Exploring the Eildon Hills

Eildon Sunrise

Photo credit Steve Wyper

Possibly the best known and loved landmark in the Borders, the triple peaked Eildon Hills are fascinating for walkers (and runners) botanists, ornithologists, geologists and archaeologists alike. With the largest Celtic hill-fort in Scotland, peat bogs and acid heathland, a volcanic past, tales of fairies and King Arthur and not forgetting the shy, resident red grouse, there is something to attract everyone. As you travel around the Borders and look at them from different angles, they seem to change shape and this has fuelled the many legends about the Eildons. To our ancient ancestors it made the Eildons a spiritual and magical place.

The View from the top

On a clear day, the views from the top of any of the 3 peaks is breathtaking Eildon. To the north lie the Lammermuir and Moorfoot Hills, to the west the hills of Upper Tweeddale, and to the south the mighty Cheviots forming the border with England. You might also see the Forth Railway Bridge and the Forth Road Bridge some 40 miles away. On the summit of Mid Hill, the highest of the three peaks, a granite block topped with a brass plate carries the names of the hills you can see and other various points of interest. It was erected in 1927 by public subscription and bears a dedication to Sir Walter Scott

To the memory of Sir Walter Scott. From this spot he was wont to view and point the glories of the Borderland

 

a link with a famous filmstar

At 1385 feet/420m Mid Hill is a Marilyn., that is a hill with a prominence of at least 150m, reqardless of absolute height or other merit. The name was coined by Alan Dawson (Relative Hills of Britain Cicerone Press) as a punning contrast to the designation Munro, used of a Scottish mountains of more than 3000 feet (914.4m). Scotland is home to over 1200 Marilyns, nearly 80% of all UK Marilyns.

A Volcanic Past

It is very tempting to think of the Eildon Hills as long-dead volcanoes but in fact only Little Hill between Mid and Wester Hills are true volcanic vents. The three main hills are the eroded remains of separate outpourings of lava, which erupted some 350 million years ago from Little Hill and neighbouring vents which are no longer visible.

The Hills are composed of fairly-acid rocks which in turn have eroded to produce acidic soils. As a result, much of the area is covered with heather, blaeberry, wavy hair grass, gorse and rock screes. Because Little Hill is made of more basic rock, it supports different vegetation including many herbs. The lower slopes hold the older sedimentary rocks of the Borders, which are more fertile than the volcanic material and capable of supporting agriculture, grazing and forestry undertakings. There are around 200 species of ferns, herbs and flowering plants scattered across the Hills, along with many species of birds, butterflies, small mammals and roe deer. The Scottish Wildlife Trust has a pamphlet which covers the legends, geology, history, birds, flora and fauna on The Eildon Hills. It is available in visitor information centres across the Borders.

The largest hill-fort in Scotland

Eildon Hill North is surrounded by 5km of ramparts and 300 level platforms have been cut into the rock to provide bases for huts. The hill fort was occupied by around 1000BC (Bronze Age), possibly as the headquarters of the Celtic Selgovae tribe. At its peak the population on Eildon Hill may have been as high as 6000. Historians and archaeologists believe the lack of water suggest it was probably a holy place, a place for ceremonial gatherings, rather than a permanent settlement. There are several holy springs around the base of the hills (and one on , now dedicated to Christian saints, but probably originally sacred to Celtic deities. Hills were important look out points at this time, in a land that was covered in trees. By the time the Romans had pushed this far North in about 80 AD, the fortifications and huts on the Eildons were already well established. But the arrival of the Romans brought to an end the native occupation of the Eildons and heralded the domination of the area by the Romans for almost 300 years. At the foot of the Eildons and controlling the best ford across the river Tweed, the Romans built an important fortified garrison, and named it after the three peaks of the Eildons: Trimontium. The Three Hills Heritage Centre in Melrose tells the story of the Romans and organises guided walks around the sites.

The Fairy Queen and Thomas the Rhymer

Living in the 13th century during the time of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, Thomas the Rhymer is an odd conflation of fact and legend. Born Thomas of Ercildoune (Earlston) but known as Thomas the Rhymer, for his rhyming poetry and prophecies (he is sometimes described as the Scottish Nostradamus for his prophecies). He is believed to have predicted the death of Alexander III in 1286 and the defeat of King James IV at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. He is also said to have decided that Eildon hills were the site of King Arthur’s burial place.

The stories of Thomas survive in medieval verse, a popular ballad and in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border by Sir Walter Scott. Thomas was dozing by the Eildon Tree and awoke to see the Fairy Queen whom he asked for kiss. She spirited him away to Fairyland, for what felt like 7 days, but was 7 years in the mortal world. However when she returned him, she bestowed on him the gift of prophecy.

King Arthur and his knights lie sleeping

Another legend suggests that King Arthur and his knights, lie sleeping in a cave between under Little Hill, standing ready to be called on Judgement Day or earlier. Little Hill is said to be a “hollow hill”, and is mentioned in the legend of Thomas the Rhymer. Some believe Thomas went under the hill itself, and certainly part of the ballad occurs in the vicinity. Sir Walter Scott tells the tale in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. A horse dealer who is paid in ‘ancient coin’ by an elderly buyer in old-fashioned dress is taken inside the hill at night. A host of armed knights lie asleep at their horses’ feet and their sleeping leader is King Arthur. Shown a horn and a sword, in confusion the horse dealer blows the horn: the men begin to awake and a loud voice says

Woe to the coward that ever he was born
That did not draw the sword before he blew the horn.

A whirlwind ejects the horse dealer from the chamber and outside he tells his story to some shepherds before dropping dead of exhaustion. Sir Walter Scott identifies the elderly man as Thomas the Rhymer.

Walking the three peaks

There are a number of ways to access the hills depending on how energetic you’re feeling on the day. Once you’re up there it is easy to walk over the summits of all three hills to take in the glorious panorama of the Borders.

These days I prefer parking at Cauldshiels Loch (there is a legend of a water bull and a kelpie attached to this stretch of water, so beware) taking a more leisurely stroll up the North Hill, form where it is easier to walk across the other two Hills. For those with more energy you can start from the ruins of Melrose abbey, through woodland, and over the summits of the Eildon hills. There are two main options:

  • From Melrose, take the B6359 road and turn left at Eildon Walk signpost, cross the bridge and follow the footpath for a panoramic walk. At the north east foot of the hill, just off the A6091, stands the Eildon Stone, a memorial to Thomas the Rhymer, and you can join a trail to the top of the Hills from beside the monument.
  • Or you can also follow the St Cuthbert’s Way footpath from the centre of Melrose, for a more direct (and steeper) route.

Sottish Border Council provides an excellent range of publications for walkers which are available at Visitor Information Centres across the Borders or by download of a pdf for free Paths Around Melrose.

Scottish Outdoor Access Code

The Eildon Hills form part of the Eildon Estate of Buccleuch Estates Limited. Although there are several public paths over the Hills, most access routes on the southern side are in constant use for agriculture and forestry. Please follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and respect the various land-uses evident, in particular sheep grazing, lambing and the rearing of young lambs.

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