Wanderer at Large: Scottish Lowlands

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This autumn, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the Scottish Lowlands & Midlands, including Borders, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and St Andrews.

Hermitage Castle, Scottish Borders by StartAgain. CC license BY-ND 2.0

The lowlands today are perhaps the greatest untapped area of sightseeing in the UK. There are so many hidden jewels that it is difficult to do the region justice in just a few paragraphs. Thus, it must be stressed that the following are just a few highlights.

Reiver Country
Today’s quiet fertile lowlands of Scotland hide a long violent history that has only recently been properly documented. Over a 1,000-year period since the Romans abandoned Britannia in the 5th century, the region became increasingly unruly. By the 16th century, it had become a large patchwork of lawless badlands overrun with bandits known as ‘reivers’. They were involved in cattle raids, ambushes, gangster-like protection rackets and full-scale guerrilla warfare. Think American Wild West run by the Mafia. One of the main problems was that a border between England and Scotland could not be agreed upon, and thus, jurisdiction was hazy at best. Indeed, the area near the current border at the Solway Firth was called the ‘Debatable Land.’ To get to grips with the problem, the authorities split the borderlands into six regions called Marches, each governed by a warden under separate laws to the two countries. Then in 1552, the present England-Scotland border was agreed. Half a century later, the Scottish king James VI took the English crown, unifying the thrones of the two nations: the age of the Reivers was over, with their stories destined to drift into the Romantic period novels of Sir Walter Scott. Perhaps the best-known history of the region was not written until the late 20th century, when George MacDonald Fraser, better known for his Flashman series of novels, published The Steel Bonnets.

For physical evidence of Reiver Country today, there are a number of Peel (or Pele) Towers, small fortresses with walls up to six feet thick built for local defence. Gilnockie Tower, near Langholm, was built about 500 years ago, and was home to the notorious reiver Johnnie Armstrong. Langholm itself is famous as the birthplace of engineer Thomas Telford and the ancestral home of astronaut Neil Armstrong. Naworth Castle, originally built in 1335, was refortified by Thomas Dacre who fought at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 and became Warden of the Western Marches. Hermitage Castle in Liddesdale was granted to Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch (pronounced book loo) in 1594. He was also made Warden of the Western Marches, Keeper of Liddesdale, but most surprisingly, was an infamous reiver. As documented by his writer namesake, he led the attack on Carlisle Castle to rescue wee Willie Armstrong of Kinmont.

Burns Country
The county of Ayrshire is the homeland of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns: ‘Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpasses, for honest men and bonnie lasses.’ Burns (1759-96) was born into a farming family, the eldest of seven-children. His mother and father Agnes and William Burns, encouraged his learning and ensured he had access to books. He began writing poetry in his teens.

One of his most famous poems is Tam o’ Shanter (1791). It is based on the story of a young farmer who actually existed and worked at Shanter Farm. In the poem, Tam gets drunk at Ayr market, then makes his way back home slumped on his horse ‘Maggie’. On passing Alloway Auld Kirk (now a ruined church) he sees a coven of witches performing a Satanic rite. In particular, he notices the beautiful dancing of a witch called Nannie D who is wearing only a short shirt. He calls out: ‘Well done Cutty Sark!’ The witches give chase and Nannie D grabs Tam’s horse by the tail. But witches cannot cross water and Tam manages to escape across the Brig-a-Doon with the tail remaining in Nannie D’s hand. Cutty Sark, of course, became the name of a fast Victorian-built clipper ship, as well as a brand of Scotch whisky.

Burn’s Night, set on his birthday of January 25, is a national celebration in Scotland. Readings of poetry are accompanied by helpings of the national dish Haggis. Before tucking in, the lines from Burn’s Address to a Haggis are recited: ‘Fair fa your honest, sonsie face, great chieftan o’ the pudding race.’ For aficionados, Burns Cottage, his Alloway birthplace on the outskirts of Ayr, is an inspiring place to visit.

Bennane Cave
As a visitor theme, the legend of Sawney Bean is rarely advertised on the Scottish tourist trail, perhaps because it often invokes a feeling of nausea. However, if you’re into horror stories, it’s comparable to the tale of the London demon-barber Sweeney Todd. So here is a warning: do not read the following paragraph if you are of a sensitive disposition, or if you have just had lunch!

Mr Bean, it is said, lived with a female companion in an Ayrshire cave in the late 16th century. They had 14 little Beanie babies who themselves grew up to produce another 32. To feed so many mouths, the near 50-strong clan developed an appetite for human flesh. They would leave the cave at night and bring individuals or small groups back to their home where they would be dismembered and eaten. Despite multiple reports of missing persons, and neighbours regularly finding body parts washing up on the shore, they went undiscovered for more than 25 years. Then one evening, about 20 witnesses saw the Bean brigade attack a man and his wife as they were returning home from a fair. A man-hunt saw a small army of 400 troops enter the clan’s cave by torchlight and proceed along a mile of twisting passages to the inner depths of the Bean lair. Apparently, the damp walls were strewn with body parts, like meat hanging in a butcher’s shop, and there were heaps of discarded bones from previous feasts. There were claims of up to 1,000 victims. The Bean family were arrested, tried in Edinburgh and sentenced to execution. 27 of the men had their limbs cut off and bled to death. The 21 women were burned as witches. Lovely. The Bennane Cave is said to have been the original home of Sawney and co. It is just off the A77 near Ballantrae in Ayrshire. A rocky beach will need to be negotiated for access.

Abbotsford House Library by michael_d_beckwith Public Domain

It is almost impossible to follow the Scotland tourist trail without at some point bumping into the ubiquitous novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott. His fame stems from his talent as an original creator of popular adventure stories, a genius inventor of legends, and a bard of the sublime imagination.

However, some complain about Scott’s legacy. They blame it for skewing Scotland’s cultural identity; that the country’s modern global image is based on one heavily laden with invented notions and myth. These arguments have even spilled over into the political arena. It is true that Scott was actively engaged in giving Scotland a makeover during the decades following the Jacobite rebellions. Indeed, he personally stage-managed King George IV’s tour of Scotland in 1822, the first official royal visit to the country for nearly 200 years. This event in particular, has been seen as the catalyst that launched an industry of ‘tartan tweeness’. However, there is no doubt that Scott’s rebranding of his native land was a huge commercial success, and if nothing else, at least accentuated Scotland’s distinctiveness. Besides, it is questionable if the critics can really point to an identity lost. Another more pragmatic response might be ‘so what?’. From a tourism perspective, it’s like complaining about the legitimacy of the royal family itself. Let people enjoy it. Let it sell. Let it be.

Scott was born in 1771 in the heart of the new ‘Enlightened’ Edinburgh. The youngest of 13 children, he was a sickly child, and lame from polio. He spent much of childhood on the river Tweed with his aunt. After schooling in Edinburgh, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a lawyer at Jedburgh in the heart of the old Reiver Country. He defended many a rustler and poacher. He even took pity on some and gave them work. Poacher Tom Purdie ended up his gardener.

In 1797, after a three-week wooing, he married French-born Charlotte Charpentier. The same year, having always wanting to be a soldier and a man of action, Scott mobilised his own troop of horse for the Napoleonic Wars. He eventually became Quarter-Master for the cavalry in Scotland. By 1799, he was a lawyer, soldier, country squire, city gent and Sheriff of Selkirk. But more than anything else, he harboured a desire to be a great romantic poet. He fuelled this passion by scouring borders for reiver poetry and lore. In 1802, he published his first poetry collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Two years later he moved to Ashestiel on the river Tweed to concentrate on poetry.

In 1811, Scott moved further down the banks of the Tweed to Abbotsford, and became something of a local laird. Abbotsford was not-very-politely known locally as Clarty Hole, because a muddy spring rose up underneath it. Scott called it a “Romance in stone and lime” and a “flibbertygibbet of a house”. It was designed in an early neo-Gothic style, a romantic homage to a medieval baronial castle, full of secret staircases and collections of weaponry. Just the sort of place you would expect him to live in, and take inspiration from. It also influenced the design of Balmoral Castle, and in turn, the work of Victorian architect Pugin. However, Scott wasn’t scared of technological advancements. There was gas lighting, central heating, flushing lavatories and pneumatic servant bells. All very ‘Steam Punk’. For Scott, the word ‘artificial’ was praise.

Abbotsford place has recently undergone a complete makeover and reopened with a modern visitor centre. The Library contains books on an amazing range of subjects: Rosicrucianism, Kabala, highwaymen, pirates, witches, those on edge of life. There is also a signed first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and a copy of the first book published in Tasmania, about bush rangers. The mahogany writing desk is where he opened thousands of letters written to him from around the globe. The carved medieval ceiling in here is made from wood and pulp, and was copied from Rosslyn Chapel. Other highlights include the Drawing Room, favourite of Lady Scott and the Dining Room, where his bed was set up in his last days.

Outside are just about the best walled gardens in the UK, some of them originally designed by Scott. He tended the vegetable gardens and liked to compose his own manure! On the outside wall is the door of the old Edinburgh Tollbooth prison. It features in Scott’s Heart of Midlothian (the nickname for the prison): ‘That seems a very strong door.’ Lunch is an option at the Ochiltrees restaurant which overlooks the house.

On Scott’s death, the house immediately became a shrine. Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde visited, among many other literary legends. And no wonder. A visit to Abbotsford is like a pilgrimage to Romanticism itself.

Just before you reach the central urban belt of the country, take the opportunity to visit Rosslyn Chapel, an exquisitely carved church with links to the Knights Templar. Also known as ‘the Bible in stone’, this medieval relic was abandoned and left to ruin after the Reformation. Was it the final resting place of the Holy Grail? In order to help you solve the puzzle there are fascinating hourly talks on the mysterious meanings of the carvings within, and kids can do a treasure hunt. Reopened a few years ago with a modern visitor centre, it’s definitely one for the itinerary. A picturesque country walk in the Esk valley takes you to nearby Rosslyn Castle ruins. For a scenic route here through the lowlands, take the A701 north from Dumfries, then before you reach the Edinburgh outskirts, take the B7006 to Roslin.

The Scottish Lowlands: an untapped vein of visitor delights.

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Lowlands/Midlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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