A river runs through it: Two rivers and the families united by them

By Jane Ford in People, Places, Events, & History

Meandering along the River Tweed in Scotland I allowed myself to be swept away to another time. Overwhelmed, I was tracing the footsteps of ancient ones – some of whom, over the past 800 years, had been my ancestors. In paying this homage to my mother’s family, the Horsburghs, and with three days ahead of us to absorb it all, I paused to reflect that this trip had begun at my very first home, where the Saugeen River runs through it, in Minto Township.
Since the mid-1800s my father’s family, the Pfeffers, had lived beside the Saugeen. Lazy hot afternoons included paddling around in the mid-summer trickle – a normal condition for the river at that time of year. We caught minnows for our fish tank or enjoyed a picnic while dangling our feet in the cool, spring-fed Saugeen.
Both my dad and his brother bought property on the Saugeen. Family reunions gathered at the river. Whether at our place or my uncle’s, summertime meant cannon-balling off favourite stones or diving from a floating log well-anchored until next spring’s flood. Literally hours could be swallowed up splashing or singing or screaming when an old sucker awakened long enough to realize we were disturbing his sleeping hole.
Adventures with my dad often began at the river. He taught us to respect it and the lives it supported – especially our own! Dad’s curiosity of the river instilled in me the value of observation and research. Geography and science projects developed because of what the Saugeen offered. Those basics in research eventually tweaked my interest in another area – family history – which is every bit as interesting as the Saugeen itself. Actually the river managed to intertwine with my family’s history in more ways than just through the Pfeffer family.
One of my mom’s ancestors, Walter Horsburgh, “broke” the land at Lot 2 Concession A of Minto. That was just around the corner from where I grew up. Imagine my delight to think that our childhood treks up the Saugeen may have traced the footsteps of my great great great Grandpa Horsburgh!
What an interesting guy! According to the Historic Atlas of Wellington County originally published in 1906, Walter was noted as being “a descendant of the Horsburghs of Horsburgh Castle in Scotland whose history goes back to the time of the Norman Conquest, and they had always lived on the banks of the Tweed…”
Intrigued? – I’ll say! This newly-discovered relative, a river and a castle from the Norman Conquest had to be researched more. So for years, I read anything that linked me to this past. With the Internet, my research expanded exponentially. I learned about Peebles, the town closest to the castle, and how early roads extended through Horsburgh land over top of old Roman roads. I read an account of two brothers who trekked along the Tweed in the 1870s and mentioned the castle as an important landmark. Using Google Earth, I scanned bends in the river and zoomed in on the castle hill. It looked like no more than a relic now.
What kind of a place was this and how did the Tweed connect with the Horsburghs? I just had to go to Scotland to obtain answers. So in July 2010, my husband Dave and I made an epic voyage of our own back to this historic land of my mom’s family.
As we drove outside of Peebles, my heart leapt at the first glimpse of the relic stoically perched atop the hill. Sharing the fence line with it was the hotel where we would stay for three days. Hotel staff members were curious about the long-gone Horsburghs and this descendant from Canada who had returned. Each evening I observed the relic at sunset or enwrapped with misty rains. I will cherish this spectacle forever!
Our walk that first day along the Tweed brought us to the bend just below the relic. Could I actually hear the squeals of happy children playing from ancient times? Unfortunately, the mists turned to rain and speckled our faces. “Back to reality,” I sighed. The next day I would touch the castle.Centuries ago the stately castle had been abandoned and its remains were now reduced to a sheep pasture. Yet, this was not a disappointment for me because the Horsburghs had raised sheep for centuries. The Tweed made that possible for them: to live there and support livestock. Next morning, I witnessed what the ancient settlers by the name of “de Horsbruk” had seen when they woke up – the river, forests and flocks from this high vantage point.
The now-blackened stones, piled two feet wide, configured walls that had once risen three stories high. This medieval peel tower had signalled danger to its neighbours when enemies were spotted across the river. Animals were penned safely into the first level where we stood. The Horsburghs would have climbed a spiral staircase to upper floors. On the roof, fires were lit to give “smoke by day and fire by night.” So effective was this signal that 70 miles of neighbours along the Tweed could be reached in just a few hours.
Since fourteenth century structures tended to have much thicker walls, it was estimated the Horsburgh peel was much earlier. Caressing those stones, I sensed the hands that had placed them there. Had they been washed at the end of the work day down by the river? Just as the Saugeen had provided so much to us in Minto, so had the Tweed to its settlers – water for drinking and cleaning, a source for food, protection, income, transportation and recreation. The wise Norman king who had granted this land to the first “de Horsbruk” understood what a great blessing it would be for a loyal warrior and his family.
Back now and with over 80 photocopies of family-related data from the Peebles library to read, research will continue! What trails and tales do the two rivers still hold for
me to discover? Ah, life is truly too short!