Old St Boswells

Around two thousand years ago the Romans came here, bestowing on a place dominated by the three Eildon Hills the unimaginative name of Trimontium. After their departure, the area eventually came under the rule of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria. Following its conversion to Christianity under the spiritual leadership of St Aidan (d. 651), a monastic cathedral was founded on the island of Lindisfarne. Some of Aidan’s followers journeyed up the River Tweed to build another monastery at Old Melrose. Prominent among this first generation of monks was Boisil, who became prior of Melrose and died there during the great pestilence of 664. It was his renowned sanctity which drew the young Saint Cuthbert to the abbey. Boisil gave his name to the village and the parish of St Boswells. Originally our village was called Lessuden (meaning the court or manor house of Edwyn, whoever he may have been). Once a place of considerable strength which contained as many as sixteen bastle (or bastille) houses, it was burnt by the English in 1544 and 1545. For a long time it and the hamlet of St Boswells kept their distinctive names and identities, but by the seventeenth century the latter was nothing more than a collection of ruined houses. As the original St Boswells declined, Lessuden grew. The Reformation had meant the amalgamation of many parishes, and around 1849, following the coming of the railway and the establishment of new postal arrangements, Lessuden became referred to as St Boswells. Following initial resistance, by around 1900 the name had stuck. For more information see the leaflet here attached, St Boswells, a Very Short History, which is drawn from the substantial account given in Old St Boswells (originally published in 1974) by Jean S. Lawrie, in whose honour a street in the village is named.

In the nineteenth century the village prospered, in large measure due to the commercial hunt managed by the then-Duke of Buccleuch, who built the Kennels, which at one time stabled as many as fifty horses. This did much to establish the village as a major centre for hunting, shooting and fishing. One remarkable historical survival, which can be traced back to the seventeenth century, is the Fair, held to celebrate St Boisil’s feast day (July 18th, the Gregorian calendar having pushed the saint’s day forward from July 7th). Originally a sheep fair, horses came to be sold as well; in the early part of the twentieth century as many as a thousand horses could be offered for sale. Some of the old photographs below bear testimony to that thriving trade. Travellers and tinkers from all over southern Scotland and as far south as Yorkshire used to congregate, their decorated caravans affording a richly colourful spectacle. For some memories of the fair, see the PDF attached here. It remains an annual event, but in a much-diminished form; the 2019/20 pandemic struck it a major blow. With July 2021 came the fair’s 400th anniversary, but the restrictions remaining in place during lock-down easing meant that a full-scale celebration was not possible.  

Businesses (particularly the Ballantyne dynasty) and sports are also represented, along with the early days of the Village Hall. One of our very oldest photographs is of the original village band (dated 1858). A report from The Southern Reporter of the first rugby match, in 1926, may be read here. Turning to angling, here are the details of a 1938 fishing let on the south bank of the Tweed. We are fortunate to have several fascinating images of the curling club which flourished in the 1930s; its founding members were Walter Inally and George Common. We also have a picture of the old cricket club house c. 1900, featuring two stalwarts of the early club, Charlie Peebles and J. K. Ballantyne, the grandson of the Walter Ballantyne who founded the brilliantly successful business on Main Street. Indeed, this Ballantyne wrote a booklet entitled A Record of Cricket in St Bowells 1895-1945 (Galashiels, 1945), providing an extraordinarily full record of matches played and scores achieved during that period. Here, he explains, he wished  ‘merely to give a record of the games as they came along, and in doing so … recalled  many happy days and thrilling performances of the Village Club against often more experienced and stronger clubs. Results at times may seem poor to many a reader, but those old players who remember the games, I’m sure, will remember many fine appearances even in defeat. After all, the game is the thing, and I think – at least I hope – we have always played it in the best spirit, and we loved it no matter what the result. …. If the reading of these pages gives the reader a fraction of the pleasure it has given me in delving into old score books, etc., then I am fully satisfied’. A PDF of Ballantyne’s booklet may be read here.

Included below are images of the village’s robust celebration of Pretoria Day, marking the capture of Pretoria by British forces during the Boer War (7th June 1900). We even have a film clip of one of those celebrations, presented here courtesy of the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive. Thanks also to the NLS for allowing us to link to this clip of the St Boswells Railway Station, which actually was located at Newtown St Boswells, and now sadly is defunct; for a brief account see this PDF. Most spectacular of all is this short film, preserved by the British Film Institute, of St Boswells’ celebration of the coronation of Edward VII in 1901. The original, resurrected for a 1928 newsreel, may be viewed here, courtesy of the BFI.

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Celebration of Pretoria Day
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St Boswells Railway Station
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St Boswells’ celebration of the coronation of Edward VII
This record ends in the 1950s, with images of the bankbook used in planning a celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.  They are followed by  five black-and-white photos, taken c.1955. The copyright is owned by the Francis Frith Collection, and included here with their express permission. Francis Frith (I822-1898) was a pioneering English photographer of the Middle East and many towns in the United Kingdom. His family continued his firm, which was finally closed in 1971. The vast archive was then purchased to ensure its safety. The Francis Frith Collection now holds over 330,000 high resolution digital images, depicting some 7,000 cities, towns and villages. From this we have taken a picture of the Buccleuch pack, two pictures of Main Street, and a photo of a car leaving St Boswells, heading north, with the Eildons ahead. It brings to a fitting end this section of our website.   For what happened next, see the Events and People photo galleries.