Will there be border-guards next time I drive across the River Tweed into Berwick? Will I pay for my petrol in Euros and will Scotland still be in the European Union? It is all very much in the air as I write these lines but the Scottish landscape in all its sunlit expanse was liberally spattered with “Yes” and “No, thanks” posters. Does that extra word in the slogan tell me something about the “No” voters, I wonder?
Anyway, whether it is “yes” or “no”, whether Scotland is in or out of the union, this part of Britain remains one of the most beguiling and unspoilt in the country. Through it meander all the rivers, the Tweed, the Yarrow, the Ettrick, dear to walkers and fishermen. There are neat towns like Hawick and Melrose, Selkirk and St Boswells which still retain an individuality which is swept away from most English towns.
It is sad to recount that the first town on my itinerary, Berwick-on-Tweed, could make no such claim. Sited as it is within its Vauban-inspired fortifications on the banks of the Tweed, it is full of handsome and desirable 18th century buildings. Who would not fall for a south facing house on the ramparts? But the town itself is dire, boarded up shops, peeling paint, “to let” signs and an air of desolation which signifies somewhere uncherished.
So press on from this slough of despond to visit a palace of a house amid the pine and larch forests. To Bowhill, one of the splendid houses owned by the Duke of Buccleuch. The house itself is architecturally undistinguished, except for its considerable length, but looks over a wide afforested landscape southwards towards the Cheviot hills and England beyond. Although of vast proportions, it is very much a family home, but a family home crammed with objects for which any museum would kill. When were you last confronted with Mortlake tapestries after Mantegna, depicting the “Triumph of Caesar”?….and this is only in the first room. The richness of the collection, the Sèvres porcelain, the silver (eg candelabra of 13 stones weight), the French furniture, the Chinese wallpaper, the Gainsboroughs, the Reynolds, the Canalettos, the Claudes etc etc etc are largely accounted for by the abandonment of Dalkeith Palace to an American university, but the delight in seeing them is only heightened by their being in this remote and tranquil spot.
Another fascinating house is Arniston outside of Edinburgh. Gorebridge, where it is situated, is not lovely, but that is made up by the house itself. This is no aristocratic mansion, but a house built by William Adam in 1726 for an Edinburgh legal family the Dundas’s. Good sturdy palladian principles with a lumpy Victorian porch clamped, wisely, on the front; you do not dally outside in the Scottish climate. But inside are two stars; firstly the sumptuous plasterwork, vigorous and bold in comparison with William Adams son, Robert’s nimany-pimany efforts, the hall being particularly spectacular. The other star is Mrs Dundas-Bekker who takes you round. She and her late husband saved this derelict, rot-ridden house from the fate of nearby Mavisbank, and have preserved against all the odds an Adam house of “the middling-sort” the loss of which would be a sorry event. The redecoration of the drawing room with a zingy, silver-ground Chinese wallpaper must have given the family much satisfaction, knowing that the walls to which the paper was attached were rid of rot.
In complete contrast is the house of Traquair. No architectural pretensions here. No Edinburgh architects here, much less London, but a house which has grown over nigh on 1000 years that the family claims to have been in possession. This is the house that awaits the return of the Stuarts, the gates were closed never to be opened until a Stuart sat on the throne again. This is the house that holds to the Roman Catholic rite and has many associations with Mary Queen of Scots, whose bed, rosary and crucifix are on display. So expect no pilasters, or measured suites of rooms, but spiral staircases, turrets and wonky walls. Fascinating objects on view including a set of Bow-porcelain-handled cutlery, “Amen” glass, 17th century embroidery, a set of “Napier’s bones” (surely an early form of computer), and James I (and VI) cradle. And if you are exhausted by all that there is always their own home-brewed ale to bring you round.
A wonderful region to visit with its wealth of hilly scenery, forested, green and unspoilt, dotted with pleasant towns and handsome houses and places to see..
Aspect Events are planning a holiday in this region in 2015. The four day break with a limited number of participants will visit the places mentioned as well as other destinations. If you are interested in joining our party please contact Nicholas Merchant.