From tales of Merlin and roman legionaries to fairy queens and ancient heroines, the Tweed Valley is a land of (often spooky!) myth and legend. Here are just a few of the area’s mysterious stories to explore ...
Thomas and the Fairy Queen, Melrose
We may not believe in fairies today, but past inhabitants of the Borders most certainly did. And perhaps the most famous ‘fairytale’ of all is that of Thomas of Ercildoune, better known as Thomas the Rhymer.
The story goes that one day, as he sat beneath the Eildon Tree near Melrose, Thomas heard the sound of a horse’s hooves and the tinkling of bells. He looked up to see the beautiful queen of Elfland ride by on a white horse. Thomas fell under her considerable spell and journeyed with her deep within the hollow Eildon hills – the prominent peaks that rise above Melrose – to the fairy underworld.
It was here that Thomas was given a variety of gifts. When he returned to the land of mortals, he was unable to tell a lie (and became known as True Thomas); he could foresee future events; while some say Thomas even became immortal and still lives in the area gathering horses for the sleeping knights that rest deep within the hollow hills.
The story of Thomas the Rhymer can be enjoyed today with a walk up the Eildon Hills where Thomas met the Fairy Queen. Look out too for the Rhymer's Stone, a part-monument, part-viewpoint which marks the sport where the fabled Eildon Tree once grew.
The Evil Monk, Melrose Abbey
One look at the impressive facade of Melrose Abbey and it’s clear this is a place full of legend. A fascinating site with a rich history dating back to the 12th century – it is known as the burial place of the embalmed heart of Robert the Bruce – the abbey also has a sinister tale attached to it.
It's said that an evil monk returned from the dead as a vampire, leaving his grave at the abbey to feed on unfortunate women at a local nunnery. When his presence was discovered by other monks, the bravest of them all stayed up one night armed with a large axe and when the vampire rose from his tomb, the monk beheaded him.
However, some believe the vampire's presence remains in the abbey to this day.
The building is also said to be the final resting place of Michael Scot – a great wizard who discovered the secret of flying, and was named locally as being the man who single-handedly built Hadrian's Wall.
A magnificent building, now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland, Melrose Abbey is open to the public year-round.
The legend of Tam Lin, Bowhill
A lush green forest on the Bowhill Estate near Selkirk is the scene of a piece of folklore history that is well-known to locals. While the forest is not as extensive as it once was, the part that remains conceals ‘Tamlane's Well’ – a mossy old well that holds the clue to the local legend.
The story has it that a young man named Tam Lin (or Tamlane) fell from his horse while out hunting and was taken away by none other than the Queen of the Fairies. She made him a knight of her fairy underworld and gave him the task of guarding the forest of Carterhaugh – a wood and farm at the confluence of the Yarrow and Ettrick waters near Selkirk.
According to local lore, he would only let those young women pass who gave him a token of treasure, or else their virginity. Despite knowing the perils of entering such a place, one brave young woman called Janet ventured into the forest alone. As she passed the well she came across a milk-white horse. She stopped for a rest and picked a wild rose, at which point Tam Lin appeared and demanded to know why she came to such a place without his say so.
A strong woman, Janet stood her ground telling him that Carterhaugh belonged to her and that she would come and go as she pleased. Quite what happened next is up for grabs, but it seems that Tam Lin successfully charmed Janet, for days later it became known that she was with child.
Janet returned to Carterhaugh, once again pulling a rose to make Tam Lin appear. She demanded to know where he came from whereupon he revealed his mortal past – and his love for Janet. Tam Lin then gave a detailed description of how she might free him from the clutches of the fairy folk (he is afraid that he will be given up to the devil) – instructions that Janet duly followed much to the anger of the Fairy Queen.
Carterhaugh can be found on one of the farms on the Bowhill Estate – a magical place to explore even if not seeking out local myths and legends.
Muckle Mouthed Meg, Elibank
Visitors to Elibank Wood at Thornielee will be hard-pressed not to notice an eight-foot-high wooden stature of Muckle Mouthed Meg – something of a historical heroine in these parts.
Now it’s fair to say that the 17th century noblewoman was not the bonniest. The daughter of Sir Gideon Murray of Elibank, Agnes Murray (Meg) was well-known for her ugliness. It was said, rather unkindly, that when she smiled, her mouth covered her entire face.
And having seen his other, more attractive daughters successfully married, Sir Gideon feared that he would never find a match for Meg. But then the answer fell into his lap when a handsome young man from a rival clan was caught trying to steal some of his stock. The man, William Scott, was imprisoned and given the choice of marrying Meg or going to the gallows.
Legend has it that Scott initially thought the gallows a preferable option, but ultimately felt it better to be wed than dead. It proved a good decision as the couple went on to have a long, happy life together.
The statue of Meg and her groom overlooks the ruins of her ancestral home at Elibank on the opposite side of the valley. Once you’ve seen the statue, be sure to enjoy some of the lovely walks that head deep into the forest – including one that takes walkers to the mystical Shepherds’ Cairns high above the valley.
Roman Legionaries, Innerleithen
We love an account of tales of old Innerleithen told to fellow guests by a lady dining in the restaurant at Caddon View Guest House. The lady had grown up in Innerleithen, with her grandparents once living in the house opposite Caddon View. Built in 1774, in living memory of the visit of the Jacobites on their ill-fated journey south to Derby, it is claimed to be the oldest surviving house in the town.
But that's a side issue … what matters more are the stories this lady was told by her grandmother. One relates to the path that runs over the Cuddy Bridge and nearby Pirn Wood – said to be the route used by Roman legionaries as they moved out from the marching camp on the fields by Traquair. This was their conquest of Caledonia, with their next destination the settlement that would become Dalkeith in Midlothian.
Great story, but it gets better. According to Steve and Lisa who run Caddon View, a female guest who once stayed there reported waking in the middle of the night to the sound of horses, carts and marching feet. At the time, she lived at a house on Killiecrankie Battlefield in Perthshire – a place as soaked in the blood of history as anywhere in Scotland. She said that her experience of living in such a place had made her especially sensitive to the spirit world.
Soak up the local history by taking a stroll through the atmospheric Pirn Wood in Innerleithen. And don't forget to head up to the site of an Iron Age hill fort just above the woodland on Windy Knowe (Pirn Hill). The top is adorned with seven stone cairns that approximate the floor area of the round huts that housed inhabitants of the hill top settlement. Each cairn features a series of intricate carvings by local sculptress Mary Kenny that tell the story of Innerleithen from the Iron Age to the modern day.
Ghost of Marion Ritchie, Cross Keys Hotel, Peebles
It seems that the recent upgrading of the Cross Keys Hotel on Peebles’ Northgate has done little to alter the appearances of one of the town’s most renowned, and (mostly) friendly, ghosts. Now part of the JD Wetherspoon chain, room 5 at the Cross Keys is the epicentre of activity for the ghost of Marion Ritchie – a spectre that likes to have a natter with guests staying at the hotel.
Dating back to 1693, this ancient coaching inn is one of the oldest buildings in Peebles. Marion Ritchie was one of the inn’s earliest landladies, and it’s said that she died in room five. But fear not, Marion’s ghost doesn’t necessarily mean a case of dread and breakfast when staying at the hotel. Apparently, she can be a chatty soul, although there is also plenty of poltergeist-like activity associated with her presence (from moving items to switching electrical equipment on and off).
It’s said that Sir Walter Scott once visited the Cross Keys and modeled the character of Meg Dodds from his Waverly novels on her. Why not spend a night in room five, if you dare?
The Cross Keys Hotel is on the Northgate in the heart of Peebles.
Neidpath Castle, Peebles
Sitting in an imposing position on a crag overlooking the River Tweed just outside Peebles, Neidpath Castle is a fine example of the kind of fortified tower houses that were built in the once famously lawless border lands. It’s also haunted.
According to tradition, the Castle’s ghost is a lady in a brown dress with a white collar – Jean Douglas, the so-called Maid of Neidpath. She is reputed to be the spectre of the daughter of William Douglas, the Earl of March. As the story goes, Jean fell in love with the laird of Tushielaw but was forbidden to see him by her father. The laird was sent away, leaving Jean to pine for the loss of her love. When the laird returned he did not recognise Jean in her wasted state. She is reputed to have died of a broken heart, doomed to wander the castle in sorrow. Sir Walter Scott stayed at Neidpath Castle and wrote a poem about the legend, which only added to its popularity.
Although still essentially a private home – owned by the Wemyss family – Neidpath Castle is open for tours by children, students and private groups. It’s also a popular venue for weddings, private parties and filming.
The Black Dwarf, Manor Valley
In 1816, Sir Walter Scott wrote The Black Dwarf, a novel with a curmudgeonly and apparently supernatural eponymous character. He was based on a real person: David Ritchie, born in 1740, the son of a labourer who worked in the slate quarries of Stobo.
Ritchie was bred a brush-maker in Edinburgh but led a nomadic existence, in part due to the reaction of people to his physical deformity and less than pleasing demeanour. Ritchie eventually took refuge in his home county of Peeblesshire and set about building a cottage on a lonely patch of moorland at Woodhouse Farm in the Manor Valley, a few miles west of Peebles. When finished, the doorway to the cottage was just three-and-a-half-feet high.
Ritchie spent the rest of his life at the cottage, cultivating a lovely garden and always accepting of charitable donations and help from neighbours. Typically though, it was said that he never thanked them for their kindness, and remained essentially a recluse. Scott himself visited Ritchie – known as Bow’d Davie by locals – in 1797.
Ritchie died in 1811 and his grave can be visited today at Kirkton graveyard. It is marked by a prominent headstone that, as many have pointed out, was possibly taller than its tenant was when alive.
As an aside, the beautifully wild and unspoilt Manor Valley is well worth exploring for much more than just the curious story of the Black Dwarf.
David Ritchie's cottage can still be seen at Woodhouse Farm, while his headstone (paid for by William Chambers) is on the right hand side of Kirkton graveyard as you walk in.
Merlin and Drumelzier
Blink and you’ll miss it today, but Drumelzier, near Dawyck Botanic Garden and Stobo Castle, is a village rich in folklore. It sits in a lovely part of the Tweed Valley close to the Drumelzier (or Powsail Burn), a tributary of the Tweed. It was here that the wizard of Arthurian legend, Merlin, was said to have been imprisoned in a tree by the enchantress Morgan la Fay. Later, the pagan wild man of the woods was converted to Christianity by Saint Mungo at the ‘alterstone’ near the village – an occasion marked in a stained glass window at Stobo Kirk.
Merlin is also said to have died his ‘three deaths’ here – legend has it that Merlin prophesised his own death through falling, drowning and stabbing – and is buried just below the churchyard, by the side of the Powsail Burn.
This interment led to another prophecy, this time by Thomas the Rhymer (he of the Rhyming Stone fame): ‘When Tweed and Powsail meet at Merlin's grave, Scotland and England shall one monarch have.’ The prophecy was fulfilled when on the very day that James VI of Scotland and I of England was crowned, the River Tweed burst its banks and met with the Powsail Burn at Merlin’s grave … something it had not done before, nor done so since.
When in the area, see if you can find the location of Merlin’s grave just outside the churchyard, and be sure to also check out the stained glass window at Stobo Kirk.
Drumelzier is on the B712 near the glorious Dawyck Botanic Garden. Stobo Kirk is a little further north on the way to Peebles.
Photography: Rich Rowe; VisitScotland