Some 40 years ago, I was a French language assistant at Aberdeen Grammar school in the northeast of Scotland. I was then finishing my MA in English medieval literature and had the opportunity to travel around Scotland extensively at weekends and during school holidays.
After returning to France and graduating as a teacher for more than thirty years, I regularly took my students on school trips to southern Scotland. The area is culturally rich, with a remarkable number of abbeys, castles and museums. No sweeping Highland landscapes favoured by photographers, but an attractive area with much to like and fire the imagination.
The Borders towns are also known for their common (or Borders) riding. These are horse races that are held in summer to revive the traditions of the Anglo-Scottish skirmishes and theft of cattle that occurred in medieval times and later on both sides of the border.
During these trips, I used to pack a small Ricoh camera (GRD3, GRD4 or the GR) and had the opportunity to snap a few pictures in the little free time I had when visiting sites. These little cameras allow you to take photos with different aspect ratios (3:2, 4:3 or 1:1 settings) and offer a range of colour or B&W profiles that can be changed in a split second once you’ve customised the camera to your liking.
The following will give you the flavour of my travels and my abiding love for Scotland.
Arriving in Scotland: Carter Bar
It’s a long way to Scotland from my home in Normandy, driving through Amsterdam, enduring a night crossing to North Shields, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and then up the scenic A68 road to the Scottish border. The first place where the group would usually stop is Carter Bar which marks the border between England and Scotland.
Originally, in the Middle Ages, Carter Bar was the location of Truce days, where justice was rendered by the Lord Wardens, the English and Scottish government officials who were responsible for the security of the border between the two nations.
Today, Carter Bar is a scenic tourist point where you are often welcomed by a piper. As an aside, we used to play a trick on our students by asking them to take their IDs out as they were crossing the border between England and Scotland.
The Borders Abbeys
A circular route and path link the four Borders abbeys. They are now all ruins. Two were founded by the Scottish King David I (Jedburgh and Melrose), while Alexander I founded Kelso abbey and an Englishman from Northumberland, Hugh de Moreville, inaugurated Dryburgh Abbey.
Three of these were constructed not far from the River Tweed, while the other overlooks the Jed river. They were all established to show and consolidate the power of the kings of Scotland over the contested Borders region in the twelfth century
Driving up the A68, Jedburgh is the first Scottish town along the way. It boasts the first and last shop in Scotland, depending on where you’re coming from. The town suffered from the Anglo-Scottish feuds in the Middle Ages when it was much disputed. Jedburgh was first called Jedworth, meaning the enclosed settlement on the River Jed. It later became a royal Burgh, hence today’s name. It is now a quiet little town with many old independent shops instead of the usual chain fare of most modern high streets.
This abbey was founded as a priory in 1138 by King David I, becoming an Augustinian abbey in 1154. The brethren may have originated from Saint Quentin abbey near Beauvais in France. David I intended the structure, which took over 70 years to build, as a display of his power over the Border region — a much-contested land.
Only ruins remain today as the abbey was often taken up in conflicts and gradually decayed with the Protestant Reformation. Despite this, exploring the grounds reveal the importance of the abbey at the time.
Driving north from Jedburgh, you arrive at Dryburgh Abbey, built in a secluded woodland not far from the banks of the River Tweed.
Dryburgh was established by Premonstratensian canons in 1150. Hugh de Moreville, Constable of Scotland and Lord of Lauderdale, had invited them to this idyllic spot from Alnwick Priory, Northumberland. Moreville was himself an incomer from England.
The abbey became the premier house of the French order in Scotland, which was established by St Norbert of Xanten in 1121 at Prémontré. (source: Historic Environment Scotland)
Just like the other abbeys, Dryburgh fell into disuse and decay at the time of the Reformation. It is my favourite abbey along with Easby, near Richmond in Yorkshire and Tintern in Monmouthshire. It is peaceful and romantic, and it’s always a renewed pleasure to visit the place.
Sir Walter Scott, the novelist, is buried in the north transept of the church.
Not far from Dryburgh, you can drive to Scott’s View, a vantage point overlooking the River Tweed with the Eildon hills in the distance. The place is said to have been the novelist’s favourite view in Scotland.
Melrose is a small town at the bottom of the Eildon hills that developed around its abbey. It is popular as the birthplace of the Rugby sevens. The Melrose sevens tournament is held annually on the second Saturday in April.
The oldest buildings of the town are constructed from old red sandstone.
Melrose, just like Jedburgh Abbey, was founded by King David I.
The Cistercians were drawn to this fertile spot beside the River Tweed because of its close associations with St Aidan and St Cuthbert. The monks came from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, the Cistercians’ great northern English missionary base. (Source: Historic Environment Scotland)
Melrose Abbey was an important place in the middle ages. King Alexander II chose to rest within the abbey premises, and the heart of Robert the Bruce is buried there. His body, however, is interred in Dumfermline Abbey.
These three abbeys share a common theme since they are all built in old red sandstone, a popular material in the area. Regarding Kelso Abbey, there’s very little left and nothing of interest, but the town built by the Tweed is best discovered on foot like other towns in the Borders, such as Peebles or Hawick. Many walks along the river and the surrounding countryside often start from the centre of these small towns. The southern uplands (the Scottish version of the Cheviot hills) are worth a visit as well.
Traquair House boasts the accolade of being the oldest inhabited house in Scotland. It began as a hunting lodge in the late 1200s before the defences were strengthened. During the Anglo-Scottish wars, Traquair was a key castle in the Scottish defence system.
Later, between the 16th and early 18th centuries, the castle was enlarged. Bonnie Prince Charlie (Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender) is said to have stayed at Traquair in 1745 during the Jacobite rebellion.
Built on a rocky crag surrounded by a peat bog, Smailholm was one of the residences of the Pringle Clan. These tower houses were built along the Anglo-Scottish border to protect cattle and people from the reivers (cattle raiders) who lived on both sides of the border.
However, this fortified stronghold did not prevent some Northumberland reivers from stealing 700 cattle and 100 horses during two raids in 1544. Walter Scott was sent to Smailholm by his parents for the good of his health when he was 18 months old. There he was told folk tales of the Borders region by his grandmother and great aunt. Later in life, he acknowledged that these stories had greatly influenced his work. He paid a last visit to Smailholm a few months before his death in September 1832.
My travelogue, built up over 30 years of regular visits to Scotland, will continue in a future Macfilos article.
The GRs and GRDs as travel cameras.
The GR series, with maybe the exception of the GXR, perhaps do not come close to any Leica in terms of imaging but remain wonderful travel cameras nonetheless. The GRD cameras are tiny, smaller than the GR, although the recent GRIII comes close to the GRD in terms of size. They have that small CCD sensor and 28mm equivalent super-sharp lens.
You can shoot both RAW and jpegs with them. The GRDs are wonderful if you want a great depth of field, you can shoot within a split second using the effective snap mode. The GRs have CMOS APS-C sensors but, in my opinion, lack the magic rendering of the CCD sensors (I’ve heard the same remarks among local M users I know when Leica replaced the M9 with the M240).
The GRDs 9MP sensor (when you shoot 3:2) does not allow you very large prints but has an organic feel I miss in the new sensor. The menus are more complicated than Leica menus but much simpler than those of some other camera brands.
Unlike the GRDs with their fixed 28mm focal length, the GRs share with Leica a similar crop mode which you can find on the Q and Q2. The focal length remains the same, but you can get a 35 or 47 mm crop with a drop in definition, of course. But it can sometimes be a handy feature when shooting macro, for instance.
Ricoh kept the same menu system right up to the GRII (the predecessor of the current GRIII). But once your preferences are assigned to your fn buttons, there’s no need to dive into the menu again.
The main drawback of these cameras is that they do not have an electronic viewfinder or even a built-in optical finder. You can add the Ricoh GV-2 OVF that can be used on the three cameras. Construction seems on par with the Leica X1 OVF but with a wider field of view, of course.
Should you fancy trying one, you may find old GRD cameras (usually from Japan) on secondhand sites. Yet it’s safer to look for a mint one. Our editor, Mike Evans, also uses the Ricoh GRIII camera. He tells me that many Leica owners buy the GR for its pocketability and excellent results, which can be compared favourably with those of Leica’s APS-C models. Furthermore, the snap focus feature means that zone focus at, say, 1.5m and f/11 is just as easy to work with as it is with a Leica M and manual 28mm lens.
These cameras are a pleasure to shoot with. I’ve taken mine to the other side of the world many times, and they have never failed me. My children still use two of the Ricohs I gave them, the original GR and the GRD3. So far, they’ve worked without fail despite their age and intensive use. They are truly unobtrusive and perfect if you are a fan of street photography.