Tibbie Shiel Inn stands on an isthmus between St Mary’s Loch and the much smaller Loch of the Lowes in what was once a densely-forested part of the Scottish border country. These days almost all of the trees have disappeared, long since supplanted by sheep who spend much of their brief lives munching grass and looking out for predators. Shortly after Easter, in the area on a house-hunting quest, I arrived at the inn around lunchtime.
All was eerily quiet, though the hills were thickly populated by newly-born lambs which stuck like burrs to attentive ewes. On Peat Hill, I spied a hiker religiously following the ﬂow of the Whithope Burn. He was descending at a lick, as if being pursued, like Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, by men of evil intent. John Buchan was one among many celebrities who frequented the isolated inn. For him, this was the holy land’, a place of refuge and escape. Then, people were relatively few; now, they are even fewer. Nor, at least on a weekday, are there many more cars, especially on the narrow and twisting B roads that connect somnolent hamlets with towns such as Peebles and Selkirk, Hawick and Galashiels.
The inn owes its name to its original keeper, Isabella Shiel. Why she was known as Tibbie is unclear. My dictionary says that a tibbie is Scots for a sandpiper, which are fairly common hereabouts. It may be that she looked or even sounded like one. She was born in 1782 and had little education. For a while she worked on farms in the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys, one of which was owned by the family of Margaret Laidlaw, mother of James Hogg, the author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. In 1806, Tibbie married Robert Richardson, a molecatcher. They had six children – three boys and three girls – and, in 1823, moved to a cottage on the shores of St Mary’s Loch. No sooner had they settled in, however, than Robert died and his wife became the sole breadwinner.
An inn was Tibbie’s resourceful reaction to imminent poverty. At ﬁrst, ﬁshermen were the main source of custom. Soon, however, the inn became attractive to the Edinburgh literati, drawn to its idyllic setting and by the image of it, cultivated by Hogg and his cronies, of a rustic and convivial salon, a ﬂavour of which was caught by ‘Christopher North’ (the pseudonym of John Wilson) in the long-running and hugely popular series, Noctes Ambrosianae, which ﬁrst appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine. Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle were among those who eventually made the pilgrimage to Tibbie’s. All, by necessity, were prodigious walkers. Thomas de Quincey, who was no mean walker himself, calculated that Wordsworth, by the age of 65, ﬁfteen years before his death, had covered in the region of 180,000 miles, and thought nothing of tramping thirty and more miles a day.
I know this untameable countryside well. My mother and her forebears were from these parts. She was born in Hawick, the largest of the border burghs, which, when she was growing up in the 1930s, had a deserved reputation for its production of ﬁne woollens. This afforded the locals a sense of civic superiority, prompting them to opine that a day out of Hawick was a day wasted. Everywhere – Edinburgh, London, Paris, New York – was measured against Hawick and invariably found wanting. I assumed it was a joke until I mentioned it to a native who was adamantly of the view that while these metropolises may have their attractions they were of nothing compared to delights on offer in his home town. Whether my mother shared this rosy opinion I have no idea. Certainly, she never in my hearing suggested a return to her roots. But we did regularly visit relatives in the Borders and countless were the humdrum Sundays when my younger brother and I would amuse ourselves skimming stones across the glassy surface of St Mary’s Loch before we went for afternoon tea at the Gordon Arms, another of Hogg’s haunts, in the Yarrow Valley.
The house I had been to view turned out not quite to be as advertised by an imaginative estate agent. Situated deep in the Yarrow Valley, it was seven or eight miles as the crow ﬂies from Tibbie’s. It was near here that Hogg had rented a farm for a nominal sum from the Duke of Buccleuch. This, as Karl Miller noted in Electric Shepherd, his insightful ‘likeness’ of Hogg, was as much the ancestral land of ‘the Ettrick ragamufﬁn’ as it was that of the immensely wealthy aristocrat. All around are places that seeped into the pages of the Justified Sinner, whose resuscitation in the mid-twentieth century owes much to championing by French novelist, André Gide. There is no evidence, though, that Tibbie, who knew Hogg well, read it, or indeed was able to read it. But it may have been it that she was referring to when she said of its author: ‘for aa the nonsense he wrote, Hogg was a gey sensible man in some things’.
Some years ago I booked a room at Tibbie’s. I was following the Southern Upland Way, the 212-mile trail that crosses Scotland from Portpatrick on the west coast to Cockburnspath on the east. The month was May and the temperature unseasonally high. Day after day the sun shone pitilessly. From Beattock – memorialised in Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ – it was twenty and more miles to St Mary’s Loch and as the hours went by and my feet felt as if they were plodding over hot coals, I hallucinated about a cold pint of beer in a shady snug.
It was around six in the evening when I staggered into the inn, a rucksack glued to my back, sweat-stained, mud-covered, sunstruck, and as parched as a camel. Behind the bar, as rigid as a guardsman, stood an elderly woman who might have been Tibbie’s ghost. She did not look pleased to see me. No word of welcome was uttered. Nor did she rush to assuage my thirst. On the contrary, she stared at me as if I had a horn growing out of my head. In the hope of prompting her to leap into action, I mentioned the distance I had travelled and the torture I had endured to reach her venerable establishment. ‘Nobody,’ she said ﬁnally, ‘asked you to do it.’ If I’d had my wits about me I should have replied that, in fact, someone – the editor of Conde Nast Traveller – had asked me to do it but I was too dead beat to offer any resistance.
On the day of my most recent visit winter was still lingering. On north-facing slopes was a thin covering of snow and it felt that there could probably be more on the way. I strolled from the car park to the inn, in the front of which was a 4×4. Of its owner, though, there was no sign. The inn was shut and peering through a grimy window into the small bar I saw chairs piled on tables and other evidence of abandonment. The whitewashed exterior walls looked as if they could do with a coat of paint. A nearby yard was home to rusting pieces of junk, unsightly litter and a couple of caravans in an advanced state of decomposition. In a ﬁeld in which campers used to pitch their tents still more sheep grazed and deposited their droppings. It was not the kind of spot where you would want to spend a night under canvas.
The inn’s owner, I learned from the website of the local paper, the Southern Reporter, had closed it with immediate effect in November, 2015. He was fed up, he said, with wild campers who upset his staff and his guests with their antisocial behaviour and intemperate drinking. There were reports of a gun having been ﬁred and of the mysterious disappearance of a cat. The only action taken by the local authority to put a stop to this was a sign in the car park saying ‘No Overnight Vehicular Parking’. Thus, after nearly two continuous centuries in business, the legendary hostelry seemed destined never to reopen. There was no public hullabaloo, no bemoaning the fate of a national monument.
I skimmed a stone over the water in remembrance of days past then walked across the road to the statue of the Ettrick Shepherd, erected in 1858, twenty-three years after his death in his 65th year. Inscribed on the plinth are lines from one of his poems: “At evening fall, in lonesome dale,/ He kept strange converse with the gale:/ Held worldly pomp in high derision,/ And wandered in a world of vision.” Above them sits Hogg, crook in hand, legs crossed, plaid draped over his right shoulder, collie crouched at his feet, with a peerless view of the loveliest of lochs and the mouldy inn.