'My name is wee Jock Elliot,Little Jock Elliot
An' wha daur meddle wi' me?'
Seeking the soul of Scotland? You don't need to range over the furthest Highlands or delve into the depths of the cities. It is here, in the Borderlands, that Scotland is distilled: nothing dramatic, grotesquely swollen or diminished; an attractive landscape of rolling, sheep-dotted hills, modest towns and villages, salmon rivers, tower-house castles, and a generally rural air. Much of Scotland's story can be told with reference to events in these glens. The architecture is typically Scots; the gross urbanisation of the Central Belt nearby yet distant in feel; the echoing wilderness of the Highlands glimpsed only in flashes. The Borders today are modest, beautiful, perhaps Scotland's best-kept secret. But they were not always so quiet, as the tales of the Border Reivers attest.
For these rural dales bore the brunt of raid and invasion between Scotland and England for near three hundred unstable years between 1300 and 1600. They became a semi-permanent warzone outside the control of central authority, a British Afghanistan, where the March Wardens and leading warrior families on either side of the border ruled. Those years defined the identity of this now-peaceful region as much as the clansmen did the Highlands, and the many ballads of the warrior families inspired Sir Walter Scott to bring them to the world's attention in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Elliot of Lariston. Chevy Chase. Tam the Rhymer. Helen of Kirkconnel. And Kinmont Willie.
Before those wars, this was a prosperous area. The medieval wool trade brought in a lot of money, and the trade in hides ran down the rivers Jed, Teviot, Gala, Ettrick, Yarrow and Tweed to the entrepot of Berwick, where French, English and Flemish merchants eagerly awaited a sale. Four great abbeys were built, at Dryburgh, Kelso, Jedburgh and Melrose, though all sit in ruins thanks to the violence of the reiving days. The attractive market town of Melrose has an even older history: the triple-peaked hill of Eildon hosts one of the largest prehistoric hillforts in Britain, with ramparts encircling the foundations of at least 300 houses. Antiquarians suggest that three thousand years ago, this magnetic landmark was a religious and ceremonial gathering place for a wide area. Today Melrose forms the epicentre of one of Scotland's three great sporting divides: shinty belongs to the Highlands, and football dominates the Lowlands. But rugby, the farmers' game, rules in the Borders.
As the rivers rise, the Tweed splits into its tributaries, the Teviot, Ettrick and Yarrow. These rivers wind up into high moorland, crossing watersheds on some of the most forgotten roads in Scotland. The Tweedsmuir hills provide grand walking for the hiker keen to escape the crowds in the more popular Highland or Lake District hills. To the south, the wide-open spaces of the Cheviot Hills form a natural barrier between Scotland and England. This was the most unruly area of all in the reiver days - Liddesdale, where Armstrongs defied kings. Here is Hermitage, the grimmest keep anywhere in the Borders, whose castellan Lord Soulis delighted in torture and was eventually boiled alive himself by exasperated locals. Hermitage Castle is sinking into the ground - under the weight, according to an old local legend, not of simple subsidence but of shame through the iniquity that occurred within its walls. Modern times have witnessed grosser iniquities; in 1988 a jumbo jet crashed on Lockerbie, killing hundreds.
But let's leave the Border on an uplifting note. As soon as the road crosses the border it passes the most romantic village in Scotland - Gretna Green. This is the first village in Scotland, the target of lovestruck teens eloping across the border to marry without parental consent, Scots law being laxer than English in the 18th and 19th centuries. The legal differences have gone - but Gretna does a booming wedding trade to couples attracted by its tradition.