Descriptive Gazetteer Entry for St Mary's Loch

St Mary's Loch, a beautiful lake on the mutual border of Selkirk and Peebles shires, 15½ miles WSW of Selkirk, 14 SSW of Innerleithen, and 15½ NE of Moffat. Lying 814 feet above sea-level, and 80 to 90 feet deep, It extends 3 miles north-by-eastward and north-eastward, and has a maximum breadth of exactly ½ mile. At its head is the smaller Loch of the Lowes; Megget Water and Kirkstead Burn are the chief of eight streams that enter it; and Yarrow Water issues from its foot. On either side the smooth green hills rise steeply-to the SE, Bowerhope Law (1570 feet), the Wiss (1932), and Peat Law (1737); to the NW, Watch Hill (1710), Bridgend Hill (1594), Copper Law (1690), Henderland Hill (1740), and Deer Law (2065). Its waters are well stocked with trout, of ½ lb. each on an average; and pike and perch are also taken, with an occasional salmon and bull-trout. Scott, in his introduction to canto second of Marmion, has drawn a perfect picture of the scenery:

oft in my mind such thoughts awalke
By lone St Mary's silent lake.
Thou know'st it well,-nor fen, nor sedge,
Pollute the pure lake's crystal edge;
abrupt and sheer, the mountains sink
At once upon the level brink;
And just a trace of silver sand
Marks where the water meets the land.
Far in the mirror, bright and blue,
Each hill's huge outline you may view,
Shaggy with heath, but lonely, bare,
Nor tree, nor bush, nor brake is there,
Save where. of land. yon slender line
Bears thwart the lake the scattered pine.
Nor thicket. dell. nor copse you spy
Where living thing concealed might lie;
Nor point, retiring. hides a dell,
where swain, or woodman lone, might dwell;
There's nothing left to Fancy's guess,-
You see that all is loneliness:
and silence aids though the steep hills
Send to the lake a thousand rills;
In summer-tide so soft they weep,
The sound but lulls the car asleep;
Your horse's hoof-tread sounds too rude-
So stilly is the solitude.'
Yet, as in Wordsworth's day
` The swan on still St Mary's Lake
Float double. swan and shadow; '
and yet, like Wordsworth, we may fancy that-
` Throughout her depths, St Mary's Lake
is visibly delighted;
For not a feature of those hills
Is in the mirror slighted.

The road from Peebles and Innerleithen to St Mary's Loch passes through a wild mountain defile, which opens on the vale of the Yarrow about 3 miles from the lake. On emerging from this, the lonely Yarrow bursts all at once on the traveller's view; and he looks on the mountains dotted with sheep, and Altrive, the cottage of Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd, which stands a little way E of the lake, and which, more than any other feature in the landscape, makes St Mary's Loch an object of interest to lovers of poetry. Almost every mountain and stream in ` fair Ettrick Forest ' have been hallowed by the genius of the bard, who

Found in youth a harp among the hills.
Dropt by the Elfin-people; and whilst the moon
Entranced hung o'er still St Mary's Loch,
Harp d by that charmed water, so that the swan
Came floating onwards through the water-blue.-
A dream like creature listening to a dream;
And the Queen of the Fairies rising silently
Through the pure mist, stood at the shepherd's feet,
And half-forgot her own green paradisc,
Far in the bosom of the hill, so wild!
So sweet! so sad! flowed forth that shepherd's lay.

'My beloved Shepherd,' said Christopher North in 1824, 'some half century hence your effigy will be seen on some bonny green knowe in the forest, with its honest face looking across St Mary's Loch, and up towards the Grey Mare's Tail; while by moonlight all your own fairies will weave a dance round its pedestal.' And his prediction has been almost exactly verified by the erection in 1860 of a monument on a grassy esplanade at the head of the loch. It consists of a square pedestal and a statue, 9½ and 8½ feet high, of Denholm freestone, by Andrew Currie, F. S. A., himself a native of the Forest.' The Shepherd, with plaid around him, is seated on an oak-root; at his feet lies Hector, his favourite dog; his right hand rests on a staff; and his left holds a scroll inscribed with the last line of the Queen's Wake

He taught the wandering winds to sing.

Opposite, on the wooded patch of holm between the lochs, 19 miles WSW of Selkirk, is St Margaret's Cottage or ` Tibbie Sheils,' long kept by Mrs Richardson (1781-1878), and the scene of one of the Noctes. The Rodono Hotel has been noticed separately, as also are Bin ram's Cross, Blackhouse, Chapelhope, Coppercleuch, Douglas Burn, Dryhope, Henderland, and Mount Benger. On the NW shore of the loch, 7 furlongs from its head, is the site of St Mary's kirk, with its ancient graveyard. This, too, the poet's pen has rendered a classic spot. In this lonely place the bones of many an outlaw mingle with the dust; and here the shepherd of the present century still finds his last resting-place.

For though in feudal strife a foe
Hath laid our Layas chapel low,
Yet still beneath the hallowed soil,
The peasant rests him from his toil:
And dying, bids his bones be laid
Where erst his simple fathers prayed.

This ancient chapel is the subject of many traditions, and of numerous ballads and poems of ancient and modern date.

St Mary's Loch lies shimmering still,
But St Mary's kirk-bell's lang dune ringing!
There's naething now but the grave-stane hill
To tell o' a' their loud psalm-singing!

Among the ballads, that of The Douglas Tragedy has been rendered widely familiar by the Border Minstrelsy. Another ancient and very popular tradition furnished the ground-work of Hogg's ballad of Mess John; and the chapel is the scene of the principal incident in his ballad of Mary Scott. Here the daughter of stern Tushilaw is supposed, by the poet, to have been brought to be buried; here she awoke from that sleep which seemed to all the sleep that knows no waking; and here she was married to her lover, Pringle, Lord of Torwoodlee.—Ord. Sur., sh. 16, 1864.

(F.H. Groome, Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1882-4); © 2004 Gazetteer for Scotland)

Linked entities:
Feature Description: "a beautiful lake"   (ADL Feature Type: "lakes")
Administrative units: Peebles Shire ScoCnty       Selkirkshire ScoCnty

Pages for linked administrative units may contain historical statistics and information on boundaries.