Scotland: Wizard of the North
The Scottish Borders provided Sir Walter Scott, Scotland’s most prolific and successful writer, with plenty of inspiration for his ballads and bestselling romantic historical novels. Spellbinding ruined abbeys, fortified watchtowers and magnificent stately homes dot the countryside, while visitors will discover charming market towns that were built on the fortunes on the textile industry that still flourishes today…
Although some people may think Outlander author Diane Gabaldon was the first writer responsible for putting Scotland on the international tourism map with her bestselling books, in fact, the accolade should go to Sir Walter Scott, who is regarded as the inventor of the Scottish romantic historical novel and who had an adoring global fan base during the 19th century. It was thought that Scott gained the nickname ‘The Wizard of the North’ because he first published his Waverley series anonymously, creating an aura of mystique as well as conjuring up magical images of Scotland. The bestselling series, featuring the Heart of Midlothian, Rob Roy and Ivanhoe, dominated the world of fiction during the 19th century. Putting an overly romantic spin on religious and political conflicts, he did much to awaken national pride among the Scottish people and shape the country’s identity as we know it today.
Although Scott is best known as Scotland’s foremost storyteller, he was also a historian, politician and lawyer and, in today’s terminology, a travel and fashion influencer. And, this year, you can learn more about his work and legacy as Scotland celebrates the 250th anniversary of his birth with a series of highprofile events.
Sir Walter Scott’s legacy is all-encompassing. There are indelible landmarks recognising his many achievements, including the dramatic Walter Scott monument, in Edinburgh, the second-largest monument dedicated to a writer in the world.
Moreover, his image still appears on Bank of Scotland banknotes after he was credited with saving the Scottish banknote from extinction. Edinburgh’s Waverley station is also the only station in the world to be named after a novel.
Although Scott is best known as Scotland’s foremost storyteller, he was also a historian, politician and lawyer and, in today’s terminology, a travel and fashion influencer
LANDSCAPES AND LOCATIONS
Although some of Scott’s novels are based on the Scottish Highlands, including his influential romantic narrative poem The Lady of the Lake that talks about the fighting between Highland and Lowland clans, it was the history and scenery of The Borders, a region that lies south of Edinburgh and shares a border with Northumberland in northern England, that provides much inspiration for his writing. Visitors to this picturesque region will discover a patchwork of rolling hills, heatherclad moorlands, fertile pastures and sheep-dotted pastures woven together by the meandering salmonrich waters of the River Tweed. It is also home to two of Scotland’s National Scenic Areas – The Eildon and Leaderfoot, and the Upper Tweeddale – both of which are a haven for walkers and nature lovers. Aside from the unspoiled countryside, the region enjoys a stunning stretch of rugged North Berwickshire coastline punctuated by sandy beaches and charming fishing villages, such as Eyemouth and St Abbs. It is worth a detour to St Abb's Headland National Nature Reserve, Scotland’s first marine reserve, where you’ll find dramatic cliffs, gullies and offshore stacks famed for their seabird colonies that include guillemots, kittiwakes, and razorbills.
The Borders was a place that Sir Walter Scott held close to his heart as, although he was born in Edinburgh, he escaped the cramped conditions of his family home in the city’s Old Town after contracting polio as a young child. He was sent to convalesce at his grandparents' farm, which sat snugly in the shadow of Smailholm, a 15th-century hilltop tower house perched high on a rocky crag, offering panoramic views across to the three peaks of the Eildon Hills.
The fortified tower acted as a defensive lookout for this area that was once rife with cross-border warfare, feuding and ferocious outlaws, and cattle raiders known as the Border Reivers. Look out for the huge statue of a Border Reiver on horseback that stands proudly in the town of Galashiels. Today Smailholm contains a small museum of costume figures and tapestries relating to Scott’s ballads.
It is from this time when bedtime stories recounted by his Aunt Jenny – of ancient Scottish folklore and romantic tales of Border chivalry crammed with sweeping landscapes, political intrigue and violence –fired young Scott's imagination. In his collection of Border Ballads, he writes about local landmarks such as Melrose Abbey, describing how it appeared in moonlight, “the buttress and buttress alternately, seem framed of ebon and ivory.”
Visitors can learn more about the region’s bloody struggles by visiting the many historic sites and museums, including the Mary Queen of Scots' Visitors Centre in Jedburgh. Other must-see attractions include the haunting ruins of the four Borders abbeys and a handful of magnificent stately homes, including Floors Castle, Scotland’s largest inhabited castle situated just outside Kelso; and Marchmont House, an imposing Grade A-listed Palladian mansion famed for its lavish interiors and ornate sculptures, west of Berwick-upon- Tweed. Today Marchmont also provides creative residences, workshops and studios for local artists, such as Charlie Poulson. Literary lovers should pop into The Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells, a delightful independent bookshop and café, and plan their visit to tie in with the annual Borders Book Festival held in Melrose every June.
...(the) farm sat snugly in the shadow of Smailholm, a 15th century hilltop tower house perched high on a rocky crag offering panoramic views across to the three peaks of the Eildon Hills.
Visitors to the Borders can tick off many Walter-Scottrelated attractions, such as Selkirk Courthouse where he sat as Deputy Sheriff, and the medieval ruins of Dryburgh Abbey, his final resting place.
Scott fans should put Abbotsford House, his beloved home set in 1,400 acres of lush woodland overlooking the River Tweed, at the top of their must-see list. Another celebrated Scottish writer Allan Massie, said in his newly published novel The Ragged Lion about Scott’s life that: “No one, I believe, can understand Scott who does not also know Abbotsford.” Originally bought as a modest farmhouse on the outskirts of Melrose, Abbotsford House was completely redesigned by Scott in the fashionable Scots Baronial style. Scott described the house as 'this whimsical place which I have christened Conundrum Castle”. Queen Victoria was so impressed with the design after she stayed there that she remodelled Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire in the same style. Visitors can tour the house and view Scott's study where his quill and ink sit on his writing desk, and admire his extraordinary collection of art, armour and artefacts, including a breastplate pierced by bullets that he brought back from the battlefields at Waterloo, and the main door of the former Tolbooth gaol in Edinburgh. You can also learn more about his life and legacy at a permanent exhibition at the visitor centre.
TARTANS, TEXTILES AND TWEED
Scott’s blockbuster novels fuelled an insatiable appetite around the world for all things Scottish, including fashion.
After rediscovering the Scottish Crown Jewels hidden away in a chest in Edinburgh Castle, he was given a baronetcy and asked to orchestrate King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. This was the first British monarch to visit Scotland for over 200 years and Scott encouraged the King to wear a specially designed Royal Stuart tartan in the ‘Gathering of the Gael’ triumphal procession.
Previously tartan had been banned by the 1746 Dress Act, as it had been seen by the English as symbol of Jacobite loyalty. However, when images of the King circulated in his full Scottish regalia, kilt-wearing and tartan cloth became hugely fashionable – not just with Scots but all round the world, as it continues to do so today. Woollen mills were established along riverbanks
in The Borders to supply this demand. The region soon gained an international reputation for producing quality textiles, with Galashiels becoming renowned as a quality producer of Shepherd's Check (Plaid). Discover the story of the region's textile industry at tthe Borders Textile Towerhouse, a restored 16th-century tower house that is the oldest building in Hawick.
Fascinating displays of fashion, photography and film clips bring to life over 200 years of tradition and innovation in the region’s woollen industries. Today there are plenty of places to purchase luxury garments, with Johnstons of Elgin, Hawico, Lovat Mill in Hawick, and Lochcarron in Selkirk just a few good examples.
THE TAPESTRY OF SCOTLAND
With its striking contemporary design, the purpose-built Great Tapestry of Scotland Museum opened in 2021 in Galashiels. One of the world’s largest arts community projects, the tapestry features 160 panels using 300 miles of wool and was created by 1,000 stitchers from all over Scotland. It tells the story of Scotland’s history, heritage, and culture from 8500 BC right up to the present day. It incorporates 10 panels depicting scenes from The Borders, including one on Sir Walter Scott, the River Tweed and The Border Reivers. It was the brainchild of another bestselling British author, Alexander McCall Smith, who told Dream Escape how it came about: “The idea came to me after seeing an earlier tapestry done by local artist Andrew Crummy – it was the ideal platform for storytelling, and it moved me. It really did. I spoke to Andrew at the event, and he agreed that embroidered tapestry could indeed be used to tell the history of Scotland.
We needed a historian, and the great Scottish author Alistair Moffat was the ideal candidate. This was to be a people’s story of Scotland.” He added that the Borders was the most suitable place for its permanent home, “because of its association of that part of Scotland with textiles.”
Talking about his fondness of the region, McCall Smith remarked: “The friendliness of The Borders is very striking. This is a part of the world where people know who their neighbours are. Local associations are strong. This is a place where memories are deep, not shallow. This is a place where people take pride in belonging”.
This was to be a people’s story of Scotland
– Alexander McCall Smith
WHERE TO STAY
Marchmont House, Greenlaw
Situated 40 miles from Edinburgh and 19 miles west of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Marchmont House is an imposing Grade A-listed Palladian mansion built in 1750 by Hugh Hume- Campbell, third Earl of Marchmont. Featuring elaborate and lavish interiors, including richly ornate George II decorative plasterwork, the stately home was designed by one of Scotland’s eminent architects William Adam, with later changes made by another leading Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer. Guests can stay in one of the eight en-suite double rooms (or they can be booked exclusively as a group) in the self-contained Lorimer Apartment on either a self-catered or catered basis. Access to the rooms is via lift from a private entrance. If the house is rented as a whole, two further state bedrooms are included, accommodating 20 people in total. Dream Escape guests will also enjoy exclusive tours of the house and the garden sculptures.
Abbotsford House, Melrose
The magnificent home of Sir Walter Scott was both his beloved family home as well as where he wrote his bestselling poems and novels. You can visit the beautiful house that is set in 1,400 acres of wooded parkland overlooking the River Tweed as well as the chapel, the exquisite walled garden and the visitors centre, which has a permanent exhibition on Scott’s life and work as well as a restaurant. You can also stay in one of the seven luxury double rooms, plus an adjoining eighth bedroom, in the Hope
Scott Wing on a self-catering basis or exclusively as a group on a fully catered basis. Private groups can also hire the castle with use of the state rooms, including the drawing room, billiards room, reading room and formal dining room.
Thirlestaine Castle, Lauder
Located just outside the village of Lauder and approximately 35 miles south of Edinburgh, Thirlestaine Castle is one of the oldest inhabited castles in Scotland, dating back to the 16th century, and is owned by the Maitland family. Within the castle, there are five luxury self-catering suites located in the South Wing, decorated with furniture and portraits from the castle collections. There is a mixture of one-, two- and threebedroom suites. The en-suite rooms are available individually or can be booked exclusively by a group of up to 16 people. Exclusive use of the castle, including private catering in the state rooms, is also available as are a range of onsite experiences, such as whisky tasting, archery, horse riding and clay pigeon shooting.
Find out more
Rosie Peattie, Head of Guiding “For such a small county of 30,981 square miles, Scotland has a remarkable variety of scenery. One of my favourite areas, that I am lucky enough to call home, is the Scottish Borders, south of Edinburgh. I love hiking through the forests and over the rolling hills scattered with sheep, and walking along the banks of the beautiful River Tweed, one of Scotland’s top five salmon-fishing rivers. An area steeped in history with spectacular castles and stately homes, it is a truly fascinating place to live and it is always a pleasure to share it with our clients”.
WORDS | ANNABEL MACKIE