Kelso History

Learn a little about our town’s history.

Kelso is first clearly mentioned in 1128, when King David I gave the church at Calchou to French monks from Tiron. The town of Roxburgh was just across the river from his great castle, The Royal Burgh of Roxburgh and Kelso Abbey, it became one of the largest and most important towns in Scotland.

However, the wars with England during the later middle ages brought devastation to our area. Roxburgh was fought over and eventually its castle was destroyed and its town abandoned.

Kelso suffered too, particularly in 1545 during the “Rough Wooing” when most of the abbey was blown up by the English. The Reformation in 1559 brought an end to the abbey, but Kelso survived, despite invasions and several serious fires – a problem when buildings were mainly wood and thatch. Apart from the abbey ruins, the oldest building in Kelso is Turret House, built about 1678.

In 1715 and 1745 Jacobite armies passed through Kelso; Bonnie Prince Charlie’s horse is supposed to have cast the shoe visible in Roxburgh Street. By the mid-18th century Kelso was thriving, having taken over Roxburgh’s role as the centre of trade for the rich farmlands of central Tweeddale.

Kelso’s famous square, unique in Scotland, became the venue for weekly markets and two annual fairs. Its craftsmen supplied the needs of the surrounding area.

The town was known for its leather working and production of shoes. The area was also popular with the gentry, who came to attend the races and enjoy the fishing.

Many handsome country houses were built around Kelso, including of course Floors Castle, the home of the Dukes of Roxburghe. Among the visitors was young Walter Scott, whose aunt and uncle lived here. Scott attended the local grammar school where he became friends with James Ballantyne, his future printer and business partner.

Much of central Kelso was rebuilt in the 18th/19th centuries. The oldest building in the Square, Blairs Jewellers, is mid 18th century; the Cross Keys and Ednam House date from the 1760s; the unusual octagonal Parish Church from 1783; and our elegant Town House was built in 1816. Unlike most Border towns, Kelso did not develop textile mills during the 19th century, with little industry apart from the corn mill. At the start of the 20th century Kelso was a quiet little town with a declining population. However, the town council recognised the need for change. The town expanded rapidly as new housing was developed to replace overcrowded tenements around the Square and in the 1960s new industries were brought to Kelso to provide more employment. Tourism is also important for the town with visitors enjoying the attractive town centre, the fishing and our beautiful countryside.

If you’d like to know more, why not Visit Kelso?

With thanks to Friends of Kelso Museum. To find out more about the history of Kelso visit www.kelsoconnections.co.uk