Drive just 12 miles north of the border between England and Scotland, and you’ll find Jedburgh, a bonnie Scottish town on the bank of the Jed Water river. Spend a few hours there and you’ll resolve to return again soon.
A famous comb led me to Jedburgh’s equally famous abbey, regarded as one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Scotland. Around 1138, an Augustinian monastery was built on a series of terraces cut into the steep slope of the river bank. It became an abbey around 1154.
In 1285, its church was the setting for the wedding of Alexander III, king of Scotland, and his queen, Yolande de Dreux. Legend has it that a ghost appeared during the wedding and predicted that the king would die soon. The following year, Alexander set off in the dark, fell from his horse, broke his neck, and perished.
The abbey survived attacks in the 15th century and raids in the 16th century, but the Protestant Reformation spelled its end. Its ruins remain today. Archaeological excavations during the 1980s unearthed a comb masterfully carved from a single piece of walrus ivory around 1100. Made during a time when artistic scenes of combat were popular, one side of the comb is decorated with a griffin and a doe; the other shows a warrior fighting a dragon. Scholars have concluded that the warrior may represent Hercules battling the guardian of the tree with the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides, a popular decorative theme in Romanesque art. The comb is also said to resemble some of the scenes carved on capitals in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral that were made about the same time.
Jedburgh’s greatest claim to fame may be that Mary, Queen of Scots arrived there to hold a Circuit Court, but stayed there longer than she intended. The 24-year-old queen had given birth to her first child only four months before.
Our visit to Jedburgh was just three days before the 449th anniversary of a momentous event in the queen’s life. When Mary heard that James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, had been wounded in an attack and was recuperating at nearby Hermitage Castle, she decided to set out on horseback on a day trip to see him. It wasn’t an easy journey, and the route went through a dangerous, bleak moorland, but she didn’t listen to advice and went ahead with the nearly 60-mile round trip on October 16, 1566.
After spending two hours at Hermitage Castle, Mary started her return to Jedburgh. Her horse tripped on the way and threw her head first into a bog. She was soaked, but she made it back to Jedburgh. The next day, she became very sick, possibly with pneumonia, and it was thought she might not survive, but she recovered by the end of the month. Mary’s reign was brief after that, and the rest of her life was so disappointing that she is said to have remarked, “Would that I had died in Jedburgh.”
The house where Mary stayed has been turned into a museum of memorabilia connected to her, including the French enameled thimble case that she lost when she stopped during the Hermitage Castle journey to allow a repair to her dress; a cigar box made from the wood of a pear tree that Mary planted on the grounds of the house where she stayed in Jedburgh; a shoe that Mary wore during her journey and then discarded because the heel was broken; and the watch that she lost in the bog. A mole unearthed the watch 250 years later; today, children spot plush toy moles along a sightseeing trail in Jedburgh.
The house has a unique staircase built for its left-handed residents, so that they could wield their swords more easily. It is surrounded by pear trees, recalling an industry that was important to Jedburgh for centuries.
Jedburgh’s situation on a steep river bank made it the perfect place to grow pears. Monks at Jedburgh Abbey are thought to have introduced the pears to the community, growing “Jeddart pears” or “Jethart pears” in the monastery’s gardens. Orchards popped up on the Jed Water’s banks, growing over 20 kinds of Jeddart pears, such as Goodwife of Glasgow, Fair Maid, Red Honey, Lady Lamont, Scots Bergamot, Warden, and Monk’s Pear. In Scotland, pears were considered a dessert, rather than a fruit, so pears were often cooked into “Warden pies.” An equally celebrated plum called Cloth of Gold is also said to have grown in Jedburgh. The local fruit industry shriveled up in the late 19th century, and now there are just a few Jeddart pear trees left in Jedburgh.
Jedburgh may not produce as many pies now, but a resident still makes Jethart snails, a confection only available in Jedburgh. This brown, peppermint-flavored boiled sweet is said to have been introduced to Jedburgh by a French prisoner of the Napoleonic War at the Jedburgh Castle Jail, and it is still made with his secret recipe today. Click here to watch a video of Jethart snails being made.
Travel a few miles north to nearby Dryburgh, stop at a place on the grounds of Bemersyde House, and you’ll see a dramatic sight — a 31-feet-high red sandstone statue of Sir William Wallace, a Scottish knight who stood 6’7″, led military campaigns during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. When he was captured, he is said to have been torn in two by teams of horses and his limbs were placed at the four corners of Britain. David Stuart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan, was passionate about conserving and recording anything to do with Scotland and its heroes, so he commissioned local sculptor John Smith of Darnick to carve a statue of Wallace surveying the River Tweed. It was unveiled on September 22, 1814, the anniversary of Wallace’s victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. A smaller statue in the style of a funeral urn is at Wallace’s feet. The Earl of Buchan was a fan of the 18th-century poet James Thomson — best remembered as the author of the words to “Rule, Britannia” — and created this statue as a memorial to him. It is inscribed with a quotation from Thomson’s work: “Sacred to the memory of Wallace/The peerless Knight of Ellerslie/Who wave’d on Ayr’s Romantic shore/The beamy torch of Liberty/And roaming round from Sea to Sea/From Glade obscure of gloomy Rock/His bold companions call’d to free/The Realm from Edward’s Iron Yoke.”You, too, can look over the River Tweed at Scott’s View, a viewpoint about three miles east of Melrose that is said to have been one of Sir Walter Scott’s favorite views of the landscape of the Scottish Borders. It’s said that Scott stopped here so often on his way home to Abbotsford, his legendary estate at Melrose, that his horses would pause here without command. After Scott’s death in 1832, his mile-long funeral cortege passed here on its way to Dryburgh Abbey so that he could take one last look at the Borders landscape he loved.For more on Jedburgh and Mary, Queen of Scots, see Jedburgh Abbey: The Archaeology and Architecture of a Border Abbey, by John Lewis and Gordon Ewart; Antonia Fraser’s acclaimed biography, Mary Queen of Scots; and Mary Stuart’s Scotland: The Landscapes, Life and Legends of Mary, Queen of Scots, by David and Judy Steel. William Wallace is the subject of The Wallace, an epic poem written by Blind Harry around 1477; Sir Walter Scott’s Exploits and Death of William Wallace, The “Hero of Scotland” and the 1995 film Braveheart. Also check out The Marches: A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland, by Rory Stewart.