The Borders countryside is as rich in history and architecture as it is in picture-postcard views
Ling was a marvellous tour-guide. With great enthusiasm — and a surefootedness around the messy, muddy paths that we dared not imitate — she took us past the gurgling stream, caressed by low-slung willows, over rickety wooden bridges, and around little sun-dappled hills. Gamely indulging our photo-fantasies, she waited, patiently, while we clicked scores of pictures of the beautiful Rule Valley, deep in the Scottish Borders. But what impressed us most was her dignified indifference, especially when masses of ridiculous, squawking pheasants flapped into our path. And that, coming as it did, from a roly-poly black Labrador, was astonishing indeed!
Thanking Marion — Ling’s friendly owner and our landlady for the weekend for the impromptu tour — we beat a retreat to our cosy little cottage, radiating charm and warmth, thanks to a blazing log-fire. Here, in the hills of the Borders, autumn was fast melting into winter, the sky rouged and ready for a spectacular sunset long before 6 pm. And yet, the trees stubbornly held-on to their summer-foliage, the canopy now a breathtaking medley of colours, with the evergreens standing out sharply against the burnished golds and the flaming oranges. With rolling hills and sleepy little villages, the landscapes were quite removed from the desolate wilderness of Scotland, and more in keeping with the neat, manicured vistas of England.
Just north of the English Border, but technically in Scotland, this gorgeous countryside has inspired several poets and painters, among them Sir Walter Scott. He is said to have been deeply in love with these beautiful hills and the Tweed (river) valley, and penned many haunting verses in their praise. A story — often repeated in these parts — suggests that his horses were so used to stopping at one particular spot (for him to drink in the scenery) that during his funeral procession, they automatically halted there! That spot is, naturally, called ‘Scott’s View’ and is now blighted by tour-buses decanting eager ‘photo-op’ passengers. The Rule Valley though, is some miles removed from such bustling tourist-attractions. There is little here to disturb the peace and quiet, and diversions are more rustic in nature — hill-walking, pheasant-shooting, trout-fishing, that sort of thing. Marion enthusiastically recommended we try scrambling up one of the ‘wee hills’ near-by, but looking at our horrified faces, changed tack and came up with a nice, long drive to explore the surrounding, scenic areas.
The lovely Borders countryside, we discovered while going up and down the vertiginously twisting roads, is as rich in history and architecture as it is in picture-postcard views. With four famously, aesthetically crumbling Abbeys (at Jedburgh, Dryburgh, Melrose and Kelso), and several historic houses and market squares, we were frankly quite spoilt for choice. After much ineffectual dithering, we finally picked Melrose Abbey, mostly because it was described as a ‘magnificent ruin on a grand scale with lavishly decorated masonry’, a description that would soon prove to be yet another example of classic British understatement.
Founded back in 1136 by King David I, this splendid Cistercian abbey swiftly became an important and celebrated religious site, and was therefore repeatedly attacked by the warring English. The attacks often necessitated repairs, and the current ruins — an elegant rose-coloured building, all fine, graceful arches and mighty, soaring walls — dates back from the late 14th century and houses many interesting carvings (a pig playing the bagpipes!) and unusual artefacts, among them the embalmed heart of one of Scotland’s most famous kings, Robert the Bruce. Sir Walter Scott strongly recommended visiting this abbey ‘by the pale moonlight’ — a luxury he could probably afford since he lived practically around the corner (Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s house, is about 3 miles west on the banks of the Tweed). But for those with pressing time commitments, the inspiringly panoramic views from the roof (accessed by somewhat cramped stairs) will have to suffice.
Several months later, leafing through our Borders album, we ooh at the pictures of the rose-gold Abbey, the mellow autumn sunshine glancing off its ancient walls. We smile at blurry shots of exquisitely coloured, breathtakingly stupid pheasants, as they rashly dash across the country-roads, and drool over orchards where succulent, bruised apples tastefully litter the grass. And we linger over the pictures of that truly lovable Labrador called Ling, and recall, with fond memories, our collective, wobbly-chinned good-bye, Ling running behind the car, looking wretched, begging us with big, limpid eyes to go for one last walk deep in the Scottish Borders.
Keywords: Scottish Borders