The earliest historical records for the town are traced back to the foundng of the Abbey by David 1st, in 1113 he had brought an order of Tironensian monks from France, giving them land in Selkirk, but in 1128 their monastery was moved to Kelso.
At that time the nearest town of prominence was just across the River Tweed, the important Royal Burgh of Roxburgh and its castle, a flourishing settlement, once at the very heart of Scottish Politics, and former residence of Kings, Roxburgh was the principal place of government for more than a century, with schools, churches, courts, and a Royal mint.
Roxburgh and its castle had a turbulent history, changing hands frequently between Scotland and England, in 1460 after over one hundred years of English occupation the Scots mounted a successful assault to recapture the castle, but at a price, in the process the then Scots King James 2nd was killed by an exploding cannon.
After this the castle was partially demolished so as to diminish its importance, it never regained its former glory, and neither did the importance of the town, instead, Kelso began to develop.
Kelso Abbey itself was one of the most important of the Border Abbeys, two kings were crowned there, James 3rd after the death of his father at Roxburgh, and his son James 4th in 1488, as well as being the burial ground for David 1st son, Prince Henry in 1152. As the Reformation took hold, and with King Henry V111’s determination to destroy all Border Abbeys, by 1550 Dryburgh, Jedburgh, Melrose and Kelso had been all but destroyed, there were attempts at rebuilding but all the Abbeys continued to decline, and the number of monks based here dwindled until by late 16th century they had completely gone. A Parish church and a school used part of the site, from 1650 to approx 1770.
In 1919 the ruins were passed into the care of the nation, and are now open daily to visitors.
Fires in 1645 and 1742 virtually destroyed all of the central part of the town, causing a major reconstruction, with the subsequent buildings around the square having a very Georgian look to them. The square is the largest market square in Scotland, with the Town House ( Town Hall) it’s stunning centrepiece, built in 1816 to replace the old Tolbooth, it was originally home to the local court and the Town Council, but now is the residence of the registrar and the Tourist Information office. In the centre of the square itself can still be seen the old Bull ring, used on market days by farmers to tether their animals.
Also overlooking the square on the North side is the old coach inn the Cross Keys, built in 1769 for James Dickson, a successful businessman who had ran away to London, made his fortune and then returned to his native land. The Cross Keys became an important stopping place for the Edinburgh to London Coach, with, at the time, good stabling for the horses.
The main streets emanating from the square are also still cobbled, and legends states that the horse carrying Bonnie Prince Charlie to Derby in November 1745, threw a shoe, this can still be seen in Roxburgh Street which heads north from the town centre. At the foot of Roxburgh Street, as it leads onto the square is an area known as “Cunzie Neuk” as Cunzie is an old Scots word for coin, it is believed that this may have been the site for the Royal mint for Roxburgh. So far this is only speculation.
Woodmarket and Horsemarket both run parallel Eastward from the centre, and along with other street names such as Coalmarket, Mill Wynd, Oven Wynd, Distillery Lane, may offer some clues to the towns trades and trading past.
Bridge Street heads southwards from the centre, and you will arrive at Rennie’s Bridge, built by John Rennie of Haddington as a replacement for the one washed away in floods in 1797, this was completed in 1803, and the same design was later used by Rennie in his construction of Waterloo Bridge in London. At the Springwood end of the bridge there are two lamp standards brought to Kelso when Waterloo Bridge was demolished in 1937. On the bridge parapet approaching the Toll house on the town side, there can be seen a groove in the stonework where people used to run their coins as they approached with their payment. In 1854 the special constables were called and the riot act had to be read as the townspeople voiced their objections to the continuing toll charge when they believed the construction costs had already been reached, it would be a further three years before the tolls were finally finished.
From the Bridge you can see Ednam House hotel situated on Bridge Street, a beautiful old mansion house built in 1760 for the same James Dickson who had the Cross Keys built.
The architect of this fine house was James Nisbet who also supervised the erection of Paxton House near Duns. The building then was known as Havannah House.
Offering outstanding views over the river Tweed, the mansion was finally taken over in1928 by the Brooks family and made into a hotel, thankfully a lot of the original features were retained both inside and out, and Dickson’s family crest still sits over the front door. The 4th generation of the Brooks family still runs the hotel today.
North of the town at the top of Roxburgh Street is the entrance to Floors Castle residence of the Duke of Roxburgh, this is the largest inhabited house in Scotland and although it makes an impressive sight now, it was once a much plainer affair. The original house which was typically simple, was re-built in the 1720’s for John the first Duke of Roxburgh by William Adam on a grander scale, however it was in 1849 when further embellishment by William Playfair providing the addition of the turrets and domes, and leaving the more elaborate castle that you see today.
The castle was used in the making of the film Tarzan - Lord of Greystoke, and for the romantics among us, Prince Andrew was supposed to have proposed to Sarah Ferguson in the castle gardens.
The castle is open to visitors between April and October with a garden centre open all year.