Robin McKelvie discovers a rare sense of community spirit and resilience among the many life-affirming delights to be found in the Borders jewel that is Selkirk

The triangular expanse of Market Square is quite something. Independent shops flourish alongside a gin distillers, a traditional baker sells those bannocks and a community shop hub is proving an inspiration beyond the Borders. Sir Walter Scott presides over it all, whilst William Wallace lingers just off screen at the Kirk o’ the Forest. And there is an original souter (shoemaker). Well there would be – this is Selkirk, the ‘Souter’s Town’.

While many communities in Scotland struggled through Covid privations Selkirk stood firm, as its impressive community came together. And not just in a woolly metaphysical way – the community actually coalesced, helping each other out and putting people first as a town that always to me feels cut off from the main Borders thrust went it alone. The perfect symbol of Selkirk’s community resilience and ingenuity is the General Store, a Community Interest Company. Every village and town in Scotland should have one. The ‘shop’ sells recycled and remade items and gifts. Think rugby ball cushions fashioned from a patchwork of Borders Tweed castoffs. 

The shop’s sales cross-subsidise the remakery a few doors along, where some members of the community bring items to be fixed by others being brought back into the workforce, or volunteering. If they cannot repair it you don’t pay anything. Their new venture is a ‘community library’, where for £25 you can rent as many vacuum cleaners, carpet cleaners and hedge cutters as you can handle in a year. I find literal spirit just a short stroll away by the courthouse (now a museum) where Scott, the ‘Sheriff of Selkirkshire’, once held sway. Selkirk Distillers distil on nearby Philiphaugh Estate, while their shop here sells their impressive range with the Bannock Gin (with real Selkirk Bannock from Camerons on the same square) a stand out in a range that also funnels money into charities. Their new venture is in the courthouse building itself. 

The Herald:

Tibbie’s is a gin bar and eatery alive with heaving sharing platters and gin tastings. I nip here before a locally-roasted brew at the excellent Three Hills Coffee across the square. Being Selkirk they don’t just serve coffee – they offer full barista training and all the coffee-making accoutrements.
You cannot come to the ‘Souter’s Town’ and not visit the last surviving old world shoemakers. Think a real tradesman rather than a supermarket trade off. It is exactly as I hoped it would look: packed with bric-a-brac and the practical tools of the trade, with a welcoming owner more Windy Miller than Walmart. 

He explains people come from all over southern Scotland to get him to work on their footwear; one client even sends his shoes over from Australia. Pushing further back in time I ramble down the cobbled street where the excellent Halliwell’s House Museum is housed in a building that itself dates back to the eighteenth century; its exhibits vault back even further.  Just across the car park lies a churchyard where the Kirk o’ the Forest is said to lie underground, a legacy of the days when the Ettrick Forest swept over swathes of the Borders. It was here in 1298 that the inspiration for Braveheart was said to have been appointed Guardian of Scotland. 

Delving deeper into the forest the trees crowd around before an eighteenth century mansion looms into view. Being Selkirk the house is community-owned after being bequeathed by Andrew Nimmo-Smith, who lived in the house until his death in 2009, “for the benefit of the community of Selkirkshire and the wider public.” The house is in the midst of being brought back to its best as a community resource and events venue that will channel funds back into the community. 

The Herald:

The Haining’s surrounding 160 acre grounds and loch are home to the “Old Ginger” statue, a Dandie Dinmont Terrier that was born on the estate in 1842. No ordinary canine, every one of these rare breed dogs alive today can trace its lineage to the famous Selkirk original. You can see The Haining Kennels, the founding kennels of the breed. Dandie Dinmont devotees and their dogs flock to Selkirk every June for the ‘Dandie Derby’ meet, race and social shenanigans. 

At the opposite end of the tree-shrouded loch lies Scott’s Bench, a more sombre, but also uplifting memorial. It is dedicated to the late, great Scott Hutchison, front man of seminal Selkirk band Frightened Rabbit, whose lyrics talk of making positive “tiny changes to earth”. Very Selkirk.

Another woodland lies south of town next to the salmon-rich Ettrick Water. Here I meet Gethin Chamberlain, an ex-foreign correspondent and the brains behind the Mauldsheugh Wood community woodland. We ease around its kilometre-long accessible trail, taking in the wildlife pond and viewing station, as local families smile their way by. Gethin talks with passion of community, regeneration and of the Philiphaugh Estate. 

Our talk continues as he takes me to the Five Turrets, the Scottish baronial dame he has re-invented as one of the plushest contemporary places to stay in the Scottish Borders. I savour a slice of Bannock and gin by the wood-burning stove as the sun burns down over the hills that ringfence Selkirk in a dramatic natural amphitheatre. The next day Gethin has his community enterprise Go Wild Scotland – the business he set up – hat on. We’re up early to venture to the observation camera and basic hide he has set up in the rugged woodland in search of red squirrels and pine martens.

Our safari continues at the Philiphaugh Estate – who lend the community Mauldsheugh Wood – to learn more about the pioneering translocation work of the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project at their exhibition. We also check out the salmon ladder in the Ettrick Water and the Philiphaugh Salmon Viewing Centre. Pushing further out of town the Ettrick Valley narrows and the hills rise as I hike solo towards Ettrick bridge. My only company under big Borders skies is an otter, a brace of deer and James Hogg, whose words assure me I’m in for a treat at the Cross Keys Inn. I wouldn’t be dining if Rory Steel hadn’t saved this community hub from closure last year. He pours me a pint of a local Tempest Brew Co ale – the perfect Borders foil for Eyemouth-landed haddock ‘n’ chips – as he talks of pub quizzes, darts nights and a flurry of community-focused events lost to many Scottish pubs.

I finish my pint raising a toast to Selkirk and its surrounds. The flourishing triangular Market Square is unlike any other in Scotland in many ways. And the palpable sense of community that runs through it and everywhere else I’m charmed through make visiting Selkirk a life-affirming joy. 

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