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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
A Border Keep

The sun shone, the sky was azure blue, and a pleasant warm breeze was gentle the day we revisited Smailholm Tower, near Kelso. This was one of Grannyís favorite places in her childhood. Then, of course, when she came it was rather derelict compared to to-day. It has been restored and looking more like it was in the 15th and 16 centuries. There has also been a dig around the outside of the tower, and this revealed foundations of outer buildings, such as a kitchen, storerooms and a hall. Many stayed here so every corner was utilized outside the actual keep, but of course within a barmkin, which is the outer wall.

A Border Keep

The approach to Smailholm Tower I think is wonderful, with the oblong shaped tower akin to a sentinel on duty, up on the skyline.... The harvest was well underway, hedgerows had been neatly clipped, and of course always a profusion of wild flowers along the verges, nodding their assent as we drove past. Caution though is required in these narrow country lanes, as we found out, as a tractor appeared suddenly round a blind corner possibly thinking no one else would be on the same road.. Not sure who had the biggest fright.. him or us!

To explain though, the only way to reach the tower is up a narrow farm road, continuing directly through the farm yard of Sandeyknowe, over an iron grid, then up a cart track alongside the lochan with tall reeds and at times cattle drinking from it. Here, there is a rocky scene with crags all around, but ahead on the highest one, there stands the tower in all its glory, almost as if in a time warp. This scene is totally different from the surrounding landscape which has rolling fields and farmlands. Tis to me another world...

It is no wonder that Sir Walter Scot, when he stayed here with his grandparents, found his imagination fired with all kinds of stories. What a marvelous playground for him, he could explore, reenact Border legends, sheer delight for a young, active mind. He certainly enjoyed his childhood here, even though he did not have good health at the time. In fact that was the reason he stayed there, as some of his brothers and sisters had already died in infancy at their Edinburgh home. It was thought that around the age of two years, when he appeared to be very weakly in health, that the same fate was approaching. It was decided that Auld Reekie, Edinburgh, was not good for his condition, much better he should be sent to the fresh air of the Border country to Sandeyknowe, his grandparents farm, where his Aunt Janet could nurse him. So it was there that he remained and grew until he was sent to school in Kelso. He listened intently to endless Border tales from his grandmother, his Aunt Janet, and the aul shepherd Sandy Ormiston.

Walterís ailment of paralysis was treated with plenty fresh air and.. a supposed cure which to our modern ears does sound rather strange, namely to be swathed in the skin of a newly slain sheep, then enticed to creep along the ground... Sandy, the shepherd, often carried the young lad up to the land near the Tower, where he could kick his legs and roll about on the soft springy turf. This was freedom... On one occasion, he was up there when a thunder storm broke out, and Aunt Janet being worried naturally ran from the farm to the nearby Lochan and tower, to find Walter lying on his back clapping his hands at each flash of lightening, shouting at the top of his voice .."Bonnie, Bonnie, do it again"...

Among the crags and rocks grow tiny, delicate blue harebells, pink yarrow, and many other dainty wild flowers. Rushes grown on the Lochan, again most useful to the Tower in the old days. The entire scene to me is quite unique, something of a film or stage set, and yet, this is for real and true. But then please forgive me, I am biased...

We parked the car and set off on foot towards the entrance on the north side, clambering up the steep escarpment until we reached the iron yett of the outer Barmkin wall. With the creaking of the yett (gate) as we opened it, somehow we were there.... back in the 16th century.. wind howling round us, with far reaching views all around seeing any approaching Reiver, or even the English!... all unwelcome then, but at least the residents could make ready by gathering in cattle, horses, and themselves into the Tower for safety.

Through the yett and outer wall, we could see the layout of the kitchens, storerooms, well the foundations really, with the odd section of wall and fireplace, and even a cupboard within the wall. Then it was onto the low entrance into the keep, with its heavy wooden, iron studded door. Inside the door was a small space before the inner doorway into the Lower Level which was a store or place to keep animals when danger lurked. To the right of the outer door and within the very thick wall, is the spiral stairway which goes right to the top.

Up and up the stair which has a thick rope to pull yourself up, and I know at times it is much needed... Care has to be taken on the stone steps as some are indeed rather worn... I wonder just how many feet have gone up or down? What were they like? Who were they? At last the kind of small landing and the door into the large rectangular room, the main hall and living area. Rather pleasant with windows facing all sides except North. Each window has stone jambs and seats of stone, one has a tiny recess cupboard. What views.... On the North wall there is the huge magnificent fireplace, large enough for me to stand in. Filled with wood logs all burning merrily, the room would be cozy and warm. In a corner, within the thickness of the walls, there is a small door leading to the garderobe, complete with stone seat, and a chute which drops down outside the wall. How chilly and cold it must have been to use, especially in winter, with the gale blowing outside, but it did have a window in it, and a wee recess for the rush lamp....

In each floor are stands with scenes from the Border ballads, exquisitely made dolls, intricately dressed, and they are a sheer delight to enjoy. They were made by a lady from Kelso. Definitely not to be missed.

Back to the spiral stair, and upwards again to the second floor, which I suppose would be the sleeping quarters, size and shape identical to the hall below. Probably tapestries would hang on the walls, or maybe divide the room. Again similar deep windows, and another garderobe within the outer wall. The stone fireplace here though as smaller and plain.

Up again to the top floor, same as the lower ones in size and shape, but no fireplace or garderobe, but there were two doorways one to the north and one to the south. These led outside to parapet walks, with the north side having a stone seat possibly for a watchman to use whilst on duty. Indeed he could see for miles and this was in the line of beacons, which formed a chain of light passing on a warning to the next tower that the enemy approaches and to be prepared. Times were difficult to say the least with murdering, plundering, cattle and horse thieving.. and this was only between the Border families!!.. .no one could be trusted. If you saw something you fancied belonging to your neighbor, then why not just go and take it for yourself?

Today the Tower is empty as not even a wooden table or bench has survived through the turbulent years from the 15th and 16th centuries. One reason being, even if you had to abandon your peel tower in the event of an invasion, you had an ingenious way of preventing its entire destruction, so that perhaps in time you could return from your hiding place.

You would pack the interior with smouldering peat, which would burn slowly for days making it impossible for gunpowder charges to be laid, or for intruders to gain entry to demolish it with axes and crowbars. Harsh method, but a least when you did return, the framework was still intact, you only had to renew any wooden interior, and of course make some new furniture. The story is told on information boards on each floor, and a model of how it would have looked. Also as I said previously, the glass cases hold scenes from Border Ballads, with the dolls and animals made with such tiny detail by the Kelso lady, Anne Carrick whilst on the walls hang small tapestries made by her late husband. This all adds to the magic of Smailholm.

I do not know much about owners prior to the Pringles who stayed here in the 16th century, as the tower dates even further back into the 14th century. It seems the Pringles were squires to the Earls of Douglas as there is a heart monogram of the Douglas family carved on the side of the main fireplace. I suspect the family had a rather troubled stay here, until the 17th century when the Scotts became the owners of the tower and lands surrounding it. Hence the farm Sandeyknowe belonged to the Scotts, latterly Walterís grandparents.

Indeed Smailholm was Sir Walterís inspiration, and his illness a kind of blessing in disguise, as his subsequent lameness did not seem to bother him too much. We are all the richer for him spending his informative years at Smailholin.

Our visit had been once again exciting and a step back in time, to see life in the 16th century. Certainly it was light enough, and it would be warm with the huge firs burning. However, in winter with bitterly cold gale force winds howling around the outer stone walls, rain and snow all around, perhaps it would not seem as attractive as it was on our visit in summer. True, there was the convenience of an indoor toilet even with a stone seat...but rather draughty having nothing between you and the cold out side... as we say, Ďa Lang Drap"... I donít really fancy living in those days, must have been the survival of the fittest, but it seems that at the end of the 18th century, an old lady did stay here by herself, until she died. After that, it fell into complete disrepair.

I am positive Walter would be pleased to know that in the late 20th century, the Tower was indeed refurbished and preserved, just as he wished it to be, as he hated to see it in ruins. Now of course too, an added bonus anyone can visit it.

We walked back to the car by another circuitous route almost above the wee Lochan glistening in the sunlight. We had a spring in our step after our look back in time. Perhaps though to some it is a sinister bleak plain gaunt Tower standing high there up on the crag, but to me and obviously to Walter, it is a magical place, another world, with a different terrain compared to the nearby farm and fields, so it conjures up the imagination completely and so easily. It is no wonder too that Granny enjoyed her visits and picnics here in her young days, perhaps like me she would imagine that Walter would suddenly appear round one of the rocks, who knows? Nothing is impossible here...

We left the Tower with its stories, and secrets... how I wish I could find out about the ordinary folks who stayed and worked here. So with reluctance we left it all behind and returned to the 20th century and to our humble home, so very different, with all the mod cons... Each era in the past is fascinating, and has something to offer, and I am in my glory searching and finding out. here is to my next look back into the past...

Margaret Laverick,
Galashiels, Scotland


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