The Scottish Borders region with its Saint Cuthbert’s Way had been on my hiking hit list for quite a while. February is “verra arrly in the season, laddie” as one Scots publican put it, seeing this muddy apparition begging for a pint! Several interesting attractions such as Abbotsford, home of Sir Walter Scott, are limited until March 1st: the actual house was still closed but the Visitor Centre with its fascinating exhibits was open.
By the way, if you shudder at the word “hiking”, never fear! You can get here easily from Edinburgh by train, bus or car. I rode the new Borders Railway from Edinburgh Waverley to Tweedbank, about an hour. Then a pleasant 15 minute stroll from the station via Gunknowe Lough to Abbotsford or, use a shuttle bus: visit http://www.scottsabbotsford.com for details.
Abbotsford done, I started on my real trek: the Saint Cuthbert’s Way. This long-distance path starts at Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders and ends on Holy Island, off the Northumberland coast in Northern England. It follows the 7th century travels of Saint Cuthbert, Prior of Melrose Abbey and Bishop of Lindisfarne on what is now Holy Island, ancient early centre of Christianity. The Lindisfarne Gospels are famous to this day. The SCW also traces the escape route of the Holy Island monks, fleeing ongoing Viking raids in the 9th century. They carried Saint Cuthbert’s remains and other important relics with them and hid in Saint Cuthbert’s Cave, on their way inland.
From Melrose Abbey, the Way passes 2 major Borders abbeys: Dryburgh Abbey, well-preserved in a very scenic and quiet area at a bend in the River Tweed. Fun fact: did you know that the Tweed is fantastic for fishing, especially salmon? I enjoyed convenient and high quality lodging next door in the Dryburgh Abbey Hotel. Next, a few miles detour will bring you to Jedburgh Abbey. It sits right in the heart of town and is nicely lit after sunset, the time I walked up. Plenty of lodging, meal and pub options in this larger town. I enjoyed the Glenbank Hotel, more of an Inn or Guesthouse and, it has a restaurant and pub, with wonderful hosts. On the way to Kirk Yetholm, with a most excellent and enjoyable stay at the Border Hotel (superb bath tub, very welcome after a long day’s hiking!), there’s Cessford Castle, stronghold of the Kers, a powerful Border Reiver family, ancestors of the Dukes of Roxburgh. Of my additional overnight stops, I really liked the Lindisfarne Inn, still on the mainland.
The Abbeys and Castles dotting the landscape are fantastic, the scenery is stunning and the views more than rewarding. It’s really cool to walk from Scotland into England and pass a border post high up, snow on the ground still, with a notice to “Please close the gate securely”. They’re more concerned about live stock wandering off than anything else! Sheep everywhere…. On lower ground, the River Tweed and here and there an old World War II pillbox.
The end point of Holy Island itself was a highlight for sure. It has the well-preserved ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, the still active St. Mary’s Church, the ominous-looking Castle that looks like it sprouted up out of base rock, the famous Lindisfarne Mead brewery, the Pilgrim Coffee Roastery, small local gift and art shops, several lodging, restaurant and pub options, nice walking paths, lots of birdlife, and views all around. Looking south you can see Bamburgh Castle, one of Britain’s most impressive, and still in residential use. Can’t see it but just south of that is Alnwick Castle (pronounced “Annik”) of Harry Potter “Hogwarts” fame.
You can actually do a day trip to Holy Island from Edinburgh, although it is much nicer to stay overnight to get the full feeling. I loved the Crown & Anchor, with their surfer hosts. Nice dinner, a series of pints in the bar then lounge by the fireplace, and an excellent breakfast. But beware: you can only get to or off Holy Island at low tide! The Causeway floods at high tide and so do the mudflats I hiked across on. Great fun, except when unexpectedly deep mud sucks your boot right off… Either way, it is essential to check the tide tables.
There is a convenient bus service to/from Berwick-Upon-Tweed’s railway station, which in turn has hourly trains to Edinburgh. The operator is called Perryman’s and they too plan their schedule around the ever-changing tides. I rode them back out and it was pretty cool to see water spraying up along the side of the bus going through remaining puddles on the Causeway.
One Two Cleaning My Shoe:
What about the February weather, you ask. Well, I had counted on a lot of rain but I only had that on Day One, albeit heavy. It made for slippery trails and major mud baths, literally. I couldn’t avoid the occasional face plant going up and down the hills, but then I caught a lucky break. The weather turned very chilly, in the 27-37F range, but that’s easy to dress for – and it froze the mud! Skies varied between overcast and sunny, with an occasional snow and hail flurry higher up. Proves the local saying: the only thing certain about the weather is that it will change – often and quickly. The Scottish Borders may not be the Highlands but they’re still quite far north and winter is to be taken seriously. Dressing in layers is always good advice, no matter how active (or not) you’re going to be.
And to warm up, well, have a wee dram! If you enjoy whisky or a pint or two, you’ll be pleased in the Borders. From the more common Belhaven to the local Hadrian-Borders Brewery, there are many excellent lagers and ales to try. Whiskies are everywhere, from distilleries large and small. Great fun to ask the Publican or bartender for a local recommendation. It’s a good conversation starter and before you know it, others will join in and share tips. A couple drinks later, someone might pull out a guitar or there’s a keyboard and the music starts!
And then there’s haggis…. that Scots food of sometimes ill repute. I actually rather like it and had it with my full Scottish breakfasts as well as once in a steak & haggis pie dinner! On the England side it’s less common but still available here and there. There’s also black pudding, which of course is not an American kind of sweet dessert but a mix of blood sausage and grains. It too is tasty – and let’s face it, some foods you don’t want to think about too much, and just enjoy them. Hot dog, anyone?
The Saint Cuthbert’s Way hike made for an epic and enjoyable adventure, but also gave me time to reflect. Walking those hills wearing modern high-tech boots makes you wonder how the simple sandal-clad feet of Saint Cuthbert carried him that far. In tough times, he sacrificed his own comfort to give it to others. A Saint indeed, amidst the Castles and Abbeys.