Following Mary Queen of Scots on the Thieves Road

Mary, Queen of Scots is an iconic figure in Scottish history. Born in Linlithgow in 1542 she became Queen after the death of her father when she was just six days old. Raised in France, she cemented the Auld Alliance by marrying the Dauphin and became Queen of France at his side at age sixteen. Widowed shortly after, she returned to her homeland at nineteen to begin her reign. Catholic Mary was intelligent, good looking and tall for the time at 5 feet 11 inches. She said to have cut an imposing and slightly headstrong figure. Today we would call her a strong woman but at the time more misogynist and sectarian sentiments prevailed, particularly from John Knox, the head of the Presbyterian church, who frequently sought to undermine her.

By 1566 Mary was in a rocky marriage to Lord Darnley and had recently given birth to her son James. As part of her duties she dispensed justice at a series of regional courts and October of that year found her spending time in Jedburgh in the heart of the dangerous and frequently lawless borderlands. Whilst there she received word that one of her most loyal courtiers, Lord Bothwell, had been injured in a skirmish with notorious reiver Wee Jock Elliot, close to his home of Hermitage Castle some 25 miles distant from Jedburgh.

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

His wounds were thought to be serious and it was not known if he would survive. Although Mary would later marry Bothwell, at this stage it is believed that their relationship was more formal. Contrary to the more sensationalist propaganda of the time, (thanks John Knox), Mary waited a few days until she had finished her court duties to visit him, opting to make the journey there and back in a single day. This was necessary in order that the visit not appear improper but also made it less likely that any of the outlaws operating in the area might attack the royal party and attempt to kidnap Mary. Her route from Jedburgh to Hermitage Castle took her through Bonchester Bridge to Dodburn, from where she joined the Thieves Road (shown in red) and followed it south to the very heart of lawless Liddesdale, just ten miles from the English border (England is the white area to the bottom right of the map).

Hermitage Castle was known as the guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in the land, so Mary’s caution was prudent. The outward journey went without incident, but it was on the return leg that disaster struck. Mary’s horse stumbled at a place known ever since as Queen’s Mire, throwing her to the ground.

Reports vary, but it is likely that Mary was concussed and probably very wet and muddy after the fall. Propriety dictated that a return to Hermitage was out of the question and with Peelbraehope, (stronghold of the notorious Border reiving Elliot clan) very nearby, the Royal party opted instead to press on and return to Jedburgh.

The house in Jedburgh where Mary nearly died.

It was a decision that very nearly cost Mary her life. Once back in Jedburgh she became so ill that her death was considered inevitable. She is said to have incessantly vomited blood, suffered complete loss of sight and frequent, ever lengthening bouts of unconsciousness. The diagnosis is not clear, but may have included an injury to the spleen, rupture of a gastric ulcer or exhaustion amongst other conditions. Her retinue sent to Edinburgh for black cloth to allow her Ladies in Waiting to start preparing their mourning dresses. After some days she appeared so pale, cold and stiff that she was thought to have died. In complete desperation her doctor is said to have poured wine down the throat of the comatose Queen in a final roll of the dice. Surprisingly this didn’t kill her, but brought her out of her coma.

In later years as her fourteen year imprisonment at Fotheringhay Castle dragged on, Mary was often heard to have expressed bitter regret at not having died at Jedburgh thereby avoiding her ultimate execution by Elizabeth I.

While the journey and its aftermath is fascinating in itself, my imagination was really fired when I heard the story of Mary’s watch. Personal timepieces were not common at that time and Mary’s French-made watch, carried in a velvet-lined box, was likely to have been extremely precious and valuable. After her fateful journey it was found to be missing and presumed lost forever in the bog of Queen’s Mire. It might still be there today had it not crossed the underground path of a determined mole some 250 years later.  To moley it was just an annoying obstacle to be ejected from his home. A passing shepherd found it lying on top of a molehill and handed it in to the authorities of the day, where it was at once recognised as the tragic Queen’s personal property.  What an incredible thing to have happened – what were the chances?  The watch is now on display at the Mary Queen of Scots museum in Jedburgh, located in the house Mary stayed in during her time in the town.

Mary’s 16th century French watch – found in its oval case, sitting on a molehill in Queen’s Mire 250 years after it was lost.

In the very hot summer of 2021 I set out to follow in Mary’s footsteps and cross Queen’s Mire on the old Thieves Road to Hermitage Castle. Thieves Road has a romantic history, being one of many tracks and passes used by the lawless peoples of the borderlands, along which stolen or reived livestock could be driven from one side of the border to the other.  It would have linked Hawick to Newcastleton and from there on over the border, probably at Bloody Bush. To reach it I cycled down to Stobs POW camp, then took the track south past Penchrise Pen.  After stopping in for a brief look around Peelbraehope, the former stronghold of the notorious Jock Elliot, I turned west in the direction of Priesthaugh, turning off to the south just before the track loops back on itself around Dod Rig.

Very little remains to be seen of Peelbraehope, former stronghold of the Elliot clan.

The forestry track following the course of the old Thieves Road south from Dod Rig.

At this point I was still following the course of the old Thieves Road, but the final half a kilometre before Swire Knowe seemed to have been obliterated by a forestry plantation.  The route of the Thieves Road appeared on maps as late as 1912, but I couldn’t find any sign of where it might branch off the present-day forestry track.

Much of the woodland looked like this – pretty much impenetrable.

I tried following a small watercourse but only got eaten alive by midges for my trouble.  After slipping down a steep slope and almost landing on top of my bike (which might have resulted in a broken ankle – not ideal in a remote location) I began to rethink the wisdom of making this trip alone. Although I did complete the journey all the way to Hermitage Castle on that occasion, I thought of it as a reconnaissance trip and the following week set out again to try to find a better path. My friend Alison came with me for the second trip, a decision I think she probably regretted on several occasions. For the second go I plotted the route of the Thieves Road as carefully as I could onto a GPX file and tried to make sure I was exactly on the route at all times. It sort of worked. A kind of gap in the planting could be found in places which did lead eventually to the fenceline above Queen’s Mire. The following photos are a combination of those taken during the two trips.

This sort of seemed like the route of the Thieves Road. Maybe.

More a series of clearings than a distinct linear path….

The grass was waist high in places.

The above photo make it look a lot nicer than it really was – in truth there were a lot of massive patches of tall nettles that had to be fought through – not the best in shorts! The clegs (horsefies) were also out in force and every time we stopped for even a second swarms of them landed all over us.  I hate clegs with a passion – give me midges any day!  We were both bitten really badly but worse was to come. Just after I took this photo something bit or stung me on the ankle and the pain was so intense that all I could do was yell my head off.  I still don’t know what it was but once I got clear of the long grass I saw that my whole leg had come up in huge goosebumps. I was very shaky and thought I was going to pass out. I’m not a big swooner, so this isn’t something I am in a habit of doing. I wanted to lie down but I couldn’t stop even for a minute as the clegs were so bad. There wasn’t another choice but to keep going.

The final stretch through the plantation to the fenceline was thankfully the easiest by far.

The gate marking the boundary between the plantation and Swire Knowe/Queens’s Mire – a very welcome sight.

We hurriedly got our bikes through the gate and hauled them down the slope towards Queen’s Mire.

Looking south from Swire Knowe towards Liddesdale and England – a stunning vista that may not have looked much different in Mary’s day.

As we crossed Queen’s Mire (not boggy at all in the dry weather) I very nearly fell head-first into a narrow cleft of a watercourse which was almost completely hidden by the long grass. It was nearly a metre deep and it is not hard to imagine that Mary’s horse might have missed such a crevice in the low light of an October afternoon.

Crossing Queen’s Mire (looking back to the north and Swire Knowe). We emerged to the left of the plantation you can see on the horizon. Although the path then seems to veer off towards the left side of this shot it unfortunately doesn’t go in the direction you need it to – there’s really no alternative to crossing Queen’s Mire.

There was no proper path in this area – we just followed animal tracks as best we could.  It was a relief then to finally reach the track above Braidleehope Farm from where we could ride again.

Looking down towards Braidleehope farm ruin.

Unfortunately we didn’t manage to ride very far before we were cut off by a large herd of cows – many with calves.  We veered off to the left as calmly as possible and hauled our bikes over the fence to give us protection lest they stampeded.

Tiptoeing past Braidleehope Farm on the other side of the fence to the cows.

What would once have been a fine house in a beautiful glen has sadly been left to fall into disrepair.  Mr and Mrs Coo and all their extended family have mooved in and thoroughly trashed the place.

The ruined farmhouse at Braidleehope (interior shots from my first visit when the cows were elsewhere).

The cows have made an awful mess – they have even made their way upstairs!

It seems a great shame to see it gone to ruin as it’s a beautiful spot.

Lord of the manor. A very territorial bull posing proudly outside his home. I just love what you have done with the place.

Once past the farm we followed a good gravel track along the glen.

Pushing the bikes up the steep slope away from Braidleyburn.

Emerging from the gravel track we rode a short way down the tarmac road to Hermitage Castle, stopping first to visit the ruins of the chapel and eat a celebratory doughnut. It had been a hard day.

The ruins of the chapel in the warm light of a summer evening. Hermitage Castle is in the background. This must have been a welcome sight for Mary after her long journey.

We spent some time looking around the exterior of the castle and reading the excellent information boards. I do love a good info board.

The Historic Scotland information board at Hermitage Castle.

Hermitage Castle in the evening light.

We were both quite tired by this point, so it was a relief to be able to follow a proper road back home to Hawick.  In total we rode about 40 miles that day, with the stupid half kilometre through the plantation forest by far the hardest part.

Unfortunately Bothwell turned out to be a bad ‘un not worthy of the Queen’s effort and attention. Not long after this historical episode he was implicated in the murder of Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley. He then kidnapped Mary and is believed to have raped her in order to force her into marriage. The outrage in Scotland was such that Mary was deposed from the throne and fled to England in the hope of sanctuary.  Bothwell escaped by ship to Norway where he was imprisoned before being transferred to Denmark. He died in prison there after ten years spent chained to a pillar in appalling conditions. Mary didn’t fare much better and was executed by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I following a long imprisonment at Fotheringhay Castle. Her son James did however became King of both Scotland and England. Mary’s bloodline continues to this day with Queen Elizabeth II.

When I got home and stopped pedalling I found that the leg which had suffered the bite/sting had gone into pins and needles which wouldn’t go away.  I spent a few weeks repeatedly stamping to try and clear it but it didn’t help.  It gradually tailed off, but even now, six months later that leg is still a bit tingly. It’s very strange.

I think this route is of the ‘I did this so you don’t have to’ variety, but if you really feel the need to give it a go yourself then please wear long trousers and tuck them into your socks when you go through the long grass.  There’s something in there that really isn’t very nice… I call it Mary’s revenge….

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