There’s a hidden Scotland, a hidden gem, that you can feel looking at the landscape from Sir Walter Scott’s View or visiting a tartan factory.
‘Washing, drying, milling, brushing, pressing and cropping’, you can read at the visitor center of Locharron Tartan, one of the Scottish Borders' most famous textile companies. And we can add: ‘Feeling, enjoying, walking, eating, resting, knowing and, why not, fishing.’ This is what the southern part of Scotland offers. And this is what I've just done on a two day trip along the Hadrian’s Wall.
This is a ‘Creative Scotland’ trip. Here in these valleys and hills, among abbeys, castles, mansions, parks and rivers, the Scottish have created what their country is known for: kilts and whisky, golf and fishing, cardigans and scarves, haggis and cakes. In one word: hospitality.
Coming from London to Edinburgh, the difference is evident. People smile, they ask ‘may I help you?’ and they share stories. Like those we can hear at the Scottish Storytelling Centre (150,000 visitors per year), in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, where storyteller David Campbell narrates the history of a country. Because Scotland is a country, people respect the British Queen but they believe more in the ‘spirit of the north’. That is a spirit made of blue skies – not always, by the way – and strong winds, strong tastes and a lot of alcohol, buskers and shepherds.
But Edinburgh is only a starting point. Delighted by Campbell’s stories, we head to the Borders, where a hidden world is waiting. Along the way, amid the sheep and cows, everything’s green and blue and brown. Salmon jump in the river (really, I saw them) and, sometimes, the oaks welcome us to a fairytale scene.
We decide to start from the Johnstons of Elgin’s visitor center, in Hawick. Here, director James Sugden welcomes you and tells you the history if a 180-year-old factory, where tartans and tweeds are produced by 250 workers. ‘Values, not volumes’ is Sugden’s motto. Touch the scarves and the blankets while drinking a Benromach’s whisky - it's a perfect combination. Knowing this the 1898 Benromach distillery organizes tasting sessions in the Johnstons factory. It takes four minutes to make a cashmere glove; it takes a couple of hours to beat the hangover.
I spent the night at the Fauhope Country House, in Gattonside, Melrose. Very close to the river Tweed, Fauhope is a secluded country mansion with views that have inspired artists, writers, poets and musicians over the centuries. Rooms are clean and large, furnished with style and taste. Brekfasts are typically Scottish – expect a lot of protein, with eggs, bacon, beans and sausages, and a lot of vitamins with blueberries and strawberries – and the landlady Sheila Robson, who owns the mansion with her husband Ian, says: ‘If you want to rest from the cities and if you want to charge your batteries, this is the right place.’
The following day, I headed to Locharron Tartan in Selkirk, a 1947 textile factory. ‘You need four cashmere goats to make a jumper,' they say, 'and you need all the expertise of our 110 workers to produce something exportable all over the world.’ They made tartans for Princess Diana. A kilt weighs 500 grams and every Scottish clan has got a different tartan pattern. Here at Locharron, they try to preserve and promote that tradition.
But the Scottish Borders are also made of castles and parks, like the more famous Highlands. In Bowhill, home of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry (one of the richest dukes in Britain), you can see wonderful furniture, Chinese vases and a Canaletto worth millions of pounds. The Italian painter depicted London as well, not only Venice. And the dramatic dining room in Bowhill, overlooking a lake – in Scotland it's a ‘loch’ – is the perfect place to put a 17th century painting. Unfortunately, Bowhill was a military hospital during the Second World War. So, some of the home's original features have been destroyed or lost forever, but the charm is still here. If there’s something gay in the Scottish Borders, it lies also in the arts they offer, in the exquisite taste they provide, in the luxury of its palaces.
After Bowhill, I returned to Melrose, to visit the brand new Abbotsford visitor center, which will be open from next Monday (20 August). An contemporary treasure by architect Mark Hopton, a Scottish designer, it has just been built a few steps away from the old home of Sir Walter Scott, the first Scottish bestselling writer who created Ivanhoe and other masterpieces. Here at the visitor center, chief executive Jason Dyer welcomed me in a nice building aimed at remembering Scott’s legacy. He may have been born in Edinburgh but his family came from the Scottish Borders. ‘We expect to have 50% of visitors from overseas – says Dyer – and we spent over £11million [$17million €14million] to build this new center. It's a good investment.’
The daylight is fading and we want something gay to conclude our journey. So, we go to The Main Street Trading Company, winner of the Telegraph Best Small Shop Awards 2012. It’s a bookshop, but it’s also a café, it’s a place to rest, drink a cup of tea – that’s not only English, by the way – and have a cake. Based in the beautiful Scottish Borders village of St Boswells, The Main Street Trading Company is also a gift shop and is going to open a new delicatessen section. The owner, Rosamund de la Hey, explains: ‘We have to offer something different, like service, knowledge, expertise, warmth. I don’t fear the e-books or the big departments and I’ve chosen St Boswells because only here I can find a special atmosphere.’
The Scottish borders are mainly atmosphere. And a good place where to refind our secret nature: that of ancestral hospitality.
Several airlines fly to Edinburgh. Trains take four hours from London during the day, but there’s also the sleepers’ train at night (seven hours). You can hire a car to have a look at the Borders (try Hertz). Alternatively you could try local buses although the rural services may be patchy at times. Some private taxi companies offer day tours.
Fauhope Country House, Gattonside, Melrose offers a good base for your adventures.
The best eating options are pubs and small hotels with restaurants. The Scottish Borders are great also for picnics.
We used Learmont Mackenzie Travel, based in Edinburgh and owned by Kitty Bruce-Gardyne, an expert in the Scottish Borders to organize our trip. Visit Scotland is not a travel agency, but acts as the country's tourist board and is a good place to gather basic information and plan your visit.