Write Around Scotland

Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer


On a Bike in the Borders

Posted 2017-01-28 14:19:12

A pig carrying bagpipes seems most unlikely. Yet there is such a pig, though I should add, it is carved in stone. It juts out below the roof of the ruined remains of Melrose Abbey.

What inspired the sculptor, I wonder? Was it carved just for fun? Could it have been a practice piece before carving began on representations of St. Andrew and other saints?

The Abbey walls also hold fierce looking gargoyles. Along with other strange figures carved in stone they may have been thought to ward off evil. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure and can only make an educated guess as to their meaning.

Work began on an abbey church here in 1136 though the building that visitors wander through today is a mere skeleton of a 14th and 15th century creation. When it was complete, it must have been a wonder to behold. The best stone masons, glass makers, stained glass craftsmen and artists from Europe had been employed on a building that reached skywards to proclaim the glory of God and as time went on, would emphasise the wealth and power of the monastery, as well as the skills of the craftsmen.

From where I’m standing at the top of the bell tower, there are views over trees and fertile farmland. Other visitors can be seen far below wandering in the graveyard where ancient weathered stones mark a number of graves. One much newer stone set here on 25th June 1998 is said to mark the spot where the heart of Robert the Bruce is buried.

The four Border Abbeys housed different orders of monks. Their day to day lives may have been simple with much time spent in silence and prayer but over time, the Abbeys went on to acquire vast tracts of land and become hugely wealthy.

Melrose Abbey is very much part of Melrose, a charming town with interesting independent shops, the famous Harmony and Priorwood Gardens and a history stretching back to Roman times.

To visit the other Abbeys, pilgrims of old would walk with the hope of receiving hospitality along the way. We’re softer nowadays. It was only after enjoying a splendid lunch at a restaurant in the town and carefully placing wedges of Border Tart and Selkirk Bannock (specialities of the region) in my pack, that I got on my bike and headed up the High Street to find the sign for the 4 Abbeys Cycle Route. This is one of a number of way- marked routes in the Borders that offer cyclists a choice of mainly quiet back roads.

Pedalling easily along the side of the Eildon Hills which give Melrose its impressive backdrop, my first stop, after only a few minutes, was at a viewpoint made famous by Thomas Rhymer. This was where, so the legend goes, he fell asleep at the Eildon Tree and was carried off for seven years by the Queen of Fairyland. Now the spot is marked by a sculpted stone, its top and base covered with coins.

Thomas Rhymer was a real person who lived in the 12th century. He was a poet but was also sought after by the great and the good for his prophesies as it was believed he could foretell the future.

The roads here are lined by dense hedges of hawthorn smothered with white blossom. Along the roadside verges, profusions of bright yellow buttercups, red campion and white clouds of cow parsley compete for space and light. In bright sunshine, the gold coloured florets of gorse and broom bushes appear as if lit from within. 

Behind the hedges there’s an occasional crop of potatoes but in the main, in large fields, grass is grown for grazing sheep, cows and horses. It’s a bit of a surprise to come upon a field of donkeys – but at Newton St. Boswell, a number of donkeys pass their days in the safety of a sanctuary.

Where the road bends sharply to run alongside the River Tweed, cyclists and walkers cross to the opposite bank on a suspension bridge. Then it’s no distance to Dryburgh Abbey.

 Of the four abbeys, Dryburgh probably has the least remains still standing. But given its setting in parkland on a bend of the River Tweed and the surrounding display of mature trees, it is arguably the most picturesque. It’s easy to see why Sir Walter Scott, the internationally renowned writer of Scottish historical fiction, chose to be buried here.

Close by Scott’s grave is the grave of Field Marshall Earl Douglas Haig of Bemersyde, commander of the British Expeditionary Forces in France and Flanders during World War 1. He was buried here in 1928.

I’m reluctant to leave Dryburgh Abbey and all too soon I’m pedalling up an incline. The hills are not overly steep or long on this route and as I click through the bike’s gears I soon make the top. Of course, speeding down the other side, eyes watering in the wind is a joy.

Kelso, my next stop, is a fine little town where I’ve planned an overnight stay. Having reached a main road, busy with traffic heading towards town, I’m glad to spot the sign which directs me to an alternative back road leading past the golf course and the famous Kelso Race Course. Then from Kelso’s impressive main square it’s a two minute walk to the Abbey.

The west tower is all that survives from what was one of the richest medieval abbeys in Scotland. In 1545, the Earl of Hertford systematically destroyed this great building and that was only one of many occasions when Kelso Abbey was, unfortunately, in the frontline between invading armies from England and Scotland.

Leaving Kelso, I cross over the River Tweed once more and stop to look back to Floors Castle, seat of the Duke of Roxburghe then pedal on along narrow roads leading through farms and woods to Jedburgh.

There’s much more of the original building left here than at the other Border Abbeys and a garden has been laid out as it may have been when the canons cultivated plants for their medicinal or culinary properties.

 Archaeological digs take place in the Abbey grounds from time to time and one of many fascinating finds is a comb dating from around 1100 that was probably used to tease the beard or moustache of its aristocratic owner.

As well as the Abbey, Jedburgh has other historical attractions within a few minutes walking distance including the house where Mary Queen of Scots stayed for a month in1566.

The Border Abbeys were built over hundreds of years and paid for by kings and nobles who sought the monk’s prayers in return for donations of money, property and land. Because of the wealth the abbeys accrued they were targeted by invading armies and bands of robbers from both sides of the border.

 These reivers, as they were called, lived by stealing. Anything that wasn’t nailed down, to use modern parlance, but particularly cattle, would be stolen. Under Border Laws, retaliation was permitted thus allowing those who had been raided to pursue their attackers. Over hundreds of years, for ordinary people, especially for the women and children, life must have been very difficult at times.                               

  Should your family name be Graham, Armstrong, Nixon, Elliot or one of a number of others common hereabouts you may find your Border ancestors were only eventually pacified by the might of King James 1 and V1 of Scotland.

Today though, in this beautiful countryside, there’s a great sense of peace.     

The round of the whole 4 Abbey Cycle route is about 55 miles. A very fit cyclist could pedal this distance easily in one day. However, the scenery is so glorious and there is so much to see that it would be a pity to rush.

                         Published in The People’s Friend 14th May 2014                                            





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