Smailholm Tower is a peel tower, originally built for defensive purposes, near the village of Smailholm, 5 miles (8km) west of Kelso. The Tower gifted to the nation in 1950 by the Earl of Ellesmere is now in the care of Historic Scotland. Peel towers were designed to provide protection from the sporadic raids by reivers and the English during Henry V111 “rough wooing” of the Scots. Its dramatic location, atop the rocky crag of Lady Hill, commands wide views over the surrounding countryside. The rocky landscape around the Tower is more reminiscent of the north of Scotland than the Borders. It always seems a lonely, foreboding place to me, even in the sunshine. Viewing it from the main road it has an eerie, dark countenance, and one can easily visualise its past.
Smailhom Tower standing 65 feet high, is a roofed and floored, 4 storey peel tower, with adjoining buildings, and a barmkin (courtyard) wall, in remarkable condition. Climbing the narrow turnpike staircase gives you a real feel for what it must have been like to live there. A parapet runs along the north and south side of the tower, offering excellent views (and a stiff breeze) of the surrounding countryside and clearly designed to provide early warning of approaching reivers.
The top 3 floors of the Tower are now used to display an extensive array of model people illustrating the history of Smailholm and the Minstelry of the Scottish Borders by Walter Scott. Created by two local artists, Anne Carrick and MacDonald Scott, it demonstrates very high-quality embroidery and modelling techniques.
The Tower was once the centre of a thriving settlement. The west courtyard was originally home to a hall and a kitchen, though in the 1650s the hall was replaced by a house. Outside the barmkin wall would have once stood cottages, stables and cattle enclosures, and traces of some of them can still be seen on the ground. There would also have been a mill, on the site now occupied by Sandyknowe Farm to the south east of the tower.
Photo Credit Robin Chapman
Originally built by the Pringle family around 1450, the Tower saw its fair share of action, being attacked in 1543, 1544 and again in 1546, when the garrison from Wark Castle sacked the tower and carried off prisoners and cattle. The raids only ceased when John Pringle, became what was called an assured Scot. In return for a promise not to raid England or to help efforts against English raiders in Scotland, his lands would be left alone.
The Scotts of Harden
In 1645 Smailholm was bought by Sir William Scott, an ancestor of Sir Walter Scott. Sir William rebuilt parts of the Tower and the neighbouring barmkin (courtyard). In the 18th century the family built a house on the less exposed site at Sandyknowe and the Tower gradually fell into disrepair.
Sir Walter Scott
The Tower provided inspiration to writer Sir Walter Scott who visited his paternal grandfather here when still a boy. Scott spent considerable time at theTower during his early years, reportedly for the benefit of his health. His imagination was fired by the ballads and stories told by his grandmother Barbara Scott and his favourite Aunt, Jenny. Smailholm provides the setting for Scott’s ballad The Eve of St John and also appears in his poem Marmion. As a result of Scott’s poetry, his uncle restored the Tower, making it safe, around 1800. J. M. W. Turner is probably the most famous artist to paint the Tower. He visited Smailholm with Scott in the author’s later years and his sketch of the Tower was included in Scott’s Poetical. The sketches of Smailholm Tower are now held by the Tate as the Abbotsford Sketchbook.
Access is either from Smailholm Village or from the B6404, Kelso to St Boswells Road. Take the minor road approximately four miles west of St Boswells and follow the signs for Smailholm Tower. The road will lead you through Sandyknowe farm and long a track past an old millpond to the parking area for the tower. From here you have a choice of grass paths – steep or less steep.
Smailholm Tower is currently closed for repairs following the recent bad weather. However I would still make a trip to see it and wander round the rocky crags. You’ll get a great feel for its turnbulent past.