Standing the test of turbulent times

The number of stone towers and castles that litter the Borders landscape are testament to turbulent times that ebbed and flowed through the region for hundreds of years.

One of the best preserved is Smailholm Tower, a defiant landmark built on a rocky outcrop between Kelso and St Boswells and visible for miles around. To the English, Smailholm was akin to a red rag to a bull.

Built in 1450 by the Pringle family, Smailholm was at the centre of those turbulent times on more than one occasion with English raiders making a bee line for the bastion.

The family suffered terribly at Flodden in 1513 when David Pringle, the laird, lost his elder son and three brothers fighting the English.

Hostilties, however, ceased around 1548 when the then laird, John Pringle, became what was known as ‘an assured Scot.’ In essence he had cut a deal with the English promising not to raid south of the border or help efforts against the English when they came north. In return his lands were left alone.

Insolvency forced the sale of the tower after the death of Sir James Pringle in 1635, when it was bought by Sir William Scott of Harden. He built a house in the West courtyard and later the family moved to more comfortable habitation a few hundred yards away at Sandyknowe




It was here, in the brooding presence of Smailholm that Sir Walter Scott spent time as a child when recovering from illness and came to love the ballads of the Scottish Borders. He said that Smailholm, “standing stark and upright like a warden,” was a powerful inspiration.

Today, Smailholm is under the care of Historic Scotland and houses a range of visitor displays. They include a permanent exhibition of costumed figures and superb tapestries that illustrate Scott’s collection of ballads and the Borders violent past.

A new display this year includes artefacts that have been excavated in and around Smailholm, giving an insight into what life was like in an isolated Borders tower during the late medieval and early modern periods.

They include bone buttons, buckles, spurs, half a cannon ball and a number of early 17th-century clay pipes that suggest the Pringles were among the first in Scotland to take up smoking.  

Chris Tabraham, Historic Scotland’s principal historian, said: “I am delighted that these finds have gone on show for visitors to enjoy. Smailholm is a fascinating site and this excavation helped us put together a much better picture of what life would have been like for its inhabitants.

“It would have been a remarkable place to live – on the one-hand far more luxurious than the sort of homes most people lived in, but there was often the fear of attacks mostly from England,” he said.

The tower is open all year (weekends only in winter). Access is restricted for those with mobility problems. Tickets are £3.70 for adults, £3 for concessions and £1.85 for children.

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