I’ve been a member of Historic Scotland for just shy of eleven years now. While I use it a bit less than I used to, my card gets dirty a few times a year. I have been to most of the staffed properties by now and a few of the non-staffed ones so a new property is a rare pleasure indeed. At this point the only staffed properties I haven’t been to are in Orkney, Shetland, the Outer Hebrides and the deepest, darkest Borders. Plus Edzell Castle, which has eluded me for far too long. I don’t drive so usually I need someone who does to get to the far-off places. Smailholm Tower fit that bill and I finally got there the other weekend.
All I knew about the place was that it was a tower on a hill and it had something to do with Walter Scott. Considering that Sir Wallie was buried a short distance away at Dryburgh and he wrote a lot of books, that’s probably not surprising. I didn’t go to that part of the Borders until I was in my twenties despite growing up relatively close by in East Lothian – public transport again – so I didn’t know what a column in the distance was. (I asked the Historic Scotland mannie as they tend to know their stuff – it is the Waterloo Monument, which is near Jedburgh on the Lothian Estate.) We drove off the road and along a farm track, some with puddles and craters that wouldn’t look out of place on the moon. Gratifyingly there were a couple of other cars there, one with a personalised Hibs number plate just pulling out. We took the scenic route around the crest of the hill. Even from the base of the tower, the views were incredible, right over towards Jedburgh and the Cheviots. Important in Reiving country.
Smailholm Tower was built in the 15th century for the Pringle family, changing hands in the centuries following into the ownership of Walter Scott’s ancestors. It was a home rather than a fortified structure, for the most part, though they suffered at the hands of Reivers coming from the east in 1544 who got away with hundreds of cattle and horses. Scott described the tower as ‘standing stark and upright like a warden’. The Borders and their history ran right through Scott’s work and some of those tales were depicted in diorama form in the various rooms of the towers. The interpretation boards were very informative, particularly the one about the Border ballads. The dioramas were from 1983, a bit dated, maybe, and ever so slightly unsettling, but whatever works.
What I came for was the views. I’m a fan of what Patrick Geddes called the ‘synoptic view’. It was a clear day and from the top, it was possible to see right across southern Scotland, to the Eildon Hills above Melrose, Kelso, Jedburgh, Northumberland and the Lammermuir Hills. Notwithstanding the cars, buses and wind turbines, this view might not have changed much in the last couple of centuries. If it wasn’t for the time marching on, I would have stayed up there for hours, picking out details. It wasn’t hard to imagine Reivers marauding across the fields nor to conjure up tales from thousands of years of human history in that part of the world. I wish I had brought binoculars.
We had been to Dryburgh Abbey just before Smailholm. They were setting up for a rememberance service – it being the burial place of Earl Haig – and it was fairly busy, though we managed to escape and snaffle one of the finest benches in Scotland with a view across the Tweed. The Border Abbeys are individual and historically interesting in various ways but Dryburgh is my undoubted favourite, since it requires a bit of effort to get to. If you don’t drive, there is a mile’s walk to St. Boswells, along the shores of the river Tweed. Smailholm was more remote than that but those places that require more dedication tend to be the best. At the end of tracks we find what others don’t bother with, and it’s usually good.