As the weather’s got warmer and the country roads less icy, I’ve been out and about in the Borders in my little car, a minty-silver Honda Jazz rejoicing under the name of The Duchess. Being based in Fife means that I can day-trip (with an early start and late finish, or a night at an Edinburgh friend’s) down, so for the cost of a tank and a half of petrol, I’ve been exploring!
I had the perfect guide for my trip to Melrose Abbey – my good friend Sally, knitting aficionado and author of the abbey’s new guidebook. Melrose is one of four Benedictine abbeys founded in the Borders in the Middle Ages. In 1136 thirteen Cistercians, known as the ‘white monks’ for their undyed woollen habits, founded Melrose by the river Tweed. While the monks spent many hours in prayer, contemplation and reading, their lay brothers set up sheep farms at nearby Eildon and Gattonside on lands gifted to the abbey by Scotland’s King David I.
All four Border abbeys farmed sheep in their thousands: by the fourteenth century records attest that Melrose flocks numbered seventeen thousand. Historians reckon that much of this exported wool came from the now-extinct Scottish Dunface, also known as the Scottish Shortwool. A short-tailed hardy breed with, as the name suggests, a brown face and pale fleece, the Dunface reigned supreme in the Border countries before the sixteenth century. Sold to be spun and woven in on the Continent, wool was shorn, washed and graded by the monks. Italy and the Low Countries both had extensive textile industries eager to work with British wool, said to be ‘finer than a spider’s silk’.
Kirkhope Tower was our next calling point, a classic Scottish pele in Ettrickdale dating from the time of the Border reivers. Home to the eldest sons of Harden, its most famous inhabitant was Auld Wat of Harden (a Walter Scott some generations earlier than his literary namesake). This tall stone edifice is the setting for a well-kent vignette from Border history. Wat’s wife Mary, hymned as ‘The Flower of Yarrow’ for her beauty, would serve her husband’s spurs to him on a platter when the stores ran low – a tacit command to head out on horseback and restock their presses with the sheep and cattle of their enemies.
Kirkhope Tower also falls within the old stomping grounds of James Hogg. Known as the Ettrick Shepherd, Hogg popularised not only Border folklore (with a little help from the aforementioned Walter Scott) but also the image of the Border shepherd, happed in his black-and-white shepherd’s plaid. From her expansive collection of all things woollen Sally supplied me with a similar plaid, pictured here with the coconut-scented whins which fill the valley with their smell when the sun shines.
We also saw several fine Scottish Blackface sheep, a breed with their origins in the monasteries’ Dunface. In 1503 James IV developed an improved five thousand-strong Blackface flock in Ettrickdale. The breed continues to be popular for its meat and fleece, much of which apparently ends up in Italian mattresses and carpets. I’ll end this post with a snap of one particularly fine specimen who was keen to pose for the camera – and clearly aware of her own historic importance!