THE first time I climbed the three peaks of the Eildons I wasn't thinking of fairies.

I tramped up, pregnant with my second child, while my husband yomped ahead with our first son strapped to his back. Possibly he did mention that these three hills, overlooking Melrose, were the stomping ground of Thomas the Rhymer, the legendary 13th-century prophet, but I didn't absorb it. I was there for the nature, for the gorse, the brisk air, the smell of mud and the views. It was only later that I learned some of the local stories: of fairies, of King Arthur and his knights sleeping under the hills. Only then would I return to see the stone that claims to mark "the site of the Eildon tree where legend says Thomas the Rhymer met the Queen of the Fairies".

I'm not remotely superstitious and tend to agree with Richard Dawkins. "There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden," he once said. "There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?" But while more interested in real nature spotting than hunting for supernatural beings, I've come to realise that one of the things I enjoy about visiting trips the Borders, is the idea that this is fairy country. Heading there by car with my kids, I sometimes tell stories, such as the tale of Tam Lin, a mortal boy who was made a fairy knight by the Queen of the Fairies - which is one of the Border ballads, recorded in Walter Scott's Minstrelsy Of The Scottish Border. Or of Wild Robin, who took a nap by St Mary's Loch, and was abducted by fairies.

Mostly I have hiked these fairy paths with my walker friend Emily. This patch of the Lowlands, incorporating Melrose, Yarrow, Selkirk and Traquair, has drawn us back many a time. We began with Minch Moor, an ancient drove road on the Southern Upland Way, which runs past the legendary Cheese Well. According to folklore expert Lewis Spence, travellers would deposit cheese or other food gifts, hoping to placate the fairies so they would receive no trouble on their route - though, since bandits often lurked there, sometimes it didn't work.

On a dreich and misty morning, we left a few pieces of cheese on the damp stone on Minch Moor. But the Cheese Well isn't the only fairy-site in those parts. There is also St Mary's Loch, where Wild Robin napped. There is Aikwood Tower: possibly once the home of Michael Scot, the Border Wizard. There is the Fairy Dean, where, according to Walter Scott, strange stones, thought to be fairy charms, were found. And, if you simply want a stunning vista over fairy land, there is Scott's View, looking down towards the Eildons. It's a panorama given an extra magic by the tales contained in the ballads Scott recorded.

Near Yarrow, you can also find Carterhaugh woods, the setting of Tam Lin. There's even a small well (which I discovered through the wonderful blog, at the side of the road with a stone inscription saying "Tamlane's well". Tam Lin has long been a favourite for me on account of the boldness of its heroine, Janet of Carterhaugh, who comes across the strange fairy knight Tam Lin in the woods. She's the fierce and plucky girl who rescues her knight, breaking a spell cast on him by the fairy queen, by holding onto him no matter what terrifying beast he turns into. Finally when he turns into a burning-hot iron rod, she throws him into the well and he is made mortal again.

I think it was when I first read Tam Lin that I realised fairies were not always dainty Tinkerbell-like creatures. As storyteller Lari Don writes in her version of the tale, written for modern children: "The fairies in the forest weren't little and twinkly, they weren't interested in granting wishes. They were as tall as the Earl's soldiers, and they carried swords and spears instead of wands and glitter."

I've walked up the Eildons five times now and I've also sat for a good long while by St Mary's Loch with my husband and kids, but not once have I felt a fairy grab me by the hand and drag me into the underworld. The closest I've come to a transporting, Rhymer-type moment was a little further north, on a walk in the Lammermuirs. On a warm summer day., Emily and I lay down in the grass. We weren't sleeping, just resting; not speaking, staring at the grass and the sky. The ground, I remember, was alive around us: insects buzzing noisily. That gentle, busy activity enchanted me. I needed no fairy queen.

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