Sunday, 14th August 2016
A visit to The Gallery in the hamlet of Smailholm to preview their latest exhibition – Hive of Creativity ( http://www.kinsman-blakeceramics.co.uk ), gave us a chance to follow up with a walk to Smailholm Tower. Both are well worth the effort!
Enjoy reading about it!
Smailholm Circular via Smailholm Tower (3.5 miles)
Our guide book – A Walker’s Guide to The Border Country by Alan Hall, tells us that Smailholm Tower is a 15th Century ‘pele tower’. Anyone know what that is? No – me neither – till I looked it up. Apparently a pele tower is a strongly built tower used as a place of refuge or defence. This one was built for the Pringle family and is managed now by Historic Scotland and well worth a visit. But I’m getting ahead of myself!
First we went to the exhibition in the Kinsman-Blake Gallery and had chocolate covered strawberries (yum!) and elderflower cordial whilst we wandered around admiring the ceramics and paintings and jewellery, all of it very lovely. And then we began the ramble…
Well, that’s not quite right because….. having locked my little purchase from the gallery in the car and changed into walking boots I consulted the guidebook to determine our starting point. “Leave the village on a minor road to the west-southwest….” it confidently says, knowing of course that all good ramblers always carry a compass and an ordnance survey map. Oooops! Much discussion and debate ensued about the position of the sun, the location of the sea, the angle of the shadows etc etc which all boiled down to one thing…..we had no idea where to start!
Fortunately for us, along the road from the gallery came some fellow admirers of the Kinsman-Blakes and even more fortunately for us they did possess an ordnance survey map and were able to point us in the right direction (which was not the way that I was arguing for, but we won’t dwell on that!)
The first part of the walk takes us along a country road – with no verge or pavement – and consists of many stops and leanings into hedgerows while cars make their way past us. But soon we are able to leave the road and turn left onto a farm track which gives us space to take in the stunning views. Behind us we can just make out The Brotherstones, a pair of standing stones on top of Brotherstone Hill:
The stones date from 2000BC and rest 13 metres apart supported by packed rocks at their base. They are thought to have astronomical functions connected with the summer and winter solstices, along with another bulkier stone lower down the hill known as The Cowstone.
To our right are the triple volcanic peaks of The Eildon Hills near Melrose, much loved landscape of Sir Walter Scott and shrouded in mystery and intrigue. According to one story the three hilltops were at one time just one mountain which was split into three on the orders of a wizard; but even more exciting is the legend that King Arthur and his knights lie asleep beneath these hills awaiting the time to rise and ride again! I can’t wait!
To our left in the far far distance we can just see the outline of Hume Castle:
and up ahead, appearing over the gentle hill ahead, Smailholm Tower – simple, rectangular and 20 metres high:
Smailholm Tower was built in the 15th century for the defence of the Pringle family. It’s constructed of whinstone and red sandstone and is five stories high with tiny windows and only one door. It’s surrounded by a stone wall – 2 metres deep – with a narrow gate on the west and at one time had other buildings inside this wall which housed the kitchens and provided accommodation for the Laird’s staff.
The yellow flowers you can see in the picture above are common ragwort – a pest of agricultural land and no friend of farmers – it’s leaves contain an alkaloid poison which can cause liver damage in animals if the plant is accidentally dried with hay for feed. The name refers to the ragged looking leaves, although the Scots know it as ‘Stinking Billy’ because of it’s unpleasant odour when bruised (‘Billy’ alluding to William, Duke of Cumberland, the ruthless victor in the Battle of Colloden in 1746).
It is very pretty though don’t you think?
Scattered in amongst the ragwort on the hillside are harebells – the bluebells of Scotland, linked with magic and given names such as ‘witches thimbles’, ‘fairy bells’ and ‘old man’s bells’ (the old man in question being the devil).
Anyway, back to the tower! Inside, having entered via the one door which takes us directly into the cellars, we peruse the information boards and then make our way up the steep winding red sandstone stairway holding tightly to the rope ‘handrail’. We leave the steps at each floor to look at the exhibitions in each of the rooms. As well as information there are exquisite models depicting famous figures in Scottish history and legend in accurate interpretations of military and domestic dress. They are quite mesmerising.
Produced by Anne Carrick, an artist born in Edinburgh in 1919 she was known for her colourful oil paintings but mainly for her minutely detailed and accurately scaled down historical figures which she called her ‘dolls’. During her lifetime Anne made more than 2000 dolls but the ones on display in the tower depict characters from Scottish ballads and legend.
We reach the top floor at last and here we can venture outside onto the parapets on opposite sides of the tower to take in the views:
Down below us is Sandyknowe Farm where from 1776 – 1779 the young Sir Walter Scott was sent to live with his grandparents in the hope that the country air would aid his recovery from polio.
We eventually make our way back down the steep and winding stairway, wondering how people managed to live in such a building and negotiate these treacherous steps daily. Our route takes us downhill and across Sandyknowe Farm before joining a quiet road through farmland and woodland back to Smailholm village.
A couple of days later: we take a short walk up to Hume Castle and there, in the distance through the heat haze (yes….we have those in Scotland too!) we can see Smailholm Tower:
Art work for Ricketyrambler by Andrew Major