It is late July and I am sitting in the lounge bar of George and Abbotsford Hotel, in Melrose. We had ended up here after traveling across country from Alnwick, stopping for a very pleasant afternoon at Abbotsford. I was having a pint and taking in the scenery: it’s obviously a pub that loves its rugby, with several shirts from local and national teams from all over the world. The sport is very big in this parts – Rugby sevens was invented in Melrose in the 1880’s. I had been recommended to try the Haggis bon-bon: a ball of haggis, battered and deep-fried and served on a bed of leaves with a balsamic glaze. I was chatting to a man in the bar, who was surprised to learn of the existence of such a thing, He was from Glasgow, via Croydon. He looked sceptical as I ordered: It was delicious crispy and not oily, perfectly complemented by the light salad and yet another pint of ‘heavy’.
The Hotel is comfortable and friendly but sadly in need of a new carpet and a coat of paint. It is an enormous building and the upkeep must be crippling the current owners. Our room was tiny and a bit shabby but the staff were friendly, helpful and polite. It was comfortable enough and the view from the window of the Eildon Hills was magnificent.
Mrs. P joined me and we went for a walk around the town, looking at antique shops and gift shops and the fine old abbey. Mrs. P admired a small bronze otter in one of the shops, meaning an early morning excursion for me, as I would have to sneak out and buy it as soon as the shop opened. There were some lovely looking food shops: a butcher, advertising their famous pies; a baker with some gorgeous looking treats.
Melrose is a charming little town set among the gently rolling lowland hills, Eildon dominating the view to the south east. there are three or four hotels along the Main Street: busy bars and dining rooms spilling pools of inviting light onto the street. I observed a young couple, sitting on a bench in the town square, drinking cans of cider and smoking. The woman had a ferret on a lead and was petting and playing with it. I wanted to approach and discuss her unusual pet but as I approached, she forced the animal back into her handbag and was gone before I could get there.
Tomorrow, we would continue our journey across the borders, starting at Selkirk and winding across country to Dumfries. I had kept our schedule flexible as I had no idea how long travelling would take in this part of the country – I suspected winding roads would slow things down a bit.
In Selkirk is a recreation of a nineteenth century courtroom and a reminder that Scott had a legal profession as well as a literary one: as sheriff he had to preside over local disputes and petty crime. We arrived in Selkirk before the museum opened so, after a walk down the high street as far as the Mungo Park memorial. I killed a bit of time in the bookshop outside the courthouse. Forest Books is a lovely little shop, run by a charming ex-English teacher with whom I had a nice chat. I bought a copy of Waverley: probably a good idea to actually read some Scott
The Courthouse is a nice little museum, stuffed with artefacts of sir Walter. As well as some of his own possessions, there were more ‘touristy’ pieces: porcelain figurines, paintings and cast bronzes. The court itself is populated by mannequins depicting a tableau from Scott’s legal career. I must say, I always find these tableaux amusing; not as terrifying as some people find the frozen the figures.
I bought a coffee and a bannock from a nearby bakery. Mrs P and I sat on a bench watching with amusement as a family tried to Marshall several unruly children, who looked like they had no intention of being marshalled, thank you very much. We wandered back down a tiny, cobbled close towards the car park and on with our journey.
We drove down to Tibbie Shiels, an inn standing on the isthmus between St. Mary’s Loch and Loch of the Lowes. This famous Inn was frequently used by Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg. It is currently closed, following some disturbances at a nearby campsite: people from Glasgow causing trouble, most of the local newspapers surmise. I hope it reopens soon as, aside from its historical and literary importance, a more beautiful setting for an inn you could not imagine.
We went for a walk, over a picturesque little stone bridge and walked past the old inn, which was clearly inhabited, but not open. There were some beautiful views of the loch side, with St. Mary’s loch curving away to the north east. Mountainsides were covered in willow herb and thistle and there was a purplish hue to the whole scene. Just above the loch, in a little wooded glade, there is a large statue: a memorial to James Hogg, writer and poet, who lived and worked on farms in the area. He had befriended Scott when they were both collecting local ballads and folk-songs. His poems began to take on a prophetic tone in the 1820’s, culminating in the gothic novel for which he is best known today: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. There is a Large statue of Hogg in white marble. He sits atop his plinth looking sedately across the loch. It is a magnificent monument and well worth stopping for.
We had to retrace our steps now, to find the road through the Valley to Ettrick, Hogg’s birthplace. We returned back along the main road to the Gordon Arms, another of Scott and Hogg’s favoured meeting places, sadly closed today. Many pubs during Covid have abandoned lunchtime opening in favour of the more lucrative evenings. We had planned to lunch here and go back towards Selkirk to pick up the Ettrick road, which would take us past Bowhill and Aikwood tower, both places well-known to Scott. The Gordon Arms stands on a road junction with the high road to Ettrick. So we took a shortcut through the hills where suicidal sheep, and even more suicidal motorcyclists, made the going slow but we eventually rejoined our original route at Ettrick. The village – a couple of farms and a church – is tucked away from the main road and a little bit of exploring brought us to another memorial to Hogg. This one is a rather phallic obelisk tucked well away from the main road, near to the church where he is buried.
Rain had started to spatter the windscreen as we embarked on the longest stretch of the journey to Langholm. The landscape changed here, as we dropped down into a deep, wooded valley and wound alongside a river towards Langholm
Langholm, known as ‘muckle toon’ for some reason. is a small town but, after driving over the hills and winding through remote valleys, it felt like coming into a heaving metropolis. “Birthplace of Hugh MacDiarmid” said the roadsigns as we entered the town and it was to his memorial we first headed. This sits atop a hill overlooking the town. It’s a breathtaking sculpture, overlooking the town from it’s lofty vantage. We spent a while up there, in the grey afternoon, looking at the rusted sculpture and picking out the things depicted by it. The Sculpture, by Jake Harvey, takes the form of an open book, depicting objects that appear as themes in his writing.
MacDiarmid was born Christopher Murray Grieve in 1892, in a flat above Langholm library, where his mother was caretaker. He became a teacher, then a journalist before publishing his own poetry. He wrote in English at first, before switching to a unique form of Scots dialect, which he developed himself. He joined the Scottish National Party un 1928 but was asked to leave because of his communist views. He joined the communist party but was expelled for his nationalistic sympathies. He is now recognised as one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century and a leading light in the Scottish Literary Renaissance. He led such a fascinating and I know so little of his work, having only read A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, which I heartily recommend.
I called in at the cemetery too, just to the south of the town and found the grave without too much difficulty. The stone bears both of his names: Christopher Murray Grieve, the name he was born with and Hugh MacDiarmid, the name he chose for himself. His wife’s name, Valda Trevlyn, is also inscribed under his.
I hadn’t planned on stopping at Ecclefechan but the route took us very close to the little town so we stopped to take a look at Carlyle’s birthplace, in a very picturesque location, beside a tree-lined stream. At the top of the street is a statue and we walked back up to look at the statue. Carlyle was a historian, well-known for the ‘Great Man’ theory: that history is shaped by the actions of great men. He had many interests, but his first love was literature, which he fulfilled by translating many books from the several languages he spoke. He was hugely influential in the literary circles of his day. He was also, let’s not forget, openly anti-Semitic and a lifelong supporter of slavery. Bearing this in mind, I was quite pleased to learn that he suffered from a lifelong, very painful, stomach complaint.
Which led us eventually to Dumfries. we were actually staying in Kirkcudbright, a short distance westward from Dumfries, and I would return here in a couple of days to explore Robert Burns’s home town. This marked the end of our journey and where we would stock up on shopping for the coming week. After the dreary grey journey, the sun was shining now, looking beautiful reflecting off the Nith and promising great weather for the week ahead.
I popped into a small newsagent, purely for the reason that it, along with a small café, occupied the building that Robert Burns once called home. The shopkeeper, displaying the hospitable friendliness I had observed throughout this region, chatted to me as I came in, talked about the weather, the news, told me about his previous life as a racehorse trainer. At length. Eventually I was able to take my leave and we made our way to Kirkcudbright.