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Polwarth, Then and Now

Polwarth Kirk

The Parish

Polwarth kirk

This parish of Polwarth is, in area, the second smallest in Berwickshire. It has always been an agricultural area, though in 1866 it was reported that approximately one third of the total was hilly and covered in heath. The Marchmont estate occupies a substantial part of the parish and estate workers accounted for many of the residents of Polwarth.


The exact population prior to the 18th century is unknown though, in 1811, it is believed that Polwarth was home to over 300 people most of whom relied upon the estate for their living. The village must have been of importance because it hosted an annual fair, St Mungo's Fair, attended by people from all over the area. It has even been said that the Scottish king, James V, attended the fair one year.


Technically, Polwarth was the County Town of Berwickshire, but only for one night! At the end of the 19th century, the County Town changed from Greenlaw to Duns and the coach carrying the documents investing that status made an overnight stop at Polwarth.


Polwarth churchyard




As happened with many great estates, the needs of the First World War began a decline in the number of people employed at Marchmont. A decline which progressed with the coming of mechanised farming and the Second World War. In addition, improved transport meant individual villages no longer needed to be self-sufficient for trades and services. By the early 21st century, the population of the parish was in single figures and, though some new houses have been built, it is not expected that numbers will rise enough to merit the designation of 'village'.



Tim Jackson has kindly made a number of images of Polwarth available to this site. You can view the full gallery here.

Today, the two places which define Polwarth are the kirk and the Polwarth Thorn.


Polwarth Kirk

Polwarth graveyard

It is believed that the first Christian church was established in the sixth century and, though no direct evidence has been found, it is thought that this may have been on a site used for pagan worship. The records of the previous buildings are sketchy but it is thought that St. Mungo built a church after the previous kirk had been destroyed by raiding Anglo-Saxons. It is known that the church was re-dedicated to St Mungo in 1242. That building was replaced in 1378 by order of Lord John Sinclair and, unusually, included a crypt where Sir Patrick Hume, first Earl of Marchmont, hid in the 1680s before escaping to Europe and returning, in 1688, with William of Orange.


Polwarth Kirk wedding

Wedding services are held, regularly, at the kirk.

The present building was first constructed in 1703, by Sir Patrick, though the tower was a later addition. The kirk and its associated graveyard, are set on a hill looking over much of the parish. Both the headstones and a number of memorial plaques in and on the church building offer insights into life in Polwarth, and the wider Scottish Borders, in past times. Records of the headstones, up to 1855, can be found in the library at Duns.


You can read more about Polwarth Kirk on the dedicated website.


The Polwarth Thorn

The Polwarth Thorn

   © Copyright Ewen Rennie and licensed for reuse
under this Creative Commons Licence

An anonymous verse of unknown date relates that;

At Polwarth-on-the-green
Our forbears oft are seen
To dance about the thorn
When they got in their corn.

The original Polwarth Thorn had pride of place in the centre of the village green and the tradition arose of newly married couples dancing around it to bestow good fortune on their union. Allen Ramsey (1686-1758) wrote in 'Polwarth, On The Green';

At Polwarth on the Green,
If you'll meet me in the morn,
Where lads and lasses do convene,
To dance around the thorn.

According to the Forestry Commission in 'Heritage Trees of the Borders and Beyond', Donald Rodger sates that, over the centuries, the thorn has been replaced at intervals by its own saplings and there are, currently, two trees of unknown age, protected by law and iron railings, on the site. Others maintain that the present trees are over three hundred years old.