Descriptive Gazetteer Entry for Yarrow Water

Yarrow Water, a stream of Selkirkshire, issuing from the foot of St Mary's Loch, and flowing 14 ½ miles east-north-eastward, through Yarrow and Selkirk parishes, till, after a descent of 405 feet, it falls into Ettrick Water at a point 2 miles SW of Selkirk town. It is a capital trouting-stream, the fish weighing from 1 ½ lb. downwards; and its waters above Broadmeadows are open to the public.

W hat's Yarrow but a river bare,
That glides the dark hills under ?
There are a thousand such elsewhere
As worthy of your wonder.

So Wordsworth lightly sang in the first of his `Three Yarrows, - Yarrow Unvisited (1803), Yarrow Visited (1814), and Yarrow Revisited (1831). On the first occasion, he and his sister Dorothy had just left Scott, and were to meet him again next day at Melrose; on the second, the ` Ettrick Shepherd ' guided him over the hills from Traquair to St Mary's Loch, and thence down the whole course of Yarrow to its union with the Ettrick; on the third, he drove with Scott from Abbotsford to Newark Castle - they were both over sixty years old, and Scott was in two days to leave for Italy. Then there is Foulshiels, the birthplace of Mungo Park, and the Yarrow's deep pool where Scott found him plunging one stone after another into the water, and anxiously watching the bubbles that rose to the surface. 'This appears,' said Scott, `but an idle amusement for one who has seen so much adventure.' `Not so idle, perhaps, as you suppose,' answered Mungo, `this was the way I used to ascertain the depth of a river in Africa.' He was then meditating his second and last journey, but had told no one. Carterhaugh, scene of the ballad of Young Tamlane, `sweet Bowhill ' and Newark Castle, Philiphaugh, where Leslie routed Montrose, and Hangingshaw, erst a stronghold of the `Outlaw Murray' - these all are set amid the lower vale's

Rich groves of lofty stature,
With Yarrow winding through the pomp
Of cultivated nature.

But the very Yarrow, the Yarrow of mournful song, is that of the upper valley, where the `deep, swirling stream, fabulosus as ever Hydaspes,' laves `the inner sanctuary of the whole Scottish Border, of that mountain tract which sweeps from sea to sea, from St Abbs Head and the Lammermuir westward to the hills of Galloway. It concentrates in itself all that is most characteristic of that scenery - the soft green rounded hills with their flowing outlines, overlapping and melting into each other; the clear streams winding down between them from side to side, margined with green slips of holm; the steep brae-sides with the splendour of mountain grass, interlaced here and there with darker ferns, or purple heather; the hundred sideburns that feed the main Dale river, coming from hidden Hopes where the grey peel-tower still moulders; the pensive aspect of the whole region so solitary and desolate. Then Yarrow is the centre of the once famous but now vanished Forest of Ettrick, with its memories of proud huntings and chivalry, of glamourie and the land of Faery. Again, it is the home of some " old unhappy far-off thing," some immemorial romantic sorrow, so remote that tradition has forgotten its incidents, yet cannot forget the impression of its sadness. Ballad after ballad comes down loaded with a dirge-like wail for some sad event, made still sadder for that it befell in Yarrow.' The oldest surviving ballad, The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow, is supposed to refer to a combat at Deuchar Swire, near Yarrow kirk, in which Walter Scott, third son of Robert of Thirlestane, was treacherously slain by his brother-in-law, John Scott of Tushielaw:

as he gaed up the Tinnies Bank,
I wot he gaed wi' sorrow,
Till, down in a den, he spied nine armed men,
On the dowie houms of Yarrow.

`Four has he hurt, and Five has slain,
On the bludie braes of Yarrow,
Till that stubborn knight came him behind,
And ran his body thorough.

Then comes his Sarah's exquisite lament:

"Yestreen I dreamed a dolefu' dream;
I fear there will be sorrow!
I dreamed I pu'd the heather green,
wi' my true love on Yarrow.

' "O gentle wind that bloweth south,
From where my Love repaireth,
Convey a kiss frae his dear mouth,
And tell me how he fareth!

' "Oh! tell sweet willie to come down,
and hear the mavis singing,
And see the birds on ilka bush,
And leaves around them hinging.

' "But in the glen strove arméd men;
They've wrought me dule and sorrow;
They've slain - the comeliest knight they've slain -
He bleeding lies on Yarrow."

'She kissed his cheek, she kaimed his hair,
She searched his wounds all thorough;
She kissed them, till her lips grew red,
On the dowie houms of Yarrow.

We hear the same sad burden of a lover lost, by drowning in Yarrow or by a rival's sword, in Willie's rare, and Willie'sfair (circa 1525; first printed 1724), in Hamilton of Bangour's Busk ye, busk ye, my bonny, bonny bride (1748), and in John Logan's Braes of Yarrow (1770), two of whose verses Scott deemed the perfection of poetry:

His mother from the window looked,
with ali the longing of a mother;
His iittie sister weeping walked
The green-wood path to meet her brother;

' They sought him east, they sought him west,
They sought him ail the forest thorough;
They only saw the cloud of night,
They only heard the roar of Yarrow!

Scott himself and the ` Ettrick Shepherd, ' ` Christopher North ' and Henry Scott Riddell, the `Surfaceman Poet' and ` J. B. Selkirk, ' have added each a spray to Yarrow's garland of song; but we will end with Wordsworth's closing stanza:

Flow on for ever. Yarrow Stream!
Fulfil thy pensive duty.
Well pleased that future Bards should chant
For simple hearts thy beauty;
To dream-light dear while yet unseen,
Dear to the common sunshine,
And dearer still, as now I feel,
To memory's shadowy moonshine.

See Sir Thomas Dick Lauder's Scottish Rivers (Edinb. 1874); Dr John Brown's Minchmoor (Edinb. 1864); Prof. Jn. Veitch's History and Poetry of the Scottish Border (Glasg. 1878); and Principal J. C. Shairp's ` Three Yarrows ' in Aspects of Poetry (Oxf. 1881).—Ord. Sur., shs. 16, 24, 25, 1864-65.

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

Linked entities:
Feature Description: "a stream"   (ADL Feature Type: "streams")
Administrative units: Selkirkshire ScoCnty

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