One February morning, my wife and I drove from our home near Melrose in the Scottish Borders to the hamlet of Ettrick, a journey of around twenty miles. It was a day for connoisseurs of the dreich. Sleety rain fell in sheets and a dense mist hung in the valleys. Fields were flooded and swollen streams poured from the hills in cataracts. For long periods we passed no cars. Even farm vehicles were conspicuous by their absence. Sheep, which for generations hereabouts have provided a livelihood, clung to the tweedy upper slopes, the better to avoid being dragged into fast-flowing water.
Our destination was the birthplace of James Hogg. Known as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’, Hogg was born 250 years ago in this remote and often unsung part of these isles. We once considered buying a property near Ettrick and as we sped past it we gave a sigh of relief that we had decided to look elsewhere. If a place ever deserved to be christened ‘Bleak House’, this was surely it.
The nearest town is Selkirk, sixteen miles away and, in Hogg’s time, a four-hour hack over rough paths. The place in which he spent his early years is deemed ‘idyllic’ by one authoritative guide, but that is not a word I would use to describe it. Rooks flitted between the