Innerleithen is the jewel of the Tweed Valley. With a present-day population of around 3,500, the surrounding area has been a site of human habitation since at least the Iron Age. Two hills — Caerlee and Pirn — rise up high on either side of the Leithen Water, overlooking the spot where that river pours into the Tweed. Their strategic position made them ideal spots for the construction of Celtic hillforts some three thousand years ago, when the Selgovae tribe occupied Tweeddale. From these fortresses, the Selgovae were largely able to defend the Leithen Valley from the Romans who invaded in the first century AD, setting up a military camp near today’s Toll Wood.
Little is known of what happened here in the first millennium AD, after the Roman retreat. Local legend has it that the area was visited by St. Ronan of Iona, sometime during the seventeenth century. Ronan, a monk by vocation, was on a pilgrimage from Iona to Brittany, in France, when he passed through the Leithen Valley and had an encounter with the Devil. It is said that he used his crooked staff to whack the devil on the ankle (“cleikin’ the De’il a’ the hind leg”) and in this way he caused the devil to flee. Then, when Ronan jabbed the end of his staff into the ground, he struck upon a natural spring, which is now the site on which St. Ronan’s Wells have been built. The annual Cleikum Ceremonies are held in honour of St. Ronan to this day, accompanying the Border Games, and they include a re-enactment (with puppets!) of St. Ronan’s encounter with Old Nick.
Whether there’s any truth to the legend is a matter of personal belief. What’s certain, though, is that in the early middle ages, the Earl of Traquair was granted a large tract of land around the Leithen Valley, and the stately Traquair House was erected on the southern side of the Tweed around 1107. In 1491, the house came into the possession of the Stuart family and gave refuge to Mary Queen of Scots during her dispute with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, as they made competing claims for the crown. The Stuarts are kin to central players in British royal history — including King Charles I, whose execution sparked the Civil War; his exiled son, Charles II, whose return to England marked the beginning of the Restoration era; and, later, Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose attempt to reclaim the throne inspired the Jacobite uprisings. Since its foundation, Traquair House has hosted no fewer than twenty-seven kings and queens of Scotland.
Innerleithen itself became a popular destination for tourism during the Victorian era, after the Earl of Traquair ordered the construction of St. Ronan’s Wells in the 1820s. In 1823, Sir Walter Scott — by far the most popular writer of his day, not only in Britain but around the world — helped to put Innerleithen on the map when he published his novel St. Ronan’s Wells, about a group of visitors to the spa. To capitalise on the town’s newfound fame, the people of the Leithen Valley organised the first St. Ronan’s Border Games in 1827. In this they were led by another luminary of Scottish literature, James Hogg, known locally as the “Ettrick Shepherd” and celebrated for his Gothic novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. To make the dream of the games a reality, however, Hogg enlisted the help of Scott, who agreed to provide funding and logistical support. In the first few years, the games were held on the eastern bank of the Leithen Water, near the site of today’s Vale Club, though they now take place all around Innerleithen.
With the influx of attention came the arrival of industry, and by the end of the nineteenth century Innerleithen had become home to three textile mills of international reputation. The mills went on to thrive into the early twentieth century, but economic changes led to their closures in the early 2000s and 2010s. Today, Innerleithen is renowned as a natural beauty hotspot, a centre of Scottish cultural and industrial heritage, and a globally significant destination for adventure tourism — especially mountain biking. You can’t walk the streets or ride the trails without seeing remnants of its past still there, still present, right in front of your eyes. And if you head to the top of Pirn Hill, you’ll find a highlight of the Innerleithen experience: a sculpture installation that illustrates each phase of the history described above. It reminds those of us who live here of what visitors discover soon enough: that Innerleithen truly is one of the treasures of the Scottish Borders.
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