Saturday Snapshot

On a grey, dismal day in May we visited Smailholm Tower in the Scottish Borders. It’s a four-storey tower house on a base of volcanic rock, a stark feature on the skyline between Kelso and Selkirk in the Tweed Valley.

(click on the photos to enlarge)

It was built in the 15th century by the Pringle family on Smailholm Craig, providing protection from the elements and from raiding parties of English reivers (raiders).

Standing 650ft (200m) above sea level, it’s walls are 9ft (2.5m) thick and 65ft (20m) high and it has one small entrance in the south wall and tiny windows.

Inside it’s quite dark and most of my photos inside aren’t very good. There’s a spiral staircase giving access to all five floors and the battlements.

In 1645 the Pringle family sold the tower and Smailholm Craig to the Scott family. Sir Walter Scott lived at Smailholm for a while with his grandmother and Aunt Janet after he’d had polio because they thought the fresh country air would be good for him. It was his aunt who told him tales of the Border countryside which gave him his passion for folklore and history.

The three upper floors house an exhibition of costume figures and tapestries to illustrate Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Borders, his collection of ballads. The photo below is of the Queen of the Fairies:

and below is one of little Walter Scott and his Aunt Janet:

I was fascinated by the roof of the tower, because it’s covered in turf, making a living roof:

There are spectacular views of the surrounding countryside on the way up. Below is the view of the Eildon Hills through a window:and even more panoramic views from the battlements:

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alyce’s blog At Home With Books.

22 thoughts on “Saturday Snapshot

  1. Random question, but do they mow the roof or just let it grow to whatever length? I am sure in history they wouldn’t, but I was curious if modern times would see a need to do so…


  2. Margaret I love your post – all those details about Sir Walter Scott were completely new to me. And why do the Eildon hills ring a bell? Are they in one of those old border ballads, or something to do with Thomas the Rhymer? Thanks for visiting my blog by the way.


    1. I should find out about Thomas the Rhymer – Scott did retell his story in his Minstrelsy of the Borders. And we keep driving past direction signs to Rhymer’s Stone near Melrose and Rhymer’s Tower at Earlston- one day we’ll go and explore. Ditto the Eildon Hills – we see them from far off and often say we’ll go closer. There are different stories about the hills – one says that King Arthur lies sleeping inside the hills. We used to live near Alderley Edge in Cheshire and Arthur is reputed to be sleeping there too! Oh and in Cornwall as well – you can take your pick!


      1. Thank you. It’s the ballad I’m thinking of I think, and it’s a tree .. Steeleye Span sang a version
        True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank,
        A marvel with his eye spied he. 
        There he saw a lady bright 
        Come riding by the Eildon Tree.


  3. Is it correct to say “English reivers”? Was it not the case that reivers, and indeed many of the more law-abiding folk who live in the Borders these days, regarded themselves as neither English nor Scottish? Anyone wishing to find out more about border history, and wanting to do so in a travelogue format, could do a lot worse than read Eric Robson’s The Border Line. Be warned though, I think the author would be first to admit that he has definite grumpy old man tendencies that are on open display in this book.


    1. David, I used the term ‘English reivers’ following Historic Scotland’s description of the tower house ‘protecting its owners from the elements and, in the 16th century, raiding parties of English reivers.’ (Extract from Historic Scotland’s Official Guide to Smailholm Tower).

      I have read Eric Robson’s book ‘The Border Line’ a couple of years ago. I found it very interesting. I borrowed it from my local library so I can’t refer to it now, but I did note down this quotation from the book:

      ‘For more than four centuries the Borderlands were seen as the scrag end of their respective countries, the frayed edges of monarchy. English borderers and Scottish borderers at least had that much in common. The Border was a remote battleground where national ambitions could be fought over. Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland were excluded from the Domesday Book. They were regarded as a military buffer zone. They became a bearpit. (page 51) ‘

      ‘The Border Line’ is the account of Robson’s walk following the border line from the Solway Firth to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Robson includes anecdotes, snippets of history and personal memories as well. My memory of the book is that there were rival reiver families and they raided each over the border from both sides, so that the raids were in the name of their family or clan and not just English/Scottish. So maybe I (and Historic Scotland) was being too simplistic in using the term ‘English reivers’, because they not only raided English/Scottish but also raided on a family feuding basis.


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