The Scottish Borders (Scots: The Mairches) is a region in southeastern Scotland adjoining the border with England, a fact which has heavily influenced the history of this region. In the days before the British union, this area was frequently fought over, and had a reputation for banditry and lawlessness. At the same time, the Scottish kings were keen to develop and embellish the region—their efforts are probably best seen in the four "Border Abbeys" to be found within the region.
Today the Borders is best known for its wonderful landscapes, historic connections, summer festivals and friendly locals, though it is sadly often overlooked by tourists who drive through the area heading for Edinburgh or further north.
Towns and villages
Most towns and points of interest are on or near one of the main roads between England and Edinburgh.
The A1 & A697 are the usual roads from Newcastle. The A1 bypasses 1 Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is in England, but which gives its name to Berwickshire in Scotland and is the service town for nearby villages. Two miles north of town, you cross the border, but it's just a draughty layby, don't bother stopping for a photo. A little further north are the scenic cliffs of Berwickshire, with the railway teetering along the clifftop. Burnmouth, 2 Eyemouth and St Abbs are small fishing villages here. A697 runs inland via Morpeth and Wooler to a better-looking border, the bridge over the River Tweed. Cross it to 3 Coldstream.
4 Kelso stands at the confluence of the Tweed and the Teviot, two classic salmon-fishing rivers. Here are Kelso Abbey and Floors Castle, with Mellerstain House five miles north. The village of 5 Kirk Yetholm is the northern end of the Pennine Way, descending the louring Cheviot on the last stage of its 267 miles from Edale in Derbyshire.
The A68 follows a rollercoaster route across Northumberland and crests the Cheviots into Scotland at Carter Bar (bagpiper, ice-cream van and tourists spilling out of coaches all too likely.) 6 Jedburgh has a fine ruined abbey, and one of the many stopovers of Mary Queen of Scots. Turn off A68 at 7 St Boswells to reach Dryburgh Abbey, burial place of Sir Walter Scott.
The A7 is the old road from Carlisle through Langholm to 8 Hawick and 9 Selkirk, where Sir Walter Scott dispensed justice between writing novels. His grand home at Abbotsford House is just east of 10 Galashiels off the road to 11 Melrose, which also has a ruined abbey.
The border region was often the scene of battles between England and Scotland, but 1513 marked the beginning of the end. At Flodden Field in Northumberland the Scots suffered a calamitous defeat, and King James IV was killed - the last British monarch to die in battle. In later years they regrouped and came again, but fell to another crushing defeat at Solway Moss in 1542. Scotland could never again pose a serious military threat to England: the Borders still saw banditry and skirmishes, but were no longer the cockpit of war. A quirk of ancestry brought the Scots King James VI to the throne of England, which he much preferred to his cold northern realm, and power, influence and wealth all drained away to the south. And in so far as Scotland has been defined as much by its legends and stories as its terrain, that too drained away. Look to the Greek and Roman classics for your heroes, and forget our own brutish Dark Ages.
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), a lawyer living and working in Edinburgh and Selkirk, led the revival of Scottish lore. He took a great interest in the folk tales of the Borders, began writing them down, and writing his own works. His breakthrough was the 1805 epic poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel. He went on to write The Lady of the Lake, Waverley, Old Mortality, Ivanhoe which relaunched the legend of Robin Hood, and many more. In 1812 he bought a farm cottage near Melrose which he named "Abbotsford" — and it grew, and grew and grew, into an ornate Baronial mansion. In 1822 he scored a PR triumph in stage-managing the visit of King George IV to Scotland, having monarch and bowing subjects all dressed in tartan kilts — "clan tartans" which he'd just invented, but that would adorn Scottish regalia, wedding suits and biscuit tins for ever after.
He earned a real fortune but spent an even bigger one, running up great debts over Abbotsford — the financial crash of 1825 bankrupted his publisher and almost himself. He resolved to write his way out of trouble, and continued to publish prolifically. His health was failing by the 1830s, yet he embarked on a grand celebrity tour of Europe. He died at Abbotsford in September 1832 and was buried at Dryburgh Abbey.
Edinburgh Airport is the closest, about an hour's drive, and with good connections across Europe and within UK.
Newcastle has fewer flights and is a little further, but a good choice if you're combining this area with a tour of Northumberland. The airport is on A696 northwest of the city, handy for the A68, A697 or A1 approaches to Scotland.
The main railway lines swerve past this region. On the east coast, trains from London and the Midlands run via Newcastle and Berwick-upon-Tweed to the border, rushing past along the cliff tops to Dunbar and Edinburgh. The west coast line runs to Carlisle, Motherwell and Glasgow.
The Borders Railway, opened in 2015, runs from Edinburgh Waverley at least hourly via Gorebridge, Stow and Galashiels to Tweedbank. This is the reconstructed northern section of a line that was axed in 1969 as part of the Beeching cuts. It's transformed this area into a commuter belt for Edinburgh, so trains are overcrowded north to the city in the morning and homeward south early evenings. There is a campaign, but there are no plans, to re-construct the southern section to Hawick and Carlisle, and to connect other towns such as Melrose.
Borders Buses serve the main towns and villages.
Bus X95 runs hourly M-Sa from Carlisle along the A7, via Langholm, Hawick, Selkirk, Galashiels, Stow, Newtongrange and Eskbank to Edinburgh. Sundays it runs hourly from Hawick, with only four buses extending to Carlisle.
Bus 51/52 runs every two hours daily from Edinburgh along the A68, via the Royal Infirmary, Dalkeith, Lauder, Earlston, and St Boswells to Jedburgh/Kelso.
Bus 253 runs every two hours Mon-Sat from Edinburgh along the A1, via Haddington, Dunbar and Eyemouth to Berwick-upon-Tweed; only two buses on Sunday.
Bus 67 runs every two hours daily from Berwick-upon-Tweed west via Coldstream, Kelso, St Boswells and Melrose to Galashiels.
Bus X62 runs every 30 min M-Sa (Su hourly) from Edinburgh via Penicuik to Peebles then down the Tweed valley via Innerleithen and Galashiels to Melrose.
A solitary Bus 131 (run by Peter Hogg) runs M-Sa from Jedburgh along A68/A696 to Otterburn, Newcastle Airport and Newcastle. It runs south to Newcastle in the morning and returns north to Jedburgh early afternoon.
National Express and Megabus coaches between Edinburgh and England cross this region but don't stop anywhere.
There are three main arterial routes through the Borders—the A1, A68 and A7—plus several minor routes.
The A1 enters Scotland just north of Berwick, a fast route up the east coast into East Lothian. Some bits are even dual carriageway!
The A68 enters Scotland from the south at the top of the Carter Bar, arguably the most spectacular of the border crossings. The road wends its way through Jedburgh, St Boswells, Earlston and Lauder and exits to Midlothian north of Soutra Hill.
The A7 is the scenic route from Carlisle to Edinburgh, starting at Mosspaul in the south and passing through Hawick, Selkirk, Galashiels and Stow before entering Midlothian at Falahill. The A72 for Innerleithen, Peebles and Glasgow branches off in Galashiels.
Worthy of mention are the A708 from Moffat, which passes the spectacular Grey Mares Tail waterfall before journeying past St Marys Loch and following the Yarrow Water into Selkirk and the B6355 from Gifford into Duns, over the Lammermuir Hills.
You'll do best by car. A bike is great in summer, as the hills between the Cheviots south and the Lammermuirs north aren't too severe.
You can just about get around by bus along radial routes from Edinburgh, Melrose/Galashiels and Berwick-upon-Tweed. As well as those listed in "Get in", you might use:
- Bus 20 Hawick - Jedburgh - Kelso
- Bus 396 Hawick - Selkirk - Galashiels - Melrose
- Bus 81 Kelso - Kirk Yetholm
- Bus 68 Jedburgh - St Boswells - Melrose - Galashiels
- Bus 235 Berwick-upon-Tweed - Eyemouth - St Abbs
- Bus 60 Berwick-upon-Tweed - Chirnside - Duns - Gordon - Earlston - Melrose - Galashiels
- Abbeys: these sprang up in Norman times and flourished in the Middle Ages, but were left to ruin after the Reformation - the 16th-century break with Roman Catholicism. Find them at Jedburgh, Melrose, Kelso and Dryburgh near St Boswells.
- Stately Homes: built for lordly living, not for defence. Those which can be visited include Floors in Kelso, Mellerstain and Thirlestane near Melrose, and Paxton near Berwick.
- Castles in the Borders are mostly Peel Towers - little forts that served as watchtowers and signal stations - rather than noble residences. Most are scrappy ruins, some have been incorporated into later buildings. One you can visit is Smailholm Tower between Kelso and Melrose.
- St Abb's Head is the most scenic section of the Berwickshire cliffs, with sea birds whirling over a tumult of waters. Take the minor road east from Coldingham, park at the head of St Abb's village (don't take a car down the steep narrow lane to the harbour) and walk across the fields to the Head.
- And see Berwick-upon-Tweed for places right on the border: Norham Castle just south of it in Northumberland, and Paxton House just west in Berwickshire.
- Several long-distance hiking trails cross the area.
- The Pennine Way is a 268-mile trail from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm. Its northernmost stage, from Byrness, is 27 miles along the ridge of the Cheviots, with no habitation or road access along the way. It can be done in one long day, or you can bivvy at the two refuge huts (bothies) along the way, or you can break it into three there-and-back walks from the valleys. The path climbs steeply from Byrness then heads north to enter Scotland near Ogre Hill. It now follows the border fence, switching between England and Scotland, past the Roman fort at Chew Green and Roman "Dere Street". It comes onto the exposed ridge climbing to the well-named Windy Gyle and Cairn Hill (743 m, 2438 ft). Here there is a side path to the summit of The Cheviot (815 m, 2674 ft). The main path turns sharply northwest, following the border fence down past a refuge hut, climbing The Schil (601 m, 1972 ft) then descending into gentler countryside, to end at the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm.
- The Southern Upland Way is a 210-mile trail from Portpatrick on the Rhins of Galloway (looking across at Northern Ireland) to Cockburnspath on the Berwickshire coast. In this region, coming from the west it passes St Mary's Loch, Traquair, Galashiels, Lauder, Abbey St Bathans, and Longformacus before reaching the coast. It crosses the hills but reaches no great altitude and most sections are short enough for a there-and-back Sunday stroll. Much of its eastern route is shared with the Sir Walter Scott Way.
- The Borders Abbeys Way is a circular 68-mile trail. It's usually done in five stages, in no preferred direction or order: Kelso-Jedburgh-Hawick-Selkirk-Melrose-Kelso. It's mostly lowland and easy going, with the highest point at 339 m (1113 ft).
- The Berwickshire Coastal Path is a 30-mile trail from Berwick-upon-Tweed along the cliff tops via Eyemouth, St Abbs and Cove to Cockburnspath. Here it meets the Southern Upland Way from the west, and the John Muir Way north via Dunbar and North Berwick to Edinburgh.
- St Cuthbert's Way is a 62-mile trail from Melrose Abbey, where the saint spent much of his life, east via St Boswells and Maxton to Kirk Yetholm, meeting the Pennine Way. Continuing east it crosses into Northumberland in England and runs down to the coast and by tidal footpath to Lindisfarne. It's all lowland in nature.
- Boat trips from Eyemouth and St Abbs explore the rugged coastline.
- Watch Rugby Union, or play if you're tough enough. Notable local rugby clubs are Hawick, Melrose and Jed-Forest (Jedburgh). You may well see international players turning out in local club fixtures. The Borders only plays soccer at junior / amateur level.
The restaurants in the hotels in the various towns will have the best dining; otherwise it's pub grub.
The larger towns have pubs, but the hotel bars may be more comfortable.
The crime rate is very low in the Borders and the chances of you encountering a crime during the daytime are next to none. Of course this does not mean there is no crime. It is advisable to be sensible when out at night: avoid large groups of youngsters hanging about street corners; they are very unlikely to approach you or communicate, but it is best to be safe by walking on the other side of the road.
As with much of Scotland, some roads may be rather narrow, twisty and unpredictable. Take this into consideration while driving.
- West to the South West of Scotland including Dumfries and Galloway
- North to the Central Belt of Scotland including The Lothians
- South to North East England including Northumberland