North of the BorderPosted: July 7, 2012
On the inch Ordnance Survey map sheet number seven I made a span of 30 miles with my right thumb and little finger, put the thumb upon a village I knew to the south of Biggar in Lanarkshire, then looked to see where the little finger lay. It was upon the junction of Tweed and Ettrick, so I took the sleeper from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, breakfasted well in the North British Hotel and caught the 11.25 south again from the Waverley station to Galashiels. *
Using now the one-inch Ordnance maps, I followed the faint dotted line of a path that led over the low hills towards a crossing of the Tweed at Yair. There were fields where cows grazed and where I put up a covey of partridge and a cock pheasant and startled a hare. There was downland where the grass had been cropped short by sheep who stared at me until I was no more than a pace away, then fled, their behinds bouncing ridiculously, their fleeces as white as the great cumulus clouds. The contours on the map were not close together here, the ground was firm.
Though gentle the start, after no more than an hour I was tired, or thought so, as I looked down on the fast-flowing Tweed from the wooded slopes at Yair. Tired and hot. The river was beautiful, not for itself alone but for the suggestion of relief. From briars among the purple willow herb I gathered wild raspberries. Their taste was a memory of childhood: of homemade jam in a stone-flagged kitchen; of new-baked cake and tea on a summer afternoon. I sat in the shade, studying the map. The sound of the river came up to me, cool and clear, clear and cool.
Then for a while I was lost. The rides and tracks of the wood were not shown upon the map and what had seemed a proper footpath petered out. Following a burn in the belief that it would lead me up on to the moor, I was impeded by fallen trees and swampy ground and bracken that was breast high and concealed all manner of hazards. Once, I tripped, the pack pitching over my head, hurling me painfully and ludicrously into the undergrowth where I lay for a minute, cursing in anger and exhaustion. Out of the wood, another trial began: to avoid a long, rising, diagonal march I chose to climb what seemed a short, though steep heather-covered ridge. But the heather was deep; each step had to be high and deliberate, strength and resolve had to be marshalled and measured by the child’s device of counting (“a hundred paces before I rest”). And tricked. (“A hundred-and-fifty, and then I really will.”) And then what had seemed to be the crest of the ridge was revealed as only the edge of a plateau with the ground beyond rising again to another crest yet to be won. Reaching the top at last, I slumped into the heather like a gravely wounded beast. And thus far I had gone only five miles.
As the crow flies I went two more miles that day, following a drove road along the heights. At about six in the evening I reached the pine coppice to the east of the 1,500 ft. summit of Broomy Law. The sun was still not close to setting, but neither the ground nor the map offered any other shelter I might have reached before dark. On the edge of the wood, within the loose stone wall that bordered it on the windward side, I made camp. My thirst was enormous, my water bottle empty. I changed into gym shoes, left the pack and walked half a mile down to a spring that came from the hill. So free was I now, so resilient was the turf, I felt I might have made the journey in a single bound. A hare loped away from the spring as I approached. I could have raced him, and won.
In a hearth built of stones behind my kingdom’s wall I made a little fire of dead pinewood. While water boiled for a freeze-dried supper I dragged fallen branches to form a hedge about my bed. Supper done, I sat by the embers of the fire and lit a small cigar for the companionable scent of it. It was very quiet there. For a while after sundown I heard a bird calling. Sheep made their idiotic sounds. Once, something moved suddenly in the shadows behind me and I started in foolish alarm. The breeze became a wind that filled the wood with its sound and I hid myself in sleep.
Morning was the sky becoming grey above the branches. It was the sound of a pigeon close by me in the coppice, then the smell of wood smoke and frying bacon and of coffee made from fresh-ground beans only two days before. And it was the chill of the heavy dew through my cotton trousers as I walked through bracken. It was long shadows in the valley below me, the scent of damp heather and turf, the sun hot on my back before nine o’clock. I kept to the drove road, for the most part a mere track, but a track that followed the heights (Brown Know and Hare Law and Minch Moor). To the north, beyond the valley of the Tweed, were the hills of Peeblesshire and Selkirkshire and Midlothian. Soon after noon I reached the road near Traquair and saw people again for the first time since setting out. In a meadow I saw a caravan and a tent and at the tiny post-office and store a man came to borrow a kettle for picnic tea, but from then until the following evening, apart from the keeper on the moor above Glenshiel Banks, I saw nobody at all.
I lunched by Quair Water, cooled tired feet in the stream, lay on the bank and read Mr. Standfast by John Buchan, then went on up the glen. For two miles I was glad of the lane and the path, then had again to climb where no track was shown upon the map. It was up, up, up again through the heather. Sheep paths made my way easier. At about half past 6 o’clock I had reached the head of the ravine below Glenrath Heights. The last mile or so had been swamp and peat hags where I had to pick my way with care, breaking the steady rhythm of walking that is necessary if a man is not to tire too quickly. Below me was a burn and I resolved to go no farther.
The going down was as hard as had been the climb up, and at the first small patch of almost level ground beside but safely above the water I stopped, pulled armfuls of heather and made a thick couch. There was no other cover, so above the couch I erected the fool of what I had bought as a one-man tent but which now seemed to me no better than a toy. The bare twigs of heather burned the year before made a fire.
By the time I had eaten it was cold there at the head of the Glenrath burn. The couch of heather felt good enough to have earned a badge for a Boy Scout, but inside the sleeping bag I awoke during the night, found my spare thick socks and without getting out of the bag managed by a contortionist act to put them on. I put on also a cashmere pullover, then slept until dawn.
By 10 next morning I was crossing the river called Manor Water. Then I climbed (how slowly I climbed) the precipitous slopes of Posso Craig, then across Pykestone Hill and Ben Knowe to the Drumelzier burn, and so again to the Tweed. There, in that particular place, I wished I could have stayed for a week, but evening was near and I had still eight miles to go. Some time after sundown, from the last ridge, I saw below me a house where I knew I would be a welcome with malt whisky and a bath.
The Galashiels line has been closed for some years but a re-opening is being discussed.