When I was younger, we used to spend a fair bit of time in the Borders. I remember waking up to chilled windows, icy ditches down Kelso fields and trees hidden under frozen fog, back in those days when the October holidays were actually cold. It felt like you could be walking onto the set of Little Women, so suspended in another era were these tiny towns on the English frontier.
When you’re used to cities or (at the very least) industrialised west coast towns, being in the Borders really is like going back in time. Farmers’ fields crisscross with hedges and are embellished with the red sparkle of ancient towns like Melrose and Jedburgh, their abbeys jewels in this rolling region which is getting a boost from the recent reopening of the Borders Railway.
Earlier this year, we were invited by the Elphinstone Hotel to stay a night in the Lanarkshire town of Biggar, just outside the Borders region itself. Whilst we were down there, we took the opportunity to explore those little timeless towns and stumble upon some unforgettable natural wonders. Here’s what we managed to tick off in 36 hours not far north of Hadrian’s Wall.
Eat at the Elphinstone Hotel
Okay, so the Elph isn’t technically in the Borders region per se, but trust me — once you’ve been warmly welcomed into the fold by owners Robert & Janette, tasted the incredible pub grub and then retired to your cosy room in a food-induced daze, you’ll quite happily drive the extra ten minutes to Lanarkshire. A feature of the town of Biggar for hundreds of years, The Elphinstone‘s morals rest on outstanding customer service and consistently good food… both of which we can vouch for! Through dinner, bed and breakfast, the staff were more attentive than we’ve experienced even in some of Scotland’s best hotels (looking at you, Cameron House) and the food… Well.
It’s been a long time since we’ve enjoyed such fabulous pub food that — regardless of its perfection — is in no way pretentious for it. The platefuls were huge and hearty and with such an extensive menu (we sampled everything from pakora to chicken with haggis, and banoffee pie) there’ll be something to suit everyone. Breakfast is a winner too, reinforcing The Elphinstone’s evident commitment to sourcing Scotland’s best produce for their plates (Stornoway black pudding, need I say more?) Rooms at The Elphinstone start from £54 a night and the amazing dinner menu can be found right here.
Explore Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford
There’s really no word to describe Scott’s Abbotsford other than magical. Step through the walled arch, wonder at the courtyard with its curved lawns and richly-coloured flowers and finally let your eyes swallow the sprawling house before you. With its towers and turrets — a key feature of the Scots Baronial style — you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a castle, rather than the mansion of one of Scotland’s most famous authors.
But house it is, and as you pass from room to room you can see inspiration in every corner. As an unashamed book lover, my stand-out rooms were Scott’s study — a small square of a room where he wrote his last novels, its upper lined with rows of books — and of course the library. This room runs away in chestnut panelling, its walls crammed with tome upon tome whilst the marble bust of Scott himself surveys the scene. One of the most interesting things about the library is that the intricate ceiling, seemingly carved, is but a fiction of its Rosslyn Chapel inspiration: it’s only been painted to look like wood. And let’s not forget about the intriguing case of paraphernalia Scott collected over the years, which even includes a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie‘s hair.
Once you’ve weaved through all the rooms, finish your tour with a long wander around the walled gardens whilst the blooms last, and then down to the River Tweed which rolls along just below Abbotsford itself. Entry to Scott’s home and gardens is £8.95/4.50 (adult/child). A reduced rate is offered for sole entry to the gardens.
Wander around Dawyck Botanic Gardens
Nestled away in between rolling farmland and anonymous hamlets is an unexpected, yet astonishing, botanical haven. An offshoot of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Dawyck Botanic Garden is just over an hour from the capital city. But to us it felt like hundreds of miles away, like we’d fallen into a snow globe not of flakes but of a million different shapes, colours and textures of leaves.
You could get lost for hours between the trees, just wandering the pathways and discovering Dawyck‘s secrets: carefully carved statues, giraffe-like redwoods, a faintly melodic burn stream or the old family chapel, built in granite and hidden on a hillock surrounded by bushes. Although it’s a very ‘domesticated’ way to get lost — we’re not talking wild Perthshire, here — there’s something magnetic about these natural plants being curated like art within this bountiful space in the Borders. Admission to Dawyck costs £6.50/£5.50 (adult/concession) and children go free.
Visit beautiful Melrose Abbey
Initially founded in 1136 as Scotland’s first Cisterian monastery, the structure we know now as Melrose Abbey grew from the wounds of multiple attacks during the Middle Ages. Now, this fourteenth century church still stands as a remarkable piece of architecture, all delicate window frames and thick buttresses and carved bagpipe-wielding pigs (watch out for that on an exterior wall).
The whole structure is a complete marvel and — along with wandering inside the skeletal ribs of the place — you can also squeeze up a narrow staircase and look out across the presbytery from a balcony beside the bell tower. So, as you’re reading this right now, I’d advise you to pick up your diary and black out a day to head down here — because there’s no better season to visit Melrose Abbey than autumn. Find a quiet cove at the far end of the graveyard like I did last year, and look back at the burnt leaves mirroring the building’s red bricks. It’s bloomin’ beautiful. The Abbey is maintained by Historic Environment Scotland and entry is £5.50/£3.30 (adult/child) or members go free.
Go floral at Priorwood Gardens
Turn left out of Melrose Abbey and, a little further up the street, you’ll find another gem tucked behind a brick wall. As we stepped into the gift shop and out the opposite entrance, it was like passing into Narnia through the wooden wardrobe… Priorwood Garden opens up in front of you, a sea of flowers leading towards the mass of trees and apple orchard on the far side.
For me the most intriguing aspect to this place — aside from the flowers, enjoying their last bloom of the summer — is its dried flower studio. Priorwood houses Scotland’s only dedicated dried flower workshop and, like a chef appreciating the origin of their ingredients, it’s amazing to see the same blooms featured in the garden transitioning to crisp, preserved petals behind the glass. Larger arrangements can be bought or, like us, you can invest in a smaller bunch from the gift shop for about £4. Entry to Priorwood Garden is FREE and its sister Harmony Garden (another National Trust for Scotland property) is also within this triangle of attractions beside Melrose Abbey.
Step back in time at Smailholm Tower
Recognise Smailholm? Featuring on the most recent Lonely Planet guidebook to Scotland, this Borders towerhouse has been thrown to front-page fame. But delve beneath the cover, and this isolated place has far more stories to tell… Built in the early fifteenth century by the Pringles, a well-known Border clan, the construction speaks volumes about the volatility of relations on the frontier many moons ago. With metre-thick walls, ramparts of 20m high and crags falling away on either side, Smailholm was a family residence with an unforgiving exterior.
Built big to dissuade the frequent cattle raiders who prowled along the border, Smailholm Tower was nevertheless victim to multiple attacks in the 1500s. However when you step inside, the simple domesticity of this imposing building is obvious: cellars below ground, a grand hall and multiple bedrooms above, and a kitchen within the crumbling walls outside. We finished our Scottish Borders tour by sliding up the damp steps to the top of Smailholm and looking far across the rolling hills and rises, watching the clouds make shadows on the Eildon Hills in the distance. Isn’t this region just beautiful?