A blustery Borders hike, and an art lesson

A couple of weekends ago we drove down to the Scottish Borders in search of a nice woodland hike. We ended up at Yair Hill Forest, tucked right up against the River Tweed. These have been important hunting and fishing lands since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago. In the middle ages Yair was a royal hunting ground, reserved for use by Scottish kings. Between 1296 and 1305 these woods provided shelter for William Wallace as he and his army engaged in battles throughout the Borders. 

The purple heath and heather (Calluna vulgaris, Erica cinerea, among others) were in full bloom. Blaeberries (Vaccinium myrtillus--related to the common blueberry) were covered in tiny, tasty black fruit. 

An area of low pressure was moving in off the North Atlantic, prompting all sorts of high wind and gale warnings. Though the valley floor was warm and sunny, by the time we made it to the top of the hill the wind was blowing the trees horizontal and even pushing me off the trail. 

Despite the weather the Southern Upland Way, Scotland's coast-to-coast path, tempted us higher on the moor, led on by the sight of cairns in the distance. 

Summiting the peak we found the Three Brethren Cairn, which marks the ancient boundary of three properties. Each year more than 500 horses and their riders support the Royal Burgh Standard Bearer in a ride to the cairns during the Selkirk Common Riding Festival. This is a tradition that dates back at least 500 years and has its roots when riding around land was the way of preserving ownership and preventing encroachment by neighboring lairds. 

This was my first time seeing an old Scottish cairn, and I immediately understood what one of my favorite artists, Andy Goldsworthy, is referencing with his stone cairns. Though I have always found his cairns beautiful and technically awe-inspiring, and delighted whenever I came across one in my travels, I didn't until this hike really understand how they reflect a sense of place and lifestyle that is so inherently Scottish.  

My favorite Goldsworthy's cairn piece is in De Moines, Iowa, at the De Moines Art Center. My brother and I stumbled upon it in 2008 while in town for our grandmother's memorial. Titled 'Three Cairns," these dry-stone structures were completed in 2002 of Iowa limestone. 

Leave it to Scotland to surprise me with unexpected art appreciation on a random weekend hike. 

After just a few minutes on the blustery hilltop we descended back through the forest, stopping to watch the swallows dive over a field of peacefully grazing sheep. I don't think I'd ever get tired of watching a scene like this. It's always changing as the weather rolls over and the animals mill about. Beautiful. 

A Pentlands hike: Part two

After leaving the waterside we started to climb into the purple heather (Calluna vulgaris)-covered moors.

One of the nice things about being on a date with a man who studied wildlife and countryside management is that he told me all about not only the local wildlife but also how the landscape is managed. The heather is burned in patches, called muirburn in Scotland, to create ideal conditions for breeding grouse, which are then shot for sport by paying clients. The practice is said to increase grouse yields as post-burning, grouse eat the the nutritious young shoots of emerging heather and then seek shelter and breed in the taller patches.

It's a controversial practice, especially in such a class-conscious land as Britain. More details are in this article.

As we climbed higher up the first hill, the burned heather patches are clearly visible in this view north toward the Forth of Fife. The city of Edinburgh is behind that brown hill on the right.

Scottish Blackface sheep, the most common breed in the U.K., covered the Pentland Hills.

View to the south of the Pentlands, toward the Scottish Borders.

We finally crested the top of this chain of hills, and hiked the ridgetops of West Kip (1808 ft) and East Kip taking in incredible views into the valleys on either side and all the way out to the ocean. The wind was absolutely fierce, and after being nearly blown off a few summits we descended down through the heather again. In all we did 13 miles and saw a lot of neat stuff--and got back to the car just as the clouds returned and it started to rain. Now that's a perfect day of Scottish hillwalking!