I’m not really sure what I anticipated from Melrose. Starting points to these trails have a tendency to be simply a means of access with few redeeming qualities other than a railway station and proximity to the route. In my head, the whole of the borders was this unknown hinterland in my unfamiliarity. It could have turned out to be a grey and utilitarian blob on the map, it could’ve been a hamlet of a couple houses around a pub, there could be dragons, I had no idea.
It turned out that Melrose is lovely.
The town had grown up around the monastery, built here in 1136. The monastery building had been subject to so many attacks, with rebuilding scuppered by constant onslaught that, eventually, after cannon damage in the English Civil War they just sort of stopped repairing it. It had already endured an attack from the army of Edward II and was then set on fire by the army of Richard II. Reconstruction hadn’t yet finished when the English and Scottish troops collided in deciding the future of the young Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s position on the border route to Edinburgh put it both in a position of prominence, and also great vulnerability. Now it half stands, incomplete, which as it has nearly always been that way couldn’t really be considered lacking.
The Scots certainly didn’t think it lacking, and a great many Scottish kings were buried here. Whilst most are entire in their coffins, the remains of Robert the Bruce is simply his heart in a lead container, preserved in a black liquor. Unfortunately, I could not see this wonderfully morbid royal organ, as it has now been reburied under a memorial stone. In fact, I could not see much at all. Visiting hours were over for the day when I arrived, and a thick and twiggy hedge has been grown around the property, making a sneaky picture a hard thing to get.
What I could see though, was the Eildon Hills.
They rose like giant sweeties in the backdrop of the town. Banded in purple heather and yellow gorse, as inviting as summer toned candy canes. I always knew that should I have been a child in Willy Wonka’s child factory, that I absolutely would have been one that got sucked up a tube from a river of chocolate or inflated in a bubblegum fiasco. No surprise that my initial plan to remain in town for a while was abandoned and, entranced, I followed those first waymarks up to sweet, sweet hills.
Border Towns and Boiled Sweets
It is somewhat appropriate that my first thoughts of this border town was confectionery related since an eclectic mix of durable sweets has developed in the region.
Soor plooms from nearby Galashiels commemorate a few Scottish troops slaughtering a band of their enemies after coming across them eating unripe plums. A French Napoleonic prisoner of war held in Jedburgh shared a recipe for a hard boiled peppermint flavoured toffee, that the locals twisted into a new shape and, in reference to his nationality, dubbed ‘Jethart snails’.
Sweets with less war-like backstories include the crumbly red and white striped Berwick cockles and Hawick balls, with a chewy buttery, minty interior. The Hawick balls were popularised by Rugby commentator Bill McLaren who was always seen with a paper twist of the sweets.
The path went swiftly and steeply upwards, but I was buoyed to bounciness by my utter joy at finding myself in such a colour strewn and fantastic landscape and it was hardly something to get upset about. Yes, there was an interval in the sharp earthen rise of about a million steps before a continuation in the startling gradient, but it did mean that, very quickly, the views started to appear.
However, before I talk about the views, and as we mentally leave me trying to pretend that clambering up these hills is all peachy dandy, we’ll take a moment to talk about Cuthbert, and just what Melrose has to do with him.
The abbey that sits here now, in pretty much continuous ruin since the 1100s, was not the original abbey. The first abbey, the ‘old’ one, sat about two miles east and was dedicated to the living St Aiden of Lindisfarne. In 651AD, a young teenager was tending the sheep in these Eildon Hills above Melrose. What he was doing there is still up for debate. Many believe the young man was from noble ranks which would make shepherding unusual. A common suggestion is that, with living in what seemed to amount to an unpredictable skirmish-filled warzone, it had become common for all young noblemen to join the army young and, being among the youngest, this lad got lumbered with the most hated tasks. Among which, was guarding the sheep at night.
Whatever he was doing there that night in 651, he had a vision. He saw the sky open up in a bolt of light and a human figure ascend it. This was the night St. Aiden died, and the young man, Cuthbert, had received his calling.
He did not follow it immediately; over the next few years war broke out (surprise!) with King Penda of Mercia and the men of Northumbria were otherwise occupied. When this round of fighting ended, and the teenager had grown into a man, he entered Holy Orders at the old Melrose Abbey.
Well, if that kid soldier disliked trekking up and down and all around these hills guarding sheep, I don’t think any of us can feel too bad for initially having a hard time of it. The Eildon Hills are, in fact, just one hill, one big old volcano actually, with a triple peak bound in an ostentatious amount of folklore. Was it really cleaved in three by a wizard as Walter Scott suggests in his poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel? Is it really hollow, as Scott’s Thomas the Rhymer seemed to discover? And in that hollow, does King Arthur and his knights lay sleeping, waiting for the time when they will be needed once again?
All due respect to Artie and his boys, but they’ve had a fair few opportunities to show themselves since they started their kip and now its just getting lazy. If World Wars aren’t going to get them moving, I’m not sure what might.
I reached the col between two of the peaks and just stood turning slowly round and round. The colour and conviviality of the hills was eluding true capture in all my pictures and the bright gorse giggled in its brightness around me. The hills rolled down to cattle fields and pastures and woodland and up, in the distance, to the neighbouring hills of the Lammermuirs and the Moorfoots.
It was only five in the afternoon, and in a British midsummer this meant I would still have light for six more hours. It was all far too early to camp and I was having a really good time, so I went onwards and downwards into the forests of the Buccleuch Estate. These forests were so magically dark and perfectly fairytale like, they made me briefly pause in mild trepidation to question whether there are still wolves in Scotland (there aren’t).
The sun dappled down onto the leafy floor in the most perfect dapples from any artists vision. The crunch, crack and scurry of hiding wildlife on sensing my presence was all the louder in the woods, and almost comforting. This is why I love forests; they are so constantly alive. The occasional outraged red grouse muttered, shrieked and flapped noisily away through the bushes and the fleeting white bob and whirr of a departing rabbit’s tail flashed every few minutes.
Despite the later hour, I had still slathered on sunscreen, a new brand that was now just stickily re-sweating out my face. Of course now I bumped into two young men, travelling the route westward in order to continue to Iona. They advised me that people were camping by the river in St Boswells, but I wasn’t sure I’d make it that far today. We both continued in high spirits, them to end this trail, and me in starting it.
As I approached the end of the woodland, a perfect pitch glinted at me. It positively shone. In a flat clearing at the edge of the trees, looking out over the fields. It’s a camping certainty that I would find it too early. I dithered and considered, but ultimately carried on out of the trees and into the fields where the fields on the approaching hills splayed out in pastel shades of pink and yellow and blue in the green palette of the grass. A further wood came to the boundary with Bowden common, and I had to stop myself from proceeding. I had reservations further up the trail and couldn’t afford to get too ahead of myself. So It was still with excess energy and some reluctance, I found a spot up away from the paths between the trees and the grass. With the ongoing June light, bright in the evening, I sat for an hour or so to make sure that any busy-ness was done with for the day before setting up my tent, making my dinner, and happily watching the world go by.
I cuddled up in my sleeping bag as it approached ten o clock and settled down happily for a contentedly deep and wonderful sleep.
Well, you know.
Until the badgers started shagging.
- Distance: 4 miles
- Ascent: 250m
- Terrain: steep hillside, woodland, grassland
- Toughness: 6/10
- Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: St Cuthberts Way
Day 1: Bowden to Cessford Moor (19 miles)
Day 2: Cessford Moor to Auchope Hut (18 miles)
Day 3: Auchope Hut to Wooler (12 miles)
Day 4: Wooler to Beal (13 miles)
Day 5: Beal to Lindisfarne (3 miles)