Travel: A ride on the wild side of the border: David Hewson discovers slow pleasures and strange rituals in Scotland's bandit country

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The Independent Travel
The easiest way to get to Scotland from the south is to hammer up the M6, take your foot off the pedal when you get to Carlisle and then head up the A7, the old, slow road to Edinburgh, which winds its way through the valley of the Esk. There is a little sign that says 'Scotland'; but the truth is that you're now in the Borders, the bandit country of 'the debatable lands' where the reivers used to cut each others' throats for a few hundred yards of territory, a bowl of oats and ownership of a single, scraggy black-faced tup (a ram). Of such things is honour made.

The temptation, having rolled thus far into the debatable lands, is to look at the map, spot the names you recognise - Hawick and Jedburgh and, way up there at the end of the line, Berwick - and then head on. But you'll find that life moves slowly in the Borders, often for the very logical reason that it's hard to go any faster. Something happens to the British road system once you cross into Scotland; things get a little more languid and there are a good many parts where the preferred form of transport appears to be a weather-beaten tractor that putters along in front of you with a collie's sad little face peering out from the back. And besides, there's plenty to see right under your nose.

Take Langholm. This is a pretty little grey-slate town, the first of any size you'll meet on the A7. The countryside is big, barren and wild, with small lochs and lonely high fells where resides a gallimaufry of native raptors, from hen harriers to the odd passing golden eagle. Picture a scaled-down Lake District without the caravans or chintzy shops selling Kendal mint cake, and you're getting there. Except for one weekend at the end of July (of which more later), it's a quiet, soporific little spot, perfect for secluded walking and leisurely drives down narrow lanes where the sight of three cars together can start localised shaking of heads about the size of the traffic jams these days.

Langholm stands at the conflux of three rivers, so has a slightly confusing geography. Around every bend seems to lurk a fetching little bridge, and you can walk to your heart's content in many different directions; on common land and through the estate of the Duke of Buccleuch (pronounced 'Buckloo'). On a bare hillside overlooking the town is a memorial to Langholm's best-known son, C M Grieve, better known as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. It's a funny little memorial, emblematically representing the poet's life and interests, such as his pipes and books. But nowhere is there a glass, which is odd since a few decades ago in Carlisle Mr Grieve's legendary status was principally based around his ability, as a reporter on the local newspaper, to whack down innumerable beers and whisky chasers, largely on other people's money.

Seven miles up the Esk, through forests riddled with deer and owls, past ducks and herons and oyster-catchers, lies Eskdalemuir, which has the oddest sight you're likely to encounter hereabouts: the largest Tibetan monastery in Europe, Samye-Ling. Grand and exotic under its golden dome and fluttering flags, Samye-Ling looks like the real thing, straight out of old pictures of Lhasa.

North-east from Langholm, behind the MacDiarmid memorial lies a wonderful single-track shortcut across to Newcastleton. Hen harriers flap lazily overhead and some of the most handsome sheep you've ever seen, with smart and intelligent black-and-white faces, stare back at you from the heather. Newcastleton was once a salmon-fishing paradise, but now the big silver ones are a rarity, even for the canny locals. Newcastleton Forest, however, is large and interesting, with enticing little lanes and trails that cross and recross its border. A few miles north stands Hermitage Castle, a spooky four-square ruin which, everyone tells you, was once visited by Mary Queen of Scots - as indeed it was, for the best part of a couple of hours.

Retrace your steps a little and you can then follow the road out of Scotland, to Kielder in Northumberland, and the vast artificial lake of the same name, nine miles by three, with the odd boating spot and a demography in which birds of prey vastly outnumber humans.

That delightful demography can be applied to most of the Borders except on the last Friday of July, which sees Langholm transformed into a cross between the Pamplona bull run and a Sevillian feria. For this is Common Riding time, the ancient beating of the bounds ceremony. It can be seen the length of the Borders but Langholm is one of the oldest and most traditional exponents.

Bagpipes come out at 5am and a hound trail winds its way across the hills an hour later. By 7.30am, a crowd is crammed into the back yard of the Crown Inn, gabbling happily in a fug of lager fumes, raw whisky, cigarettes and the heavy odour of horse. Pipes and brass bands play, declarations are read from horseback; then, at 9am, there is the mad, frantic gallop up the steep and narrow Kirk Wynd lane, with around 200 riders on horseback racing past the crowds to the common lands.

After that, everything degenerates into daft little ceremonies. Salt herrings are nailed to planks, a giant thistle is paraded around the town. At midday, the horse pack wades through the waters of the Esk and starts to race on the public park of Castleholm. When they've cleared away the spoor - this is a major horse-dung occasion - there is an an athletics meeting with Cumberland wrestling, dancing and foot races. It all winds up with Auld Lang Syne and a polka (a polka]) at around 9pm - that's if you don't count the disco in the Buccleuch Hall. It is as extraordinary and genuine a spectacle as any you'll find in the British Isles and you come away realising that, beneath those quiet grey Border visages, there lurks still a touch of the reiver hereabouts.

FACTFILE

Common Ridings: Langholm Common Riding takes place every last Friday in July, but there are other Common Ridings throughout the Borders during the summer. Information available from the Scottish Tourist Board: 031-332 2433.

Accommodation: Langholm has two established old hotels: the Crown (03873 80247, from pounds 33 for two) and the Eskdale (03873 80357, from pounds 40 for two). Or ask at the town's tourist office (03873 80976) about the supply of inexpensive bed-and-breakfast accommodation, although you may find that you're too late to book a room for the Langholm Common Riding this year. David Hewson stayed at the Liddesdale Hotel, Newcastleton (03873 75255, from pounds 40 for two). A double room at the Samye-Ling Tibetan Centre (03873 73232) in Eskdalemuir, including three meals, costs pounds 17 per person. Holiday cottages on the Buccleuch Estate, pounds 290-410 per week (03873 81360).

(Photograph omitted)

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