Sheriff Alexander Ramsay was in town holding a court of justice when William Douglas and his cohorts thundered in on horseback. A battle ensued. Douglas captured Ramsay and rode off to Hermitage, his stronghold in Liddesdale.
That scenario could be right out of a 1950s wild west movie, except the setting was 14th century Scotland – the town of Hawick, shire of Roxburgh to be precise. And there was no Hollywood ending to this real life event: Ramsay slowly starved to death in a dungeon at Hermitage Castle. This was just one among many intriguing stories that drew me to Scottish Border country. Investigating local lore usually takes up significant but satisfying portions of my solo travel plans.
Standing at the west end of Hawick's High Street, where the Teviot and Slitrig rivers meet, I had no trouble imagining that deadly clash between two rival Scottish warlords.
In reality, the medieval-looking building in my view was a 20th Century construct – part of the Heart of Hawick regeneration project, a derelict spinning mill turned into a modern meeting place. If battle cries were to be heard there nowadays they would likely be coming from the Tower Mill auditorium where films, theater, and special events are featured.
During my stay in Hawick, the Heart of Hawick was central to many of my daily activities. The Beanscene's glassed-in, riverside terrace was a frequent hangout to relax with a glass of wine and a light meal. The Tourist Information Centre was conveniently located there, and the attached Heritage Hub housed the Scottish Borders Archives, my favorite rainy-day refuge – the place to spend time with friendly archivists who loved sharing their special knowledge with a visitor from abroad. Such as, how in the world did Hawick (pronounced Hoyk) come by a name that sounds quite a bit like clearing one's throat?
So far as anyone can tell, early pioneers coined the name "Hawick" from Anglo-Saxon words haga wic meaning a settlement surrounded by a hawthorn hedge. That would be somewhere around 500 AD, but the story of Hawick must have begun well before the arrival of Angles or Saxons. The Romans found Celtic tribes in this region when they arrived about 100 AD. These Gotadini people, as the Romans called them, would surely have favored this location set in a fertile basin between two river valleys with surrounding hills providing defensive, panoramic vantage points.
One curiosity preserved from time immemorial is a 30-foot high, cone-shaped mound called the Mote. It's about a 10-minute uphill trod (you don't go far in Hawick without meeting a hill) following Howgate street from the Heritage Hub. Some antiquarians claim the Lovell family built the Mote in the 12th century. Perhaps, but I can just as well conjure up earlier Celtic rituals and ceremonials taking place there.
From the Heritage Hub there are two choices for hill-free walking. To the south is a level parkway running alongside the Teviot River and leading to the delightful Wilton Lodge Park. With 107 acres of woodlands, gardens, public playing fields, and a small museum, Wilton Lodge Park is a real treasure for a town the size of Hawick.
Hawick's High Street is also on level ground. Heading northeast from the Heritage Hub, the first building you see on the right is the Borders Textile Towerhouse. Originally a 16th century Douglas family stronghold, the old towerhouse is said to be the only building in the region that escaped burning in 1570 when the Earl of Sussex and a force of Englishmen, enhanced with Scottish rebels, rampaged with "sword and fire" through the whole of Teviotdale. Subsequently, it became a townhouse, then a hotel, and lately a museum devoted to telling the story of the textile industry in Hawick.
Textile manufacture has been an economic stimulus in Hawick since the 18th century, including the finest cashmere in the land. To hear people talk, cashmere production is on the decline in Hawick, as it is in all of Scotland, but as of 2013, buying cashmere knitwear from numerous retail and wholesale outlets is still one of the main reasons visitors stop over in Hawick.
With Hawick as my base I could have made a quick, if hectic, day trip to either Edinburgh or Carlisle, but I was more inclined to visit nearby Border towns that, like Hawick, are steeped in their own historic drama. Jedburgh, Kelso, and Melrose each made for a pleasant outing by bus with time enough to stroll about town, photograph abbey ruins, and take a lunch break in a local tea shop.
Instead of busing-it, serious walkers may visit any of these towns on foot via the Borders Abbey Way. This 103-kilometer (64.5 miles) circular trail is divided into five roughly equal distances, and the trail can be broken down into shorter day walks from any town on the circuit. I, myself, did one 6-mile walk from Hawick that covered a short portion of the Abbey Way before breaking off near Denholm to circle back to Hawick. In fact, Hawick is one of several Border towns that participate in an annual Walking Festival, with each one taking a turn at hosting the event, which draws enthusiasts from Britain and abroad.
By bus, I also managed delightful visits to two famous country mansions in the area, albeit only with helpful tips from local tourist offices, instructive bus drivers, and some instinctive wandering.
Abbotsford was the estate of Scotland's revered bard, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1831), the prolific poet and author of such classics as Ivanhoe and The Bride of Lammermoor. Sir Walter was a keen antiquarian and collector of anything intrinsic to Border history, including ballads and poetry, weapons and armory, artifacts and curiosities, all of which are displayed in the house he built on the River Tweed, two miles from Melrose.
Another branch of the Scott clan has been part of Scottish Borders history since the 14th century. The Scotts of Buccleuch (Buck-loo) rose to prominence in the 1450s at the expense of the Douglas family whose amassing of power had offended the king, James II. The Scott clan gained fame through the exploits of Walter Scott (1565-1611) – dubbed the "bold Buccleuch"– whose daring cross-border escapades made him a legend in his own time. Bowhill, situated 3 miles west of Selkirk on the A708 Moffat/St Mary’s Loch Road, is home to the current Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry, and their renowned art collection is open to the public during regular guided tours.
Hermitage Castle, known as the guardian of Liddesdale, became infamous as a site of many evil deeds during centuries of strife not only between Scotland and England but also between unruly factions of medieval Scottish society. This place I had to see, but how? I learned that it was off the beaten track about 20 miles south of Hawick and that Telford's Coaches would stop at the turn-off on the way to Newcastleton (also called Copshaw Holme). Scheduling was tricky; I'd have to be back on the road by mid-day to flag the one and only return bus. This was my only hope, as walking, biking, or driving were not on my option list.
Fog drifted above ground as Telford's coach trundled along a one-track road following the winding course of rivers and streams. Natural woodlands opened up to tawny hills, flocks of grazing sheep, and large tracts of evergreen plantations. The few other passengers stepped off at occasional lonely farmsteads until I was the only one left on board. How peacefully rural it is, I thought, for a region so permeated with violent folklore.
While the minutes ticked by I mused over stories I'd read about legendary Hermitage: the starving of Alexander Ramsay (1340s), the unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) who took ill after a wild overland ride to Hermitage to visit her wounded lover, James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell (1534-1578). Hepburn, as Lord of Hermitage, had been injured while trying to arrest Little Jock Elliot an allegedly notorious Border reiver (raider). Mary eventually died by beheading after years spent imprisoned in England. Hepburn later died in a dungeon in Denmark to where he had fled hoping to escape from his political intrigues. I haven't learned how Elliot met his maker, but he still lives on in Border ballads.
Next thing I knew I had arrived In Newcastleton, having missed the turn-off to Hermitage. It was about 10am, and a morning mist covered the village square, though flower-filled window boxes on street-front shops and dwellings lent some color to the otherwise dreary scene. In the gloom, I began to doubt a successful outcome for this excursion until I spotted a tourist information sign. That was hopeful, but the so-called "information" only amounted to a small rack of brochures situated in the village post office. There was nothing about Hermitage Castle. The postmaster advised that Hermitage was about six miles away. Was there a tour? No. Taxi? No again, but, he said, as an alternative, the town Heritage Center would open at 1:30pm.
Oh no! I had to catch the only return service to Hawick at 1pm. Certain my trip was ruined, I resigned myself to wasting the morning doing nothing. Fortunately, serendipity took charge and saved the day. The postmaster contacted a museum volunteer, and I bumped into Sholto Telford, the retired founder of the very bus company that had set me down in this out-of-the-way spot.
Long story short, I had a private viewing of the Heritage Center under the care of a charming Newcastleton woman who dropped everything to visit with me. Sholto Telford picked me up there after he finished his errands and drove me to Hermitage. By the time we reached the castle, sunshine had dissolved the morning mist, and the stark gray hulk looked less bleak than had it been shrouded in fog. But its gruesome reputation soon brought to mind the scariest story of all as I clambered up and down its ruinous innards poking into niches and crannies.
This tale is about the gory fate of a 13th century Lord of Hermitage, William de Soulis (c 1280-1320), a supposedly villainous kidnapper, rapist, and murderer who consorted with a wicked supernatural creature by the name of Robin Redcap. Folklore has it that the local tenantry, fed up with de Soulis, their feudal master, killed him by dropping him into a vat of boiling lead. However, it is also reported that de Soulis died captive in Dumbarton Castle for his part in a treasonous plot against King Robert the Bruce, which just goes to prove the old adage that there are two sides to every story, and truth is somewhere in the middle.
I would have stayed longer reminiscing over dastardly deeds at Hermitage, but the bus schedule called. Sholto dropped me off just in time to catch the Hawick-bound bus. Later, thinking over the day's events, I basked in memories of my small adventure and how going with the flow had brought about the desired rendezvous with Border lore. That alone would have fully satisfied my expectations, but the real pleasure came from chance meetings with helpful people who so kindly gave up their own time to share my solo excursion.