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The Borderland: Its Keeps and Castles

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Just as Belgium is often spoken of as the cockpit of Europe, so might the Borderland be designated the cockpit of Great Britain. For from the earliest times of which we possess written records down to the Union of the Crowns in 1603, and even later, the strip of land which now embodies Northumberland and Cumberland, Berwickshire, Roxburghshire and Dumfriesshire, was a scene of rarely intermitted fighting.

From the date of Julius Caesar's invasion in 55 b.c. to the conclusion of the Great War, the shores of our island have, compared with other countries, enjoyed a wonderful immunity from attack. But, seeing that from the time of the inroads of Angles, Danes and Normans onward the peoples on either side of the Border line were practically of one race, albeit a mixed one, their fights have been of proportionate intensity or severity. One result has been the development, locally, of a rare school for fighting-men, and of a race probably unique within our isle for hardihood and enterprise. But it would be idle to deny that this gain has been paid for not only by the misery of centuries, but also by the sacrifice of much that contributes to the culture and humanising of life.

We must not overlook the fact that centuries before England and Scotland yet were, the land which afterwards came to be known as the Borderland was already a scene of fierce and frequent fighting. Following the invasion of Agricola in a.d. 80, the country lying between Romanised Britain and the territory of the unconquered Caledonians had been marked off by the defensive works of the Emperors Hadrian and Severus, which ran respectively between the estuaries of Tyne and Solway, and those of Forth and Clyde. And over the intervening country, throughout three centuries, the tide of battle advanced and receded. Excavations such as those at Newstead, at the base of the Eildon Hills, prove that Rome had occupied stations in the Borderland; but they prove no less that such occupation had been brief and broken, and subject to the terror of the Picts and Scots.

Six centuries and a half intervene between the withdrawal of the legions and the Norman conquest, and it is worth mentioning that at least one ingenious antiquary, the late Mr. Stuart Glennie, has sought to identify the scenes of the last battles of the national hero King Arthur with Arthuret, in Cumberland, and other Border localities, in the second of these centuries.

Our present business, however, is to hasten on to the period when the Border really became a border in the sense in which it now is one. It is to William Rufus that belongs the distinction of having fixed the Border line, when, in 1092, he rebuilt ruined Carlisle and planted the adjoining country with peasant-folk imported from the south. In 1222 Rufus' frontier was confirmed and rectified by a commission composed of six members from either kingdom, and after Bruce had won the independence of Scotland, in 1314, this frontier still remained in force, with the exception of a tract of land on the western march, which came to be known as the Debatable Land. Lying on the right bank of the Esk and on the left bank of the Sark, it was claimed by both kingdoms and held by neither. Thus through three centuries it continued to be the haunt of miscreants and "broken men" from both sides o! the Border, and a source of grievance to all and sundry, until, at the Union of the Crowns, it was divided by allotting the parish of Kirkandrews to Cumberland and that of Canonbie to Dumfriesshire. Roughly speaking, the Border line was determined, for a considerable distance east from the town of Berwick, by the course of the river Tweed. Then, after a short interval not marked by any remarkable natural feature, the mountain ranges of Cheviot and Liddesdale became the frontier, and continued to serve as such as far as the Debatable Land. The Border line passed along the crest of High Cheviot where a rushing rivulet still known as the Meerburn, from the old English word "meer," a boundary, still preserves the record of it.

Along either side of this strong natural frontier there grew, or had already grown up, a chain of castles, occupying sites recommended by their natural strength and power of command, and generally standing back at a considerable distance from the line. Among these, perhaps the most conspicuous on the English side were Newcastle, a foundation of the Conqueror, Alnwick, Norham, Wark on Tweed, Naworth, Penrith and Carlisle; and on the northern or Scottish side, Berwick, Home, Roxburgh, Cessford, Jedburgh, Ferniehirst and Hermitage. But though I have spoken of the Border line as being in a sense settled by Rufus, it must be understood that this was subject to the vicissitudes of war, and that several of these frontier castles, notably Berwick and Roxburgh, changed hands repeatedly, remaining often for years at a time in the possession of the captor. Thus, of Berwick Castle, the late Dr. Hodgkin has shown that from the year 1174 onward it was first for 15 years English, then for 107 years Scottish, then for 22 years English, then for 15 years Scottish, then for 128 years English, then for 21 years Scottish; at the end of which period it was captured by Richard Crookback for the English, with whom it has since remained. Obviously, it is impossible to enumerate the war-like assaults, sieges and captures to which each individual castle was exposed; and still more out of the question would it be to furnish even a brief abstract of the many tragic and romantic incidents of which these castles were the scene. Of these the inauguration of the Order of the Garter at Wark may be cited as one, the death of King James "of the Fiery Face" before Roxburgh as another, as a third the recapture of Ferniehirst from the English, of which we possess so vivid and, as I must add, so appalling an account by the French mercenary, De Beaugue, and so on.

Proudly defiant and looking out sternly over the waste, the Border castles - a double chain of barbaric workmanship, possessing a beauty of its own - constitute in themselves an epitome of the history of the neighbouring kingdoms, lending themselves to meditation and the reconstruction of the past as perhaps few other British castles do. For their history is continuous and full of incident throughout at least three hundred years. To this day a few of them, such as Cessford and Hermitage, riven and tottering as they are, present to the eye very much the same mass and outline as of old. Others, like Roxburgh, have all but disappeared - though, in this case, be it noted, not by the hand of a victorious enemy so much as in the way of defensive precaution - a work to which the native Vandal (with shame, be it said) still lends his demolishing touch. Another castle, Ferniehirst, has been wisely, though but partially, restored; whilst yet another, Norham, has recently laid bare the secrets of ages at the bidding of skilled excavators.

But it is not the Border castle which is the distinc-tively characteristic stronghold of the Borderland, but the peel. For when that wise king and great soldier, Scotland's national hero, Bruce, had crowned his seven years' desperate warfare with the victory of Bannockburn, he was not slow to recognize two things: first, that his country's independence, consummated though it was, was still held by but a precarious tenure. And, secondly, that in case of warfare his Border castles might only too easily be converted into points of vantage for the enemy.

So in the course of time it came to be enacted by the Scottish Legislature, "for saining of men thare gudis and gear upon the bordoris, in tyme of were and all other troublous tyme," that every owner of land of the value of one hundred pounds, dwelling upon the Borders, should build a sufficient barmkin of stone and lime upon his heritage, in place most convenient, "for the resett and defence of himself, his tenants and their goods, with a tower in the same for himself if he think it expedient." Furthermore, the dimensions of the said barmkin were accurately laid down, each side of the square being sixty feet in length, whilst the walls were to be three feet thick and eighteen feet high. Owners of smaller estates were, in like manner, ordered to erect peels proportionate to their holdings. From the accession of Bruce, therefore, the peel-tower, which had been introduced into Scotland by Edward I at the close of the thirteenth century, began to supplant the castle as the typical place of defence upon the Borders.

A reduced copy of the Norman keep of the twelfth century, the peel was in effect a strong tower, of square, oblong or L-shaped form, varying considerably in size and in some minor details, and having in some cases a turret at one angle, to contain a beacon, or balefire, for the notification of danger. As regards the interior, the ground-floor chamber would be vaulted, and into this the owner's cattle would be driven on the approach of an enemy. In other cases, however, there would be no doorway communicating with the ground floor from without, and then access to the tower would be obtained by a movable ladder, communicating with a door on the first storey, in which cases sheep and cattle would be accommodated and protected in wooden sheds in an enclosure which surrounded the tower and was known as the barmkin. This was generally of considerable size, and would be formed either by a stockade, which was sometimes plastered or puddled, or by a wall of masonry. That the former was the method most in favour may be inferred from the disappearance of the enclosures, whilst the towers, in whole or part, remain. Indeed, a high authority on the subject thought it possible that the word peel - from Latin "pila," a stake - had at first been applied to the barmkin, and only later transferred to the tower, which had survived it.

The peel-tower, as will be seen, was well adapted for affording protection to the owner, his retainers and his cattle, in case of a sudden onslaught; nor was there any fear of its serving as a base to an invading army, as a castle might have done. It could even resist a siege of short duration. In this case the accepted tactics of the attacking party - of which descriptions may be found in the pathetic ballad of "Edom of Gordon," in the "Border Minstrelsy," and in Scott's "Black Dwarf" - were to effect a breach in barmkin and tower, and, on a retreat being made to the upper storeys, to kindle a fire of damp straw or hay in the basement, and thus smoke out the refugees. In the ballad just named a girl, on the brink of suffocation, is lowered by ropes from a window in the tower, only to be received upon the spearheads of the enemy below. Such was the warfare over which (adopting a systematically one-sided view) Sir Walter Scott has cast an undying glamour!

So numerous are the peels which stud the Border-land, that a mere list of them would go near to exceeding the limits prescribed to this paper. Probably the nearest approach to such a list which we possess - and that is but partial - is in the catalogue of places burnt by the ruthless Earl of Hertford, afterwards Protector Somerset, in his expeditions to the Borders in 1544 and the years following. All that can here be attempted is to name a few peels which are notable. Among these Liddell Moat, on the Cumberland border, is remarkable for its situation and bold earthworks, notwithstanding that all building has now disappeared. Hollows Tower, in the same district, is romantically memorable as the stronghold of the notorious Johnnie Armstrong. Darnick tower, in the neighbourhood of the Eildon Hills, is dated 1569, and occupies the site of an older tower, razed by Hertford in his merciless raid of fourteen or fifteen years earlier. Its special interest lies in the fact that it is still inhabited, and in possession of its original owners, the Heiton family. Newark, on the Yarrow, once a royal hunting seat, is assigned to the fifteenth century, being thus older than either Smailholm or Darnick, and has been immortalised by Scott as the scene of his "Lay of the Last Minstrel." To these may be added Great Salkeld, as an example of the church tower fortified to serve as a place of refuge and defence, and therewith this list must close.

A word must be said as to the system devised for keeping order between these endlessly troublesome neighbours on either side the Border. For it is a striking fact that the Borderland was the only tract of territory in the country for which special laws required to be drawn up, with special high officials to administer them. Nor was it for international disorders only that special measures had to be adopted. For the famous blood-feuds of the Scotts and Kerrs, Maxwells and Johnstones, Grahams and Armstrongs on the one side, and, on the other, of the Redes and Halls, of Redesdale, the Herons and Carnabys, of North Tynedale, and the Percys and Nevilles, were as internecine as any. The two great aims of the Border Laws, then (printed by Bishop Nicolson, of Carlisle, in the eighteenth century), were to put down the blood-feud and to control the disorders of Borderers on either side the Border line. To this end the Border districts were divided longitudinally into Marches - East, Middle and West - which marches were given over to the charge of wardens, members sometimes of the reigning houses, but more often of the great local families of Percy and Douglas - in which names wardenships were for a time something very like hereditary offices - and, after the fall of the Douglases, in the second half of the fifteenth century, to Scotts, Kerrs, Homes and Maxwells on the Scotch, and Nevilles and Dacres on the English side.

To these officers was entrusted the task of looking into complaints and accusations of offences committed by or against residents within their bounds, and of pursuing and punishing delinquents. And seeing that, from the reign of Robert Bruce onward, life on the Borders had degenerated into a state of almost chronic warfare, if not national then domestic, their duties could not fail to be arduous.

Of the means adopted for the apprehension of cattle-lifters, the most prominent malefactors on the Borders, the simplest and most expeditious was that known as the Hot Trodd, or hue and cry after stolen property, the aim of which was to prevent the despoiled parties from taking the law into their own hands - a fertile source of the " blood-feud." To safeguard against this, the injured man was empowered to raise the neighbourhood and to call on all and sundry to join in the pursuit, the sole checks upon his freedom of action being that he must act, first, without loss of time, and, secondly, with publicity, to wit, by "hound and horn and hue and cry."

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