When you travel down the A72 from Galashiels to Peebles, you cannot help but see the magnificent ruins of Elibank Castle sitting enthroned above the meandering Tweed. The picture of Elibank Castle has captured my mind ever since I first saw it last summer. I asked my colleague about the place and she not only told me the name of the castle but also a legend associated with it.
Hearing a version (and believe me I have heard more than one by now) of the story of Muckle Mooth (or Meckle Mouth) Meg has only deepened my desire to see the castle up close. My friend L. and I headed out for Elibank one evening last summer and walked up and down the road around Elibank, into the woods for hours and down a field. We couldn’t find it. So we left and went grocery shopping at Aldis in Galashiels (don’t judge I am German and I am poor – Aldi is where you go!). Upon leaving, Elibank Castle appeared in my rearview mirror. When we drove back home from Gala the caslte seemed to mock us – standing big and proud above the river. L. and I decided that Elibank Castle was like Herr Tur Tur in Michael Ende’s Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer (Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver? dunno if there’s even an English translation) – a Scheinriese (an illusory giant). Herr Tur Tur appears bigger the further you are away from him and is rather small up close. We were convinced Elibank Castle must be minuscule and hiding in the heather when we were standing right in front of it.
This belief was confirmed when I attempted to find Elibank again 2 months later. My 4 year old nephew and I walked and walked until he couldn’t walk anymore and I had to carry him back to the car (I just want to highlight that he was almost five and will be ca. 2m when fully grown).
So, yesterday my hubby and I decided to give it another go. He was equally intrigued by the story and also by the fact that I -so far- had failed to find a castle that was easily visible from a mile away. As the title and the title picture suggest we made it. We found Elibank Castle which is indeed well-hidden behind a stretch of wood and without any signs pointing to it as it is situated on private farmland.
The story of Meckle Mouth Meg is set at the end the so-called Riding Times, the times of the Border Reivers. A time unparallelled in European History. The time of the reivers is the longest period of – lets face it – anarchy. With short interruptions the south of Scotland (as well as the north of England – the Border region) was in a state of anarchy from the end of the Wars of Independence until (roughly) the Union of the Crowns (14th-17th c.). Loyalty was to families, surnames not to the king. Feuding families or Border “clans” stole each others cattle and other goods constantly. To say the least it was one of the most dangerous times and regions in Scottish History.
The land on which Elibank Castle stands was acquired by Sir Gideon of Murray in 1594. In 1611 the oldest son of Auld Wat (Walter) Scott, William Scott, decided to raid the lands of his family’s archenemy Sir Gideon. However, his attempt failed and he was captured by Sir Gideon who wanted to make a great show of his capture, so he invited neighbouring families to watch the hanging of William. His wife Margaret had other plans as she took pity to the apparently very good-looking William. She conviced her husband to offer William a way out and alternative to the noose. So they offered William to marry their daughter Meg (who as you can probably guess from the tale’s title was ugly as a mud fence) instead. William refused and opted for the noose. On the day of his hanging when William was escorted to the tree from which he was doomed to hang, he passed by Meg who was all in tears. Taken by her sad appearance and probably to much in love with life, William decides against the noose. He frees himself from his guards and runs into Meg’s open arms. And they lived happily ever after.
My hubby would disagree but without this unusual coming together of two people, we would never have known the literature of Sir Walter Scott. Scott is – as the name suggests – a direct descendent of Meg and William.
After we viewed the ruins, we went down to the Tweed where we found a nice bench to take a break on and while enjoying the scenery we saw a group of people making their way down the river.
P.S. You might think that today’s Borderers would prefer to forget such a dark chapter of their local history. Quite the contrary, during the month of June and July, the Borders host a series of festivals commemorating the Reivers. These festivals are usually called the Ridings. The 2 most famous one are the Hawick Ridings and the Ride out from Carter Bar to Jedburgh. Despite the fact that the reivers were practically thieves, they are also quite famous for their bravery and their sacrifices in various battles fought against the English. The latter is slightly questionable. As I said their loyalty was to families not the king, so you could easily find them fight on either side of the battlefield. Their family loyalty could be cross-border. The Ridings are called Beltane in Innerleithen and Peebles and if you ever want to see it, make sure you’re not afraid of horses – there are hundreds!