A royal burgh in the heart of the Scottish Borders
Peebles, the third largest town in the Borders, lies at the junction between the River Tweed and the Eddlestone Water. Throughout the centuries the valley of the Edlestone Water has been an important communications route between the Borders and Edinburgh, lying less than thirty miles to the north. Peebles strategic location on this route has drawn people for centuries and made the town an important one historically.
A number of Bronze Age hill forts in the area testify to early settlement. The Romans later recognised the significance of the site and built a road through the area. More substantial development came with the middle ages. In the west of today’s town St Andrews Tower marks the spot where once a 7th century church, dedicated to St Kentigern, dominated the settlement. The tower is a mid 19th century reconstruction of that of the preceding church, built in 1195 but destroyed in 1548.
Previously part of the kingdom of Strathclyde, it seems that Peebles really started to develop after it was incorporated into the Scottish Kingdom of King Malcolm II in the early 11th century. By the 12th century the town’s status was recognised by the building of a wooden bridge over the River Tweed, more or less where today’s Tweed Bridge now sits. Shortly afterwards the town’s growth was further stimulated by the building of a castle to guard the bridge, which sat on Castle Hill where the remarkable 19th century Peebles Old Parish Church now stands. The town was then recognised as a burgh by David I (1124-1153) and King William the Lion (1165-1214) held the town in such high esteem that he alternated the location of his court between Peebles and Edinburgh.
A little later a second castle was built in the area. Neidpath Castle sits on a bluff overlooking the Tweed one mile west of Peebles. The original fort was built at the behest of Sir Simon Fraser, the sheriff of Peebles, who led the Scots army to victory over the English at Roslin Moor in 1302 during the Scottish Wars of Independence. The existing castle was built by the Hays at the end of that tumultuous century. The castle has an interesting history. It was visited by Mary Queen of Scots in 1563 by her son James VI in 1587 and later by Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth in 1803. It is also famed as the castle which, in 1650, held out against Cromwell’s forces longer than any other south of the Forth. Although Cromwellian bombardment damaged the castle it has been largely restored, even enhanced. It is said to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who died of despair having been told by her father that she could not marry the castle’s laird, whom she loved profoundly.
During the Wars of Independence Peebles drew the attention of the would be English conquerors. It was visited by Edward I twice in 1301 and 1306 and occupied by English garrisons for most of the war. Even though English forces were eventually driven out they would return with a vengeance: marauding English troops burnt the town in 1403 and almost completely destroyed it in 1548, razing both St Kentigern’s Church and Peebles Castle to the ground.
In the following centuries Peebles remained a town favoured by royalty; it was especially well regarded by James III who made frequent visits. It was also a town respected by James VI who ordered the representatives of the peoples of the borders to meet there in 1585 in order to try and put an end to the cross border raiding that destabilised the area. Peebles was probably chosen as the site for the meeting as it had not participated in, or been effected by, such raids to the extent that other Borders towns had. At the same time Peebles prestige was further enhanced by the building of new market area at the tail end of the 16th century.
It seems that in the century following the Union of Crowns (1603) Peebles, without the patronage of a Scottish monarchy, fell into decline. Indeed, by one accounts the town became ‘stagnant and lifeless’ and prone to outbreaks of famine and disease. Three times during the late 18th century the local town council felt obliged to buy food for its starving inhabitants.
Life slowly returned to Peebles with the industrial revolution, due in part to some limited local industry, but more significantly due to the rail connections established between the town and the prospering Edinburgh. While the Beeching cuts ended the rail service in 1962 the construction of quality roads and the advent of the motor car ensured that Peebles would continue its recovery. Today it is a prosperous market town whose medieval heritage, evident from its beautiful old buildings, make it one of the Borders many jewels.
Find out more
History of Peebles 1850-1990, J.L. Brown and I.C. Lawson
Peebles - A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome
High Street Memories, Anne Derrick
The Neidpath Press, Peebles
Dating back to 1195, Peebles is the county town of Tweedale in the Scottish Borders, the most southerly region in Scotland.
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