Dominated by the Southern Uplands, a chain of bulging round-topped hills, Southern Scotland divides neatly into three regions: the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, and Ayrshire. Although none of them has the highest of tourist profiles, those visitors who whizz past on their way north to Edinburgh, Glasgow or the Highlands are missing out on a huge swathe of Scotland that is in many ways the very heart of the country. Over the centuries, its inhabitants, particularly in the Borders, bore the brunt of long, brutal wars with the English, its farms have fed Scotland’s cities since industrialization, and two of the country’s greatest literary icons, Sir Walter Scott and Robbie Burns, lived and died here.
North of the inhospitable Cheviot Hills, which separate Scotland from England, the Borders region is dominated by the meanderings of the River Tweed. The towns here have provided inspiration for countless folkloric ballads telling of bloody battles with the English and clashes between the notorious warring families, the Border Reivers. The delightful small town of Melrose is the most obvious base, and has the most impressive of the four Border abbeys founded by the medieval Canmore kings, all of which are now reduced to romantic ruins.
Dumfries and Galloway, in the southwestern corner of Scotland, gets even more overlooked than the Borders. If you do make the effort to get off the main north–south highway to Glasgow, you’ll find more ruined abbeys, medieval castles, forested hills and dramatic tidal flats and sea cliffs ideal for birdwatching. The key resort is the modest, charming town of Kirkcudbright, halfway along the Solway coast, indented by sandy coves.
Ayrshire is rich farming country, with fewer sights than its neighbours; almost everything of interest is confined to the coast. The golf courses along its gentle coastline are among the finest links courses in the country, while fans of Robert Burns could happily spend several days exploring the author’s old haunts, especially at Ayr, the county town, and the nearby village of Alloway, the poet’s birthplace.
The Borders region is sandwiched between the Cheviot Hills on the English border and the Pentland and Moorfoot ranges to the south of Edinburgh. The finest section of the lush Tweed valley lies between Melrose and Peebles, where you’ll find a string of attractions, from Sir Walter Scott’s eccentric mansion at Abbotsford to the ancient seat of Traquair House, along with the region’s famous abbeys, founded in the reign of King David I (1124–53).
One of seven forest biking centres in southern Scotland – known collectively as the 7 Stanes (w scotland.forestry.gov.uk/activities/mountain-biking/7stanes) – Glentress Forest, two miles east of Peebles on the A72, has some of the best mountain biking in Scotland. There are five superb, carefully crafted purpose-built trails, colour-coded for difficulty, and a fantastic bike hire centre, The Hub (t 01721 72136, w www.glentressforest.com).
As a child, Walter Scott (1771–1832), disabled by polio, was sent to recuperate at his grandfather’s farm in Smailholm, where his imagination was fuelled by his relative’s tales of the old, violent troubles in the Borders. Throughout the 1790s he transcribed hundreds of old Border ballads, publishing a three-volume collection entitled Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders in 1802. An instant success, Minstrelsy was followed by Scott’s own Lay of the Last Minstrel, a narrative poem whose strong story and rose-tinted regionalism proved very popular. More poetry was to come, most successfully Marmion (1808) and The Lady of the Lake (1810).
However, despite having two paid jobs, his finances remained shaky. He had become a partner in a printing firm, which put him into debt, not helped by the enormous sums he spent on his mansion, Abbotsford. From 1813, writing to pay the bills, Scott thumped out a flood of historical novels, producing his best work within the space of ten years: Waverley (1814), The Antiquary (1816), Rob Roy and The Heart of Midlothian (both 1818), as well as two notable novels set in England, Ivanhoe (1819) and Kenilworth (1821).
In 1825 Scott’s money problems reached crisis proportions after an economic crash bankrupted his printing business. Attempting to pay his creditors in full, he found the quality of his writing deteriorating with its increased speed. His last years were plagued by illness; in 1832 he died at Abbotsford and was buried within the ruins of Dryburgh Abbey.
The Maxwell Stuarts have lived in Traquair House since 1491, making it the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland. The whitewashed facade is strikingly handsome, with narrow windows and trim turrets surrounding the tiniest of front doors – in other words it’s a welcome change from other grandiose stately homes. Inside, you can see original vaulted cellars, where locals once hid their cattle from raiders; the twisting main staircase as well as the earlier medieval version, later a secret escape route for persecuted Catholics; a carefully camouflaged priest’s hole; and even a priest’s room where a string of resident chaplains lived in hiding. In the museum room there is a wealth of treasures, including a fine example of a Jacobite Amen glass, a rosary and crucifix owned by Mary, Queen of Scots, and the cloak worn by the Earl of Nithsdale during his dramatic escape from the Tower of London.
Spare time for the surrounding gardens, where you’ll find a hedge maze, several craft workshops and the Traquair House Brewery, the only British brewery that still ferments totally in oak. There’s a café serving snacks in an estate cottage on the redundant avenue that leads to the locked Bear Gates; Bonnie Prince Charlie left the house through these gates, and the then-owner promised to keep them locked till a Stuart should ascend the throne.
Of the various walks through the hills surrounding Peebles, the five-mile Sware Trail is one of the easiest and most scenic, weaving west along the north bank of the river and looping back to the south. On the way, it passes Neidpath Castle, a gaunt medieval tower-house perched high above the river on a rocky bluff. The walk also goes by the splendid skew rail bridge, part of the defunct Glasgow line.
Top image: Ruins the Abbey of Saint Mary of Crossraguel, South Ayrshire © inkwelldodo/Shutterstock