English Border Towns – Upper Tweed, Yair, Fairnilee, Ashiesteel, Elibank, Innerleithen, Traquair

SWEET in truth flows Tweed here, as all will own who leisurely wend their way—it is too beautiful to justify hurried progress—under leafy boughs where the sun slants down in fairy pattern on a road divorced by but a narrow edge of greenest grass from the clear, hurrying river. Here, at your very hand, you may see countless “ripples of the rising trout, that feed beneath the elms of Yair.” There over against you on the far bank of Tweed is Yair itself; and on the hither side, nestling above a lofty bank among its grand old trees, the beautiful ruin of Fairnilee, with its hospitable modern mansion hard by. It was in this fine old seventeenth-century Scottish mansion that Alison Rutherfurd wrote her exquisite version of the ” Flowers of the Forest.” In the old ruined house the little room in which she wrote is still intact, and now is carefully preserved from farther possibility of decay. But why, one wonders vainly, why was a place so fair ever abandoned, and allowed so long to crumble away as if it had been a thing accursed ?

” Gin ye wad meet wi’ me again, Gang to the bonny banks o’ Fairnilee,”

said the Queen of Faery to True Thomas. And were she here now in the Border land, to no more enchanting spot could she tryst him ;—the sunny slope above the river, the giant limbs of mighty trees green with the leafy crown of June, or flushed with the blood-red and orange of autumn ; the ceaseless song of water gushing over the cauld and dashing among the boulders below; the wide expanse that carries the eye through the waving boughs over the gleaming belt of water, and away far up the hill purpling with the bloom of heather,—or, late in the season, ” grymed ” with the new fallen snow,—up and over to the broad summit of the Three Brethren Cairn. In very truth it is itself a fairyland, and, standing here, to the mind comes, irresistibly, thought of the hidden Gold of Fairnilee that in boyhood one sought for so diligently. Then, higher up the river a mile or thereby, at the foot of Neidpath Hill, the long deep, swift-hurrying stream in which, when autumn floods have done their work, there is not a yard where a lordly salmon may not be hooked. And higher still, there is Caddonfoot, and Clovenfords, in whose little inn Sir Walter used to stay before he lived at Ashiesteel ; and the Nest, snug quarters of a famous Edinburgh Fishing Club, among whose members in old days was included the name of many an eminent Scot. Then opposite the Nest, across the river, Ashiesteel, which, almost more eloquently than even Abbotsford itself, speaks of Sir Walter. Here were spent the seven happiest years of his life here he wrote the ” Lay of the Last Minstrel,” ” Marmion,” and ” The Lady of the Lake “; here came into his service those most faithful of followers, Mathieson (his coachman) and Tom Purdie, the latter, before the good fortune that brought him to the notice of “the Shirra,” a most accomplished poacher of salmon. Who has not read, and smiled over, the tales that Scrope tells of him in his ” Days and Nights of Salmon Fishing in Tweed ? ”

Purdie’s eccentricities were many, his tongue free and outspoken to an extent that one would suppose might at times have ruffled the temper even of a man so tolerant and sweet-tempered as Scott. Yet the attachment that sprang up between the three, Sir Walter, Mathieson, and Purdie, was of the deepest and most abiding, ending only with their lives. All men—all living things, one might say—loved Scott; these two adored him, and their master’s affection for them, and his trust in them, were profound. Mathieson outlived the others ; Purdie was the first to go. The end was very sudden, and the blow affected Sir Walter as if the death had been that of a near and dear relative. A niece of Mungo Park used to tell afterwards of Sir Walter’s visit to the widow, as related by Mrs.

Purdie herself. There came a tap at the door, she said, and he came silently in, sitting down without a word in the chair that Mrs. Purdie handed to him. And, ” he juist grat, an’ better grat, the tears rinnin’ doon his cheeks.” At last the poor woman said brokenly ;

” Ye mauna tak’ on that way,’ Sir Walter. Ye mauna tak’ on. Yell maybes get some other body juist as guid as Tam.”

” No, my dear old friend,” he said, at length mastering his emotion. ” No. There can never be but one Tom Purdie.”

In truth no one could, and no one ever did, replace him. A very few years, and Mathieson drove his master for the last time, that memorable drive in September, 1832, when the horses of their own accord stopped at his favourite view above Bemersyde ; that September when the whole world mourned for him who was gone, who yet lives for ever, not alone in Border hearts, but in the affection of all humanity.

In Sir Walter’s day, no bridge spanned the river at Ashiesteel, and the ford was not always a safe one ; Sir Walter and his horse on at least one occasion, when the water was heavy, had to swim when crossing. But “the Shirra” was always the most reckless of riders, and would plunge in where none dared follow. ” The deil’s in ye, Shirra,” said Mungo Park’s brother to him—not on one occasion only—” the deil’s in ye. Yell never halt till they bring ye hame with your feet foremost.” It was at this Ashiesteel ford that Leyden, when Sir Walter’s guest, came to grief. He and ” the Shirra,” and Mr. Laidlaw of Peel were riding one day. Leyden was talking, as one having authority, of the paces and good manners of Arab horses, and telling tales of the marvellous skill with which their owners managed them. ” Here,” said he, gathering up his reins, ” is one of their feats “–; but just at that moment the pony on which he rode (not a docile Arab steed) took it into its head to bolt down the steep bank into Tweed, and Leyden disappeared over its head into the stream. ” Ay, ay, Dr. Leyden, is that the way the Arabs ride ? ” said Laidlaw gravely, when the rider reappeared, dripping like a river-god.

Up the Glenkinnon Burn from Ashiesteel, at Williamhope Ridge, is the spot where Scott said his last farewell to Mungo Park. At the open drain which then separated moor from road, Park’s horse stumbled badly. “A bad omen, Mungo, I’m afraid,” said Sir Walter. ” Freits (omens) follow them that fear them,” cried Park, gaily, setting off at a brisk canter. “I stood and looked after him ; but he never looked back,” Scott used to tell, afterwards. And they met no more. Ere very many months had passed, Park lay dead, somewhere by that great African river with whose name his own will be for ever linked. But Williamhope has older memories than this ; ” William’s Cross ” was the name given to a great stone on the hill here, which marked the spot where the Knight of Liddesdale fell, slain by his kinsman’s sword One August day in 1353.

Quitting the neighbourhood of Ashiesteel, the road, in close company now with the railway from Galashiels to Peebles, still winds up the beautiful banks of Tweed, past Thornilee and Holylee, past boulder-strewn reaches and pleasant streams where big trout lie,—” a chancier bit ye canna hae,” I think Stoddart says,—on past where, high on the farther side, over-hanging the river, stand the crumbling ruins of Elibank Castle. This was a stronghold built—or possibly only enlarged—in 1595 by Sir Gideon Murray, father of Muckle Mouthed Meg, heroine of the story which tells how young Scott of Harden, caught reiving the Murrays’ cattle, was given his choice between matrimony and the rope and “dule-tree.” Harden, it is said, at first chose the latter, but at the last moment, as a mate scarcely to be preferred to death, took the lady. There was probably a good deal of bravado and “bluff” about Harden’s wavering—if indeed the story is a true one. But in any case it was a wedding in which the proverb : ” Happy the Wooing that’s not long adoing,” was well exemplified. All went well with bride and with reluctant bridegroom ; they ” lived happy ever after,” as in the most orthodox fairy tale. And of their descendants, one was our own Sir Walter.

And now we come to Walkerburn and Innerleithen, manufacturing townships. The latter, with its famed medicinal well, has been identified, or identifies itself, with St. Ronan’s of the Waverley Novels. It is prettily situated on the Leithen, by wide spreading haughs, and the surroundings, like all in Tweedale, cannot fail to attract. But what may be said of Innerleithen, on top of that terrible Report issued in 1906 by H. M. Stationery Office ? It will take some living down, if all that was then said by the Tweed Pollution Commission is without exaggeration, and if—as one is informed—nothing has yet been done to sweep away, or at least greatly to improve, the conditions revealed. Here is what the Report says of the river Leithen, a stream in former days called by Sir Thomas Dick Lauder “a fine trouting river.” “Occasionally, in time of heavy rainfall, severe floods occur on the Leithen ; when these occur, a large amount of water flows down the bed of the stream, which is usually dry, carrying with it all the rubbish and filth to the Tweed . . The mills are supplied with water from the mill-lade, and one of them obtains water from the Tweed when necessary. The people of the town are entirely engaged in the woollen industry ; wool scouring, weaving, and dyeing are all carried on here. The town is sewered. All the sewage is collected in an outfall sewer, which discharges into the mill-lade below the lowermost mill, and about three hundred yards from the Tweed ; there is no attempt at purification of the sewage. The liquid refuse from the mills is discharged into the lade. The water of the lade where it discharges to the Tweed is very foul with sewage and dye water . . . Below the point at which the lade discharges to the Tweed the water of this river is greatly fouled, the bottom of the river is covered with sewage deposit and the stones coated with sewage fungus. The river here contains also a large amount of refuse of all kinds, such as pots and pans, old linoleum, old iron-work, and such like. Although there is a daily collection of rubbish in the town, a great deal of large sized rubbish is thrown into the bed of the Leithen, and the tip to which all refuse is taken, together with offal from the slaughter houses, is situate just where the Leithen falls into the Tweed. In times of flood the water of the Leithen excavates this refuse tip, and carries the refuse into the Tweed. Some of the mill-owners here have tanks for settling the spent liquids after dyeing, and in this way some of the solid refuse is retained, but the coloured liquid is allowed to enter the river.” One is thankful for small mercies ; ” some of the solid refuse is retained.” But the ” offal from the slaughter houses,” and the “tip” to which all refuse is taken ! And the sewage which there is “no attempt to purify ” ! What grisly nightmare could be more grisly than this ?

However, we get soon now above the range of pollution by mill or town. Peebles only remains ; thereafter we have really a river as it used in its entirety to be, and, above Peebles, as it may still be called, ” the silver Tweed.” Before reaching Peebles, however, there is, over against Innerleithen, on the angle between Quair Burn and Tweed, Traquair House to notice ; and, nearer to Peebles, on its green knoll the old riven tower of Horsburgh, ancient seat of an ancient family.

Of old, Traquair was a royal residence. In the twelfth century, William the Lion hunted from its tower; and other of the Scottish monarchs visited it in later days, the last, I suppose, being Mary and Darnley in August, 1566. The original tower, or some part of it, I believe stands now in the north-east corner of the building, but the house has, of course, been greatly added to at different periods, mostly, however, during the reign of Charles I. It is a very fine specimen of the old Scottish château, with walls of immense thickness. Probably it is the oldest inhabited mansion house in Scotland ; a place full of interest. And not least interesting, the picturesque old gates at the end of the avenue, that have remained so long unopened. The tale used to run that they had been closed after the ’45, by an Earl loyal to the Stuart cause, who swore that they should never be opened till the rightful king came back to his own again. As a matter of fact, however, the misfortunes of Prince Charlie and his family had nothing to do with it. The gates were not closed till 1796, when the seventh Earl of Traquair, after the death of his countess, declared that they should remain shut till they opened to admit one worthy to take the dead lady’s place. That, at least, is the story.

The Earl who lived in the latter part of the seventeenth century belonged to the Church of Rome. “A quiet, inoffensive man,” he is said to have been. But that in no way protected him from the unwelcome attentions of those zealous Presbyterians who at that time ” thought it someway belonged to us to go to all the popish houses and destroy their monuments of idolatry, with their priests’ robes, and put in prison [the priests] themselves.” So a pious mob set out from Edinburgh one grim December day in 1688, and trudged through the snow to Traquair House. Earl and priest, having got word of their coming, had fled before the arrival of this gentle band of Reformers, and though they ransacked all Traquair for ” Romish wares,” they did not find all they expected. Much had been hidden away. The vestments of the priest this, that, and the other popish emblem could not be found. However, they did get a good deal—an altar, a large brazen crucifix, and several small crucifixes, “a large brodd opening with two leaves, covered within with cloth of gold of Arras work, having a veil covering the middle part, wherin were sewed several superstitious pictures,” a eucharist cup of silver, boxés of relics, ” wherin were lying, amongst silk-cotton, several pieces of bone, tied with a red thread, having written on them the Saint they belonged to,” ” a harden bag, near full of beads,” “Mary and the Babe in a case most curiously wrought in a kind of pearl,” a hundred and thirty bookssilver-clasped many of them. No doubt the books, Popish or otherwise, excited to frenzy those pious but illiterate persons, almost as effectually as the ” pot of holy oil,” and the ” twelve dozen of wax candles ” that they seized.

Not content with all this, however, a detachment of the mob invaded the house of a neighbouring clergyman “who had the name of a Presbyterian minister.” The orders given by their ringleaders were that this house should be narrowly searched, but that they themselves were to “behave discreetly,” advice the latter part of which one might give with equal propriety and effect to the proverbial bull in a china shop. The Reverend Thomas Louis and his wife apparently did not treat the inquisitors with the kindness and consideration to which they thought themselves entitled ; they “mocked them,” it is complained ; and indeed the minister and his wife carried their resentment so far as to offer them “neither food nor drink, though”—it is naïvely added—” they had much need of it.” Undaunted, however, by this shabby conduct on the part of the reverend gentleman, the mob hunted about till they came on two locked trunks, which they demanded should at once be opened. This modest request not being complied with, they ” broke up ” the trunks—to ” behave discreetly,” is no doubt when desired, capable of liberal interpretation—and therein ” they found a golden cradle, with Mary and the Babe in her bosons ; in the other trunk, the priest’s robes.” So they made a pile of the articles found here and in Traquair House, carried them a distance of seven miles to Peebles, and had them “all solemnly burned at the cross.” Such were the enlightened methods of our seventeenth century progenitors. But, one sometimes wonders, is the toleration of the mob now-a-days greatly in advance of what it was in 1688 ? However, they did not also ” solemnly burn ” Traquair House, though it was a “nest o’ paipery.” But the last Countess of Traquair has gone through the old gates ; and her son, the eighth Earl, was the last of his line. He died, unmarried, in 1861 ; and the last of her race, the venerable Lady Louisa Stuart, died in 1875, in her hundredth year. Yet still, a pathetic link with days long dead, the old house stands brooding over the past ;

and still there sounds the music of the waters, and the sough of the wind in the trees of ” the bush aboon Traquair.” And perhaps he who has

” . . . heard the cushies croon Thro’ the gowden afternoon, And the Quair burn singing down to the vale o’ Tweed,”

may come away steeped in sadness, yet it is a sadness without sting, not wholly unpleasing.