Borders: Eildon Hills

Eildon Mid Hill (NT 548323, 422m)
Eildon Wester Hill (NT 548316, 371m)
Eildon Hill North (NT 555328, 404m)

10.8 kilometres
530m of ascent

Eildon route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

The Eildons, like the Pentlands, are hills I’ve glimpsed from the air, but never visited until now. The classic cluster of three peaks makes them unmistakable, and gave its name to the Roman settlement in their lee—Trimontium.

The Romans came and went several times at Trimontium, as their occupation of Scotland went through cycles of advance and retreat. As well as the remains of a significant fort nestled in a curve of the River Tweed at Newstead, there is evidence of multiple camp sites in the same location.

I parked the car in Melrose, walked through the town centre, and then followed a signpost that took me down an exceedingly unpromising-looking alleyway full of waste bins. This is the start of St Cuthbert’s Way, a long-distance footpath connecting Melrose to Lindisfarne, two places vaguely connected by the life of St Cuthbert.

Despite the unpromising beginning, the route took me up a long flight of wooden stairs and then out on to the open hillside. The Way passes between Eildon Mid Hill and Eildon Hill North, though the signposts took me around a little detour (evident on my map, above) compared to the direct line plotted by the Ordnance Survey—perhaps there’s a bit of erosion management going on.

The saddle between Mid and North is a maze of tracks and paths, skirting a large hole in the ground that looks like an abandoned quarry. I struck of southwest, up the steep flank of Eildon Mid Hill, the highest of my three hills for the day.

Eildon Wester Hill from Eildon Mid Hill
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Eildon Wester Hill from Eildon Mid Hill

The summit bore a triangulation pillar, and a view indicator that pointed out a whole lot of hills that were mostly blankly unfamiliar to me—I rarely venture this far south. With some relief I found the low mound of The Cheviot on the horizon, marking the English border. Running my eye south from that, I felt I should be able to pick out Woden Law, where Dere Street, the old Roman road, crossed into Scotland—but I was defeated by haze. Dere Street was the road that served the Roman fort at Trimontium, the site of which was currently concealed from me by the bulk of Eildon Hill North.

From Eildon Mid Hill, I clattered southwards down a steep and unpleasant path (not marked on the map) to reach the unprepossessing mound of Eildon Wester Hill. From there, I walked off eastwards, finding and losing paths repeatedly on my way down to the fringes of Broad Wood.

Eildon Mid Hill from Eildon Wester Hill
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Eildon Mid Hill from Eildon Wester Hill – the visible eroded path is horrible

I wanted to take a look at the Siller Stane, a feature the Ordnance Survey marks rather vaguely. Siller stane is Scots for “silver stone”, and I had initially anticipated something like the Glittering Skellies above Glen Clova—wet vertical rock that reflects the sunlight. But ScotlandsPlaces tells me that it is:

… a flat Stone Situated on the East Side of Eildon Mid Hill. It derives its name from the Supposition that money was hid below it.

Good hiding place—I’m darned if I could find it. The area labelled by the OS is traversed by a couple of quite decent paths, and I wandered back and forth for a while, searching for a likely object in the undergrowth. Looking for more information when I got home, I found that the Ancient Stones website places it a NT 55173234, so it was a little downhill of where I spent most of my time looking.

Eildon Hill North from the Siller Stane
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Looking towards Eildon Hill North from the alleged location of the Siller Stane

On, then, to Eildon Hill North, its summit surrounded by the sprawling ramparts of an ancient hillfort (the largest in Scotland), and surmounted by the site of a Roman signal station. I stood around for a while, trying to imagine what life might have been like for legionaries stationed up here, peering out across the night-time blackness of the Borders landscape. With the help of PeakFinder on my phone, I picked out the prominent shape of Rubers Law, the nearest Roman signal station to the Eildons, a mere 18km to the south. But the legionaries up here would have had line of sight to Brownhart Law, 33km away on the English border, and right above the Roman camps at Chew Green. I wondered what signals might have passed back and forth between these two lonely outposts on the chilly edge of the empire.

Eildon Mid Hill from Eildon Hill North
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Eildon Mid Hill from Eildon Hill North

And then I had a decision to make. I could either head back via an antiquity with the strangely un-Scottish name of Bourjo, to my west, or head eastwards for the Rhymer’s Stone. ScotlandsPlaces made Bourjo seem quite interesting:

It is said that this place was a grove, and, that the Druids offered their Sacrifices, and performed their superstitious rites to Jupiter here.

Canmore punctures that romantic vision with:

Two large, and one small, mounds remain of the spoil from this old quarry.

So I headed for the Rhymer’s Stone, which also had the advantage that it let me pretend to be a Roman legionary for a while longer—the eastward descent would be the route they took from the signal station on the way back to Trimontium.

Descent eastwards from Eildon Hill North
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Descent eastwards from Eildon Hill North

The Rhymer’s Stone marks the supposed site of the Eildon Tree, from which location, in the thirteenth century, Thomas the Rhymer was spirited away by the Queen of the Fairies, to return seven years later with the gift of prophecy. So that turned out all right.

I was intrigued to find a single rose lying at the base of the monument—presumably there’s a story to that.

The Rhymer's Stone
Click to enlarge
The Rhymer’s Stone

Then I took an ankle-twisting gravel path, followed by a very pleasant tree-lined track, to the subway under the A6091 and the village of Newstead beyond. I didn’t have time to visit the Trimontium site itself, which is a little to the east, but I did turn up another stone instead.

Trimontium memorial milestone, Newstead
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Trimontium memorial milestone

This one was erected in 2000, and bears the inscription Trimontium: Caput Viae. Now that’s interesting. The caput viae was the “head of the road”—the point from which other milestones measured their distance. But Trimontium feels more like the end of the road, rather than the beginning. Presumably this relates to the second century, the time of the Antonine Wall, when the Romans had pushed their frontier beyond Trimontium and as far north as the Forth and Clyde estuaries. In an article in Britannia (1982), Lawrence Keppie describes a Roman milestone recovered at Ingliston, near Edinburgh:

The milestone gives Newstead (Trimontium) as the caput viae, which suggests that the road was being built from south to north to link that major site with the fort at Cramond or perhaps directly with the [Antonine] Wall itself.

Somewhat cheered by finding a replacement for my missing Siller Stane, I set off back along the road to Melrose, admiring the views of Eildon North Hill as I went.

Eildon Hill North from Newstead
Click to enlarge
Eildon Hill North from Newstead

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