Smailholm Tower Drone Photograph
Europe,  scotland

Smailholm Peel Tower: A Scottish Borders Hidden Gem

Smailholm Tower is a peel tower located near Kelso in the Scottish Borders. It sits on a little crag called Lady Hill, keeping watch across the Scottish countryside. Built in the 15th century, like all Scottish peel towers, it was designed to protect occupants from English raids. Despite its violent past, it is now one of the best-preserved peel towers in Scotland.

Here’s everything you need to know about Smailholm Tower:

Smailholm Tower History

Dating back to the 15th century, Smailholm Tower was originally constructed as a defensive stronghold during a turbulent era of border conflicts by the Pringles of Smailholm. The Pringles were a powerful local family who hold a profitable position of authority in the area.

The tower’s formidable stone walls and strategic location atop a rocky outcrop served as a protective bastion for the surrounding lands. Throughout the centuries, Smailholm Tower witnessed the ebb and flow of history, witnessing sieges, battles, and the changing tides of Scottish nobility – was used as a defensive structure during the Anglo-Scottish wars.

As the laird’s residence, Smailholm Tower encompassed various functional spaces: Ground-floor cellars, a great hall on the ground floor, a second-floor bed chamber, and additional chambers at the top floor. Across from the tower, visitors can explore the remnants of the outer hall and kitchen block, now only ruins of their original form.

Smailholm Tower Drone Photograph of someone visiting the path to the tower

Who owns Smailholm Tower?

In 18th century Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott, recorded that an elderly dowager lady once resided at Smailholm Tower. It is thought that her death was the final point at which his family abandon the old fortress. It fell well into a state of disrepair as the family relocated to the nearby Sandyknowe.

As it passed through hands (and the years) it was finally acquired by the Earl of Ellesmere, its final private owner. The Earl made the crucial decision to transfer ownership to state care in 1950, an act that would ensured the preservation of the tower for future generations. In the 1980s, significant efforts were undertaken to restore the tower to its former glory. It’s now cared for by Historic Enironment Scotland.

How to get to Smailholm Tower

The tower was an easy find with the help of Google Maps. Most of the roads in this area are quiet countryside routes and, coming along the B6397 into Smailholm, there is a road sign that shows you where to turn off. As you follow the smaller road, don’t be alarmed when you appear to reach a route that takes itself straight through the property of a farm – keep going!

As the road bends after the farm, you’ll see the tower on your left, perched upon the small hilltop. There is a generous parking stop just after it.

Visiting Smailholm Tower

Having undergone careful restoration under the guardianship of Historic Environment Scotland, the well-preserved tower now serves as a unique museum. It was recently awarded 5-star tourist attraction status by Visit Scotland. At the time of this award, only 8 other attractions across Scotland held this title – an honour not to be sniffed at.

These days, the tower provides a unique glimpse into Scotland’s history and the way of life during the 16th and 17th centuries. Visitors can learn about the tower’s history; inside you’ll find a model of the original Pringle residence, alongside a collection of costume figures and tapestries relating to the stories of Sir Walter Scott – created by two local artists.

It’s worth noting, to get a glimpse inside, tickets must be booked in advance via the Historic Scotland website, and you must choose an arrival time. An adult admission is currently £7.50.
Book my tickets to Smailholm Tower.

The tower’s location, surrounded by rolling hills and pretty Borders scenery, should make it a popular destination for Scottish history lovers. However, on the couple of occasions I’ve been there, it’s been quiet and (for most of my visit) I’ve had the site to myself. There is no fee to explore the grounds. The small hilltop offers uninterrupted views of the surrounding countryside, reached by twist-and-turn walker trails that make you feel like you’ve set off on a mini castle adventure.

Fun fact: The tower still has its own post box, which sits on the gate at the car park near the information board.

Smailholm Tower with person standing outside

How did Smailholm Tower inspire Sir Walter Scott?

Smailholm Tower boasts significant historical ties to Sir Walter Scott, one of Scotland’s most renowned literary figures. Born in Edinburgh in 1771, Scott gained fame as a highly prolific writer, producing a wide array of novels, poems, and historical works. The tower’s connections to Scott are so significant, that you’ll a small section dedicated to him on the information board at the car park.

Smailholm Tower’s links with Scott can be traced back to his ancestors. It began in 1645, when the Scotts of Harden bought the tower and estate. With another home to live in, they leased Smailholm to a blood relative, Walter ‘Beardie’ Scott – known today as Sir Walter Scott’s great-grandfather.

As a sickly infant, Scott’s parents sent him to Smailholm while recovering from polio. At 18 months old, he resided at Sandyknowe Farmhouse, which had replaced Smailholm as the Scott family home. It was there that his grandmother and aunt regaled him with tales of the border countryside.

The experience left a profound impact on him due to its storied history and picturesque setting amidst rolling hills and green landscapes. It was noted that the environment sparked his imagination and served as a wellspring of inspiration for his writings about the Borders region and its rich heritage.

The folklore and legends surrounding Smailholm Tower and its surroundings particularly fascinated Scott. Drawing from these tales and myths, he skillfully weaved them into his poems and novels, adding depth and allure to his literary works.

Among Scott’s most celebrated creations, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” stands out, as it is set in the Borders and prominently features Smailholm Tower as a central location. The poem unfolds the journey of a wandering minstrel who encounters supernatural beings, while simultaneously celebrating the cultural richness and historical significance of the Borders.

Scott later reflected on the lasting impact of these border ballads and the sight of his ancestors’ ancient tower, describing it as “standing stark and upright like a warden.” His profound appreciation for the region’s heritage culminated in the publication of his acclaimed work, “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border” in 1802.

In his final years, Scott paid an emotional visit to Smailholm shortly before his passing in 1832, emphasising the enduring significance this historic site held in his life and literary journey.

While you’re in the Scottish Borders, try these other articles:

Travel writer, marketing adviser and blogger based in Edinburgh, with a focus on budget and vegan travel. 39 countries to date, with extensive knowledge of travel within Asia, particularly within Thailand.

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