Ruined Castles - Southern Scotland

Smailholm Tower, Borders


A superb tower house which makes much of its links to Sir Water Scott at the expense of its history


Smailholm Tower is in a superb setting on top of a rocky outcrop with views across to the Eildon Hills and the Cheviot.

Smailholme Tower

The tower house was built by the Pringles, a prominent Border family. Their position as squires of the powerful Earls of Black Douglas brought them the lucrative position of Warden of the Ettrick Forest. Built to protect the family from the Border Reivers, the tower house is surrounded by a barmkin wall. The tower house had nine feet thick walls and the only entry was through a small doorway protected by a heavy wooden door and a yett of latticed wrought iron bars. There were domestic buildings against the barmkin wall and cattle could be brought into the enclosure during raids. During two raids in 1544, Reivers from Northumberland got away with 723 cattle, 108 horses and 104 prisoners.

In the 1550s, the Pringles moved into more comfortable accommodation in Galashiels and leased the lands. In 1635 Sir James Pringle died owing huge debts and the estate was sold to Sir Walter Scott of Harden, the great, great, great grandfather of the author, who built the western range inside the barmkin wall to improve living accommodation.  The tower house was abandoned in 1710 when the family moved into the newer Sandknowe farmhouse below. In 1773, Walter Scott, the author came to stay with his grandparents as a ‘wee sick laddie’ while he recovered from polio. He listened to his grandmother’s tales of the Border country and was fascinated by the romantic ruined tower house. Historic Scotland make a lot of this link with "costume figures and tapestries of extraordinary charm and captivating interest illustrating the intimate link between Smailholm, Scott and his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border".

Steps lead up through the barmkin wall with the foundations of the western range. A red sandstone archway with a low doorway still with its yett, leads into the reception area with ticket office and small shop. This was originally the cellar and store room and has a vaulted stone ceiling. A new spiral staircase leads to a small exhibition area with some information about the building and a lot more about the Walter Scott connection.

A stone spiral staircase leads to the three upper stories. The first floor was the hall with wood beamed ceiling, fireplace with cast iron fire back and very thick walls.

Smailholme Tower

There are large square windows with stone benches. There are a series of small display cases with dressed dolls illustrating different periods in the life of Sir Walter Scott.

The second floor were the private quarters with a small fire place and garderobe in the walls. There are more display cases with scenes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

The third floor was another private room with vaulted ceiling , small fireplace, small windows and yet more cases of scenes from Scott’s novels.

Two doors lead out to the parapet walk with a sketch map identifying the main features of the landscape. Views from here are good.

The settlement originally had a yard outside the barmkin with stables, livestock enclosure and rigs (lazy beds for cultivation of crops). None of these can be seen. The remains of the mill pond, now increasingly overgrown with vegetation is still there.

The tower now sports a grass roof reinstated in 2010/11 after problems with damp. 

We were disappointed there wasn't more information about the history of the area and the Border reivers. Too much is made of the (rather tenuous) Sir Walter Scott connection. The Border Reiver heritage is ignored, perhaps because this doesn’t bring the punters in.

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