Neolithic Sites
Roman Sites
Round Towers

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Traquair House
Smailholm Tower
Floors Castle
Mellerstain House
Greenowe Tower
Castle nr Lauder


May 03

We got a late start today, because we wandered around the gardens after breakfast and spent an hour or so trying to escape the enormous hedge-maze in the rear garden. It's kind of fun, actually -- more so when its only the two of us calling to each other as we try to get through the four quadrants o the maze. (I'll point out here that Mark has a distinct advantage - I think he can see over the top!) The maze was originally all boxwood, but a late freeze killed off a lot of the plants and they were replanted with beech. Then, further on in the gardens are some of the biggest pine trees I have ever seen.

The amazing verdant landscape is the first thing you notice about Scotland; everything is lush and green and almost wild. Move the country a little further south and the whole of the place would be a tropical rain forest. The place is simply amazing -- that's what 40" of rain a year will do. Lawns are blankets of green velvet, every house has hedgerows that look like solid green blocks, trees are enormous here. We've seen trees here in Scotland that are twice the size of anything at home, hundred foot high beech hedges and redwood trees that rival the tallest in the California forests. I was disappointed to learn that beech trees, the graceful, smooth-barked shade trees simply will not grow in Colorado - even with diligent watering, they just don't like the dry climate.

Getting a "mobile"

One of the gadgets that I can recommend wholeheartedly is making sure you have a cell phone that works in Scotland. The way we travel - wandering aimlessly and finding a B&B sometime before dinner each day, really does require that we have the ability to call these places -- and while there are more phone booths in Scotland than I'm used to seeing elsewhere, they are still pretty sparse on the ground. They are slowly replacing the classic Red Phone boxes with modern glass boxes, though. I find this inexplicably sad. They are such an iconic fixture in every town, next to the red cylindrical post boxes. Having plain-jane glass shells for phones is quite sad. I'm sure they're easier to take care of.

When we traveled to Ireland, we purchased a GSM unlocked phone with a SIM chip for Ireland before we left home. That worked pretty well. This time we decided that we'd get to Scotland and find one of the cheap, pay-as-you-go phones that are for sale in nearly every news stand. We opted for Tesco -- which is the Target-style big-box store that is popping up all over the country. Open 24 hours, selling everything from groceries to lawn mowers to designer shoes. They are quite a novelty in a country where most people shop in little grocery stores the size of a closet and going to a butcher, a greengrocer, and a fishmonger along the main street. I can't say that I think it's a positive change -- it's like the invasion of SuperWalmarts in every small town in America. Something is lost when the huge building and parking lot show up. But, as a tourist, I have to admit it's a nice stop to make -- pick up munchies for the car, cans of diet coke, garbage bags, and a cell phone (or mobile, as they are called here).One stop shopping with a huge parking lot. We're still getting used to the car, so a giant parking lot is not a bad thing.

There are a couple of different cell networks in Scotland - O, Orange, Virgin, among others). Since we just wanted a simple, no frills phone, we picked a Tesco-branded model, pay as you go. It can be topped up at just about any newsagent or even over the phone itself. Easy-peasy.

There was a serious disappointment, though. The perfect chocolate-covered malted-milk cookies that I loved so much in Ireland and on our last trip to Scotland were no longer available. Waah! We had to make do with chocolate covered shortbread, malted digestives, and ginger nut cookies. As you can tell, we are obviously healthy eaters while on vacation.

A brush with death..or at least, a brush with maiming

We headed back through town and had the one seriously scary encounter of the whole trip - A huge lorry bearing down on us was way over the center line in town, and we scraped the side of the car on the stone wall that butted up against the pavement. Scraped the wheel-well, but no other damage other than yelling at each other in an adrenaline-fueled spat.

I'm surprised it doesn't’t happen more often, really. The hedgerows that line the sides of the roads -- all roads, whether bounding farmland or snaking through towns, seem to be lined with tall, well-trimmed boxwoods or beech hedges….which give way, without warning, to stone walls at exactly the same clearance. So, you're driving along, occasionally brushing the hedges with the side-mirrors…and suddenly the road is bounded on both sides with a solid stone wall. I'm surprised that any car has a passenger-side mirror!

I screamed, Mark yelled, and we both were jittery with the adrenaline rush for a while, but no real harm done. The wheel-well is a bit scraped, but considering how the impact felt, it was surprisingly small. We laughed a bit after we settled down, and tried to shrug it off, "we have a whole e month, if this is the worst thing to happen to the car in a month, we're not trying very hard."

Misguided 'restoration'

The GPS got us directly to Smailholm Tower (which is actually pretty easy to find, being a well-marked Historic Scotland site. The tower itself is very well-maintained, although it's more interesting for the location and remains of the outbuildings than the tower itself, I think. The interior floors are rebuilt, and each floor houses a display of little handmade dolls that illustrate the life of Sir Walter Scott -- who lived here for a short time as a young boy. (The eminent Sir Scott shows up all over the borders ; I keep expecting to see little signs "Scott Slept Here").

The fascinating thing about the tower, though, is the current experiment running up on the roof. Water leakage is a huge problem in a stone tower. A stone-slab roof lets in water at every seam after a while, and water + stone = bad. Water damage and water mitigation were problems at many of the castles we visited, and Historic Scotland/National Trust is trying desperately to handle the problem (which is made harder by their financial difficulties). Craigievar, Crathes, and other harled castles are being re-surfaced and repaired, roof repair is going on at dozens of other sites. It's interesting (and gratifying) to see the ongoing work, even if it does mean that some of the sites are off-limits to tourists.

But back to the water problem at Smailholm: HS is trying out a couple of different roofing options (suggested by historical records) to see if they can solve the problem. Turf grass, sedum, and other types of plants are being tested to see if the soil and plants can absorb the water and release it slowly, and route drain water in a way that doesn't seep into the building. A few sections of the roof are planted with strips of different greenery, all wired up with water sensors and hygrometers and such. There are a few more years left in the tests -- ask at the desk downstairs for information on what they are doing and how they expect it to work, it's pretty interesting!

As we left Smailholm to find Floors Castle, I made an attempt to find a few of the dots on the map and when I plugged the coordinated into the GPS…I was mocked (MOCKED!) by my travel companion for "imaginary roads". Phhbt! Just because the stupid screen would occasionally tell us to take an abrupt right-hand turn into a stone wall or head off into a field with no road in sight. He's being far too picky, if you ask me.

Floors is an enormous "castle" -- and I use the word castle with quotes because this is more of a mid-19th century manor house with fanciful castellated towers and pepper-pot domes. But the stone house is vast and quite pretty. No pictures inside, of course (that's true of most of the museum-piece houses - since they are often still a family home with only part of the house open to visitors). We wandered around the gardens for a bit and walked through the public rooms to marvel at the huge high ceilings and antique furniture. The family lives in one wing of the house, and we were able to walk through dining rooms, reception rooms, all much-updated. I could move in and live here -- it actually feels very much like a family home, despite the grandness of the scale. We had lunch in the little café.

Just north of Galashiels we stopped for pictures of a castle and had to walk through a field to get some good ones. Remember that rights of access in Scotland are pretty liberal - you are usually allowed to go just about anywhere as long as you follow the basic rules (leave all gates open or closed, pick up all litter, don't bother livestock, etc) -- even on private land, the rules usually favor a walker. But be polite; if there is someone to ask about before you tromp about in their farmyard, at least try to get permission and be gracious whether it is granted or not. We often opted out of getting close-up pics because we couldn't figure out who we should ask, and didn't want to trespass. We probably would have been ok, but it seemed a good idea to err on the side of politeness. Everyone we did ask, by the way, was very nice about letting us through to see things, and often were very interested in why we wanted to see an old pile of rocks or ruins.

We lost track of time (a common malady on vacation for us, and problematic when most sites are open 10-5 or less), and sprinted down the road to Mellerstain House. We missed the last entry, of course, so we could only take a few pictures of the outside -- it looks surprisingly like Floors Castle, just without the huge turrets and onion-domes. I imagine that the original house may have looked very much like this one. And of course, Mellerstain has been 'castleized' in its way, too - the machicolations around the roof line are all just for show. The house is rigidly symmetrical on the outside, I'm really curious if the interior spaces are matched in each wing, or if it's a riot of small rooms and no hallways and weird twisty passages, all alike, on the inside.

Meeting more 'castle fanatics'

We are visiting some of the same sites we saw on our last trip - and each time we've been surprised at the changes in the buildings. Some are more-restored, work has been done to stabilize crumbling buildings and finish interior spaces; others are even less intact than they were, or have been "repurposed" from an empty shell to a museum or historic display. Keeping these buildings "in working order" is a full-time (nay, several ) job, and I'm always interested in how things have been managed.

Greenowe Tower, though, is mostly unchanged. A new gravel path and signage, but the building remains a floor-less shell, with mural passages (narrow halls or rooms in the walls) blocked off with fencing to keep the ever-present pigeons from nesting everywhere. Climbing up to the top of the tower yields some nice views and it's possible to lean precariously out over the wall to get a view of the little round bartizans (which are not accessible - they look as if they might come down under the weight of a person).

We met a lovely couple at Greenowe, though - they were from Northumberland and drove up into the Borders to take photos. The wife was a member of a photographic club, and the husband was an armchair historian - they were just lovely, and when I told him our next goal was to see Hadrian's Wall, he pulled out maps on the hood of the car to show us where we should go, if we just were to dip down into England for a couple of days and follow the track of the wall west.

We argued a bit over digital camera brands (we belong to the Sect of Nikon and they were Disciples of Canon ) and our travel proclivities -- they expressed surprise that we were just sort of 'winging it' around Scotland and looking at the out-of-the-way places, and had dozens of suggestions as to what to see. I'm always surprised by the fact that the Scots (and Irish, for that matter) were amazed that we were traveling on our own (and were over the age of 20, I guess). Is it really that uncommon? Does everyone travel in giant tour busses and never stray off the beaten path? I can't imagine that's true.

They pointed us to Alnwick and Dunsanburgh castles, and suggested that we visit the Roman sites on the eastern end of the wall (Corbridge, especially), and we parted ways with a cheery wave as they climbed up the tower to take some of the same pictures we had just taken.

Getting Connected

We had called earlier for a reservation at The Lodge at Craemill, which was one of the hotels listed as a Taste of Scotland scheme participant. That program has changed quite a bit since we practically followed the Taste of Scotland guidebook around Scotland and stayed each night in one of the B&Bs or Guest Houses listed - they no longer just list the few places that are recognized for exceptional food, but include restaurants and shops as well, making it a bit harder to use them as a lodging guide, but we did pick B&Bs and other small hotels preferentially if they were listed in the book. On the way to Lauder, we looked for a couple of castles that the map suggested should be there -- and when we drove through a farm yard, between two barns, up a narrow farm track and ended up on a concrete pad with a few tractors parked on…well, we decided that the GPS was imaging the roads again and turned back. The site was probably there, on the other side of the farm buildings, but we should have come at it from the other direction or something. We'd have needed serious assistance to get out of the mud, if we had tried for it -- we made a mental note to rent a four-wheel-drive Jeep next time we come to Scotland. If we'd had an all-wheel, all-terrain vehicle, we'd have been GOLDEN!

The Lodge looks, to be honest, like a road-side strip motel. But it's cozy and homey and comfortable and dinner was quite lovely (steak pie and fish and chips and a tall glass of Overton's Best). We enjoyed the busy restaurant crowd for awhile before heading up to our room which had -- ta da! -- internet access. Finally! We could try to get the iPhone to work and connect and let people know what was going on. It took a (long) phone call to AT&T to make sure things were connected, but things are finally connecting properly and we can get email and our US phone number will work, for emergency calls from home. It's quite a bit cheaper to use the Scottish cell number to call the states, than to have Mark's local number available (and I boggle at how in the world they connect those calls, I really do), so we are using the iPhone just as an emergency contact for my family (since my father is in the hospital).

Off to bed after a quick walk outside to cool off and slept like the dead.