Smailholm Tower is in a superb setting on top of a rocky outcrop with views across to the Eildon Hills and the Cheviot.
It is a tower house 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 9’ 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 was responsible for building 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.
It is quite a long walk from the car park uphill across rough grassland to the tower house. Steps lead up through the barmkin wall with the foundations of the western range. A red sandstone archway with a low doorway (mind your head) 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. This is obviously a major marketing feature of the property.
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. 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 rom with vaulted ceiling , small fireplace, small windows and yet more cases. There is an audioguide to the castle but this seems to mainly concentrate on the display cases and the scenes from the 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.
This is a superb setting, especially when seen from a distance set against the sky with gorse bushes and buttercups. The walk to the tower house is rough underfoot and involves a slight climb. There is no disabled access to the building (and there are no toilets either). We were disappointed by the inside which is now an empty shell apart from the ‘costume figures and tapestries of extraordinary charm and captivating interest illustrating the intimate link between Smailholm, Scott and his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ A lot is made of the (rather tenuous) Sir Walter Scott connection. The Border Reiver heritage is ignored but perhaps this doesn’t bring the punters in. At £4.50 or £3.60 for seniors, admire from the bottom.
If you want to see a tower house consider visiting Greenknowe Tower on the A 6105 just west of Gordon. There is a small layby for parking and level access along a well made path to the tower house. It is the roofless ruin of fortified four storey tower house built to an L-shaped design in 1581 and a good example of a later tower house built more as a residence than for defence. It still retains its iron yett.
Unfortunately it was closed for refurbishment when we visited, although there was no one working. The gate was locked and my days of climbing gates are long gone.