Over the past few years I’ve predominantly gone climbing in summer and skiing in winter. My knowledge of the various fast food outlets on the A82 or A9 north of Glasgow is arguably second to none. If I’ve ever gone south it’s been to meet up with similarly minded folk in the hills of the Lake District, Peak District or Wales. However, there is a lot of country between the Central Belt of Scotland and the English border as anyone knows who has ever caught the train back to Scotland from London. On late Friday nights it feels an especially long way home from Carlisle or Berwick to Glasgow or Edinburgh! The climbers no-mans land of the Scottish Borders is where I headed this week. I drove out of Glasgow on one of those glorious days when shafts of sunlight create a landscape that glows with technicolour brilliance against a backdrop of blackened rainclouds. Coming over a rise in South Lanarkshire a patchwork of green fields rolled out in front of me and behind them was a striking wall of Borders hills.
My first stop was the town of Melrose with its ruined Cistercian abbey founded by David I in 1136. The Melrose landscape is dominated by the triple peaks of Eildon Hill, a volcanic outcrop that rises in dramatic isolation from the Tweed Valley. According to legend, Eildon Hill was split into its three peaks by the 13th century wizard Michael Scott. Impressively, Roman seers anticipated this 13th century cleaving of Eildon Hill by some 1200 years as they named their 1st century fort Trimontium which means the place of the three mountains. Or maybe Michael Scott’s achievements have been embellished by the passage of time! A walk up Eildon Hill is handily signposted from the centre of Melrose and I soon discovered that the steep steps of this direct route were not really my idea of good running! Once above the fields the gradient of the path eased off and I gradually made my way up to the col between the north and south peaks. The views from either peak are spectacular. Although it is a mere 400 and some metres in height, Eildon Hill is still the highest point for miles around resulting in spectacular views in all directions. On the northern summit I met a local man who named all the villages for me and pointed out the distant Cheviots. You need to go there, he told me, have you been to Yetholm? It’s lovely there. He was building a cairn on the summit in memory of his sister who had died aged only 39 and was buried in the cemetery just below the hill. He and his friends were quarrying the stones to build the cairn from scree outcrops on the southern peak and then carrying them up the hill in their rucksacks. Their self imposed task is a real labour of love – what a way to be remembered – up on this lofty hilltop, overlooking all the places that would have been familiar and loved in life.
Next, I headed to Peebles where local runners Marion and Ruth kindly let me tag along on their Wednesday morning run. Leaving the house we headed down to the river and after only a couple of streets were out onto the open hillside on a wonderful grassy track. Even though we were running along a ridge the track never climbed too steeply to be unrunnable. We were away from the noise of the road and felt miles from anywhere – even though we had left the house less than half an hour ago! Across the valley there were other enticing hills and ridges, all gradual, all looking eminently runnable – so many possibilities. The Borders was shaping up to be a wonderful playground for runners. We were enjoying ourselves far too much to turn round early so we continued on up to the top of the hill where we could clearly see the remains of an old hill fort and just in front of it a curious field of sharp rocks sticking out as if planted by some contrary gardener. Ruth claimed that these were to defend the fort against the attack of cavalry who would unsuspectingly ride over the slight rise and find their horses unable to continue over the sharp rocks – in the absence of any other explanation it seems a plausible story as well as a deviously effective means of thwarting attack. Luckily we turned out to be both slower and cleverer than ancient cavalry and managed to pick our way through the rocks without incident to reach the summit. Time for a last look at the view before heading down to the river and enjoying a completely different sort of landscape all the way back to Peebles. The Borders are really rather lovely, especially in the sunshine and I’m very much looking forward to heading back there for a more detailed exploration.
Next week I’m heading in a completely different direction up to the north east of Scotland. I’ll be spending a couple of days in Aberdeen and then a week or so in Deeside and over towards the Moray coast.