The Tweed: Take a trip on a river flowing with history

The Tweed bursts forth in Scotland, and serves as a border with England before ending at Berwick. David Orkin explores one of the great rivers of the British Isles and finds that its waters teem with history

The Tweed: as a name, it may not resound with as much exoticism as, say, the Amazon or the Nile. It doesn't even stretch to 100 miles in length. But Britain's international river does steer an extraordinary course through Scotland and England on its way to the North Sea. Its source is Tweed's Well in the Lowther Hills, some six miles north of Moffat and located inside the western half of the Southern Uplands - the rugged border country that, in the past, governments in London found so difficult to subdue.

Close by are the sources of southern Scotland's two other great rivers: the Clyde, draining north-west, and the Annan draining south. A traditional Borders rhyme goes: "Annan, Tweed and Clyde a' rise oot o' ae hillside." From that hillside, the Tweed carves a jagged course across southern Scotland. The river serves as the border with England for 18 miles, but with five miles to go, it swerves through entirely English territory - a consequence of Berwick-upon-Tweed being taken by the English in 1482. It ends by creating a flourishing "s" shape around the town of Berwick.

That's "s" as in "salmon". Anglers - of whom there are many strung along its 97-mile course - will tell you that more Atlantic salmon is currently caught here than from any other river in the world. Fish has been a source of food and profit in the area since at least the 11th century, and satisfied customers include some English kings. Salted and packed in barrels, salmon was exported from Berwick-upon-Tweed. However, try fishing the Tweed for salmon on a Sunday, and you could be the one on the hook - you would be committing a criminal offence. Salmon apart, anglers come here for brown and sea trout, and grayling.

You may, of course, be visiting more for what lies on the bank of the river than for the water itself. And, as a natural frontier between England and Scotland, that's thousands of years of history. Evidence of the Roman fort of Trimontium (named for the triple peaks of the Eildon Hills) was uncovered on a high bluff overlooking the river Tweed in 1846 by railway builders driving a cutting through the site. It's just outside Melrose, and in the centre of town you'll find the Three Hills Roman Heritage Centre.

This is a river with a long and bloody history. The defeat of the Northumbrians in 1018 by Malcolm II at the Battle of Carham (close to Cornhill on Tweed) led to the first demarcation of the river Tweed as the border between Scotland and England. Above the river, a mile west of Peebles, Neidpath Castle was attacked by Oliver Cromwell, and required the longest assault on any stronghold south of the river Forth to force it to surrender. And high on a wooded hillside above Dryburgh, a 10-minute walk from a car park will lead you to the Wallace Monument. This statue of the great Scottish hero William Wallace was erected in 1814 and stands over 20ft high.

Between Coldstream and Berwick-upon-Tweed, high above a vital ford over the river Tweed, Norham Castle is one of the most impressive medieval fortresses in northern England. One of the strongest of the border castles, Norham was frequently attacked by the Scots. Besieged over a dozen times, it finally fell to James IV in 1513, shortly before his defeat at Flodden. Berwick-upon-Tweed is England's northernmost town and has a long history of being fought over by the English and the Scots. It is encircled by very well-preserved Elizabethan fortifications. A windy walk on the walls offers fine views of the river (and out to sea). Incidentally, this English town's football team, Berwick Rangers, plays in the Scottish League.

The river also holds a fascination for lovers of literary history. In the Eildon Hills, close to Trimontium, the Rhymer's Stone commemorates a 13th-century man who is often referred to as "Scotland's Nostradamus". Thomas of Ercildoune - more commonly known as Thomas the Rhymer - was a soothsayer whose fame, for a time, rivalled that of Merlin. After a liaison with a fairy queen, he is said to have predicted events including Scotland's defeat by the English at the Battle of Flodden, Scottish victory at Bannockburn, and the Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England.

Talking of legends, King Arthur himself was said to have been buried in the Eildon Hills above Melrose. Robert the Bruce's heart was buried in Melrose Abbey.

As with the panama hat (which actually originated in Ecuador), there is some confusion about Harris tweed. While Scotland's textile industry began in the early 18th century with the introduction of the spinning wheel, and many of the early mills were powered by the Tweed, it is thought that the name "tweed" for the fabric was derived from "tweel" (Scottish for twill) rather than from the river: Harris tweed is, of course, hand-woven on Harris, in the Outer Hebrides.

The river Tweed has also proved inspirational. Sir Walter Scott stayed in Clovenfords (east of Galashiels) for many summers, and sat beside the Tweed to write Marmion, The Lady of the Lake and Rob Roy. In 1812, he bought a house on the south bank of the Tweed, between Melrose and Galashiels, and had a grand home, Abbotsford, built. There he wrote his "Waverley" novels. The house was finally completed in 1824. In 1833, five months after Sir Walter's death, it was opened to the public and has welcomed visitors ever since. Not far away, his favourite picnic spot still affords a superb panorama of the river and the Eildon Hills: "Scott's View" is on the B6356 near Bemersyde. The writer was buried at Dryburgh Abbey, a secluded site surrounded on three sides by a loop of the Tweed.

Robert Burns was more of an Annan man - that river flows through the town where he lived with his family - but he visited Kelso in 1787 and commented in his journal on its charm, its enchanting views, and the fine bridges over the Tweed. His favourite bridge was swept away in a flood 10 years later. But another 18th-century figure takes poetic precedence: James Thomson,who wrote the stirring words of "Rule Britannia!", is commemorated by the Temple of the Muses, a handsome memorial erected in 1817 close to the Wallace Monument. The "temple" originally housed a (now long-lost) statue of Apollo; however, a new sculpture was installed five years ago.

The final literary connection to the Tweed is John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps. When ennobled, Buchan became Lord Tweedsmuir, taking the name from an Upper Tweeddale hamlet near Broughton. It had been home to his grandfather, and Buchan spent many holidays there. The former church at the south end of Broughton village, where his relatives regularly worshipped and where he himself often attended services, is now the John Buchan Centre, and features a display of photographs and books illustrating Buchan's career and achievements. He even gets a walk named after him: the 13-mile John Buchan Way, between Peebles and Broughton, was officially opened in 2003. It runs parallel to the Tweed, and crosses it twice.

The 50 or so crossings of the Tweed are extremely diverse, both in age and in style. Close to the river's slightly disappointing source in a marshy depression, the first bridge comprises a few planks nailed together to cross the tiny stream. In Kelso, you can visit Rennie's Bridge, built by John Rennie as a prototype of his Waterloo Bridge in 1803. There's a fine 19th-century viaduct at Leaderfoot (just east of Melrose).

From Coldstream Bridge, completed in 1766, Robert Burns first left his "native soil", penning the expression in "Cotter's Saturday Night", as recorded on a commemorative plaque on the bridge. The most impressive crossing, though, is the last: Robert Stephenson's 28-arch Royal Border Bridge, which carries the main East Coast railway line, 126ft above the estuary, to the handsome stone station of Berwick. Its completion in 1850 also signalled the completion of the East Coast Main Line from London to Edinburgh, and today marks the end of the river Tweed itself.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The nearest rail hub is at Berwick-upon-Tweed (National Rail Enquiries: 08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk).

From Edinburgh airport, Peebles is a 40-minute drive and Berwick-upon-Tweed a 75-minute drive.

GETTING AROUND

The 100-mile Tweed Cycleway starts at Carstairs Junction and meets the Tweed near Broughton, before following the river closely to the sea. Bike hire is offered by Bike Sport (01896 830880; www.probikesport.com) of Innerleithen; and The Hub in the Forest (01721 721736; www.thehubintheforest.co.uk) in Glentress; or Wilson Cycles (01289 331476) in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

VISITING THERE

Three Hills Roman Heritage Centre, Market Square, Melrose (01896 822651; www.trimontium.net). Neidpath Castle, Peebles (01721 720333). Norham Castle, Northumberland (01289 304493; www.english-heritage.org.uk). Abbotsford, Melrose (01896 752043; www.scottsabbotsford.co.uk). Dryburgh Abbey, near St Boswells (01835 822381; www.historic-scotland.gov.uk). Traquair House, Innerleithen (01896 830323; www.traquair.co.uk). Floors Castle, Kelso (01573 223333; www.floorscastle.com).

Paxton House, Berwick-upon-Tweed (01289 386291; www.paxtonhouse.co.uk).

STAYING THERE

Dryburgh Abbey Hotel, St Boswells (01835 822261; www.dryburgh.co.uk). Ednam House Hotel, Kelso (01573 224168; www.ednam house.com). Windlestraw Lodge, Walkerburn (01896 870636; www.windlestraw.co.uk).

Tontine Hotel, Peebles (01721 720892; www.tontinehotel.com).

Clint Lodge, St Boswells (01835 822027; www.clintlodge.co.uk).

MORE INFORMATION

Visit Scotland: 0845 225 5121; www.visitscotland.com

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