Memories of childhood holidays don’t tend to manifest into political battles.
But not many people had the tenacity of John Buchan, whose love of Peebles, where he spent his childhood holidays with his grandparents, was so visceral that he ended up standing as a prospective Tory MP here.
That he lost to the Liberals didn’t seem to dim his ardour for this Scottish Borders town, the surroundings of which are the setting for the most famous of his Richard Hannay novels: The Thirty-Nine Steps.
Buchan’s fast-paced thriller, first published in 1915, has his protagonist approaching ‘a white ribbon of road which wound up the narrow vale of a lowland stream. As I followed it, fields gave place to bent, the glen became a plateau, and presently I had reached a kind of pass where a solitary house smoked in the twilight.’
The John Buchan Story Museum demonstrates just what an immense hit the novel, and subsequent Hitchcock movie adaptation, was. Here I browsed over first editions, film posters, some of Buchan’s rather wobbly watercolours and even letters between him and Rudyard Kipling discussing the rise of Hitler.
Dramatic location: Rob Crossan pays a visit to Peebles (above), the Scottish Borders town the surroundings of which served as the setting for the 1915 thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps, written by John Buchan
Outside the museum door, Peebles high street couldn’t be called bohemian, but there’s jollity to the bunting that straddles the rooftops while, underneath, locally caught pleasures are on display at Ross Dougal fish merchant, including Eyemouth haddock and kippers.
Forsyth’s bakers has a window display featuring lasagne pies, Scotch pies and bridies – unseen outside of Scotland but essentially a pasty filled with steak, beef suet and onions.
Walking along the banks of the River Tweed, which snakes through the centre of Peebles, I was encouraged by one local to make my way to Rosslyn Chapel. His tip was wise, as this is one of the most mysterious and batty places of worship in Europe.
Rob goes for a walk along the banks of the River Tweed, which snakes through the centre of Peebles
Rosslyn Chapel (pictured) featured in the film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code. ‘This is one of the most mysterious and batty places of worship in Europe,’ writes Rob
Rosslyn Chapel’s ‘charming strangeness’ was lauded by Lord Byron, Rob notes, explaining how the poet described it as a ‘chaos of ruins’
You can discover letters written by John Buchan in the Peebles museum dedicated to his life
Featured in the big screen version of The Da Vinci Code, the Gothic interior comes complete with serpents wrapped around pillars, numerous gargoyles and a stained glass window with a kangaroo on it. Its charming strangeness was also lauded by Lord Byron: ‘Oh, Roslin! Time, war, flood and fire have made your glories star by star expire. Chaos of ruins.’
Baffled, beguiled and slightly breathless, I sit in the chapel’s homely cafe and eavesdrop on one Rosslyn enthusiast talking to his partner: ‘I heard the master mason murdered his apprentice with an axe while they were working on the construction. Turns out he was jealous that his apprentice was better than him.’
Murder, serpents and dangling angels – it seems Peebles has been the inspiration for spine-tingling thrills that stem even further back than Buchan’s fictional hero.
WHERE TO STAY
Imposing: Rob checks into the Cringletie hotel, where guests enjoy complimentary whisky and shortbread
John Buchan was a regular visitor to Cringletie when it was a private family home
Mostly built in the 19th Century after its previous incarnation collapsed, Albert II of Monaco and his entourage popped by Cringletie’s frescoed restaurant for lunch while I was there.
The Prince really should have stayed for the night in one of the castle’s rooms, which go light on tartan in favour of earthy, pale colours alongside complimentary whisky and shortbread.
He also missed out on chef Iain Gourlay’s nine-course evening tasting menu, which included a velvety venison carpaccio and a woodland mushroom parfait generous with sherry and fennel.
John Buchan was a regular visitor when this was a private family home. The expanses of grass and brooding woodland beyond look almost custom-made for an adventure scene in which Hannay sprints away from his enemies. Easy to accomplish, as long as he goes easy on those Peebles bridies…
B&B doubles at Cringletie from £278 (cringletie.com). Bunk bed private cabins on the Caledonian Sleeper train from London Euston to Edinburgh from £410 for two people sharing (sleeper.scot).