Tour 3/22 : Northumbria

Says Tweed tae Till,
Whit gars ye rin still?
Says Till tae Tweed,
Though ye rin wi' speed, and I rin slaw;
When ye drown ane man,
I drown twa

Traditional rhyme

Lord Kames, president of the Society of Improvers, looked over his East Lothian fields and was happy. His guests from Germany, England and Holland were impressed. The inefficient strips of runrig had been rationalised into larger fields, enclosed by neat walls and hedges. The mire had been drained and planted. He was using the English plough, foreign grass, turnips and clover, drilling machines, four-field crop rotation, and understood the chemistry of manure. The peasantry grew their own crop, potatoes, which had been introduced in 1739. The ancient, squalid fermtouns and hamlets had been demolished and replaced with handsome two-storey stone farmhouses. With more people than was needed to work the land, the surplus population could work as weavers or in the coal mines, living in new towns such as Ormiston, built in 1735. There was much for Lord Kames to be satisfied about. In the space of fifty years, Scotland had gone from one of Europe's agricultural backwaters to the most advanced farming nation in the world. Or at least     the Lowlands had, and especially Lord Kames' particular patch. Scotland's current farming landscape, and the core of most of her small towns, owe everything to the 18th century improvers.

The area between Edinburgh and Berwick has long been the most fertile in Scotland, the first to pioneer agricultural improvements introduced from England and the Low Countries, the first area with Royal Burghs, an area thick with aristocratic mansions and castles (including the home of Lord Balfour, whose famous Declaration helped lead to the foundation of the state of Israel). Even in prehistory this was a favoured area, with more hillforts than anywhere else in Britain. One of the biggest is Dunpender (Trapain Law) once home to the chief of the Votadini. They befriended the Romans, perhaps allying themselves with Rome to best their aggressive neighbours, the Selgovae. When the Romans retreated along Dere Street to Hadrian's Wall, the Votadini worked as a buffer tribe, exacting tribute in return for keeping Rome's northern frontier quiet.

Today East Lothian is a gentle and faintly prosperous arable county, dotted with quaint villages like Gifford, Stenton, Aberlady, or Dirleton, sandwiched between the sweeping sheep walks of the Lammermuirs and an attractive coast, all beaches, bays and links golf courses. At the far side of North Berwick sits the impressive ruin of Tantallon Castle, and a little further on again, the old port of Dunbar. Dunbar was the childhood home of John Muir, father of national parks in the USA - as well as being the site of two great     English victories: in 1296, when Edward I crushed a hastily cobbled-together force loyal to John I, and in 1650, when an army of Covenanters made the mistake of leaving their strong position to fall - or so they planned - on Cromwell's Roundheads.

South of Dunbar the Lammermuirs meet the sea at St Abbs Head, and the links country and sandy beaches give way to seacliffs and tight, rocky harbours. The coast displays rock strata at crazy angles, inspiring James Hutton in his theories of the age of the earth. Under the sea, cathedral-sized rockforms and coral beds make it one of the best places in the country to scuba dive. The biggest port, Eyemouth, remembers a terrible tragedy in 1881 when the entire fishing fleet perished in a storm within sight of the harbour walls. And then the border is crossed - with a fair amount of drama on the clifftop footpath - on the outskirts of     Berwick-upon-Tweed, England's most Scottish town.

Although accents change within a few miles, the border seems slightly artificial, the countryside and rural architecture the same on both sides. And why shouldn't they be? A long time ago this was all part of one kingdom,     Northumbria. No further excuse should be needed to loup the border and explore Northumberland, blessed with a lovely coastline and thick with amazing castles such as Bamburgh, Alnwick, Norham, Dunstanburgh and Lindisfarne. Follow the St Cuthbert Trail from Melrose (where the Lammermuir born Cuthbert came to prominence) to one of the most beautiful and atmospheric places in England, Holy Island, where he died in glory. Get the timing right with the tides, and you can walk across the sands to Holy Island all the way from Berwick.

Aberlady Bay

North Berwick to Aberlady

Berwick Law and Bass Rock

Tantallon Castle



St Abbs

Berwickshire cornfield

The Border itself

The Border town of Berwick

Crossing to Holy Island

Holy Island

Tweed at Norham

Floors Castle near Kelso

The Cheviot