Easter Weekend in the Scottish Borders

Bank holiday weekends are a great opportunity for a quick mini break without using any precious days of annual leave. However, with the boom in the UK staycation industry since the start of the pandemic, it’s been increasingly difficult to find places to ‘get away from it all’ on bank holidays: the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales have been hit by an influx of visitors which, while great for the local economy, makes parking a nightmare and peace and quiet sometimes seem like a distant dream. We therefore decided to try somewhere completely new this Easter: the Scottish Borders. The only time we’d ever stopped here was at Macdonald’s on the way up to Sutherland almost four years ago, and we knew there had to be more to the area than this – it does after all border Northumberland, one of our favourite places in the world. And we were right: we had a marvellous weekend packed full of coast, countryside and culture, and it seemed at times like we were the only tourists around! When you start looking into it, there is so much to do in the Scottish Borders. On our three night trip we climbed hills, hiked along parts of not one, not two but three long distance paths, and also got a healthy dose of culture. And the best part was, we arrived at 9.30am on a bank holiday weekend to every walk and were practically the first in the car park every time!

Ruberslaw

Did you know that 350 million years ago, this part of Scotland was a red sandy desert, speckled with a liberal helping of volcanoes? Me neither, but that’s exactly how Ruberslaw came into being, along with other prominent local summits such as the Minto Hills and the Eildon Hills (all of which were on my hiking wish list but alas we only had time for one).

We settled on Ruberslaw as it was not far off our route driving up to the cottage from Yorkshire, and decided to follow the 6.5 mile circular walk in our Cicerone guide to the Scottish Borders. A similar route is online on WalkHighlands.

The walk starts from the attractive village of Denholm, where you can park for free along the village green (public toilets are also on the route). We set off through Denholm Dene, a community woodland which was lovely if a little muddy (we had our boots on so this didn’t matter), then crossed over farmland to reach the final rocky climb to the summit.

It’s worth noting that the route described in the Cicerone guide now follows a fairly significant detour, as the original ascent has been closed for red deer grazing. The farmer has put up a sign with a map of a detour which we followed instead (although it’s tricky to navigate as it is largely pathless). I would have known about the detour if I’d checked the Cicerone website for updates beforehand, but alas I did not. Lesson learned for next time.

The views from the summit were worth the rather hard slog to get up to the top, even though it was a bit hazy. The trig point was one of our all time favourites, with a plaque on top telling you what local landmarks you were facing, as well as some further afield such as Mongolia and Cuba!

Coming down was more straightforward than going up as we didn’t have any unexpected detours, but a lot of the time it was completely pathless and we relied on our OS maps app to make sure we stayed on course. Definitely one to save for good visibility.

Dog friendly rating – 3.5/5. The woods at the start of the walk are perfect for dogs, with easy access to the river and plenty of shade for warmer days. After leaving the woods there is a short stretch along a quiet road (we only saw one car) and then the climb up through fields, where you need to be on the lookout for livestock (we walked past both sheep and cows in neighbouring fields, which could be rotated into the ones we walked through). There weren’t any stiles on the route we followed so thankfully we didn’t need to do any lifting over – Coal found a very stinky bog and took the word ‘wallowing’ to a whole new level!

St Abbs

The whole reason that I booked this trip was because I wanted to visit St Abbs – a quick Google image search will show you why. Dramatic clifftop vistas, turquoise seas and the set of New Asgard in Avengers Endgame all rolled in to one. What more could you ask for?

The route we followed was a 4 mile circular route around the headland from WalkHighlands. Although it’s a fairly short walk we took our time and spent most of the morning dawdling around the headland: even though it was quite hazy, the views really were very good. The walk starts from the National Trust for Scotland car park which is £3 for all day or free for NTS members.

We did the inland leg of the walk first in the hope that some of the haze would burn off by the time we got to the dramatic views, and indeed it had improved a lot by the time we got to the cliffs. Look out for seabird colonies nesting on the rocks below, but watch out for edges – there’s no safety barriers here!

The path is grassy and indistinct along the headland, but having the sea on our left did make navigation somewhat easier (a fairly unmissable landmark). The track undulates up and down (some steep sections) and there were one or two places where the hair on my arms did stand up a little (but then I am not a fan of heights).

By the time we got back to the car, the car park was full and it was starting to get busy. That being said, considering it was a bank holiday weekend, I was surprised that there weren’t ever more than a handful of people in sight (I’ve been mildly traumatised by our trip to Cornwall where at times walking along a footpath was like walking along an escalator on the London underground).

We stopped off at the Old Smiddy tea room for lunch before setting off for our next stop of the day. We had the fresh crab sandwiches, and at £6.50 each (significantly pricier than other menu items) I was expecting them to be amazing. The crab itself was fantastic (local Eyemouth catch) but the bread was getting stale and the sandwiches looked a bit sad with a handful of crisps next to them (similar to how sad I looked after paying nearly £20 for two sandwiches, a coffee and a bottle of water).

Dog friendly rating – 2/5. Being totally honest, this isn’t a great dog walk. You are more than welcome to bring your dogs along with you, but they’ll need to stay on leads pretty much all the way around: there are sheep in the fields on the inland stretch, and along the cliffs it would be dangerous letting them run around near the edges. The reason I’m giving this walk 2/5 instead of 1/5 is because there are a few places where you drop down and dogs can have a paddle in the sea, and the walk was also stile free. Definitely still take your dog on this walk if you want to see the views, but this walk really is all about the views and not about good places for your dog to have a run around.

The Loch of the Lowes

The Loch of the Lowes (not to be confused with the loch of the same name in Perthshire, where you can spot ospreys) is a relatively small loch next door to the bigger and better known St Mary’s loch. Our original plan was to walk around St Mary’s loch on an 11km circular, but closer inspection of the route revealed that about 1.5km of this was along a fast road, so we ditched that idea and decided to head instead for its smaller neighbour.

The route we settled on was a 5.5 mile circular walk from our Pocket Mountains guide. The route starts from the free parking area next to the Glen Cafe, which was probably the busiest parking area we came across all weekend. This was mainly due to the number of wild campers who’d obviously arrived the night before, and we’re never going to be up early enough to beat them, so we were just pleased that there were still a number of spaces to choose from.

The first three quarters of the walk actually take you over the hills and far away from the loch, but we were rewarded with a hike where we saw a grand total of 2 other people on Easter Sunday (who can believe it). We set out on an old drove road which took us steadily up into the hills, before picking up the Southern Upland Way to climb Pikestone Rig, which we then descended to finish off the walk along the shore of the Loch of the Lowes.

Apart from one slightly more strenuous section, this walk was fairly steady and shouldn’t present too much of a challenge to people with a basic level of fitness. Less fun was how boggy the path became on our descent – and I think it could definitely have been a lot worse if there had been rain in the days before!

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. For long sections of this walk, leads needed to be on. We passed both sheep and cows and this is prime territory for walking round a corner and finding a sheep right in front of you! There was however a short section which skirted a woodland where we were able to take off leads, and the final section along the shore of the loch was a huge hit: both of ours had a great time splashing in the shallows. There’s also a stream about half way deep enough for a swim if you have a water loving dog – we stopped here for about 10 minutes to let them have a play. Another plus was the lack of stiles and road walking, so overall not a bad dog walk by any means.

Abbotsford

We still had most of the afternoon after we finished our walk at the Loch of the Lowes, so we decided to stop off at Abbotsford on our way back to the cottage. Abbotsford was the home of the celebrated author Sir Walter Scott, and is today open to visitors to the house, garden and grounds.

When we arrived we headed straight for the outdoor food stand and had a freshly made sausage roll each (which I will stress was much better value than the food at St Abbs, the sausages were cooked before my eyes, and the total bill for two rolls and two drinks was less than £5). While we were eating our food we decided to give the walled gardens a miss: there was an Easter egg trail in full swing and the hordes of screaming children were stressing Coal (and us) out enough that we didn’t want to bump into any on a narrow path, lest he have a total meltdown. Bad planning on my part!

After finishing our lunch, we took a stroll along the river, which is signed by estate way markers. There are a number of signposted walks, and the grounds are free to walk around (you just need to pay for parking). I really was very sorry not to see the gardens as they look wonderful in the photos on the website.

There was a lovely atmosphere at Abbotsford: you could tell everyone there loved it. It was really quite busy but everyone was having a wonderful time and it was great to see, as the site must have struggled during all of the lockdowns we’ve been hit with over the last few years.

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. Abbotsford is definitely one of the more dog friendly country houses we’ve visited, as very often dogs are only allowed on the wider estate, with strict instructions not to let them off the lead. Not so at Abbotsford: dogs are allowed in both the gardens and the visitor centre/shop, and you’re welcome to let your dog off the lead where it is safe to do so. I’ve just shaved off a point as the number of people and other dogs did make things a little tricky for us with Coal and his reactivity, but that’s more a reactive dog owner thing than anything the estate need to do differently.

St Boswells and the Tweed

All too soon it was our last morning and we were packing up our bags to head home. Before setting off for Yorkshire, we stopped off to do one final walk along the bank of the river Tweed, which took us along both the St Cuthbert’s Way and the Borders Abbey Way on an easy 7.5km walk from our Pocket Mountains guide. There is a similar route on Walking Britain but this includes a detour up to Wallace’s Monument.

This walk was a pleasure from start to finish, full of lovely riverside scenery, easy well maintained paths and the smell of wild garlic. Parking at the start is free along the green in the village of St Boswells.

I really did enjoy this walk: after a busy few days it was nice to do a walk which was almost completely flat to let ourselves recover a bit. The start takes you through the local golf course, before joining the river bank and crossing over at the Mertoun Bridge (take care as this is a fast road with no pavement). From here, we followed the Borders Abbey Way to Dryburgh Abbey, where we detoured away from the route to have a look at the ruins. Entry to the site is free, although the abbey itself is currently closed off due to falling masonry. You can see it well enough through the safety barriers though.

Leaving the abbey and crossing back over the river via the suspension bridge there is a lovely view of the Eildon Hills – I definitely want to come back and climb them one day. On this occasion though we stuck to the riverside path which we followed all the way back to St Boswells – navigation doesn’t get any easier than this walk! Both the St Cuthbert’s Way and the Borders Abbey Way are well sign posted, and following the river means that even these finger posts are largely unnecessary.

I was surprised we didn’t see more people on this walk: we liked it so much, we thought there would be more locals out enjoying it even if the area isn’t hugely well known to tourists. I’m definitely not complaining though!

Dog friendly rating – 4.5/5. I ummed and ahhed about the extra half a point, but our dogs loved this walk so much I had to add it on. From a practical perspective, there are no stiles on this walk that can’t be avoided with gates, and there were plenty of opportunities to let the dogs off lead (leads required on golf course and look out for livestock in one field). The real star of the show on this walk is the river: it’s so easily accessible that our dogs spent the majority of the walk jumping in and out having an absolute whale of a time – this would also be a great walk for a warmer day to help keep your dog cool. It wasn’t too warm when we got back to the car, however luckily we’ve recently been invited to be ambassadors for Ruff and Tumble, who’ve kindly sent me a pair of drying coats for the dogs (if you want to save some pennies, the code Merry15 will get you a discount on their website). Drying coasts on and everyone in the car, we sadly set off for home having had a wonderful weekend.

Where we stayed

It took a lot of internet trawling to find somewhere to stay in the Borders, in the location I wanted, which accepted two dogs. After weeks of searching, I finally hit the jackpot and found Shiell Cottage on Airbnb. The cottage is in a great central location between Kelso and Melrose, and has everything you could possibly need during your stay – and possibly the best water pressure of any holiday cottage shower I’ve used (it’s the small things).

Dog friendly rating – 5/5. The cottage was spacious enough that there was more than enough room for all of us without tripping over the dogs, and the tiled/wooden floors downstairs meant we didn’t have to worry about muddy carpets. The garden was huge and enclosed (labrador proof but not spaniel proof) and the total peace and quiet of our surroundings meant we all came home feeling a lot more relaxed than when we arrived.

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