The four abbeys in the Scottish Borders are one of Scotland's greatest collections of historical ruins. These are evocative places, full of history and architectural wonder. It is difficult to choose a favourite, but go and see them all and enjoy! They are linked by a walking route and a cycling route, so it is easy to plan an adventure to visit them.
1. Melrose Abbey
In terms of scale and architectural wonder Melrose is my favourite of the 4 abbeys. Famously, the abbey is the home of Robert the Bruce's buried heart. The abbey church, dating from the late 1300s, is a magnificent piece of architecture where the height of the ceiling is immense and difficult to stop looking up at. The quality of the stone sculpture is mesmerising and there is even a carving of a pig playing bagpipes.
Melrose is one of the easiest abbeys to get to. The Borders Railway, Scotland's newest railway line stops at Tweedbank (around 55 minutes from Edinburgh). From there it is about 1.75 miles from Melrose. There is a cycle path to Melrose directly opposite the station. It is such a short cycle ride that you might prefer just to walk there. Melrose itself is one of my favourite towns in Scotland and you can read my guide to what there is to see and do.
2. Dryburgh Abbey
If you like your abbeys to have tranquil, woodland settings then Dryburgh should be top of your list. The abbey is situated in a gorgeous little enclave with the River Tweed flowing by and a great selection of nearby attractions, including a suspension bridge and a giant William Wallace statue. This peaceful location makes it easy to imagine a canon's life of devotion and nothing to interupt this.
The abbey is renowned as the burial place of Walter Scott, one of Scotland's most famous novelists. Earl Haig, the commander of British forces for part of the First World War, is also buried here.
Although the abbey is a ruin there is a lot that has survived. The immense size of the windows and doorways is awe-inspiring and the quality of the stone carving incredible.
It will take around 30 minutes to cycle to Dryburgh Abbey from Melrose Abbey using National Cycle Network Route One. My blog has the details of this route.
3. Kelso Abbey
On first impressions this is the least impressive of the abbeys because a lot less has survived- it suffered a devastating attack from English invaders in 1545. It does not have the scale of Melrose or Jedburgh, but in its day this was the richest and the oldest of the 4 abbeys with spectacular Romanesque architecture. The remains of the great doorway are finely carved. It is also in the centre of Kelso, which makes for an impressive centrepiece in the town.
You can use National Cycle Network Route One to reach Kelso. It is 11.5 miles from Dryburgh Abbey.
4. Jedburgh Abbey
Built by King David I in the 12th century Jedburgh is perhaps the most photogenic of the abbeys. The scale and lavishness of the architecture is much more obvious than the other abbeys because it is really just the roof that is missing. A spiral staircase leading to a balcony viewpoint provides a marvelous vista of the nave and the fine stone construction. The abbey sits on high ground over a river and the view of it from the other side of the river is particularly impressive. If you can arrive into Jedburgh this way it means that the abbey suddenly comes into your view and you are going to think, if not say, 'wow'.
Jedburgh Abbey is the furthest to reach by bicycle. The 4 Abbeys cycle route links Jedburgh to Melrose and this route is about 20 miles. It is not a direct route as it avoids busy roads. If you are planning to visit all of the abbeys then the 4 Abbeys cycle route is 55 miles and quite challenging, but can be done in one day. However, I recommend taking longer as this allows for much more time to spend enjoying the abbeys.
Kelso Abbey is free to visit and there is an entry fee to visit the other three. All of the Abbeys are in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and their website has current entry fees and opening hours.
For ideas of more places to visit in the Scottish Borders visit my Scottish Borders page
For a special treat Fonab Castle is one of Scotland's finest luxury hotels. It is located on the banks of Loch Faskally in Pitlochry, Perthshire. The lochside views are hard to beat, especially if you select a room with a loch view balcony. Enjoy innovative cuisine using many Scottish ingredients and select a gin or whisky from the extensive bar menu.
The hotel has a choice of 9 different room types. There are rooms inside the castle, in the modern extension attached to the castle and in the lodge buildings which are a short walk from the castle. If you are looking for a loch view room then most of these are in the modern extension and the lodge buildings, rather than in the castle itself. I found it difficult to decide if I wanted a room with castle features or a room with loch views.
Room with a View
As my stay was a special occasion I booked a loch view hotel room, located in the modern extension attached to the castle. This has a balcony overlooking Loch Faskally and Ben Vrackie. The balcony was my favourite place during my stay. We were blessed with good weather so I was able to sit out here for many hours.
Not much happens here and that is the delight of this hotel's location. There might be the occasional fisherman on a boat. Pheasants sometimes appear on the lawn. You can watch the mist slowly covering Ben Vrackie's snowy cap. The loch sometimes has ripples and sometimes it is completely still and reflects the surrounding hills and trees on its surface.
The style of the rooms is modern and elegant. A Scottish touch in the design comes in the form of the Tweed sofa and the Tweed cushions. Everything in the room is immaculate and high quality.
A card on the bed lists the choice of pillows that you can request- duck, goose, memory foam, head & neck support and back support. The bed was luxurious and provided the most perfect deep sleep. Inside the closet there are slippers and dressing gowns that have the Fonab Castle logo.
The room has a Nespresso coffee machine and one of my favourite things to do was to sit out on the balcony with a morning coffee. Another Scottish touch is the Tunnock's tea cakes supplied with the coffee facility. These are one of Scotland's most famous sweet treats- a chocolate, marshmallow and biscuit concoction that is truly addictive.
The room is also supplied with a copy of Scottish Field and a wine magazine, Decanter.
There is a shower, but no bath, in this room. Toiletries are from Thierry Mugler. The shower cabinet is massive and the water pressure perfect for a long, luxury soak.
I loved the antler coat hooks on the back of the bathroom door:
Fonab is very much a mixture of the old and the new. This is clearly seen in this photo where the glass and wood modern wing is seen to the right of the castle.
The stairwell is where you can find the most interesting fusion of these two architectural eras. The stone walls of the castle turrets can be found alongside modern chandeliers and polished wood floors.
The castle is made of red sandstone from Dumfrieshire. It was built in 1892 by Lieutenant Colonel George Sandeman. His family had made their money from cotton manufacturing and importing wine, sherry and Port from Spain and Portugal. The Sandeman name lives on in the present hotel- it is the name of the fine dining restaurant. This is located within the castle in a room full of original features, like fire places and wood paneling. Sandeman port also features in the well stocked bar.
During the First World War Fonab Castle served as a Red Cross hospital for wounded soldiers and there is a plaque marking this occasion.
The Lounge Bar is the venue for this delightful experience. This room has loch views through floor to ceiling windows. Choose a chesterfield sofa with tweed coverings or a leather chair. There is a tartan carpet, but this room is definitely more modern than traditional with the chrome tables and a wine cellar behind a viewing window at one end of the room.
The afternoon tea can be upgraded with gin or champagne. The fizz is from Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house.
On this special occassion it was the champagne afternoon tea that I had booked. The choice of teas is excellent and I can thoroughly recommend the Fonab Blend. It has a wonderful vanilla and coconut taste. I was going to have a go at describing it, but the menu description does it so much better:
Afternoon tea at Fonab is not your usual cucumber sandwiches and scones on a teird stand. They have their own unique take on the tradition. It begins with an oyster with champagne foam. The oyster was coated in batter and the foam is one of those things you could quite easily eat a lot more of. The oyster shell was resting on a sprinkling of salt.
Next up was the beetroot macaroon and truffle croquet. The beetroot dish was particularly amazing as the sweet vegetable flavour worked really well in the format of melt-in-mouth macaroon. I loved that the croquet was served on a small log to give it that connection to the countryside outside the window.
After we were finished with these delights our server arrived with a trio of small dishes. There were smoked celeriac and onion, crab beignet and chicken and foie gras, although we asked not to have the foie gras. All three were delicious.
The smoked salmon sandwich arrived on one of those beautiful tree trunks. This was a triumph of a sandwich with delicate slices of cucumber, a thick slice of salmon topped with globes of lemon mayonnaise and some herring roe. The Salmon is smoked on-site, using beech briquettes and hickory smoking chips and this gives it a lovely flavour.
Finally comes the cake stand with the warm fluffy scones and the jam and cream to spread all over them. The scones were on the bottom layer of a modern and elegant stand and on the top there was a delightful selection of cakes, including a macaroon and a lemon meringue tart.
vMy favourite of the cakes was the coffee layer cake. It was so moist and creamy. There was also a dark chocolate window box filled with mousse and cherry pieces- sensational.
Walks in the grounds
Fonab Castle is right next to the paths alongside Loch Faskally, so there is easy access to the great outdoors. From the Lounge Bar you can see the staircase leading down to the loch. At the bottom of this stair you can turn right to head into Pitlochry via the Pitlochry Dam Visitor Centre, or turn left for a pleasant walk along the shore of the loch.
The walk is through woods with sections where you are right next to the water. Despite the close proximity to the busy A9 this is still a peaceful place of moss covered tree trunks, birdsong and the scent of pine.
Spa and Swimming Pool
Fonab boasts a 15 metre pool and a jacuzzi, located in a separate building a few steps from the castle. This is not a place for serious exercise as the pool is not deep and is kept at a warm temperature. Gentle, relaxing swimming is the order of the day.
There are also steam rooms and a sauna. Spa treatments include facials, manicures and massages.
There is a choice of two restaurants at Fonab. There is Sandemans Fine Dining, a 3 AA Rosette award-wining restaurant located in the castle part of the hotel. There is also the Fonab Brasserie in the newer part of the hotel with the loch views. This is where I ate. The starter of West Coast crab lasagna was delicious with the moist crab meat working so well with the fresh pasta and the broth.
For the main course the sea bass with fennel, sea herbs and smoked herring roe looked beautiful and tasted superb. My partner had the fillet steak. The beef is aged for 28 days and this enhanced the flavour.
For dessert I had the Scottish snowball. It was intriguing to find this on the menu as a snowball is something you would normally find in a high street bakery, not in the restaurant of a 5-star hotel. It was a refined version of this Scottish classic cake. Raspberry jam, coconut and crumbly biscuit are the main components and it was absolutely divine.
To accompany dinner there is an impressive selection of wines. If wine is your thing you will be in heaven at Fonab. The benefit of having a sommelier working in a hotel is clear to see- the wine menu reads like poetry and everything sounds amazing. Even the wines with the lower price point tasted like the best I have ever had.
Whisky and Gin Bar
Fonab is rightly proud of its huge selection of gins and whisky. The bottles are displayed in enormous cabinets, so you can have a good look at what is on offer. The gin cabinet is on the central staircase so you must pass it every time that you come this way. If you are bewildered by the choice the bar staff are on hand to help. If you are selecting a gin they will listen to what you like, what flavours you enjoy and then make a recommendation.
All of the staff at Fonab were friendly and pleasant. They made you feel relaxed and cared for.
A choice of juices, smoothie or a Bloody Mary kicks off breakfast. You can then choose from a selection of three continental options. These are beautifully presented on a tiered stand that brings a touch of elegance to breakfast. A bit like an afternoon tea, served in the morning. It is a really lovely touch to present breakfast in this way. Our selection was the granola with yoghurt and lemon curd, the pastries and a selection of Scottish cheeses. All of it was superb, particularly the tart lemon curd.
For my cooked breakfast I selected the French toast with maple syrup and bacon. Delicious and perfectly cooked.
How to Get Here
Fonab Castle is located about 1.2 miles from Pitlcohry train station. If you are cycling from the station the route on my map avoids busy roads.
The hotel offers a free pick-up from the station. During my visit I used this service as the bicycle was at home and we had a lot of luggage. They sent a BMW with leather interior; a nice bit of luxury for our arrival. It is at odds with my sustainable transport beliefs, but I think it is okay as a one-off when I am using train and bicycle on all of my other journeys.
It is not cheap to stay at Fonab Castle, but if you are looking to splash out on luxury in the Scottish countryside this is the place to be. The lochside location is the standout attraction and when you combine this with excellent service, a spa, fine dining and an impressively stocked bar it makes Fonab a prime candidate for a luxury Scotland experience. It is advisable to book direct with Fonab Castle for the best deals. They often have seasonal packages and if you can avoid peak summer times and weekends you can find a good deal.
Other Castle Hotels
Further north in Dornoch you will find Dornoch Castle Hotel. Read my review.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.