In an interview on ITV in 2018, the late Duke of Roxburghe, the 10th of his line, suggested that the Scottish Borders was 'a forgotten area of Scotland'. Difficult to access. From his family seat of Floors Castle, just outside Kelso, he complained of being 50 miles from the nearest dual carriageway. The A1, A68 and A7 stream like ribbons south out of Scotland, sometimes pulled long and straight, as if following old Roman roads, or the one the StartRite kids in the old advert walked out on, but with steep peaks and troughs, the peaks heralded with warnings of blind summits. Talk of upgrading them over time has come to nothing.
If you're gently touring, as we did this summer, appreciating the undulating landscape, fields of peaceful livestock, splendid views of the Eildon and the Lammermuir hills, bales of wheat chequering fields like gigantic upended draughts pieces, you might find yourself holding up a whole queue of traffic unable to overtake you on the narrow two-lane highway. The leader of the pack will generally be close on your tail, demonstrating his – it's usually his
– impatience. My reaction was: 'If I were driving a tractor, you would have to wait until I turn off at the farm furthest away, so possess your steering wheel in patience for now'.
I've visited Abbotsford several times, Traquair and Paxton House. As a girl guide, I hunted butterflies and camped beneath the Eildon Hills. I've travelled on the new train from Edinburgh to Tweedbank and attended the Borders Book Festival in Melrose. I've driven to Moffat via Selkirk and Philiphaugh and stopped to photograph the Grey Mare's Tail. I've visited most sections of Hadrian's Wall east to west. I've workshopped crime writing near Gretna Green. I've marvelled at the Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery rising in gilded magnificence from the woods at Eskdalemuir. But there were several stately homes in this distinctly Downton Abbey
area that I had never visited before. In a predominantly staycation summer, it seemed time to remedy that.
They have resonant names: Thirlestane, Mellerstain, Manderston, Bowhill, Monteviot and Floors. The houses are imposing, built, expanded or restored, often on the sites of more ancient keeps, between the 16th and early 20th centuries. Some, like Floors, Mellerstain and Bowhill are still owned by aristocratic families: the Roxburghes, the Earls of Haddington, the Dukes of Buccleuch.
Manderston dates from the 1790s and in the 1850s was bought by the Miller family. William Miller made a fortune trading hemp and herrings with the Russians and served for 16 years as Honorary British Consul in St Petersburg. On his return he became a Liberal MP, expanded the house in an Edwardian style and married the Hon Eveline Curzon, sister of a Viceroy of India. Later family intermarriage brought in the ancestors of the present Lord Palmer, a cross bench peer in the House of Lords. Associated with Huntly and Palmer biscuits, the house has a biscuit tin museum in a side room off the kitchen in the servants' quarters.
Thirlestane was built for the Maitlands of Lethington, Dukes of Lauderdale, servants of the Stuart monarchs in the 16th and 17th centuries, though the current Duke no longer owns it and resides in London. Annually, it hosts The Sealed Knot civil war re-enactment society, although this year, sadly, the event was rained off.
The most spectacular is Floors, especially if you drive east along the A699 to Kelso. The road winds between the Tweed and Teviot rivers. Skirting on the south side, though you'd scarcely notice it, is the meagre remains of medieval Roxburghe Castle. The ruined walls and the burgh it guarded were razed to the ground after the Scots siege of 1460, to prevent its falling into the hands of the land-hungry English army ever again. James II was blown up by his own cannon here, setting off another minority regency, one of several in the troubled annals of the medieval Scottish kings.
Floors is the largest inhabited castle in the country and its towers rise like Hamlet's castle at Elsinore, or a northern European take on a Loire chateau. If ghosts don't walk these battlements, they should. It was built in the early 1720s by the 1st Duke of Roxburghe. Each summer on the August bank holiday there's a massed pipe and drum parade with Highland dancing, food stalls and sideshows. This year there was tomahawk throwing, which struck me as a rather alarming skill to be peddling, but presumably someone thought it would be fun. The event was held this summer on Sunday 25 August, a blistering hot day that required umbrellas to stave off the sun. On Thursday 29 August, his grace died, after a recurrence of oesophagal cancer. We hadn't known he was ill. He'd been in hospital in London, but died at Floors. Perhaps he heard the pipes and drums before he departed.
He succeeded to his title at the age of 19. After Eton, Cambridge, Sandhurst and a spell in the military, including the Troubles in Northern Ireland, he concentrated his energies on developing the 60,000 acre estate. This included a successful racing stud, fishing on the Tweed, farming, logging, and developing the castle as a tourist destination. In his later years, he introduced a biomass heating system and started a substantial wind farm at Fallago Rigg on the Lammermuirs. The latter development was not without controversy, with Roxburghe criticised as one of the so-called 'turbine toffs' taking advantage of targeted government funding to their own benefit.
Away to the west, overlooking the Ettrick Valley, lies Bowhill House, where my husband panicked a field full of peacefully grazing sheep by stepping up to the fence to take a photograph. It's one of the four major properties of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, the UK's largest landowner. His other properties are Boughton House in Northamptonshire, Dalkeith Palace south of Edinburgh and Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfriesshire.
The first Duke of Buccleuch was James, Duke of Monmouth, Charles II's eldest illegitimate son, who lost his head and title when he rebelled against his uncle, James II. His Duchess kept her family property of Dalkeith Palace and the present Duke is descended from Monmouth's male heirs. The name dates from the time of Kenneth III. Legend claims that the king, out hunting in the Ettrick Forest, was menaced by a charging stag. He was saved by a local man, John Scott, who took on the name Buccleuch (lit: the buck in the cleuch or the stag in the ravine). Several centuries later, Sir Walter Scott was a distant relative and great friend of his contemporary in the dynasty, Henry Scott, the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch. The current Duke's surname is Montague Douglas Scott, reflecting subsequent intermarriage among prominent local families.
It's a strange feeling wandering about these vast estates with their pedigree livestock, artificial lakes, barbered gardens and sweeping views. You pay handsomely for your entrance ticket, which enables you to stroll through carefully roped off public rooms, examining from a distance, or behind glass, long acquired family treasures. In some cases, you can wander at your own pace; in others it's by guided tour only. Volunteers, these days wearing uniform tartan scarves, stand around, keeping guard and answering questions.
At Bowhill, a genial man of military stamp, wearing a navy jacket and well-pressed tartan trews, introduced himself as our security guard. You are welcomed, monitored and processed. You have no personal stake here. These are lived-in family homes, privately-owned by people you are never likely to meet, who belong to a section of society to which you do not belong. You may admire their their ancestral portraits, their exquisitely wrought ceilings, Italian landscape paintings acquired during historic Grand Tours, the spotless surfaces of their fine furniture, their taxidermy cabinets, racing memorabilia, and down in the extensive basement kitchens, chilly now with disuse, shelves of copper and brass utensils and rows of bells still faintly tremulous from imperious summons. You are only passing through, but while you do so you must definitely not sit on their chairs.
During the last century, these places had to be transformed into businesses to survive. Your visit helps defray their maintenance costs, which are considerable. As do the activity corners to prevent children from being bored, the gift shops full of choice items, the cafes with delicious cakes. Of those we sampled, Floors came out on top. Events abound: car challenges, game fairs, sheepdog championships and the like. Film and television companies have used them as film sets: Manderston is a popular location, while Floors stood in as Greystoke Manor in Greystoke
: The Legend of Tarzan
, Lord of the Apes
They make for a pleasant day out these places. If it's quiet you can feel you own the place – till closing time. That's probably the intention. But in another sense maybe the Duke of Roxburghe was right, that this is a 'forgotten area' of Scotland, and that's why these immense estates have been able to continue virtually intact down the centuries to this day.