Of all the regions in Scotland, the Borders has the bloodiest history. It was here, in the 15th and 16th centuries, that the constant bickering between Scotland and England boiled over into bloodshed and outright war. This was the land of the reivers, or moss troopers - men from both countries who regularly crossed the border and raped, pillaged, burnt and rustled their way into the history books. People nowadays tend to romanticise them, but in fact most were merciless thugs, and no one was safe from their activities. They even gave the word blackmail to the English language. An old legend states that when a male born in the Borders was baptised, his right hand was excluded from the ceremony so that he could use it to kill and maim.
But it was also the land of romance, of Border ballads and tales of high chivalry. The literature of Sir Walter Scott, a Borders man, is steeped in them. It was he who, almost single- handedly, invented Scotland’s modern image, which depends not on the softer scenery of the Borders, but on lofty mountains, clan chiefs, skirling bagpipes and kilts. In fact, there are, strictly speaking, no clans in the Scottish Borders. Instead there are families, such as the Armstrongs, the Kerrs, the Maxwells and the
Homes. The Borders are sometimes dismissed by people who consider them to be ‘not the real Scotland’. And yet they have more historical associations than anywhere else in Scotland. It was here, and not the Highlands, that the Scottish nation as we know it today was forged. The area stretches from the North Sea in the east, to the borders of Dumfriesshire in the west, and contains four former counties – Peeblesshire, Selkirkshire, Roxburghshire and Berwickshire. The scenery is gentler than the Highlands, and the hills are rounded and green, with fertile valleys, quiet villages and cosy market towns to explore. That flat area of Berwickshire known as the Merse, roughly between the Lammermuir Hills and the English border, is one of the most intensely farmed areas in Britain.
There are castles and old houses aplenty, from Floors Castle just outside Kelso, home of the Duke of Roxburgh, to 10th- century Traquair House in Peeblesshire, said to be the oldest continually inhabited house in Scotland. Mellerstain too, is worth visiting, as are Paxton, Manderston, Thirlestane and Abbotsford.
But perhaps the area’s most beautiful and haunting buildings are its ruined abbeys. Again and again English soldiers attacked them, and again and again, as the Scots crossed the border bent on revenge, the monks repeatedly got on with rebuilding and repairing them. Today, the ruins at Melrose, Kelso, Dryburgh and Jedburgh are carefully tended by Historic Scotland.
The area’s great icon is the River Tweed, which, for part of its length, forms the boundary between Scotland and England.