Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Gateway of Scotland
Chapter V. From Coldstream to Hume Castle

AT Coldstream, whose railway station is at Cornhill, over the bridge on English soil, the quiet byway on which we have more or less followed the banks of Tweed from Ladykirk becomes one of the highways from England into Scotland. This added importance, however, so far as may be gathered from two or three leisurely journeys along it on summer days, is not very insistently borne in upon the traveller, even in this restless age of the motor. Salmon pools famous in angling literature swish beneath the alders by the quietest of roadsides. Spots famous in history, like the Field of Flodden, might seem almost to cultivate oblivion. There would assuredly be "nothing to see" for that fatuous portion of the touring world who would express disappointment, and doubtless do so unabashed, at the Field of Waterloo, at Birgham, where Edward the First made that treaty of marriage between the first Prince of Wales and the infant heiress to the Scottish throne, which, had fate allowed, might possibly have altered British history.

Just across the river from Birgham stands Carham with its church, standing high above the bank and its little stream which takes up for a short distance the role of boundary now abandoned by the Tweed. Here, almost within hail of the scene of Edward's attempt in 1290 to unite for ever the two unnaturally severed kingdoms, was fought, nearly three centuries before, the battle of Carham, in which Malcolm IT., King of Scotland, or such parts of it as conferred the title, defeated Earl Edulph of Northumbria. This battle occasioned or confirmed the cession of Lothian, then the northern portion of the Earldom between Forth and Tweed. Malcolm's victory over the Bernician province of Northumberland, otherwise that represented by the modern county, was complete and bloody. The news of it is said to have killed the pious Bishop Earldhun, who had almost completed the Cathedral at Durham which preceded the present noble pile. All this fell about at the beginning of King Canute's reign, when his Danish Earls were set up over the outlying provinces, and Edulph, according to Freeman, was a poor and timorous specimen of them.

Carham was not as Flodden. Neither Scot nor Southron could feel a thrill for a battle, howsoever fierce, whose details we know nothing about, and which was fought in the interest of chieftains before patriotism had dawned in this part of Britain. however, our interest in Carham does not lie in any misty picture of the fight, but from its far-reaching results. For on the cession of Lothian and its conditions hung that whole future dispute of homage by the Scottish to the English king. So at least the Scottish historians hold, though Freeman is not quite in accord with them. However that may be, it is remarkable that two secluded spots facing one another across the Tweed, like Carham and Birgham, should be so vitally concerned with two momentous occasions, and those far asunder, in the long wrangle over Anglo-Scottish relations. This fortuitous contiguity may furnish apt food for the reflective soul who finds himself between them. Let us hope that the salmon fisher, who is often such, and to good purpose, finds compensation for his sometime ineffectual labours in an atmosphere so heavily charged upon both banks with the shades of epoch-making heroes. Sir Herbert Maxwell, than whom no better authority on heroes, salmon, or the Tweed could be desired, regards the cast below Carham church as one of the surest on the whole river. So here is a happy combination for the fortunate wights whose lines are cast, to put the matter in both figurative and literal guise, in a spot so favourable to fish and fancy.

But here we are in the last parish of Berwickshire, that of Eccles, to whose church and village a turn inland from Birgham quickly leads. And as I have designed all the space between the covers of this book for the two counties whose attractions no outsiders but a few golfers in their limited sense know anything about, I do not propose to trespass seriously upon the soil of Roxburgh, celebrated as it has been by so many pens, famous and otherwise. Being geographically of the Lowlands and not of the Highlands, that beautiful county watered by Tweed and Teviot would possibly he little more familiar to the Southron than its eastern neighbours, but for the possession of Abbotsford, Melrose, and most of what the tourist understands by the "Scott country." As a matter of fact, the wizard's bones rest just the breadth of Tweed outside his adopted county. This, after all, is but a portion of all the shire of Roxburgh means. For the rest, it includes the whole long stretch of the Scottish Cheviots. It comprises nearly all the raiding dales of famous name, and confronts practically the whole of the "Riding" country of equal fame upon the English side. The Scott country of postcards and railway posters, with its absurd limitations, would be a standing irritant if you were foolish enough to quarrel with the inevitable and the material. But at any rate, the home of Scott for so much of his life has rightly the first claim on the stranger, who seldom has, or at any rate makes, much time for any other enterprise. So Abbotsford, Melrose, and Dry-burgh comprise a sort of physically glorified Stratford-on-Avon. In the one case the reality and nearness of association, personal and literary, is intense; with the other the greater glory of the man has to serve for most of these things according to faith. But I am quite sure the inspiring surface of Roxburghshire gets nothing like the attention that the prosaic pastures of Warwickshire receive from the pilgrim. This partly arises front the fact that the latter comes mainly from overseas; and the fat green opulence of middle England, with its picturesque village garniture, appeals most strongly, as is natural, to persons from new and ill-groomed countries, whether of flat or alpine surface. Nor again would very many of them come properly equipped for a due understanding or appreciation of what lies beneath the surface of a Border county.

But one other great business was transacted, or rather attempted, at Birgham, besides those of Malcolm and Edward. For in 1188, when the call of the Holy Land was urgent upon Western Europe, and Henry II. in council assembled had levied a tax of one-tenth on all English property for the support of a Crusade, he sent the Bishop of Durham to see what could be done in Scotland. So William the Lion, with a great assembly of nobles and bishops, met the Durham deputation at Birgham; for this was before the days of Anglo-Scottish asperities. But the meeting fell flat. Even William the Lion failed to persuade his subjects to unbutton their pockets—a great disappointment to that enterprising warrior. But if peradventure any reader of this book follows up the Tweed as far as Birgham, he will, and assuredly should, pursue the next four miles of riverside road to Kelso. In so doing he will pass through the parish of Ednam, where the poet James Thomson, a son of its manse, was born. Most of his life, as in those days of the early eighteenth century was almost inevitable to an aspirant for high honours, or at least their meet rewards, was spent in the south. His fellow-countymen have within recent years raised an obelisk here to his memory. His name is rarely mentioned in print nowadays without the saving clause that he has no place among present readers and no hope among future ones, which is possibly true; it would have been equally so at any period within ordinary memory. For I have some reason to remember how a youthful affection not yet quite scotched for the Roxburghshire bard was a subject of no little banter on the part of such companions, male and female, of those distant years, who fancied themselves as entitled, or perhaps bound, to treat with contempt the blank verse of a discarded age and method. But I treated the criticisms of these more bookish contemporaries of my callow teens with silent contempt, and flattered myself that they were incapable of appreciating this outdoor atmosphere of the Seasons and the fidelity of their imagery. At any rate, I carried about a well-thumbed pocket edition, which survives to this day, and, with an execrable memory for things printed, can still say by heart many passages that save for association I would gladly have replaced, had I been able, with verse more worthy of remembrance. One of these fragments is out of "Spring," where the poet retiring in fancy to his youth in Scotland goes a-fishing in April among the Cheviots. But after all the genius loci, to whose influence, wherever he may preside, I admit a lifelong susceptibility, may have had something to do with this devotion. For the sarsen stone, upon which local tradition stoutly maintains that the poet was accustomed to sit when composing his "Spring," had been hauled down from its ancient perch overlooking "the plains of fair Augusta," alias Frances Lady Hertford, to whom he dedicated it, and set up beneath the very windows of those panelled chambers that had sheltered Thomson and have since witnessed the classical struggles and triumph of generations of British youth. This had been done doubtless when his cult was in vogue, in proud memory of his associations with the place. A nicer taste perhaps would have left it in undesecrated honour upon the green down above the Kennet. Monoliths to the superstitious in all countries are the very incarnation of occult influence. The spirit of Thomson could hardly have altogether neglected that tributary boulder on the public highway, which kept his memory if not his poems green, though shaved and scraped by the wheels of over-merry marketers and London and Bath coaches for many decades. For Lord Hertford, or rather his lady, as an amateur versifier as well as a great hostess, were among the poet's patrons and entertainers at their stately mansion at Marlborough, then recently rebuilt. By a curious turn of fortune it now forms the heart of the present School, and remains cherished and intact with its lawns, groves, and terraces, one of the most beautiful architectural specimens on a great scale of the Queen Anne period in England. The young Scots bard was enlisted to assist her Ladyship's compositions, and incidentally, as it turned out, to get forward with his own. But in course of time, so says a familiar tradition, the poet showed such a marked preference for his Lordship's company at the convivial board over the perhaps stilted intellectual atmosphere of the lady's boudoir, that his invitations to Wiltshire ceased. There had been many Hertfords there since the days of the Protector Somerset, but it was a strange chance that a poet from the Scottish Marches should find a niche in the halls of the most destructive and merciless ravager of that country, if only as the cold-blooded agent of a truculent king, who ever lived.

Kelso is of a truth a goodly place to look upon, lying in the lap of a luxuriant undulating vale and on the very edge of the broad, brimming river, all astir here with the recent inrush of the Teviot. A clean, pleasant little town, with the most spacious of market squares in the centre, while the ruinous tower and shattered gables of the once great Norman abbey, brutally destroyed by successive English raids, still rise pathetically above its roofs. The opulent woods of country seats almost enclose the town. To the south of the river is Springwood, through whose pleasant glades the last reaches of the Teviot sparkle in bright coils, with the ruins of Roxburgh Castle, an English outpost for long and frequent periods, perched on the steeps above. . Adjoining the town on the farther side the umbrageous grounds of Floors Castle spread far and wide, while further to the north the woods of Stichell mantle upon their long, upstanding ridge. Unlike Melrose, which is pressed down between lofty hills, the Cheviots are some eight miles to the south of Kelso, and the Lammermoors, a little more to the northward, with Mersian territory filling the interval. The prospect from the long stone bridge at Kelso is charming, for the river is here expanded to a trifle beyond its natural width, and, running apace over a gravelly bottom, displays in the sunshine that touch of amber contributed perhaps by Teviot; while at the head of the reach, by a mill where the rivers unite, there is the bright gleam of rapids spreading across from the meadowy shore on one side to the bowery garden walls of the town on the other. Facing downstream the river runs away to the foot of high, wooded steeps, to disappear from view.

But to return to Berwickshire and the road from Birgham which passes the village of Eccles, with its old kirk and general flavour of bygone importance. There was a flourishing nunnery here before the Reformation, which, like everything else in the country, was destroyed, together with the village, by Hertford in 1545. Some fragment of it, I believe, remains in the walls of the present mansion-house. The villages and little towns which Hertford and other raiders, official and private, burned were no doubt poor enough collections of huts, easily rebuilt and of small value compared to the stock and grain destroyed. But it was cruelly. hard on the Scots, who had not yet accepted the Reformation and were still a Catholic country, to have had their splendid monasteries and quite tolerable store of good parish churches destroyed. For through all the bitter wars between the nations, with rare exceptions, Hexham Abbey, if I remember rightly, being one, these noble buildings on both sides of the Border were held inviolate. That Cromwell or Knox should do these things, was logical if deplorable, but that a set of unprincipled soldiers, whose quarrel with a faith they had practically not abandoned themselves had nothing religious about it, should wreak their iconoclastic rage upon a Catholic country with which they had no serious cause of quarrel at the time, was a blot upon the name of England. The unpardonable havoc wrought upon the sacred buildings of the Scottish Border, which is felt so grievously to-day, was a scandalous outrage. It is quite true that Scottish fanatics at a later period did some further mischief upon what was left, spreading across from the meadowy shore on one side to the bowery garden walls of the town on the other. Facing downstream the river runs away to the foot of high, wooded steeps, to disappear from view.

But to return to Berwickshire and the road from Birgham which passes the village of Eccles, with its old kirk and general flavour of bygone importance. There was a flourishing nunnery here before the Reformation, which, like everything else in the country, was destroyed, together with the village, by Hertford in 1545. Some fragment of it, I believe, remains in the walls of the present mansion-house. The villages and little towns which Hertford and other raiders, official and private, burned were no doubt poor enough collections of huts, easily rebuilt and of small value compared to the stock and grain destroyed. But it was cruelly. hard on the Scots, who had not yet accepted the Reformation and were still a Catholic country, to have had their splendid monasteries and quite tolerable store of good parish churches destroyed. For through all the bitter wars between the nations, with rare exceptions, Hexham Abbey, if I remember rightly, being one, these noble buildings on both sides of the Border were held inviolate. That Cromwell or Knox should do these things, was logical if deplorable, but that a set of unprincipled soldiers, whose quarrel with a faith they had practically not abandoned themselves had nothing religious about it, should wreak their iconoclastic rage upon a Catholic country with which they had no serious cause of quarrel at the time, was a blot upon the name of England. The unpardonable havoc wrought upon the sacred buildings of the Scottish Border, which is felt so grievously to-day, was a scandalous outrage. It is quite true that Scottish fanatics at a later period did some further mischief upon what was left, and destroyed, I believe, a good deal in the North that no English invaders ever reached. But that was Scotland's concern, at any rate. It is curious, in view of these other performances, that Henry's policy towards Wales should have been so conspicuous for the wise measures by which it terminated the domestic turbulence and the political disabilities from which the Principality still suffered. But then this Tudor king was a Welshman—in Welsh eyes, at any rate, he stood for the triumph of their race and the fruition of their long-sounded prophecies. There are two "Borderlands" in the United Kingdom, and their respective prophets, so far as I know them, are singularly oblivious of one another's story. But contrasts and analogies are irresistibly tempting if one happens to have rambled a good deal in both the Welsh and Scottish Marches.

But let us hasten now, if with the mixed feelings inevitable to the occasion, to hail the amazing battlements of Hume Castle, which, lifted 600 feet upon its rocky perch above the distant bed of Tweed, proudly dominates a now wide-opening landscape. Nothing could be in more perfect harmony with the fitness of things than the pride of pose enjoyed by the empty shell of what was once the stronghold of the ruling House of the Eastern March. For the Merse here begins to shake itself free of its luxuriant enclosures, to shed much of its timber, and to break out anon into tracts of poorish upland that even the Scottish plough has flinched from. Here and there, too, are ridges of craggy outcrop, where the gorse blooms and Cheviot sheep nibble the short sward between the rocks. On one of these stands the shell of Hume Castle, the four curtain walls, that is to say, with portions of the corner-towers which formed, together with the interior offices, the usual plan of a Scottish feudal castle. Below its feet, standing precisely where it should stand for proper effect, is the little tributary village of a dozen ancient cottages, all, strange to relate, in the unusual head-dress of thatched roof, wavy and moss-grown and of the most approved picturesque type. It must be added, in all candour, that they do not look as if they would long justify their maintenance in so utilitarian an atmosphere as regards these things as that of the Merse. Indeed, one of their occupants informed me that the last man who understood thatching had recently deceased, which seems to settle the matter. When I last saw them, too, they were ablaze with flowers, as if the inmates felt a proper sense of responsibility in occupying such picturesque survivals.

On every side green carpets of sward slope sharply upward to meet the grey walls of the four-cornered pile. But, alas! truth must prevail, and these imposing walls were in great part re-erected out of the old material on the original foundations a century or so ago. This was a wholly laudable and artistically legitimate enterprise: but why those terrible mock battlements that must make the passing traveller of ordinary perception upon far-distant ways—so conspicuous is Hume Castle—rub his eyes and wonder if he had eaten something perilous at his dinner over night? There surely never were such nightmare crenellations even on the comic opera stage. I wonder what Sir Walter thought of the last Earl of Marchmont's antiquarian equipment; for he must have been many a time and oft confronted by this specimen of it. But with a little determination, one can forget these pinchbeck accessories, some twenty feet long and ten feet high I should guess, seeing that there is only space for three of them on each of the four curtain walls! The effect otherwise, having in view the historic significance of the Castle, is altogether satisfying. Yet why does the owner not hurl the excrescences down the steep and leave the parapet flat, like any other old castle that time has robbed of its battlements?

Hume or Home Castle—for the middle vowel is virtually transmutable, the old pronunciation verging, I believe, between the two sounds—was built by the Earl of Dunbar, who in the thirteenth century married the estates of Home and took the name. To relate the story of the building would be to tell that of Berwickshire. For the Homes, with the various branches that sprang from the original stock, were paramount in that county through all its lively times, and owned a goodly share of the land and of the pele towers and fortalices that still lift their shattered heads or show their grass-grown foundations all over it. Hume Castle seems to have been the chief abode of the head of the clan, and the rallying-place in times of stress to all of the name. It was more even than that. For as the chief Scottish fortress in the Eastern March, everybody who was anybody in the heart or Border of Scotland must have sheltered there in peace or war at one time or another; and a good many illustrious Englishmen, who had no business there at all, paid it the compliment of a short visit. The heads of the clan became barons in the fifteenth century and earls at the Union of the Crowns. The prominent and mysterious part taken by Lord Home at Flodden will be fresh in the reader's memory. When the Lord Home of the day took sides in the ever-shifting turmoil of Scottish politics, which were generally in the end settled by the sword, most of Berwickshire followed him. But the men of the Merse, as Borderers, were not precisely on the same footing, just as they were not quite the same sort of men as the pastoral people of the dales—of the Middle and Western Marches, that is to say. Even the dialect differs. Every schoolboy, whether English or Scotch, knows that the Percies fought the Douglases. But they and their successors did not usually go due north across the Tweed, nor yet raise the bulk of their hardy following in East Northumberland. They went up through the dales and glens of the Cheviots, through Tyne and Rede and Coquet, against the dalesmen of Roxburgh, who visited them in like manner by the same rugged ways. The barrier of the Tweed was, in fact, tolerably well guarded against private feuds and forays. Berwick, with its strong English interests and garrison and the strong castles of Norham and `Nark, to say nothing of the often-unfordable river, made the Eastern March a rather awkward country for light-hearted foragers. The common folk of the Merse were tillers of the soil, stolid and brave enough, but they were not "riding men" in the sense of those who followed the Scotts and Kerrs and Douglases, and regarded such enterprises both as their pastime and as a branch of business. In regular international wars the Mersemen bore the chief brunt, and for obvious reasons suffered most when things went wrong. Undoubtedly they took part in a good deal of desultory fighting, but forays were not the distinguishing feature of the Eastern March that they were further westward. The Berwickshire hind followed the plough and would probably not have fretted if left in peace to follow it. His superiors, though war was their trade and fortified towers their habitation, found martial entertainment in rather different sources, and were not accustomed to cross the Border when the moon was full or the larder was empty—partly, no doubt, for the good reason already given, that the line of Tweed was difficult to get through. In short, the Mersemen, as they were not generally graziers or experts at driving cattle through a wild country in the wrong direction, so they were not raiders in the same sense as their neighbours, and had little share in that heady existence which song and story has so illuminated. The dalesmen to the westward, as we know, were on such intimate terms of hostility with their Northumbrian neighbours, and so like them in word and deed and thought and outlook, that a sort of camaraderie existed of which neither the men of Coldingham or Swinton on the one side, nor those of Bamburgh or of Belton on the other, knew anything. We arc told that the Charltons, Swinburnes, Robsons, and the like of the one side, the Kerrs and Scotts and Elliots of the other, shouted each other "to-names" and bandied about rude chaff as neighbours familiar with one another's idiosyncrasies, as they cracked each other's skulls. It is common knowledge that these lawless souls, a scourge very often to their respective governments, were under a half-suspicion of not always regarding a national war from a national point of view. In short, though they lived in almost perpetual conflict with one another in their own fashion, they were not so much concerned with high politics, and might conceivably be lukewarm or even succumb to a common and fraternal instinct if some tempting convoy of baggage-carts or the like loomed near. Men who even played football matches with one another in interludes of amity, it is quite evident, had a code as well as a method of life which placed them apart and often as much at odds with their nominal rulers in Edinburgh or Westminster as with the "auld enemie."

Hume Castle, to be sure, is getting on towards the westerly country. From its high rock you can look out towards the old forests of Jed and Ettrick, blue and diin beyond the rich vale of Tweed. But it is the symbol of rather a different past, bloody as it was, and a different order of people, as any Borderer will tell you they are to-day. I take it that, with their neighbours of East Lothian and East Northumberland, the I1lersemen are as pure Saxon with as little else in there as any breed in Britain. Beyond Kelso a Scandinavian colony settled, coining up from the west coast. And as a last word on that meeting-place of the waters of Tweed and Teviot, and an important one in Border defence, it may be noted that Roxburgh Castle was held for generations as an English outpost and this little bit of Scotland regarded as English ground. This made it, of course, a fierce bone of contention, and James II. of Scotland was killed by the bursting of a gun before its walls in a siege which finally restored it to the Scotch, who destroyed it. The king's widow meantime mourned his fate and her own up here in Hume Castle. The sixteenth century, which cost the Verse so dear, was naturally a strenuous time for its chief fortress. The widow of the fourth Lord Home held it for a time against the Protector Somerset. Her son, the next heir, regained it and killed the English garrison. This was the time of improved artillery, and the old castle got a succession of hammerings, the Earl of Sussex giving it a severe one in 1569 with heavy guns and taking possession. After the English Civil War, Colonel Fenwick of Northumberland appeared before Hume Castle and demanded its surrender in Cromwell's name. It was in the charge of a Cockburn, who returned a defiant answer, enclosing with it some doggerel that still has the ear of the local swain. In his letter Cockburn intimated that he knew nothing about Cromwell, and that Hume Castle "stood upon a rock." This significant statement was thus further emphasised:-

"I, Willie Wastle,
Stand firm in my Castle,
And a' the dogs o' your town
Will no bring Willie Wastle down."

Willie Wastle unfortunately climbed down with great celerity on this occasion, and the castle was finally sleighted, and his great poetic effort flatters his memory. The hapless but energetic Queen Mary, like her cousin of England, though often in far different fashion, visited so many castles within her domain that the irreverent tourist is tempted to the same trite pleasantries with the Iocal handbook. But the beds this poor lady slept in, are at any rate nothing like so numerous as those still held sacred to the great but deplorably mean Eliza. I do not think Mary ever stopped at Hume, but the accomplished Maitland of Lethington, so long her faithful adviser, was here on one occasion at least, eon-ducting that protracted correspondence with Cecil during that crisis in Anglo-Scottish affairs of which Mr. Skelton has given us so many illuminating fragments. But what will touch the ordinary imagination much more than this, is the fact that Hume Castle always carried ready for the torch upon its ramparts one of the bale, or beacon fires of the Scottish Border. Macaulay, when he fired our youthful souls with his stirring lines on the Armada, fired at the same time with the utmost dramatic effect the misty summits of the Welsh mountains and the top of Skiddaw.

He must have had in his mind a Georgian jubilee or a Coronation! It would have been of small practical utility laying beacon-fires which took an hour and a half to reach at the critical moment and were rather more likely than not to be wrapped in clouds. The official bale-fires kept ready for use in South-Eastern Scotland began at St. Abb's Head; the next was on Dowlaw Hill; the third and fourth were North Berwick Law and Tranent, in East Lothian, which we shall meet with later. Whether Hume Castle, which was another, could respond to Dowlaw, I doubt; perhaps it had its own signal in the Tweed valley. The last time the beacon-fire blazed from its ramparts has stamped itself upon the memory of the north for all time, and the incident is, of course, elaborated by Scott in the closing chapter of The Antiquary.

The author himself, as an enthusiastic volunteer and participant in that exciting twenty-four hours, gives in the appendix the actual occurrences on which he based the invasion scare which so delightfully closes our acquaintance with Jonathan Oldbuck. At the moment of extreme tension and expectation of invasion during the Napoleon wars, and when the volunteers all round the coast of Britain were on the alert and the old beacon-fires ready for the torch, that of Hume Castle suddenly blazed forth into the night—that of February 2, 1803. The inland and northern beacons taking up the signal, the volunteers, cavalry and infantry, of the whole Border on both sides sprang to arms with such despatch and enthusiasm that Dalkeith and Berwick, the two rallying-posts, were crowded with soldiery from several counties by the following mid-day, when it was realised that it had been a false alarm. Scott himself, as an officer in the Edinburgh Light Horse, which he had helped to raise, was there; and it was probably, at least till the mistake was discovered, the happiest day of his life. It seems that an accidental fire in Northumberland, near the spot where a beacon was situated, was the cause of an unintentional practical joke that at any rate proved the practical patriotism of the North; for the distances ridden and the long marches covered at an inclement season by some of these zealous Borderers are worthy of remembrance.

Easily visible, indeed prominent enough four miles away to the south-westward, is another knubbly upstanding ridge, on whose higher summit a dim object can be just descried. This is Smailholm Tower, upon the farm of Sandy Knowe. I don't know whether the pulse of the Scott Vlover will quicken at the sound of the names—it ought to. But I frankly admit that to myself, hitherto unfamiliar with this corner of Berwickshire, and with but a vague memory of Scott's early association with it, Smailholm came as a delightful revelation. We will dispense with the four miles of twisting byway through a ridgy country which, after crossing the Eden, lands one at the homestead of Sandy Knowe. I don't think this spot is included in the route laid out for visitors to the Scott country, though it is only five miles from Dryburgh, nor catered for, nor mentioned in the programme. Certainly there is no trace of them, nor mark of pilgrim feet. But Sandy Knowe, with its uplifted pele tower, is surely at the very heart of things ! For here abode Scott's uncle, the tenant of the farm to whose care the delicate and partially crippled lad used frequently to be consigned for long periods, as a salutary change from the close atmosphere of his father's house in the Old Town at Edinburgh. Here he breathed in deep draughts the strong breezes of that

Border atmosphere which possibly made him, physically and intellectually. The south of Scotland might almost have been ransacked for an abode more calculated to inspire an imaginative child than this one here. Not for what it is in itself, but for the significance of its situation, for its suggestive foreground, for its gloriously expansive outlook. A comfortable-looking, fair-sized farm-house near the ridge of a long, windy sweep of fields, but itself snugly sheltered in a grove of trees, it looks out to the south and west over the whole Border country and the long course of Tweed. But even this can hardly have been so potent an influence on the childhood and youth of such a man as the extraordinary distinction with which the foreground of his then limited sphere of action had, as it were, composed itself. It seemed to me, on walking out at the back of the homestead on to this rocky upland pasture for the first time, as if the secret of Scott's life and work were suddenly revealed, and it was altogether a surprise and a delight. What scene—" meet nurse" indeed "for a poetic child"—could be imagined more calculated to kindle the germ of a genius like that of Scott. The outlook from Sandy Knowe might stand for an actual illustration of half his work. For the immediate foreground upon one side was bounded by the wall of high craggy ridges in which the sweep of the farm lands terminated, and at their highest point, thrust far up against the whirling clouds, was a massive and perfect Border pele. A few minutes' walk over the rocky sheep pasture, where Scott as a merry, precocious child, backward in the use of his legs, was wont to be laid on a plaid all day with the shepherd's eye upon him, brings you to the more precipitous crag on which the tower is set. If the view southwards from the house itself, over the vales of Tweed and Teviot and the Northumbrian hills, was a fitting one for the future prophet and poet of Scotland, that from Smailholm Tower adds to it the whole tempestuous and romantic heart of the Scottish Marches—that sea of dim hills and ranges which, seen from here, fills all the visible portion of the counties of Peebles, Selkirk, and Roxburgh. But that grim tower, as it would appear from the windows on a wild day against a wild sky, must have made a background indeed to those tales of olden days with which Scott tells us his grandmother at Sandy Knowe used to fascinate him.

On summer days, too, how accessible was this old pele to the solitary imaginative child, with no sound about it but the hum of wild bees, the bleat of sheep, and the tinkle of the "wee burnie" that runs down into a large pool in the cleft, and with half the Marches lying at his feet! Smailholm had been a mere name to me hitherto—just a farm in the country where Scott was sent for his health as a boy ; nothing that I remembered to have heard or read, to my shame, had prepared me for anything like this and the significance of the whole thing in relation to Scott's temperament.

The reader may be reminded that Scott's father, a lawyer, lived in the sombre and cramped precincts of the " Old Town " at Edinburgh, and had a large family. Walter for some years was the weakly one of the flock, and country air was the treatment prescribed. His grandfather, though of good blood, had been tenant of Smailholm, which was still occupied by the widow and a daughter, while a son, who was a factor near-by, overlooked the farm. So the boy Walter was practically adopted for the time by these good ladies, and though for the sake of his lame leg absent at Bath for a year or two, was back again at Sandy Knowe for a period before finally rejoining the family circle in Edinburgh, at the age of eight. But there were constant visits afterwards to his good aunt, though she moved later to Kelso. Scott credits both Sandy Knowe and Kelso, practically within sight of one another, as being the main source of that inspiration which made him what he was and delighted a world for generations past and to come. At Sandy Knowe he seems to have absorbed no small amount of Border lore and tradition from various veterans of the neighbourhood, in addition to that emanating from the prolific memory of his relatives. If Sandy Knowe is not included in the "Scott country," for which I have no doubt the occupant is devoutly thankful, the pilgrim does occasionaIIy come here; for in the top storey of the tower I found a small tradesman from Glasgow and a young daughter. The opportunity for a chance test of the modern Scotch schoolgirl's attitude towards her patron saint was naturally embraced, or at any rate served as an excuse for a passing civility. So, feigning ignorance as to whether Smailholm Tower was the subject of any of the poet's verse, I was promptly referred to the "Eve of St. John," which was satisfactory. The tower is architecturally a good specimen of its class, and in better condition than most, and of three storeys. A spiral stone staircase leads up to the first and second, which are both floored. The fireplaces are tolerably perfect and the stonework of the windows uninjured, while in one of them the original ironwork remains. It belonged in old days to the Pringles. Nature has limited and prescribed the size of the barmykin, the entrance to which still survives, for one side of the crag on which the tower stands is precipitous. But its chief glory is its lonely and uplifted site, and its character as a memorial to Scott more truly significant than the proudest which a grateful world has raised.

"And still I thought that shattered tower
The mightiest work in human power
And marvelled, as the aged hind
With some strange tale bewitched my mind
Of forayers, who, with headlong force,
Down from that strength had spurred their horse,
Their southern rapine to renew,
Far in the distant Cheviots blue,
And, home returning, filled the hall
With revel, wassail-rout and brawl
Methought that still with tramp and clang
The gateway's broken arches rang;
Methou lit grim features, seamed with scars,
Glared through the window's rusty bars.
And ever by the winter hearth,
Old tales I heard of woe or mirth,
Of lovers' sleights, of ladies' charms,
Of witches' spells, of warriors' arms
Of patriot battles, won of old
By Wallace Wight and Bruce the bold."

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus