Scottish Borders Tour

The sensational and alluring Borders country in the southern part of Scotland is an absolute delight. Around every corner there is something of beauty and interest. Ruined abbeys are abundant, nestling among rolling green hills, the coastline is famous for its golf courses and the meandering rivers and stunning views were an inspiration to the great writer Sir Walter Scott, who called the Scottish Borders his home. Visit clifftop castle ruins, majestic stately homes and charming villages. Even spend time at one of the lesser known Lowland whisky distilleries for that all important 'wee dram'.

Starting up in Edinburgh one can spend time strolling along the Royal Mile from the castle downhill to the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse. The city is in two distinct parts, that of the Old Town which huddles around the castle, a fortress built 800 years ago on an extinct volcano which has been dormant for over 350 million years. The northern part of the city is where you will find the New Town, full of crescents, squares, terraces and circuses designed in the classical style from the mid -1760s onwards.

There is no parking up at the castle so use one of Edinburgh's 6 park and ride bus services or park at Waverley railway station which lies between the old and new towns. The castle contains the Honours of Scotland (the Crown Jewels), a regimental museum, royal apartments, the old prison and the oldest building in the city, the 12th century St Margaret Chapel right at the summit of the castle.

Walking down the Royal Mile you will see the High Kirk of St Giles (Edinburgh Cathedral), and just off the Royal Mile southwards down George IV Bridge you can visit the free National Museum of Scotland with seven floors packed with historic artifacts and information. Heading the other way, northwards down The Mound towards the New Town is the National Gallery of Scotland which is also free to visit.

If you continue down the Royal Mile you will move from High Street to Cannongate where you will find the Museum of Edinburgh, the modern Scottish Assembly Buildings (Parliament) and, right at the foot of the hill, the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse with the ruins of Holyrood Abbey next door. The palace was initially just a gatehouse for the abbey but slowly and gradually the Scottish monarchs preferred this location to the cold, draughty castle on the top of the hill. After the Scottish Reformation took hold, the old abbey was replaced by Cannongate Kirk in 1690, a building you may have seen opposite the Museum of Edinburgh. Although the abbey was used as a private chapel for a while longer it was eventually abandoned. If you decided to buy a ticket for a tour of the Royal Palace it will include the house, the abbey ruins and the gardens.

Towering above Holyrood is Arthur's Seat, a hill rising to a height of 879ft (251m) which you can climb using various paths to the summit for breathtaking views over the city and neighbouring countryside. You can look over to Calton Hill with the National Monument to Scots that fell in the Napoleonic Wars, the Nelson Monument and the old City Observatory. Look out south to the distant Pentland Hills or north across the Firth of Forth and over to Fife. Or look east to the North Sea and the beaches of Lothian. That's the route to take to tour the Scottish Borders.

It is often omitted by tourists paying a visit to Scotland's capital but a short drive east of the city centre will take you to a rather attractive beach. Just follow the A1 out of the city and turn left on the A1140, continuing eastwards to the seafront at Portobello.  Once a separate town this is now Edinburgh's link to the ocean. Portobello, like many places that share this name throughout Britain, is named after the Spanish port in Panama captured by the British back in 1739 during an Anglo-Spanish War, also known colloquially as the War of Jenkin's Ear. The large expanse of sand and the long seafront face out towards the North Sea as the Firth of Forth widens and meets the ocean.

You will now be driving along what is fashionably known as the Golf Coast as this part of Scotland is known for its multitude of golf courses. The first town out of Edinburgh is Musselburgh. As the Romans occupied what is now southern Scotland then a lot of the places on this drive will have Roman origins and Musselburgh is no exception, founded sometime around AD 80. The bridge over the River Esk in the centre of the town is known as the "Roman" Bridge but it is thought to be 13th century. The bridge that you will drive over was built in 1806 to a design by John Rennie, famous for designing a number of bridges over the Thames in London along with his 1831 London Bridge now at Lake Havasu in Arizona.

After Musselburgh turn left on the B1348 via Prestonpans, scene of a victory for Bonnie Prince Charlie against Government troops on 21st September 1645 during the last major Jacobite rising. As you pass by a number of golf courses you will join up onto the A198, use this road to continue eastwards, you will now be heading from Midlothian into East Lothian. Look out for the Muirfield golf club, founded in 1744, a private club used frequently in the Open Championship. The road will go right through the course itself. You will continue to follow this coast road towards North Berwick.

A clear sign that you are approaching North Berwick is the proximity of North Berwick Law, a former volcanic mound 613ft (187m) high and quite a distinctive shape. It stands towering above the town. North Berwick is a beautiful fishing community with two delightful sandy beaches, West Bay and East Bay. It became an attractive resort for Edinburgh folk when the railway arrived here in 1850. Not long after a royal visit from Prince Albert in 1859 firmly established the town as a holiday destination. Most of the grand hotels date from this time. Take time to grab some local fish and chips and head down to the old stone harbour to watch the trawlers head out to sea. In the summer months you can board a boat for a journey out to Bass Rock, visible from the North Berwick shore. This huge volcanic rock is home to thousands of gannets and was once used as a prison in the 17th century.

A little further along the A198 you will reach Tantallon Castle. This spectacular site is something you may have already conjured up in your imagination. Standing on the clifftops, a large foreboding castle ruin, impressive, moving and incredibly photogenic. Built by the Earl of Douglas in the 14th century constant attacks over the next 300 years saw it lapse into the ruined state it looks like today. It is certainly worth parking here and exploring the ruins and the clifftops. Don't forget your camera!

Take the A198 back down to the A1 then turn right as if heading back to Edinburgh but as soon as you reach Haddington turn left into the A6093 towards Pencaitland. As soon as you reach the centre of the village you will see a petrol station on your right and also a brown tourist sign to Glenkinchie Distillery pointing left. Take this left turn along Lempockwells Road to this lovely little whisky distillery which first started operating in 1837. There is plenty of parking available and the tours run frequently and take about 45 minutes. There are different tours one can purchase from the regular standard tours to the connoisseurs tour with a full, indulgent and lengthy tasting!!

From this little distillery in the glen drive out and back to the A6083 turning left down to the A68 then left again towards Lauderdale. A scenic drive follows, over the higher ground and rolling hills that is a distinctive feature of the Borders country. Once you arrive in Lauder you will be passing through an estate village, where most properties here are owned by the local Lord of the Manor who resides in Thirlestane Castle, which as a bonus to you, is open to the public. The Maitland family have owned this place for over 400 years but its history stretches way back earlier than that when claimants to the Scottish throne, the Comyns were resident here. The building today is largely 18th and 19th century and is considered one of the grand homes of the Scottish Borders.

Continue on the A68 to Earlston, turn left on the A6105 then immediately right on the B6356 and follow this country road all the way up to Scott's View, truly one of the most breathtaking viewpoints in Scotland. The writer Sir Walter Scott lived nearby and he adored this view from here, over the River Tweed and to the Eildon Hills. Although born in Edinburgh in 1771, a childhood bout of polio meant he was sent to live out in the countryside with relatives and he spent most of his formative years and his later life in this area. A lot of his novels were set around here as a result. He died in 1832 and even in the day of his funeral as the horses took his body for burial at Dryburgh Abbey, they paused at this viewpoint by force of habit, as if to give Scott one last look at this incredible vista.

Continue along the B6356, no doubt admiring the views to your righthand side over the Tweed valley as you progress south. A few twists and turns in the road later and you will see signs for the Wallace Statue. This will be pointing you towards the right where there is a small car park and a trail through the woods taking you about 10 to 15 minutes to complete. You will finally arrive at a 31ft (9.4m) sandstone statue of the Guardian of Scotland, William Wallace, erected in 1814, long before he retrospectively gained the alternate name of Braveheart. It was paid for and placed here by the Earl of Buchan in whose estate the statue stands.

Return to the car park and continue on the B6356. Almost immediately there will be a T-junction. Turn right here for Dryburgh Abbey, burial place of Sir Walter Scott. The Abbey was established in 1150 and after the Scottish Reformation it slowly fell into decay from the late 16th century onwards. Built of the same sandstone as the nearby Wallace statue, the ruins gracefully stand by the banks of the River Tweed. Continue from here towards another famous Borders abbey by taking the B6356 then B6404 towards Kelso. Once you turn right on the A6089 and approach Kelso you will see signs for both Kelso Abbey and Floors Castle. You will pass the gatehouse to Floors Castle first so make a right and head over there. Not a castle in the strictest sense but a huge stately home built in 1720 for the Duke of Roxburghe to a design by William Adam with turrets and crenellations added by by William Playfair in the mid 19th century. This grand opulent house and gardens are open to the public and are very impressive. Kelso Abbey is probably the smallest collection of ruins on this tour but there is no charge to visit. Founded in 1128, the religious community here were dispersed in 1559 and the building abandoned.

From Kelso take the A699 following the southerly banks of the River Tweed to the A68 then turn left for Jedburgh. This beautiful town is dominated by its ruined abbey founded by King David I of Scotland in 1118 for Augustinian monks, beautifully located on the banks of Jed Water. After the Reformation it was used as a church for the next hundred years or so which is why quite a lot of the structure has survived. There is plenty of parking just across the bridge, next to the Abbey Bridge Tollhouse cafe. You can make the short walk back up to the abbey and also into the charming town with its small central square surroundedby stone houses. The nearby Mary Queen of Scots visitor centre is located in yet another house the hapless monarch is said to have spent the night in.

Take the A68 back northwards on a scenic drive towards Melrose. Eventually turn left on the A6091 just after you have passed through Newtown St Boswells with its large attractive village green. Just before Melrose is a place called Newstead, this is where you will find the earthworks of Trimontium, the Roman settlement from AD 80. Taking its name from the three summits of the Eildon Hills there is an information centre here but not much in the way of structures. Nearby in Melrose is another ruined Borders Abbey. Parking in the centre of the town right by the abbey means you can stroll down the main street with its various tea rooms and pay a visit to the abbey itself. There is a charge to enter. Founded in 1136 as a Cistercian house by King David I it is the burial place of King Alexander II after his death in 1249, members of the Earls of Douglas family, and the heart of Robert the Bruce (with the rest of his remains over at Dunfermline Abbey). Its empty sandstone gothic shell is testament to the turbulence following the Scottish Reformation of the later 16th century.

Further along the A6091 you will arrive at Abbotsford, the former home of Sir Walter Scott. Buying a small farmhouse in 1806 the writer and poet started to transform the house into a substantial building from 1816 to 1824. His bankruptcy saw quite a bit of planned work halted but he did create a large library and additional collections concerning Scottish heritage. The Scottish baronial architectural style, very popular in the 19th century, had some of its beginnings here and influenced many other buildings across Scotland and beyond. In many ways it resembles a small castle filled with curiosities and artifacts from all over the country.

From the nearby town of Tweedbank head to Galashiels and follow the A7 back towards Edinburgh winding your way on a scenic route following Gala Water. Look out for the old 13th century pack horse bridge over Gala Water on your left as you head into Stow. You then climb higher over the moors at an elevation of around 1,400 ft (425m). Eventually a mile or so after heading under the impressive Newbattle Railway Viaduct you will take a left on the A768 Melville Dykes Road towards Loanhead. Eventually turning left on the A701 and then B7006 towards the village of Roslin and the famous, mysterious Rosslyn Chapel. Since its appearance in "The Da Vinci Code" the little 15th century chapel here above Roslin Glen has welcomed thousands of visitors. It was a much quieter and a less frequently visited building before the release of the movie in 2006 but with the extra money generated they have done expert restoration of the chapel, reversing the problems created by an earlier restoration that actually caused damage to the structure. It has also provided a new visitor centre, opened in 2013, and cafe with splendid views over the glen. This private Chapel built for the Earl of Caithness around 1440 is full of symbolism both pagan and Christian decorating the inside of the building, look for intricately carved stonework like the beautiful Prentice Pillar, discover hidden meanings and allegories that can be read into the architecture, which, in turn, will lead to onward debate and discussion. A fascinating place to explore.

Just to the west side of the main entrance a small track leads down to Roslin Castle and the scenic Roslin Glen. The castle was one of a number of scenes painted by JMW Turner in 1818 for Sir Walter Scott to illustrate a guide to Scotland he was creating. The castle is now a private house reached by a high arched bridge. Further downwards, steps take you to the banks of the River North Esk and the Roslin Glen Country Park. The ruins of the old gunpowder works are fascinating and the trails and pathways that follow the river are very scenic. Picnic tables can be found on the riverbanks.

After your time here return to the A701 through Roslin village which will take you directly north back to Edinburgh.