The History of Kelso
Given its location at the confluence of the Teviot and the Tweed it is not surprising that there was a hamlet or village, and even a church dedicated to St Mary, where Kelso now stands long before the town appeared. The name of the place came from the outcrop of chalky rock on which it stands, Kelso being a corruption of the original Calkou or chalky heugh.
Unlike most towns, Kelso’s origins can be assigned a specific date: 1128, when David I of Scotland moved the Abbey he had founded at Selkirk in 1113 nearer to his great castle of Roxburgh on the opposite side of the Tweed. Even more specifically it was at a gathering on May 3 1128 that King David, surrounded by members of the royal family and senior Scots nobles, established the foundation, endowing it richly.
The existing hamlet suddenly had a ready market for its produce at the new Abbey, boosting the local economy, which naturally also benefitted from the work constructing the Romanesque building. In their turn the monks at the Abbey , providing an educated elite with many of their number skilled in crafts and trades, strengthened that economy further.
In medieval times the Scottish and English border country was regularly raided by the other side, and the border itself moved frequently: from 1311 onwards Kelso fell under English control several times, and was sacked by English forces; the Abbey itself was not immune from attack. Nevertheless it remained a significant religious site, its greatest hour the coronation of James III in 1460.
Kelso Abbey’s downfall was precipitated by its near destruction during the so-called Rough Wooing between 1542 and 1547, when Henry VIII ’s forces were deployed to brutal effect, the aim being to marry the English Prince Edward (the future Edward VI ) to the young Mary Queen of Scots . In spite of renewed peace after the Treaty of Norham in 1551 the Reformation which hit Scotland at the end of that decade meant the Abbey was never fully repaired, and by 1587 was recorded as derelict.
The Abbey church was used as the parish church between 1647 and 1771, but the rest of the buildings under the ownership of the Kerr family from the beginning of the Reformation were demolished, their stone reused in secular structures in the town.
Kelso itself suffered major damage again in 1686, not from war this time but a fire. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the damage done over the centuries, Kelso is famed for its Georgian architecture, and for its French-style cobbled market square, unique in the country. Walter Scott attended Kelso Grammar School in 1783, and in later life called it the most beautiful village in Scotland.
With the border country more peaceful after the uniting of the Scottish and English crowns under James VI and I (though martial history touched the place again when Bonnie Prince Charlie passed through in 1745 on his way south), Kelso’s later story is more concerned with its architecture than great events: Floors Castle built in 1726, the largest inhabited house in Scotland, is just a short distance along the river, easily seen from the bridge completed in 1803 to replace one destroyed in a flood six years previously. The architect of the newer bridge, John Rennie , later modelled his design for Waterloo Bridge on it. The country may have been at peace, but the people of Kelso rioted in 1854 at the continuation of tolls long after the bridge had been paid for.
Kelso today is perhaps most famous for its sporting connections: the beautiful racecourse , built in 1822; and Kelso Rugby Football Club , founded in 1876 thus one of Britain’s oldest: it has schooled many fine players, among them Ross Ford, Alan Tait, and maybe the club’s greatest ever product, John Jeffrey .