Recently I received a circular about a writing residency in the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys. An isolated location that would provide peace for writing along with opportunities to explore, meet the locals and run writing workshops. All overseen, no doubt, by the presence of James Hogg, the poet and novelist known as the Ettrick Shepherd.
Born in the latter part of the eighteenth century, Hogg was mainly self-educated, having attended school only until he was seven. He worked firstly as a cowherd, then as a shepherd, writing as he worked, with a three year spell in Edinburgh between 1810 and 1813 as a man of letters, before returning to the Borders.
Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is the work for which he is best known. The supernatural imbues much of his writing, learnt from his mother who taught him folk tales and songs of kings, knights and supernatural beings. On his death Hogg was buried in Ettrick churchyard alongside his grandfather who is said to have been the last man to converse with fairies.
We were reminded of how long it had been since we visited the valleys, so last Monday, the May Day holiday, we decided to head in that direction.
Like much of the Scottish Borders, the past is still present in Ettrick and Yarrow valleys, most obviously in the numerous tower houses that still stand, sentinels in the area’s rolling landscape. Some are ruins, others recently restored, while over the centuries others were incorporated into grander buildings.
Tower houses were built with safety in mind as fortified houses, in accordance with a 1535 act of the old pre-Union Scottish Parliament, requiring large landholders in the Borderlands to build Barmkins (defensive structures) of stone and lime, sixty square feet in area (just over five and a half square metres) and with walls one Ell thick and six Ells high. (An Ell was just over three feet, almost a metre.) These were “for the resett and defense of him, his tennents, and his gudis in troublous tyme”. (To provide a retreat in times of trouble for the landowner, his family, tenants and goods, which would have included animals accommodated at ground floor level.)
To save space, tower houses had narrow turnpike (spiral) stairs within the thickness of the walls. Usually these were ascended in a clockwise direction, with the defender descending the stairs having his unguarded left side protected by the wall, while his attacker’s side was exposed and his sword arm was restrained in its movement by the outer wall. However the Ker family were reputedly left-handed, so built their stairs to rise ‘widdershins’ or counter-clockwise. Widdershins was contrary to the direction of the sun, which played an important role in many older religions, so to go in such a direction was to court bad luck, and worse. Many superstitions make reference to this. Hogg would have been well aware of these.
Driving up the quiet road through the Ettrick Valley from the town of Selkirk, Aikwood Tower was the first we passed. Aikwood appears in Hogg’s writing, including his legend about Michael Scott, the Border Wizard, who was reputed to live here.
After lying uninhabited for a century, former Member of the UK parliament, David Steel (now Lord Steel of Aikwood) and his wife Judy restored the tower as a home, taking up residence in 1992. Aikwood is now under the ownership of their son and offers luxurious accommodation for holidays and special celebrations.
Seen from the road that twists high across the hills between Ettrick and Yarrow is Kirkhope Tower which dates from the same period. It was restored in 1996 by an architect, becoming a private home.
On the road back to Selkirk we passed another tower house, this time unrestored, although with definite potential – though fitness would be necessary for the regular trek up and down the turnpike stairs.