Valley haunted by Black Douglas


It was a cool, blustery afternoon interspersed with brief bursts of sunshine as I set off to explore the remote valley of the Douglas Burn in the Yarrow valley.

Joining the river just below St Mary’s Loch, this wild stream rises six miles away, 2,000 feet up in the hills between Selkirkshire and Peeblesshire. Steeped in history involving such Borders luminaries as James Hogg, Sir Walter Scott and the Black Douglas, the valley is a quiet, virtually empty place, save for sheep and cattle grazing by the meandering burn.

Here and there, small areas of woodland have been fenced and protected from the grazing animals and several birds gathered to feed and sing. Willow warbler, reed bunting, chaffinch, sedge warbler and pheasant were all in good voice while overhead, swallows darted around in pursuit of flying insects. On the fence posts and walls, wheatears sang, refreshed after their long migration from Africa.

On the bare hillsides, meadow pipits were indulging in their curious song flights while the eerie calls of distant curlews could be heard echoing round the valley.

The valley’s fascinating geology is apparent from the outset as in the first mile or so, a strange bank accompanies the walker on the right. It almost looks built for some long gone railway track, but with my limited knowledge of such things, I presume it is some sortof glacial feature. Further up the valley there used to be gold workings and an old chap I used to work beside spent lots of time in the valley panning for gold. He never made a fortune, but he used to get enough to pay for his holidays every year.

Wild flowers were still a bit sparse, but dog violet, primrose, birdsfoot trefoil and cuckoo flower were blooming, the latter so called because it flowers to welcome the arrival of the cuckoo, but sadly none was heard.

A couple of miles up the valley is the tiny settlement at Blackhouse with its ruined tower, once home of the famous Sir James Douglas. The Douglas family were seen as the keepers of this area and it is after this family that the Douglas Burn is named. As far back as the 11th century William, first Lord Douglas, had a tower at Blackhouse, though the present day ruin is of a later one.

The Douglas tragedy took place at the site of Blackhouse Tower – the father and seven brothers were killed by Lady Margaret’s lover. He was wounded and that night died close by St Mary’s Loch. It is said that seven stones on the surrounding hillside mark where the brothers were slain.

By the time I reached here, the cold wind turned me back to retrace my steps, but I vowed to return on a calmer, warmer day to sit awhile and really appreciate this fascinating valley’s diverse qualities.