On Cademuir Hill – in the steps of John Buchan

Looking back to drier days…

On Cademuir Hill was John Buchan’s first published story, written for his university magazine when he was an undergraduate in Glasgow in the 1890s. All through his writing life Buchan was superb at sense of place. It is evident from this very first printed tale.

Staying in the valley of the Manor Water in glorious September weather, we set out from Peebles to climb Cademuir Hill. The first part of the walk is now part of the John Buchan Way, a 13 mile route from Peebles to Broughton. The official route misses the highest summits of the hill, dominated by Iron Age forts, but it is quite easy to divert to visit these superb tops.

It was a busy day in Peebles; the day of the town’s highland games, and the starting point for a rally of ancient motor cycles. But the crowds were soon left behind as we climbed steadily through its outskirts, with ever-increasing views of beautiful countryside. Making good progress we passed through a gate and out on to the open countryside of Cademuir Hill, admiring the solitary little harebells that stood so bravely against the wind and the elements.

It was one of those hill days when all was sunny and clear, but with a challenging wind from the south west on the exposed slopes. Windy, but not too uncomfortable a breeze to inhibit good walking.

At a saddle in the hill we left the line of the John Buchan Way and headed straight up a rockier ridge towards Cademuir’s highest ground. As we climbed we could see over much of Peebleshire, with its lovely rolling hills and deep river valleys. John Buchan must have known the area well. His story On Cademuir Hill beautifully describes the solitude and scale of the hill. In his story, the Cademuir gamekeeper is caught in a poacher’s trap, where he spends many hours contemplating the hill’s loneliness and his own mortality. The story appeared in Buchan’s early collection of essays and stories Scholar Gipsies, and that entrancing little volume is well worth seeking out.

On the summit of Cademuir are two massive Iron Age hill forts, the higher covering the area of two football pitches. I would have thought it would be a brave invader that tried to take on the defenders of either forts. The steepness and elevation of Cademuir must have made them nigh on impregnable. On a good day, without mist, they would have seen attackers coming from miles away.

We made a steep descent from the summit into the valley of the Manor Water, one of those quite charming tributaries of the mighty Tweed, joining a quiet lane near to Kirkton Manor.  Heading downriver we came to the district’s Victorian kirk (built on an older site).

In the Kirkyard is the grave of David Ritchie, the so-called “Black Dwarf”, immortalised in the tale of that name by Sir Walter Scott. Ritchie led a pretty miserable life, as you might imagine, in the unenlightened days on the cusp of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when prejudice was rife against people who were different. Scott’s tale is, by all accounts, mostly fiction. The real  Ritchie was a far more interesting character, who fought hard to retain some dignity in an uncaring world. Legend has it that the Kirk’s Minister refused to marry Ritchie because of his disability.  A sad tale.

We walked on down to the Tweed, taking the old railway line back in the direction of Peebles, crossing the old railway viaduct to follow the true right bank of the river. Rocky at first, but opening up into a good track amidst the trees. In one clear slope in the woodland a great cloud of seed from the rosebay willowherb swirled into the air, settling on our hair and coats and knapsacks, as well as the leaves on the surrounding trees.

As we approached the town we head the skirl of bagpipes, first at a distance, then louder and louder, the notes of Scotland the Brave and Mary of Argyll, echoing over the valley of the Tweed, a real Scottish finish to our walk.

Later, heading back up the Manor Water, we looked at the great slopes of Cademuir Hill.  I often look at hills I have climbed and find the idea that, a few hours earlier, I was on those very summits, bewildering, unreal. As though the summits of mountains and hills are not really quite part of the world I live in day by day.

Suggested John Buchan reading: Scholar Gipsies, Grey Weather, Witchwood, Memory Hold-the-Door.



2 thoughts on “On Cademuir Hill – in the steps of John Buchan

  1. Some lovely hills in the Southern Uplands – haven’t been there enough yet. I like to hear bagpipes outside – so atmospheric.

    That poor Ritchie guy – things were very cruel indeed back then (and still are in many more backward countries).


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