allen. Up the glen—the Fairy Dene, or Nameless Dene—formed by this stream, lies Glendearg, the tower described in the opening scenes of the Monastery. There are, in fact, three towers in the glen, Hillslap (now called Glendearg), Colmslie, and Langshaw. Over the door of the first is the date 1595, and the letters N. C. and E. L., the initials of Nicolas Cairncross and his wife. Colmslie belonged to the family of Borthwick; their crest, a Goat’s Head, is still on the ruin,—or was some years ago. But who in old days owned Langshaw is not known to me. For mutual protection, Border towers were very commonly built thus, in groups of three—as is instanced, indeed, at the neighbouring village of Darnick, where formerly, besides the present existing bastel-house, there stood two others. ” In each village or town,” says Sir Walter, “were several small towers, having battlements projecting over the side-walls, and usually an advanced angle or two with shot-holes for flanking the door-way, which was always defended by a strong door of oak, studded with nails, and often by an exterior grated door of iron. These small peel-houses were ordinarily inhabited by the principal feuars and their families ; but, upon the alarm of approaching danger, the whole inhabitants thronged from their own miserable cottages, which were situated around, to garrison these points of defence. It was then no easy matter for a hostile party to penetrate into the village, for the men were habituated to the use of bows and fire-arms, and the towers being generally so placed that the discharge from one crossed that of another, it was impossible to assault any of them individually.”

The Nameless Dene is famed for the ” fairy” cups and saucers that are still to be found in the streamlet’s bed after a flood, little bits of some sort of soft limestone which the washing of the water has formed into shapes so fantastic and delicate that one hardly needs the imagination of childhood to believe they are the work of fingers more than mortal. Up this valley ran the ancient Girthgate, a bridle-way over the hills used of old by the infrequent traveller, and always by the monks of Melrose when duty took them to visit the Hospital which Malcolm IV founded in 1164 on Soltre, or Soutra, Hill. As late as the middle of last century the grassy track was plainly to be seen winding through the heather; perhaps in parts it is not even yet obliterated. Nature does not readily wipe out those old paths and drove roads that the passing of man and beast traced across the hills many centuries back.