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Part of the Reivers Cycle Route
Part of the Reivers Cycle Route

Scottish Borders: Five ways to explore the 'debatable lands'

Often overlooked, this is an area of glorious countryside packed with history, writes Lucy Gillmore

Lucy Gillmore
Thursday 25 September 2014 09:35
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The "debatable lands" between England and Scotland were for centuries plagued by battles and cross-border skirmishes. Fortified farmhouses, sturdy towers and ruined abbeys are reminders of the region's turbulent history, but for the past century or so this has been a peaceful patch of a united kingdom, and the only evidence you're crossing a border are the "Welcome" signs.

The run-up to the Scottish independence referendum put the spotlight on an area often overlooked by tourists. And while this undulating landscape of moody moorland, woodland-covered hills, pretty towns and rushing rivers rich with salmon might be less obviously magnificent than, say, the Highlands, it is glorious in its own right. You can explore the Borders along the network of long-distance hiking, cycling and horse-riding trails, and, from September 2015, the Borders Railway will re-open after almost half a century, along with a new steam train experience (visitscotland.org). There are also stately homes, including Floors Castle (01573 223333; roxburghe.net/castle), sandy beaches such as Coldingham and a fascinating textile heritage – the Johnstons of Elgin Cashmere Visitor Centre in Hawick (01450 360549; johnstonscashmere.com) offers a great introduction.

By blurring the boundaries

Hadrian's Wall, a symbol of the ancient divide between the two countries, is these days some way south of the official border, although tours such as Viator's "Hadrian's Wall, Roman Britain and the Scottish Borders" daytrip from Edinburgh (020 3318 0421; viator.com) will take you there, from £41 per person. Notching up other Roman sites such as Birdoswald Fort and Steel Rigg, you weave across the border as the guide tells tales of the Anglo-Scottish wars during the 14th and 16th centuries.

On two wheels

Sustrans' Reivers Cycle Route (0117 926 8893; sustrans.org.uk), a 173-mile ride from Tynemouth to Whitehaven, also meanders in and out of England and Scotland, and is named after the Border Reivers – violent raiders who terrorised the area between the 13th and 17th centuries. Other bike trails include the Tweed Cycle Way, from Biggar to Berwick-Upon-Tweed, the 250-mile Borders Loops and the Four Abbeys Cycle Route, a 55-mile circular trail around Dryburgh, Melrose, Jedburgh and Kelso abbeys (cyclescottishborders.com).

Jedburgh Abbey

On foot

Macs Adventure (0141 530 1185; macsadventure.com) offers self-guided walking holidays of the Borders Abbeys Way. The 68-mile circular route takes you to the medieval ruined abbeys of Jedburgh, Melrose, Dryburgh and Kelso. From £450 per person for six nights including B&B accommodation, luggage transfer, maps and route notes.

On horseback

In the Middle Ages, townsmen would patrol the Borders area on horseback to act as a deterrent against looting, and this "Common Riding" tradition is celebrated in summer with Return to the Ridings (returntotheridings.co.uk), a series of events across 11 Border towns. If you want to saddle up, there are plenty of long-distance riding trails and hacks, including the South of Scotland Countryside Trails, a 350km network of waymarked routes for riders (sounthofscotlandcountrysidetrails.co.uk).

In a historic home

To soak up more of the area's past, bed down in a historic building. Crabtree & Crabtree (01573 226711; crabtreeandcrabtree.com) has a selection of holiday rentals straddling the Scottish Borders and Northumberland, including Aikwood Tower near Selkirk which dates back to the mid-16th century. Think vaulted ceilings and huge fireplaces (sleeps 10 from £2,400 per week).

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