A Borders Blog.

Welcome to my first ever blog and who knows possibly my last, we’ll have to see how it goes. Yesindeedy, a bloggin’ virgin who has been thinking about it off and on for some years without actually screwing up the courage to get on and do it.

So, I hear you asking, why has it taken so long and why now? Those of you who know me will know of my passion for medieval English history and hill–walking (as well as being a home and away supporter of Stockport County F.C., an obsession that should probably be kept fairly quiet!). What some of you may not know is that in order to indulge those passions I’ve finally realised a long–held ambition and moved to Cumbria where, within easy reach of home are the mountains of the English Lakes, Dumfries and Galloway and the Cheviots as well as history in abundance ranging from pre–Roman to industrial just lying around waiting to be explored.

But the particular point is to try and bring the history of the Anglo–Scottish Border region to life. Let me reassure those of you who are already glazing over as memories of school history lessons begin to barge in that I’m not a Professional Historian. I’m actually a Mechanical Engineer working in the Aerospace Industry and have done so for far too many years to find it even remotely interesting anymore. Latterly,the only good thing to come from it was the time I spent working in North Yorkshire, a period during which I volunteered as a weekend Tour Guide for English Heritage at Scarborough Castle (I still do so but only fortnightly due to the distance involved). It has been the response to my tours from visitors to the Castle that has led directly to this blog.

Ok, so that’s the introductions over with. What will I be blogging about? There will be a few regular monthly features reflecting my own enthusiasms which include, and in no particular order, the Anglo / Scottish Wars, late medieval Christianity and in particular Monasticism and of course, since no self – respecting blogger could write about the area without covering them, the Border Reivers.

So, if your name belongs to any of the 16th Century riding names, if you’re an Armstrong, a Maxwell, a Bell, Elliot, Graham, Forster or Johnstone to name but a few there will be plenty to interest you.

If your passion is for Bastles, Castles, Tower Houses or Pele Towers there should be plenty to interest you as well. If you’ve a thing for Abbey’s, Cathedrals and churches…..me too, so watch this space.

Alternatively, if you like your scenery wild and bleak and yet shot through with unexpected beauty and want to get out and about and experience the ever-present footprint of our ancestors then there will be regular features describing walks that take some of that beauty and history in.

So, without further ado I’d probably best get stuck in and what better place to start than with a description of the Border.

A tour along the Border.  Part 1-The Eastern Marches.

Easternmost border crossing 5 miles up the A1 north of Berwick upon tweed.

In simple terms the border itself starts at Marshall Meadows on the East coast just a few miles north of Berwick Upon Tweed. The lay–by pictured is a favourite stop–off point for visitors snapping additions to the photo album whilst heading north up the A1 to Edinburgh and beyond. From here the border heads roughly south west for a distance of 154 kilometres, or 96 miles in old money, before meeting and following the River Sark in a southerly direction to empty into the Solway Firth to the north west of Carlisle and just to the east of Gretna.

Lighthouse marking the entrance to the River Tweed.

Situated some 5 kilometres / 3 miles south of the border, the town of Berwick Upon Tweed with its picture postcard Lighthouse guiding vessels towards the entrance to the River Tweed and its magnificent town walls amongst some of the best preserved in Britain, is a quietly bustling town whose modern ambience is far removed from its turbulent past.

Established as a part of Scotland in the aftermath of the battle of Carham in 1018 the town was designated a Royal Burgh by the great King David l in 1124 becoming, along with Roxburgh, one of Scotland’s very first towns whose development was not directly associated with a monastery, it was to change hands on a number of occasions.  The town was ceded back to England in 1174 by Kenneth lll following his defeat at the hands of the English King Henry ll and subsequently sold back to the Scots by King Richard l, Couer de Lion, who was seeking to finance his wars in defence of the English crown’s possessions in France. The town was taken by direct assault by King Edward l in 1296 resulting in the slaughter of many thousands of its Scottish inhabitants by Edward’s troops.

Looking east towards the sea in the background. The Elizabethan fortifications are amongst the best in the country.

The town subsequently became much sought after by both kingdoms. By the English as the northern most port from which to re–supply their armies operating north of the border and by the Scots to prevent the same, as well as to avoid the presence of a hostile English garrison to the rear whilst their armies were operating in northern England. 

Fortified since early in its development, the first castle probably having been built on the orders of King David l, very little now remains as it was largely destroyed by the Victorians to make way for the railway. The much reduced ruins are completely put into the shade by the walls of the superb Elizabethan fortifications constructed to an Italian design(₁) and built during the many political tensions that existed during the period between England, Scotland and France.

Having skirted to the north and west of Berwick, the border reaches the river Tweed which it follows down the centre as closely as it may as it winds its way through the rich agricultural flatlands of the Tweed valley. Once again, one could be forgiven for forgetting that the area was once notorious for the passage of armies as well as the deprivations which the Reivers visited upon it over hundreds of years until arrival in Norham, with its castle and reminder, in the graveyard of its magnificent Church, of wars of more recent time, if distant in place.

Norham Castle viewed from the Scottish side of the River Tweed.

With the river Tweed flowing to the left of the trees in the lower foreground, Norham Castle was built during the 12th Century by Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham(₂), to command the ford and crossing of the Tweed. Under siege no fewer than 9 times during the course of its eventful history and captured by the Scots on 4 separate occasions, very little of its original medieval buildings remain.

The castle was badly damaged during the campaign of Scotland’s King James lV in 1513 which culminated in the bloody field of nearby Flodden. It was rebuilt during the early sixteenth century as a frontier artillery fortress to house the latest in military technology.

Norham, a delightful village once nestling in the dubious security provided by its castle is also home to Saint Cuthbert’s Church. Tradition has it that in 635 A.D the ford at Norham was the point at which St Aiden crossed the Tweed on his way from Iona to Lindisfarne in order to establish his monastery on the island at the invitation of King Oswald now, in the wake of the battle of Heavenfield, undisputed master of Northumbrian lands stretching from the Humber to the Forth (₃).

Much altered since its Norman origins, Norham Parish Church remains a delightful building.

Built near this site, the first church is thought to have been the original wooden building constructed on Lindisfarne which was moved to Norham when the first stone building was erected on the island to replace it.

The first stone church at Norham was built in 830 A.D, although the present church dates from 1165. It retains few of its original Norman features beyond the aisle arches to the south of the nave. It has been substantially remodelled as a result of having been fortified by Robert the Bruce during his siege of the castle in 1320 and damaged by King James lV’s army during the siege of the castle nearly 200 years later (₄).

Grave marker of Piper Daniel Laidlaw, the Piper of Loos.

In the Churchyard behind the Church itself is the last resting place of Daniel Laidlaw VC, the piper of Loos. The battle of Loos was fought in 1915 in France between 25th September and 8th October and presaged the carnage of the Somme the following year. In short, The Kings Own Scottish Borderers had been tasked with assaulting Hill 70. Having come under gas attack the regiment was faltering. This was the point at which Piper Laidlaw was seen outside the trench in which his comrades were sheltering marching to and fro along the parapet piping his regiment into action. He continued to play despite being wounded, his regiment achieving its goal.

It is worth bearing in mind, during this remembrance month, some of the horrific statistics surrounding the battle. The British Army suffered some 43000 casualties at Loos. On day 2, the reserve units which were brought up to exploit the initial attacks on the German lines were decimated after going into action on the 26th September. The 12 attacking battalions, comprising 10000 officers and men suffered 8000 casualties within 4 hours, many at the hands of the German 26th Infantry Regiment whose history describes the assault taking place amidst “continued good order” despite men falling to the machine guns “in their hundreds”. It describes how one machine gun alone fired 12500 rounds at the attacking troops (₅).

The ba field with the Tweed just out of sight to the right, scene of an early Anglo-Scottish sporting rivalry?

The Tweed continues on past Norham, the border line continuing to follow the middle of the river until, just past a bend where the river meanders beyond the Scottish town of Coldstream the border unexpectedly moves south, away from the river, to follow the hedge boundary between the B6350 and a meadow alongside the river, as shown in the photograph alongside. It returns to the river approximately 100m this side of the treeline to the right of the photo. It seems that the inhabitants of Coldstream were given to playing an annual ball game(₆) against their counterparts from Wark, a small village situated 1.5km further downstream on the English side of the border on what was known as the “Ba Green”. To the winner went ownership of these two or so acres until the following year when competition (or perhaps battle might be more apt) was resumed. Given the nature of the competitors one can only assume it wasn’t a game for the faint hearted!

As Coldstream developed into a thriving town so Wark declined, due no doubt in some measure to the destruction of its castle in 1513 and the contest became a rather one–sided affair resulting in almost perpetual “ownership” by the victors, the men of Coldstream. A local tradition certainly recognised by the cartographers of the Ordnance Survey.

And so, as we approach the end of a wander along the eastern end of the border and the point where both sides eastern marches once met, we also return to an earlier reference to the battle of Carham in 1018. Although no formal treaty setting out the route of the border was agreed it hasn’t change substantially from what was recognised as the border in the aftermath of the battle. Carham itself is as unprepossessing place as you could wish to visit and if you blink as you drive through the village you’re likely to miss it.

St Cuthbert’s, Carham’s late 18th century Parish Church.

The site of the battle is not known with absolute certainty however it is generally thought that a possible location is in the field behind the 18thCentury Church, between it and the river. There is also a slight concern with the date however as the Anglo – Saxon Chronicle entry under the date 1016 states that Uhtred, the Earl of Northumberland and leader of the English army at Carham was killed by the Danish King Cnut in that year, two years before the battle although this is likely to be incorrect.(₇) 

Symeon of Durham, a principle source of information for the battle seems quite clear that it was fought within a month of the sighting of a comet, one that is known to have made an appearance in 1018. What is also known is that the forces opposing the English were an alliance of the Cumbrian King of Strathclyde, Owain with Malcolm ll King of Alba.(₈)

Area to the rear of Carham Parish Church.

If the location of the site is correct then the forces of the Kings of Scotland and Strathclyde, forded the Tweed, seen centre right in the photo, from downstream and therefore entered the battlefield from the left. The opposing Northumbrians came from the right.

Warfare in this age was frequently short and brutal and consisted of opposing lines of men behind their shield walls hacking at each other with their battle axes and trying to force their way into gaps left in the opposing line as men fell under the blows of their opponents. Victory was frequently won by the biggest army as they had the manpower to extend beyond the line confronting them, circle around the outside and attack their foes from the rear. Once that was accomplished the result was a foregone conclusion and that is apparently what happened at Carham.

It’s difficult to imagine from the quiet scene depicted above what the bloodbath that must have ensued would have looked and sounded like. Be that as it may, such things are the stuff of both history and legend and this is without a question one event, albeit a relatively minor one, in a long list of events conspiring to make both England and Scotland, and in particular, the border region between them what they are today, an endlessly fascinating region.

A note on place names().

Ham, as in Norham is from Old English meaning homestead and is one of the commonest elements in settlement names in England. It is the word from which we have derived “home” and means just that. In the case of Norham it means northern homestead.

Not to be confused however with Carham which comes from an unnecessary correction of a mispronunciation of the dialect word carrum which is plural for carr or rock.

The Old English term wic has a variety of derivations including   ̴wick or   ̴wich and is associated with a farm or settlement, since the latter frequently developed around the former. Berwick is derived from the term for a “Barley farm on the river Tweed” whose name is itself no doubt a descriptor for the river and possibly means powerful one, itself derived from the Indo – European word for “to surge”.

Coldstream means exactly what you think it does. It was the site of a rather deep fording point used mostly for military purposes. Its principal claim to fame of course is that it was the town where General Monck established the regimental headquarters of what was originally known as General Monck’s Regiment after the fashion of the day prior to playing an instrumental role in the Restoration of King Charles ll. It was subsequently renamed the Coldstream Guards in 1670.

And finally, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed researching it whilst visiting some of the most beautiful and inspiring locations in Britain.

Next month, as well as beginning to introduce some of the more regular features in the blog, I’ll be writing Part 2 of A Tour along the Border – The Middle Marches which are very different in character to their eastern counterparts and picking up beyond Carham where the border departs the river Tweed to follow a succession of minor roads and field boundaries in a southerly direction for a few Kilometres before resuming its way in a south–westerly direction for its rendezvous with the Solway coast.

Along the way, I’ll be introducing the Border Reivers with a look at the Bastle Houses of Tarset as well introducing the way in which Border Law was conducted. It’s a story of murder, robbery and conspiracy high in the Cheviot Hills.

For that I’ll be travelling mostly on foot to some fairly remote locations suitably booted and suited against the elements so I hope you can join me for that. Until then,

Best wishes,

Andy

References.

  1. Grove,D., Berwick Barracks and Fortifications.(EH 2003).
  2. Saunders,A., Norham Castle. (EH 2001).
  3. Adams,M., The King in the North. (Head of Zeus 2013).
  4. Unknown., St Cuthbert’s Church Norham. (Printed by How & Blackhall, Berwick upon Tweed).
  5. Holmes,R., Tommy. The British Soldier on theWestern Front 1914 – 1918. (Harper Collins 2004).
  6. Moffat,A., The Reivers. The Story of the BorderReivers. (Birlinn 2008).
  7. Trans & Edited by Swanton, M., The Anglo –Saxon Chronicle, (Dent, J.M 1997).
  8. Woolf,A., New Edinburgh History of Scotland Vol 2. From Pictland to Alba. (Edinburgh University Press 2014).
  9. Ayto,J. & Crofton, I., Britain and Ireland.The History, Culture, Folklore and Etymology of 7500 places in these Islands. (Wiedenfeld& Nicholson 2005).


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