Winter is reluctant to relax its grip and whilst, in higher parts of the Borders such as where we stay, daffodils struggle to grow and shiver at the thought of blooming, a short drive away spring is already into its swing.
The hills of the Scottish Borders roll up from its great rivers, undulating between salmon fishing and hill farming. The river Tweed is famed for its salmon fishing and anglers pay mind-numbing amounts to cast into its waters.
One of the towns by its banks is Melrose, a short drive from us, and a place we often go to walk by the riverside.
Melrose abbey, one of the four great ruined Cistercian abbeys of the Borders, the others being Kelso, Jedburgh and Dryburgh, was founded in 1136 at the request of King David I of Scotland. Its architecture is said to be amongst the best late 14th-century church architecture in the British Isles.
The Cistercians were working monks and they implemented new farming techniques and introduced sheep. At its height in the 14th century, the monks of Melrose owned 15,000 sheep, one of the biggest flocks in Britain, and they marketed Melrose wool throughout the great trading ports of northern Europe.
Wool continued to be a major player in the Borders economy until recently, and over the years I’ve bought much wonderful knitwear from local outlets. My father was a textile buyer and I was brought up with stories of the famous mills, making tweeds and knitwear, that lined its rivers and lades. In recent years competition from places like China has decimated the industry. Most of the mills and their waterwheels have gone, though a few have been preserved, memorials to a once great textile industry.
Its tranquil setting at the foot of the Eildon hills belies Melrose Abbey’s turbulent history. Because of its proximity to the border, the abbey frequently suffered at the hands of invading English armies, being damaged then restored. Twenty years before the Reformation in 1560 there were 130 monks at Melrose, but after Henry VIII had the abbey torched and destroyed once again in 1544 the abbey never recovered. By the Reformation in 1560 only a handful of monks remained.
Within its precincts Alexander 11 of Scotland and numerous nobles are buried and the abbey is also the resting place of King Robert the Bruce’s embalmed heart.
Today the abbey is a tourist attraction, a favourite place for weddings, but if you visit when it’s quiet you might hear chants in the swirling winds, glimpse swords glint through tree branches, feel human history seep from the red sandstone walls.