Since moving to Scotland from England two and a half years ago I have been doing my best to discover as much about this place as possible, albeit within a fairly modest radius of Glasgow. I wanted a way to document my discoveries through images, sounds and stories.
My trip last weekend to the Scottish Borders was more than enough to give me a push to start this. I had been intrigued about the Scottish Borders, an area that had almost remained invisible on my mental map of the country up until recently. It was when passing between Edinburgh and Newcastle in the car a couple of times last year that it grabbed my attention. It has a distinct feel that sets it apart from both mid Scotland and Northumberland, a rugged, rolling countryside that feels particular to that area. There’s a hazy blend of browns and greens and deep crevices that trees seem to get lost in.
When I read about the Eildon Hills in an article in the Herald not too long ago, I knew that was the place to visit. The image of the three evenly spaced conical hills immediately gives a sense of mysticism, and this goes with its history. Legend has it that Thomas the Rhymer met the Fairy Queen on a white horse at these hills, where she took him off to fairyland, located underneath the hills, for seven years.
“True Thomas lay on Huntlie Bank:
A ferlie he spied wi’ his ee;
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.
Her shirt was o’ the grass green silk,
Her mantle o’ the velvet fyne;
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane,
Hang fifty siller bells and nine.
True Thomas, he pull’d aff his cap,
And louted low down to his knee-
– “All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heav’n!
For thy peer on earth I never did see”-
– “O no, O no, Thomas,” she said;
“That name does not belang to me;
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.”
There were further magical connections to discover. Michael Scot, a scholar, thinker and scientist of the middle ages, and reputed wizard, was said to have turned the rock into three.
Arriving on an uncharacteristically warm and sunny November day then, I was on the lookout for traces of “fairyness”. The walk itself began in a village called Melrose and is easily accessible from there. We walked up a steep hill from the village until we got to the “saddle” between the hills. From there we took a route that went up the middle hill first, the steepest hill. We then retraced our steps back down to the saddle, and from there had to penetrate the woodland pictured to reach our second hill. If any place was to house the land of the fairies surely this was it!
The time of year meant there were various fungi around. I had never seen this type before in real life – a “picture book toadstool”, fly agaric.
Once inside the woodland, there were a number of trees which very much looked like they could house a fairy or two. Looking in the dark hollows of the tree, I was reminded of a story a babysitter once told me when I was a child. She did that wonderful thing of telling a story she had made up herself, making it seem all the more powerful. I can’t remember the details of plot, but there was a magical tree, and inside it housed all sorts of magical creatures, a gnome, an owl. She described knocking on the tiny doors of these creatures. I was enchanted by the idea. I never read Enid Blyton books, but earlier this year a colleague told me about The Faraway Tree – clearly the story the babysitter’s “made up tale” was taken from! I’m grateful for the fib however, as I’m sure this made it seem all the more magical.
It was once we were descending the final hill that I was really captivated by the landscape. There wasn’t a soul around these parts, and with the textures and colours of the landscape, the dips, the twisted bark on the trees, brambles and other thorny foliage, I could see why this place was steeped in so much magical folklore.