Recently I was trying to explain to an American friend what, in my eyes at least, makes experiences in the Scottish outdoors so alive and so layered in rich contexts. I was trying to say, not very well, that wherever you go in the landscape, there is evidence of time, ancient and primeval, that you can touch and be amongst. It’s as if the past is always present.
Take for example, a recent walk in the Eildon Hills, down in the Scottish Borders, an area that’s gotten under my skin of late. The hills rise in quite a dramatic fashion above the historical town of Melrose, a pretty wee Borders town with a market square and lively High Street. The route up the Eildons from town follows the trail of St Cuthbert’s Way, a long distance walking route that commemorates the saint. He started his religious life in Melrose in 650AD and the trail links Melrose to Holy Island off the Northumbria Coast, St Cuthbert’s original pilgrimage shrine and final resting place.
As I climbed steeply out of town, the trail was frozen solid on this chill winter’s day and there was a dusting of snow on the tops up ahead. A patchwork of farmers' fields were laid out below, some green and some rich, dark brown having gone under the plough. The incline of the route eased a little as I gained a bealach between the North Hill and the Mid Hill, two of the three peaks that make up the Eildons. Here I touched history even farther back in time. Millions of years ago, these peaks around me were active volcanoes. The tops themselves were formed by underground eruptions. And 7000 years ago, early people settled here on the slopes, making shelved places in the hills for siting basic dwellings and using flint tools which have been found throughout the landscape hereabouts.
A short, but steep and icy, pull had me on top of Mid Hill where I was blasted by a freezing wind. At 422m it's a tiddler of a hill, but its isolated position and shapely outline make it a real Borders landmark. And in today's weather, it felt like the top of Everest. The view was gentle and rolling though today I wasn't going to linger in the wind and cold on top to enjoy it.
I dropped off the south side of the hills into the relative shelter of the stately beech trees that make up much of the woodland here. Following a small path through the trees, I eventually contoured round the east side of the North Hill in late afternoon sunshine. The path followed a field edge along a line of beautiful, old beech trees. Below me, on the lower slopes of the hills, was the site of a Roman garrison called Trimontium. Dating from 80AD, it was named after the three peaks above. There's not much left to see on the ground today but information boards and artists' reconstructions try to bring the place back to life.
As I contoured further round the hill to pick up my outward route, Melrose appeared again down below and before long I was back amongst its shops and traffic. Before I caught my train home, there was one more piece of the past to visit, Melrose Abbey. Founded in 1136 by Cistercian monks, the abbey is now partially ruined and is all the more beautiful for it, especially today as its red standstone facade glowed in the golden rays of the sinking sun. It's said to be the burial place of the heart of Robert the Bruce though nobody has been able to prove beyond doubt that the heart held there in a casket is indeed that of the ancient king of Scotland. That mystery will for ever be consigned to the past.
As for the present, I had a train to catch and the path alongside the lazy waters of the River Tweed took me back to the Borders railway at Tweedbank for my ride home.
Start/Finish: Melrose. The Borders railway ends at Tweedbank from where it's a short cycle, walk or bus ride into Melrose. From the town centre head out on Dingleton Road and just after the overpass look for signs for St Cuthbert's Way/Eildon HIlls which point to a path through a gap in the houses. The path climbs a long series of steps then emerges on the open hill. Follow St Cuthert's Way to the bealach and from here the routes up North Hill or Mid Hill are very obvious. To return I continued along St Cuthbert's Way for a short distance down the other side of the hill and took a faint path east through the trees just before a gate. This path eventually emerges onto a track. It's a lovely walk. A little way further on, beside two wooden seats, a Melrose Paths walkers' sign points through a gate and a path follows a field margin as it contours round the North Hill. It soon junctions with another path heading to the top of the hill - turn right here. Immediately before the next gate turn left onto a smaller path, faint at first but becomes firmer. This continues to contour round the hill and eventually joins the outward route at a waymarking three-point sign.