On “A Wee Borders Raid”
by Cherry Allan
Day 1. By the time I arrived at the Glen Car Park in the coolness of Sunday morning, 3rd June 2018, most of those people fortunate enough to be taking part in this ‘Wee Borders Raid’ were already on board our Bay Travel coach, 10 minutes or more early. They are a well-trained lot, the DHS travellers – they know the form well by now – be on the coach by ….! Who’s going to be the last one on this time eh?
Perhaps we should have given this trip the title of ‘Journey through the Mists of Time’ as on the drive down to the magnificent Floors Castle the views of our lovely Scottish border countryside proved rather illusive, due to that all-too-familiar meteorological phenomenon – Scottish mist!
Now, if you’re looking for a detailed historical account of the properties and all who sailed in them over the centuries, please leave this page now – you will be sadly disappointed. There are wonderful guide books put together by scholars and folks who have studied genealogy, architecture, fine arts, applied art, antiques etc, etc, etc for years on end, so please turn your attention in that direction. This is neither the prologue of a guide book, the epilogue, nor any of the bits in between, but you are very welcome to read on!
Floors Castle did not disappoint. The lemon and blueberry scone and coffee served in the Courtyard Cafe made a very welcome start, putting some fuel in the tank before setting off to notch up some mileage around this remarkable 1721 William Adam building, enhanced a century later by William Playfair to give it that fairytale castle appearance. Sir Walter Scott very rightly described it as ‘a kingdom for Oberon or Titania to dwell in’.
It seems there will always be some debate over how to pronounce ‘Floors’. It could be ‘Floors’ as in the terraces of the grounds, or ‘Floors’ as in the Scots pronunciation of ‘Flowers’, or even the French ‘Fleurs’. One personable guide informed us that a house or tower on this spot, centuries before the current building, had ‘Flowers’ as part of its name, so the name ‘Floors’ could very possibly be a corruption of that.
Floors Castle is the ancestral residence of the 10th Duke of Roxburghe and his family. The Castle is sited on a lovely terrace overlooking the River Tweed and could be spotted across the river from the garden of our hotel, Ednam House, when we reached it later that day. The Castle, which is not actually a castle, but a stately home, possessed a very visceral warm feel inside, as did Mellerstain House the next day. These illustrious houses really do benefit from the presence of a family – they have quite a different feel to those unoccupied (and usually austere) residences.
There were lots of flowers everywhere indoors, and another guide told us that the gardeners provide these from the house’s gardens a couple of times a week to be fresh – perhaps to (subconsciously) lend support to the theory on the mansion’s name? Whatever the reason these beautiful flowers were a subject of great interest to our group, and added a lot to the visit, and to the warm feel of the place.
One room led into another with beautiful views of the grounds, and from one window could be seen a lone holly tree which marked the spot where King James II of Scotland was killed in 1460, by a cannon which exploded while he was laying siege to Roxburgh Castle, held by the English at the time.
When we reached the Drawing Room we were amazed by the vastness of the Brussels tapestries which had been brought from Rhode Island by Duchess May, the American wife of the 8th Duke, when her mother died, and which had been required to be cut down to fit the spaces available here. So skilled had this operation been that the changes were not obvious. Duchess May’s mother was French and this fact was reflected in the many pieces of French furniture, porcelain and paintings to be seen. This fact became even more obvious when we reached the Ballroom, where were displayed not only further magnificent tapestries, this time from the famous Paris Gobelins factory, but also two beautiful carpets, one from the Louvre itself when it was a palace, the other from Fontainebleau.
Queen Victoria had visited this fine house, and the bedroom in which her son Leopold slept was now a billiards room, while the original billiards room had been converted into a very fine dining room. Much more was to follow, with cabinets filled with collections of beautiful china and all manner of varied and interesting items, including a room full of stuffed birds.
To round off the tour of the house there was a film to inform us of the current work of the Roxburghe estate, complete with its farms, its forestry, grouse moors, fishing and the Floors stud farm, from which fine racehorses are produced – a fitting end indeed to the story of Floors.
There was plenty of outside space to explore too, with the delightful Walled Garden (and its Terrace Cafe-with its yummy flowerpot bread!) the Millennium and Tapestry Gardens, and plenty of walking to be done round the colourful and slightly damp grounds!
Floors Castle’s best bits: for me probably the flowers – inside and outside. The gardens were beautiful despite not having reached their peak, and the grounds with their many colourful rhododendrons and azaleas were delightful despite the afternoon shower. Oh and to continue this theme, that beautiful painting ‘Corbeille des Fleurs’ by Henri Matisse, in the Needle Room, and the painting in the Sitting Room, ‘The 10th Duke of Roxburghe’ relaxing on his sofa.
We thought we might not reach the Georgian Ednam House Hotel, recommended to us by our Honorary President. The entrance to the grounds provided quite a challenge to our driver John, but he proved to be extremely skilled indeed in manoeuvring the monstrosity of his coach under the arched entrance with all the delicacy of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. Once inside the rather lovely old building, the DHS travellers dispersed to their various rooms, the lucky ones to rooms with a spectacular view of the Tweed, the not so lucky ones like my room-mate and me, to a spectacular view of the carpark! Indeed, rumour has it that one very lucky couple in our group were given the honeymoon suite with its fine view of the very attractive garden! No fine views of parked motors for them!
Dinner was wonderful though, in that lovely dining room overlooking the gardens, and so close to the Tweed. For me, that first course of twice-baked cheese soufflé was an especial treat. It’s only the second time in my short life that I have enjoyed this dish, and I hoped in vain that others seated around me may have found it not to their taste, whereupon I would have offered to help them out – but no-one did!
Breakfast was good too, although a bit of a trial for at least one of our group, who repeatedly had the promise of scrambled eggs and bacon snatched away from her, and had to make do with poached eggs and tomato instead! Ah well – it was a healthier option! Perhaps the chef had this in mind for her!
Some of us had time to have a brisk trot around Kelso, taking in the ruins of the Tironensian abbey there, and the hotel’s lovely garden, situated by the River Tweed, where herons and swans could be seen. There was time to enjoy a brief walk around the pretty town centre itself too before dinner and an evening of very pleasant companionship (and gin) in the hotel bar.
Ednam House Hotel’s best bits: no bones about it – for me that twice-baked cheese soufflé, oh, and the garden!
Day 2. Time to set out for the hauntingly beautiful Dryburgh Abbey. We were still taking part in ‘Journey through the Mists of Time’ for this one, but any lack of view was quickly made up for by our arrival at what I think is the most beautiful setting of all the Border abbeys. This former Premonstratensian abbey (try saying that after a couple of gins!) was founded in 1150 by Hugh de Moreville who was invited north by David I of Scotland. Its founding was marked by a curious obelisk set up by 11th Earl of Buchan, who set up the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1780. Various of us admired this rather strange but beautiful stone and its carvings within the abbey grounds, and mused on its meanings. Well, a glance at the guide book told me! It seems we have the 11th Earl to thank for the beauty of the entire setting, including many of its wonderful trees, as he made it his task to purposely enhance this romantic setting – well he certainly did that!
Many of the group were enchanted by the regular appearance of a treecreeper which had built its nest behind the plaque at the great western doorway. As we visitors stood to read the plaque, it flew in and out with its beak full of goodies for its young. You had to be quick to see it, the only other hint of its presence being a handful of twigs sticking out from under the plaque. Swallows also had nests in parts of the Abbey Chapter House and could be seen swooping characteristically in and out of windows and doorways, apparently unconcerned by our presence.
The talents of stone masons of a bygone era were on display in one of the abbey’s now empty rooms, some showing off very intricately carved finery which had survived the ravages of Time by some miracle.
Apart from the obvious interest of the abbey ruins, the grounds were a pure delight to wander round, set out as they were to draw the visitor to carefully placed seats and picnic tables, and there were many beautiful trees, including some lovely laburnums in full flower, and magnificent old yew trees too. Many of us followed the path set out to lead us to the Tweed, that river again, where the promise of otter sightings sadly failed to fulfil itself. The return route took us past a number of interesting gravestones which lay to one side of the abbey, some very old and probably carved by a local mason, many bearing several mortality symbols. Within the abbey itself lay the much grander tomb of Sir Walter Scott, and also the tomb of Colonel Haig of WW1.
Dryburgh Abbey’s best bits: for me it was the entre setting and atmosphere – the enhancements wrought by the 11th Earl of Buchan have been lovingly maintained by Historic Scotland, and the treecreeper of course!
Time to move on – up the hill to Scott’s View, but once more those mists prevailed and Scott’s View kept its secrets from us! Now for Mellerstain House!
For those of us who may be admirers of the work of the Adam family, this visit would prove to be a rare treat indeed. Most of the group must have left the building with a crick in their necks from gazing in awe at the simply magnificent ceilings and friezes. Like Floors, this house is lived in, by the Earl of Haddington and his family, and the occupant could be seen (I’m told) wandering about like one of the many staff who work there.
William Adam built the two wings of the house around 1725, while his son Robert built the central section 1770-78. Sounds odd to me, but that is how it happened!
We started off in the Terrace Gardens, which were lovely, as were the grounds in general, but since none of us had thought to bring flippers with us, our trot around the outside was cut short by the serious dampness under(and over)foot! What had lured us into this precarious state in the first place was the notion of an exhibition of sculptures outdoors, but once found, most of us simply scratched our heads and headed indoors to those Adam ceilings, which would have been well worth getting our feet wet for had they been outside!
Like an owl, my head was in permanent rotating mode in my attempt to take in those ceilings! The Library especially simply took my breath away, with its classically-themed friezes and ceiling, complete with central painted panel. Busts of past residents, notably Lady Grisell Baillie, completed the room at frieze level. The views over the artificial lake provided a wonderful backdrop to all of this wonder, and of course, the fine furnishings and the Adam fireplace.
The Music Room was originally designed as the Dining Room and along with the Drawing Room, was filled with paintings of many former residents, the Hamiltons and the Baillies, as was the Small Drawing Room, the latter also containing a Strasburg faience turkey tureen, one of those things you either love or hate!
The Rose Bedroom especially, with its original wallpaper, was so pretty, while the Manchineel Bedroom (I’d never heard of this golden-brown wood before) was charming in shades of yellow, with its golden-yellow carpet, handwoven in Alloa, believe it or not!
Reaching the top floor by the elegant twin stairways took us into the Long Gallery. There were Adam friezes here too, but the ceiling had never been carried out to his specification, which is a pity as there would have been tremendous scope within such a generous space.
What was of tremendous interest here, however, was the Household Book kept by Lady Grisell Baillie. Her handwriting was exquisite and she had set out all the costings of the household, including some servants’ wages and the costs of all sorts of household items and materials. But what really caught my eye was her Recipe Book! What I saw was recipes for home cures. Although I couldn’t decipher all that she wrote, I think I got the gist of what she was saying.
So – if you should find yourself suffering from consumption, then try swallowing up to 17 small live frogs, up to the size of your thumb, every day, for a month if necessary, and I can guarantee you will be cured! Keep me in the loop please.
Or, if you should have a really sore throat (much more likely!), then you must find a man who has been highly inebriated the previous night (try the Bath Tavern any time after 3pm), persuade him to fill a jar for you (I’m not spelling it out!). Mix these contents with a large quantity of salt, then soak a cloth in this solution (not your best hankie), and carefully place the resulting poultice around your neck! Watch carefully as your friends at this point completely desert you! Repeat as necessary (I suppose). Once again, please keep me in the loop!
Mellerstain’s best bits: those Adam ceilings, Lady Grisell’s household Book, and that exquisite painting of a girl – ‘Katherine Salting’ (later Lady Binning, Grandmother of present Earl) by Fritz Greber, in the Small Drawing Room.
Once back on the coach we set off for our last port of call before home – that fine and familiar restaurant at Carfraemill. Here we enjoyed a last very tasty high tea, and a blether, before covering the final miles to Dunfermline. Once the Abbey’s spires appeared we knew that our trips for this season were finally over, but ah well, there’s always next season!
The trip’s best bits: great comfort, great food, great properties, great scenery (when the mist let up a bit!) and last but not least – great company!