First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The cowled face of the nun stared down from the dusky red wall of Melrose Abbey. There was an upward curl at the corners of her sandstone lips, a smile of quiet amusement put there by a long-forgotten stone carver six hundred years ago. I was smiling myself, having just heard the tale of what archaeologists found inscribed on the container that held Robert the Bruce’s heart, when they unearthed it at the abbey in 1996. No inspiring last words or ringing exhortation from the iconic Scottish king, but a splendidly prosaic note: ‘Found beneath Chapter House floor, March 1921, by His Majesty’s Office of Works.’
St Cuthbert’s Way rises southward out of Melrose, a broad green path climbing to a saddle between the dramatic camel humps of the Eildon Hills. A short, steep upward haul – perfect for sorting out a post-Hogmanay heid* – and I was standing at the peak of Eildon Mid Hill, looking across to the multiple ramparts on Eildon Hill North where the Romans once built a signal tower.
*Please keep ‘heid’!
These abrupt, conical hills are thick with legend. The best and most extraordinary is an early medieval ballad concerning Thomas the Rhymer, a poetical youth who meets a beauteous lady on the Eildons. She is the Queen of Elfland, and Thomas is whirled away for an adventure full of blood, sex and magic.
On the summit of Mid Hill I stood as long as I could in the cold wind, gazing from the distant Cheviots in the east to the low blue ridges of Ettrick Forest along the western skyline. Then I skeltered downhill, out of the wind and on down St Cuthbert’s Way to Bowden and a sheltered green lane that led east to Newtown St Boswells. The River Tweed wraps a couple of snaky coils around the edge of town, and I followed a bushy path along the south bank. The water rushed noisily over shallows and shillets, sucking at the opposite shore.
Behind a screen of trees, Dryburgh Abbey and its glories of architecture lay hidden. That was for tomorrow – today I was content to walk beside the softly roaring Tweed, looking back to the high humps of the Eildon Hills and thinking of Thomas the Rhymer and his elfin lover.
Start: Market Square, Melrose TD6 9PL (OS ref NT 548340)
Getting there: Rail: Borders Railway (scotrail.co.uk) to Tweedbank; taxi (07929-232923 – £5), or Border Abbeys Way (2½ mile walk) to Melrose.
Bus: 95 Edinburgh-Galashiels, 68 Galashiels-Melrose
Road: Melrose is signed from A68 (Jedburgh-Lauder)
Walk (7½ miles, moderate, OS Explorer 338. Online maps, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): From Market Square, south uphill, under A6091. In 100m, left (547339; ‘St Cuthbert’s Way’/SCW); bear left on edge of woodland. Up steps; up gravel path (SCW); uphill for ¾ of a mile to saddle between North and Mid Hills (551325). Climb either/both; back to saddle; south (SCW) for 1½ miles to B6398 in Bowden (554305). Dogleg right/left across road, down lane (‘Bowden Kirk’); in 250m, left (555303). Follow SCW for 1⅔ of a mile into Newtown St Boswells. Cross B6398 (578315); ahead, following SCW/Border Abbeys Way under A68 (581317). Follow SCW, ascending and descending steps, for ½ a mile to reach suspension bridge over River Tweed (589320). Don’t cross bridge; continue along south bank for ¾ of a mile to B6404 (594311). Right for Bus 67 or 68 to Melrose.
Lunch/Accommodation: Buccleuch Arms, The Green, St Boswells TD6 0EW (01835-822243, buccleucharms.com)
Melrose Abbey: 01896-822562; historic-scotland.gov.uk
Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer: sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch037.htm