LAST week I was strolling by the Tweed near Melrose when I saw a woman ahead of me, wearing shorts and carrying a back-pack fit for Annapurna. Well into her seventies, she said she was late setting off. After hurting her leg the previous day, she had needed to wait for Boots to open.
From the way she was striding out, you’d never have known she was in less than good shape. “Where are you heading?” I asked, anticipating Dryburgh or possibly Galashiels. “Cape Wrath,” she replied.
This was Day 45 on a journey that was taking her from Land’s End to the tip of mainland Scotland. She was “wild camping” wherever she found a suitable spot, but treating herself to a night in a B&B or a hotel once a week, to remind her of the comforts of civilisation.
We said goodbye and she carried on, with almost 20 miles to go before reaching that day’s destination of Traquair.
Although few are as hardy and adventurous as this, you get a lot of walkers in the Borders.
Soon there will be many more. A new venture, to create a trail along the River Tweed, has recently been awarded a £2.9m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to get it started.
A collaboration between the environmental charity Tweed Forum, Scottish Borders Council, local landowners and others, this ambitious 113-mile path will follow the route of the Tweed from its source near the Devil’s Beef Tub, not far from Moffat, to where it flows into the North Sea at Berwick-upon-Tweed.
It will take five years to create and, as part of a larger regeneration scheme called Destination Tweed, is expected to boost the economy and link communities on both Scottish and English sides of the river.
The Tweed trail follows similar ventures elsewhere across the country, whose popularity seems assured as the pleasure and benefits of walking are increasingly appreciated.
The West Highland Way was the first and most trumpeted of these routes, but the Southern Upland Way has its own charms.
Speaking from personal experience, nylon sheets in a hostel during a heatwave and midgies the size of drones are not among them, but the sense of achievement in completing even a few sections of the route, as I did, and time spent in the emptiness and wildness of the countryside through which the way passes, makes aching limbs and blisters fade to nothing.
The proposed river route will wind its way along the Border where, in the not so distant past, people would have thought nothing of trekking miles on foot each day, to school or work or market.
As more and more paths are made across the country, echoes of old Scotland can be felt. Plodding the same route as those who came before us connects us to the landscape in a way nothing else can.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, the middle and upper classes only walked when they wanted to. It was the highly educated, in general, who sang the praises of this most simple and inexpensive pastime.
A lifelong and legendary ambler, Robert Louis Stevenson, reflected: “You become enamoured of a life of change and movement and the open air, where the muscles shall be more exercised than the affections. … For you the rain should allay the dust of the beaten road; the wind dry your clothes upon you as you walked.”
Stevenson well understood how addictive it could grow: “You may see from afar what it will come to in the end – the weather-beaten red-nosed vagabond, consumed by a fever of the feet…”
Sadly, he was not talking about Scotland, but Europe, where countless diarists, novelists and writers recorded long sojourns wandering Alpine meadows or riverbanks, and reaching at day’s end a hospitable inn with, as he describes, “their cups of raw wine”.
Walking in Scotland is another matter entirely, and not for the faint-hearted or pampered. That is part of its appeal.
In ‘Tweed rins tae the Ocean’, the SNP MSP Alasdair Allan’s entertaining and informative walk coast to coast across the Border, he warns that while the old east and west marches are manageable enough, in the once infamous middle march accommodation is exceedingly thin on the ground.
Careful planning – and an extra mobile phone battery – is essential before heading out. This challenging stretch is where reivers and reprobates once held sway, when the Devil’s Beef Tub was aptly named, and given a wide berth by those who valued their lives.
The route of the Tweed trail is rich in historical political significance beyond the old thieving clans.
As Allan writes, “the part of the Border that has been most stable of all seems to have lain exactly where it does now – the middle of the River Tweed – for something like eight and a half centuries.”
It is one of the oldest unchanged borders in the world (barring the Debatable Lands and Berwick, which constantly changed hands). Soon, as Indyref2 approaches, it is likely to become the focus of international attention.
With some hoping and others fearing that it will one day mark a fixed border, the Tweed trail marching alongside it will hold a deeper meaning than merely a beguiling byway through stunning scenery.
Not everyone, of course, will be happy at the thought of a structured path where previously there were only informal or invisible routes.
When parts of the West Highland Way were upgraded a few years ago, some called it “criminal damage”. I have sympathy with that, since official-looking trails are a scar on the landscape, and destroy the sense of being off the beaten track.
Yet the benefits of national paths far outweigh their problems. For the towns through which the Tweed trail will run – among them Coldstream, Galashiels and Kelso – the boost to tourism and the economy will be hugely welcome.
The stream of walkers it will attract will act as a catalyst for inventive entrepreneurs and the hospitality trade, as well as boosting environmental initiatives linked to the waterfront.
Equally important is what walking long distances like this offers to those who embark on it. Few activities are more accessible, relaxing or uplifting. And for anyone suffering RLS’s “fever of the feet”, dipping a toe in the icy Tweed will cool them in a flash.