The Borders: Scotland's best-kept secret
In the build-up to the Olympics, a veritable flood of TV and press ads have been exhorting us to turn our backs on foreign climes and instead spend our holidays at home.
Scenery, culture, history – and activities-wise – that opens up lots of enticing options. These days you can even find decent food in most of our towns and cities – and accommodation choices range from friendly farmhouse B&Bs and reliable, economically priced chain lodgings to grand city-centre establishments and historic country houses.
It never ceases to amaze me that while most of my family, friends and neighbours are familiar with the appeal of the Spanish Costas, the Balearics and the other big sun, sand and sea destinations – even Florida – many of them have never, ever, flipped across the Irish Sea to Scotland, a land so close you can see it clearly from Antrim’s shore.
And almost all those who have taken the short sea journey from Belfast to Stranraer or the even quicker fastcraft from Larne to Cairnryan or Troon have immediately hit the high road and headed north for the spectacular Highlands rather than first explore what is right there on their doorstep.
They don’t know what they are missing out on by hurtling through the delightful Borders – Scotland’s best-kept secret.
Where history stalks
It’s true the scenery is not as spectacular as can be found in such abundance further north but there’s a softer kind of beauty, with rolling moorlands alternating secret, lushly wooded valleys. The towns and villages reek of history, with solid, centuries-old stone buildings, rather than the rash of drab 20th Century bungalows that blight so many Highlands’ settlements.
With Scotland’s magical capital city of Edinburgh at the region’s northern limits, there’s potential for a town and country flavoured short break or longer stay.
There’s variety too, from the rich farmlands of the Mull of Galloway peninsula and the vast forest park that stretches eastwards for seemingly endless miles along the enticing A712 to the spectacular mountain road from Moffat up and over the 500 ft (150 m) bowl of the Devil’s Beef Tub, a natural hollow formed by four mighty and brooding hills.
Instead of carrying on straight to Edinburgh, follow the delightful road that shadows the salmon-laden River Tweed from the gentle hills of Upper Tweeddale eastwards towards Berwick – a much fought over frontier town that changed hands 13 times and is now in England but plays football in the Scottish league – and you’ll transport yourself to a barely trafficked pastoral paradise.
There’s a powerful magnet to draw you across Lowland Scotland’s far from low-slung backbone, and that’s the prospect of spending your first night in a wonderful country house hotel, sampling the delights of how the other half live.
The Duke of Roxburghe presides over one of the largest private estates in these islands – some 50,000 acres of farmland and shooting moors. His Grace’s home is Floors Castle, which is Scotland’s largest private house and one of the region’s prime visitor attractions. The Roxburghe Hotel & Golf Course, just a couple of miles west of the bustling little market town of Kelso.
At the heart of a 500-acre estate on the banks of the pretty River Teviot, this welcoming property is grand enough to register as a minor stately home in most guests’ eyes but was actually created by the Duke’s predecessors as a hunting lodge.
Recently refurbished, the 22 elegant and very spacious guest rooms come to life through the Duke and Duchess’s personal touch – it’s grand and stylish, yes, but manages to be quintessentially homely at the same time: “The right balance of informal efficiency,” as Pat Clelland, a visitor fro/m County Down, put it. There’s haute cuisine on offer – with an emphasis on beautifully prepared and presented local produce, much of it from the estate – but my fondest memories are of sipping my mid-morning coffee, seated in a comfortable window alcove, basking in the bright spring sunshine that was streaming into the lounge and of, later in the day, indulging myself in a lavish cream-tea spread while warming myself before a roaring log fire.
The only spoiler was misplacing my spectacles, the two-hour long search for them a seemingly hopeless task as not just one, nor two but six of the hotel’s ever attentive staff helped me scour the place before one of them kindly drove me into town to try to order a new pair. Job done, we returned for me to console myself with that aforementioned cream tea. Lo and behold, as she put the tray down on the coffee table, the waitress spotted something glinting on the carpet and there were the glasses that, miraculously, had not been trodden on, despite the dozens of people who must have walked past!
The incident ended up doing me a favour – my eagerly awaited session of clay pigeon shooting having been postponed till the next morning, when I had the instructor to myself and there was no time pressure.
I’m not a golfer, but I’ve walked courses all over the world and could see that Roxburghe’s challenging and beautifully sited lay-out is a true championship standard offering – designed by the redoubtable David Thomas and now presided over by affable course director Craig Montgomerie.
A third outdoors pursuit option was trout fishing lessons with a world champion fly-caster but I was content to relax in the lounge, scanning the newspapers and all those country magazines with their window on a very different lifestyle from the big city grind. I needed little persuasion to book a second night – the Roxburghe is my definition of bliss.
But 51 miles – 1 hr 15 min – away, Edinburgh was calling. My accommodation choice could not have been more convenient. Waterloo Place is the eastern extension of Princes Street, one of Europe’s most renowned shopping strips. At number 16 you’ll find the Princes Street Suites, modern, stylish and super comfortable self-catering suites.
I’d use the word ‘minimalist’ if it weren’t so over-worked. Here less means more – everything you need is on hand, it’s simply presented in a bright, uncluttered manner.
The full-height glazing is the bargain, opening up stunning views across one of Europe’s most stunning city skylines.
There are 37 one, two and three bedroom suites and a penthouse available in this central location. Amenities include a 24-hour concierge, a transfer service, baby-sitting and business secretarial services. A private chef is available for in-room service while a breakfast basket is brought to each room in the morning.
It’s a 15-minute stroll across North Bridge, straddling Waverley Station and the railway, then right up the cobbled High Street – better known as The Royal Mile – to reach the amazing Scotch Whisky Experience museum, shop and tasting rooms, right in the lee of the famous castle.
Scotland’s most renowned export is a £4.5 bn business, and this is its showcase – featuring the world’s largest collection of Scotch whiskies, including many extremely rare bottles.
The subject of a lavish £3 m refurbishment just two years ago, the facility will see a further £1 m invested in improving its on-site whisky shop as part of an ongoing development programme to assure its place among the top-five Scottish tourism attractions.
Various guided tours and tastings are available while the outstanding on-site Amber Restaurant features an exquisite Taste of Scotland menu.
Dinner that evening was savoured at the Edinburgh outlet of the Harvey Nichols department store.
With views across the city’s West End on one side and down to the Firth of Forth at the other, the recently re-designed, spacious but bustling Forth Floor Restaurant puts the spotlight on award-winning chef Stuart Muir, who exploits the finest Scottish produce to create inventive dishes that partner modern flavours with traditional technique.
Recent champion status awarded by the Sustainability Restaurants Association is a fitting recognition of the Forth Floor Restaurant’s exceptional credentials across the key areas of sourcing, environment and society.
Slow cooked Ayrshire pork belly with pâté brik, cognac-soaked prunes, black pudding, coco nibs, cauliflower cream, soused baby vegetables and toasted cumin and caraway seeds tasted as good as it sounds.
Robert Owen’s vision
An easy drive through the big sky country of the rolling Pentland Hills uplands took me to the intriguing New Lanark World Heritage Site. Set beside the headwaters of the River Clyde, a short stroll from the tumbling Falls of Clyde, this superbly preserved cotton-spinning mill village was founded in 1785 by David Dale then managed by his son-in-law – the remarkable and charismatic industrialist, philanthropist and visionary Robert Owen, who operated his pioneering social reforms here in the Scottish Borders before attempting a similar programme across the Atlantic.
The co-operative movement, trade unionism and socialism were all influenced by this amazing personage. Visitors can look round the great man’s former home and a couple of working peoples’ lodgings restored to how they would have been furnished in the 1820s and the1930s, as well as the former spinning rooms, a period village store, the old schoolhouse and other attractions.
There’s a choice of accommodation within the conservation village, from a selection of one and two bedroom self-catering waterhouse cottages to the 38 spacious and stylishly modern bedrooms of the New Lanark Mill Hotel, a conversion of one of the old industrial buildings.
The hotel’s amenities include a 16.5 m swimming pool, health and fitness facilities, a conference and events centre and fine dining.
From New Lanark I drove 16 easy miles to the enchanting picture-postcard village of Skirling, where my overnight accommodation was booked at Skirling House. Built in 1908 for Sir Thomas Gibson-Carmichael, who later became Lord Carmichael, this rambling arts and crafts style, wood-clad, former hunting lodge is unprepossessing from the outside.
Open the door though and the word “wow” quickly springs to mind – the super comfortable lounge features a massive fireplace, with huge logs blazing merrily, and a breathtakingly ornate ceiling.
Room are reassuringly trad B&B in style while dinner is taken ensemble. Dinner is a set meal, lovingly prepared by owner Bob Hunter, with his wife Isobel presiding over the meticulous service, but such narrowing down of choice bestows the advantage that the kitchen task can be concentrated, ensuring that every plate is perfect.
Poached pear with dill cream, followed by Borders game casserole, a filo pastry basket with Biggar Blue cheese in an elderflower cream and, finally, a guanaja chocolate soufflé, could not have been a better choice with each of the four courses a culinary masterpiece.
Breakfast does have a few options and the asparagus, picked fresh from the kitchen garden that morning, could not have been more tasty and succulent.
Before you go
Make sure to obtain a good road map before setting out. There’s a web of delightful backroads to explore but filling stations are few and far between and sometimes keep rather restricted hours.
When to go
Every season has its appeal, with flower-lined hedgerows in spring, languid summers wit long days and twilight lasting till midnight and beyond, colourful autumns and atmospheric winters – though snowbound roads and very short days can be a problem in the depths of winter.
How to get there
There are regular fast trains linking Edinburgh to London and other cities south of the border or you can fly into either Edinburgh or Glasgow or drive north on the A1 or the M74.
Where to stay
Stylish country house hotels, friendly farmhouse B&Bs and historic coaching inns give plenty of choice. Such Borders towns as Dumfries, Moffat, Peebles, Kelso and Galashiels offer plenty of choice but in high summer it is wise to book ahead.
How to get around
There are country bus services but ser vices are sporadic so you’ll need a car to explore properly.
What to eat and drink
Ironically, while boasting Europe’s most bountiful larders, Scotland has traditionally offered some of the most unhealthy food to be found anywhere Deep fried Mars bars are not a myth!
Things have improved dramatically in recent times and the Borders is now well served with top quality restaurants, with Edinburgh especially well serve d.
Not to miss specialities include cullen skink (a fish chowder made with haddock), exquisite wild salmon and other seafood, succulent Scottish beef, black pudding and, of course, haggis.
There are some good beers and the Borders can boast several working whisky distilleries.
What to speak
This is not a Gaelic region so English is the tongue you’ll hear in shops and pubs. Accents can be strong and there’s a lot of dialect patois but it’s not as strong and incomprehensible to Sassenachs as it was back in Robert Burns’ day.
What to spend (and tip)
Like the rest of the UK, Scotland remains outside the Eurozone. While Bank of England notes are universally accepted, you will also come across sterling notes issued by the Bank of Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Clydesdale Bank. Scottish notes are today generally accepted by banks, shops and other businesses in England and Wales but are very difficult to exchange at banks outside the UK.
A supposedly optional 12.5% service charge is routinely added to restaurant bills while a cash tip of 10’% is usual in cafés and teashops. Pub bar staff are not usually tipped. Tip cab drivers 10% of the recorded fare and give £1 minimum to hotel porters
For further information on the enticing Scottish Borders, go to: www/visitscotland.com
Roger St Pierre
Inveterate traveller Roger St Pierre has been to 130 countries but still likes to spend time exploring the northern reaches of the UK. He’s visited every Scottish settlement of more than a thousand people and has a special love for the delightful Borders region.