What would you do if you were offered the choice between death or to be married to the ugliest woman alive? Find out what happened when one bold Reiver had to make this very choice on a walk through Thornielee Forest.
Distance: 4 ½ miles
Start and Finish: Forestry Commission car park, Thornielee Forest (NT 40300 36580)
Access: Buses between Galashiels and Peebles stop at the road end at Thornielee, a short distance from the forest.
“Lead on to the gallows, then,” Willie replied;James Hogg, The Fray of Elibank.
“I’m now in your power, an’ ye carry it high;
Nae daughter o’ yours shall ere lie by my side;
A Scott, ye maun mind, counts it naething to die.”
When Willie Scott of Harden was caught red-handed rustling cattle by the lord of Elibank Castle, it seemed as if his number was up. Imprisoned in the castle’s dungeon, the lord gave him an ultimatum – Willie would be spared the gallows… but only if he married his daughter in return.
Muckle Mouthed Meg was hardly a beauty, supposedly the ugliest woman in all the land, and her father was eager to find her a husband. But when Willie saw her, he quickly chose death — execution was quick, while the thought of a lifetime with someone so hideous seemed a far greater punishment.
Yet as he stood before the noose, his life flashed before his eyes. The thought of never again riding daringly through the countryside was too much to bear. He set his pride aside and took the lord up on his offer.
As it happened, the pair were a perfect match. Meg’s kind and generous nature struck a chord with the handsome Reiver and they fell deeply in love for the rest of their days.
The walk starts from the Forestry Commission car park in the small Thornielee Forest, part of the larger Tweed Valley Forest Park. At the bottom of the car park, leave the car park following the red waymarked route to pass a somewhat weathered wooden statue of Willie and Meg, carved by local artist Rob Taylor, which depicts the pair dancing on their wedding night.
After leaving the lovers behind, the path nears the forest and bends right, near a spot known as “Meg’s Well”, winding uphill to arrive at a forest track near a junction. Take the track leading uphill to your right, then shortly turn left to enter the trees once more.
The path climbs steeply uphill, bearing first left then right to reach another broad track. Cross this and join a muddier section of path opposite. Continue straight here, passing a small pond in a clearing.
When you reach another track running perpendicular to the path, turn left. Ignore the first two turnings to the right, before the path bends to climb further uphill. You’ll soon arrive at a drystone wall marking the edge of the forest, with views across the surrounding hills.
Turn right and follow the wall until the waymarked route turns right into the trees again, descending downhill. In the trees, you’ll pass a cairn by the side of the path before arriving back on the track walked previously.
Turn left and follow the track until you reach another boundary wall looking down the Tweed valley. Follow this wall, crossing the forest track at a sharp bend to join a path through the trees, until you reach the bottom of the hill.
As the path turns to the right, you can catch a glimpse of the ruin of Elibank Castle, Meg’s ancestral home, through the trees on the opposite side of the Tweed. From here you need only follow the path a short distance to arrive back at the car park.
This is a nice, well-signed walk – the red waymarkers are well present throughout.
I hadn’t been aware of the tale of Willie and Meg before I started researching the walk, but it makes for a nice romantic tale of the Reivers. I find it a little suspicious, though, that shortly after his marriage Willie was knighted by King James VI, despite his father having being a known outlaw implicated in a plot to kidnap the king. Perhaps it helped that Meg’s father, Sir Gideon Murray, was the king’s treasurer!
The story, popularised by Sir Walter Scott among others, may have served to rehabilitate their memories — the violent history of the Border Reivers is soon forgotten in favour of a daring adventure for our bold protagonist Willie. It also provided Scott, who was himself a descendent of theirs, with some poetic tales to tell about his ancestors.