A Borders Blog December 2018

A big thank you…

….to all those of you who visited the Blog first time round, some of you more than once. Hopefully I can keep you interested this month and beyond. This month I want to start to develop some of the regular themes I intend to cover in the future.

Secondly, apologies as the content of this one hasn’t gone quite according to plan. I’d finished a contract working in Northern Ireland in November and had confidently expected December off giving me plenty of time to get this one researched, photographed and written. “Unfortunately,” from a bloggers perspective at least, a short-term gig as Quality Manager at a Lancashire Engineering business came up so there’s been a change of plan as time constraints and some poor weekend weather have intervened. This month then doesn’t continue the trip along the border line itself covering the Middle March. That will hopefully be next month.

This month I’m writing the first part of a discussion of the history of the development of the border itself and finish off with a description of that most quintessential of the features of the border region, the Bastle House by way of an introduction in next month’s blog which will include a walk amongst the remains of what was once a significant Bastle community in Northumberland’s Tarset valley.

The history of Anglo-Scottish Border.

Where to start? An introduction.

Part 1. England.

It’s been difficult to decide at which point to start a discussion of the Anglo – Scottish Border because there is no one historical event where one could say that yesterday it didn’t exist but that the next day it did however, it seems reasonable to take the Treaty of York in 1237 as the magic date.

The Treaty of York was the formal agreement between the Crowns of England and Scotland that established that Northumberland, and the counties of Cumberland and Westmorland which now make up Cumbria were subject to the English Crown however, two points should be made: –

  1. The Borderline did change on a couple of occasions when, in 1482 Berwick Upon Tweed changed hands for the final time, captured by Richard, Duke of Gloucester the future English King Richard lll and in the west when the Debatable Lands were formally partitioned in 1552 and marked by the construction of the Scots Dyke the following year.
  2. The Treaty of York was largely the formal agreement of something that had possibly been recognised from as early as 1018 in the aftermath of the Battle of Carham but almost certainly was a formal recognition of the state of the border after the seizure of land to which the Scots laid claim by King Henry II after the Scots King William the Lion was captured during the Battle of Alnwick in 1173.

Additionally, 1237 can be regarded as the point at which England and Scotland might be seen to be taking formal steps towards accepting the other’s separate identity as well as marking the end of Scotland’s ambitions to move the border further south.

1237 is also the date at which attempts to define legal custom into law began to be attempted. The customs which allowed for the rather unique geographical and political realities of border life and which became known as “Border Law” were first codified only 12 years later in 1249. (1) It is however right to have a look at the period before that.

No description of the border itself can start without some kind of discussion as to the geopolitical nature of both country’s that needed a border to distinguish the one from the other. In other words how did England and Scotland evolve into what each recognized in 1237.

It is not within the remit of this blog to discuss the events that led to the domination of southern Britain from the north English midlands and all points south by the Kings of Wessex. The process, begun by King Alfred the Great, was continued by the policies of his son Edward the Elder until his death in 924. Under the reign of Edward’s son, the energetic Aethelstan, West Saxon domination continued including overcoming the Viking claimant to the throne of Northumbria. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle rather laconically puts it under the entry for the year 927 Here Athelstan drove out King Guthfrith.(2) As Northumbrian opposition petered out this then, is the point at which Aethelstan is be said to have become the undisputed King of England. However, and not for the last time, this powerful southern English King had pretensions way beyond the southern part of Britain.

Later that same year, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Aethelstan called a summit to which the Alban King, Constantine ll, Owain, King of Gwent and Ealdred of Bamburgh were summonsed. It seems likely however that, given the location of the event, the Owain referred to was actually the Welsh speaking King of Strathclyde rather than Gwent. The summit was probably held at the ancient Monastery of Dacre (see below) built in the secluded valley in which the modern village now stands alongside the stream of the same name near Penrith on the then border between England and the Kingdom of Strathclyde. It is possible that the event took place at nearby Eamont Bridge although since it’s unlikely that such a momentous event would have taken place over a single day it is possible that both sites were used. As if to reinforce the sense of his superiority at least from an English perspective, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that he governed all the Kings who were in this Island.(3)

The purpose of the summit was ostensibly to secure peace and to extend the influence of the Christian Church and prohibit “devil worship” however, it is not hard to discern a greater motive, namely the flexing of an almost imperial type of muscle by Aethelstan. Certainly, by the following year his charters were being witnessed by Welsh Kings styled as “sub-reguli” or under Kings. At about the same time his coinage began to bear the title “rex totius Brittaniae” King of all Britain.(4)

In 934 it is stated that Here King Athelstan went to Scotland with both a raiding land-army and a raiding ship-army and raided across much of it.(5) The direct cause of this invasion is difficult to determine at this distance in time but it is quite possible that Aethelstan was seeking to split his northern opponents by defeating Constantine ll in battle. Howsoever it may be the point is this, that this is the first time that the term “Scotland” appears in a historical record.(6)

Despite the grandiose claims of the writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Viking ambition on the still notionally independent Kingdom of Northumbria hadn’t quite ended in 934 nor indeed by the crushing defeat inflicted on the Norse/Alban/Strathclyde alliance at the battle of Brunanburh* by Athelstan 3 years later.

Athelstan died in 939, his death leaving his opponents with a potential opportunity to exploit. Olaf of Dublin, defeated at Brunanburh, returned to stake a claim on York and Northumbria. Had he not died in 941 history may have turned out differently. However, there is little to be gained from speculating on the what-might-have-beens of history.

Olaf did die and his successor, Olaf Sihtricsson was in his turn defeated by Edmund l whose reign was characterised by almost constant war as the component parts of Athelstan’s Kingdom sought to reassert their independence on his death.

From a borders perspective, any hopes the Kingdom of Northumbria had for continued independence were short-lived. By 946, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that “Here King Edmund passed away on St Augustine’s day;** And then his brother the ætheling Eadred succeeded to the Kingdom, and reduced all of the land of Northumbria to his control; and the Scots granted him oaths that they would do all he wanted”.(7)

Edmund, with his hands full elsewhere allowed continued Danish rule requiring conversion to Christianity and homage for the crown. By 954 however, the writing was on the wall for Viking rule. The inhabitants of York succumbed to the inevitability of southern domination and they ejected the last Viking ruler of Northumbria.

The Rey Cross alongside the A66.

As Eric Bloodaxe sought refuge with his kinsmen in Dublin he was, in all likelihood, murdered by one of his own retinue as they crossed the bleak and lonely moors of the Stainmore Gap. Local legend suggests that the 10th century Rey Cross was erected over his burial place. Little remains of the cross. Originally standing some 10 feet in height the surviving parts consist of the plinth and the upper section. It was moved to its present location on the east bound carriageway of the A66 from its original location slightly to the west near the remains of a Roman marching camp as a result of a road widening scheme.

During excavations of the original site, no trace of a burial was found. The origins of the cross are probably rather more prosaic if no less interesting. Erected in 950 it marked the border between the Kingdom of Northumbria and that of Strathclyde. By the 13th century it marked the boundary between the dioceses of Carlisle and Glasgow and finally, until recently it marked the border between the now defunct County of Westmorland, part of the recently reconstituted County of Cumbria, and North Yorkshire.

That brings a whirlwind gallop through 10th century northern English history to a conclusion. Next month I’ll be looking at the same period from the Scottish side of the borders. It is an equally interesting excursion into the period as the transition into the Kingdom of Scotland was a rather more complex process caused in part by the completely different geography of the country and the historical associations between Galloway and Ulster.


Modern Dacre is a sleepy little place that the 21st century world largely bypasses as it speeds passed on its way up and down the A66. Consisting of a few houses and scattering of farms, many built of stone in the traditional manner, the village itself boasts a Public House dating to the 18th century and the 12th century parish Church of St Andrew and although now largely forgotten, that has not always been the case.

No less a figure than the Venerable Bede recounts a miracle alleged to have taken place around 728 (based on the year 731 as having been the date that Bede completed his book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People).

Bede relates that a young man associated with the Monastery and possibly a novice had a tumour growing on one of his eyelids. There was considerable argument amongst those possessed of such medical knowledge as was then available as to how to treat the growth which worsened daily.

Thrythred, one of the Monks was the keeper of the relics which included a lock of hair cut from the head of the uncorrupted body of St Cuthbert who had been displaying the Monastic treasures to a colleague asked the afflicted young man to return the relics to their place of safe-keeping. Whilst handling them the young man acting on impulse, rubbed the afflicted eyelid with the hair from the sainted head. Thinking nothing further of it he continued his duties until, around midday he touched his eye to find the tumour had vanished leaving no sign of a deformity.(8)

St Andrew’s Parish Church.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Dacre-Church-Interior-1.jpg
The interior of the 12th Century Dacre Parish Church of St Andrew.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the present Church was built on the site of the Monastery mentioned by Bede. Although the first recorded Vicar was Nicolas of Appleby who vacated the living in 1296 it is thought that the first building dates to the earlier Norman period, indeed there is evidence of Norman influence within as a couple of the aisle arch pillars are circular in section suggesting greater antiquity than the rest.

The first of the four bear carvings.

Whilst the building is delightful in its own right, the real mystery of Dacre Parish Church is however, to be found in the Churchyard surrounding the building. I can’t think of anything similar in the grounds of a humble Parish Church anywhere else I’ve visited. The Dacre bears are of unknown origin or purpose. Indeed there is even some doubt as to whether or not they depict bears or whether or not they could be lions. Weathering over many centuries has taken its toll on some of the finer detail of the carvings and it is now difficult to tell.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one suggestion has been that the figures may date from Roman times. The A66 follows the path of the Roman road for much of its length and there are many Roman remains associated with the Staingate “frontier” which pre-dates the nearby Hadrian’s wall. The first bear is shown clutching a post or staff. Sadly, it has long since lost its head.

Although difficult to determine, it would appear that the second bear has some kind of animal, perhaps a cat, clinging to its back. The bear’s response is to turn its head to look at the piggy-backing feline.

In the third statue the bear seems to be trying to flex its shoulder, anxious no doubt to rid itself of its unwelcome passenger.

The fourth and final statue is the best preserved of the four. It is said that those features reveal a rather smug pleased-with-itself kind of expression that suggest the bear has possibly caught its tormentor and eaten it.

The last and best preserved of the 4 figures.

It is also this fourth carving which gives rise to the idea that the animal may be a lion rather than a bear as its face appears to be haloed by the suggestion of a mane. The story related here is one suggested in the late 19th century.(9) In any case, and whatever the truth of the matter, the provenance of the carvings, their date or place of origin or their purpose remains unknown. The only thing that can be said with any certainty as demonstrated by archaeological investigation is that the site has been in continuous use as a site of Christian worship since the 7th century.

Introduction to the border Reivers and their Bastle Houses.(10)

Nothing speaks with greater clarity of the violence of 16th century borders life than the bastle house. Of all the types of fortification found along both sides of the border the bastle is the most common. Probably the most famous of these is the one I photographed on a recent trip to the Tarset bastles to research next months article and appears on the home page of this site.

Black Middens bastle is maintained by English Heritage who have restored it to its present condition. Descriptions of the walk and map locations for those sufficiently interested to visit will be included next month.

Bastles, as opposed to shielings, are buildings associated with permanent settlement whereas the shieling is the result of the farming technique known as transhumance. This can best be described as a seasonal migration of a pastoral people along with their herds from winter grounds to summer pastures. It has ancient antecedents and in practical terms means a people living below the snow line in winter and at higher levels during the summer.

In European alpine areas the seasonal migration usually involved only a part of the family, frequently a younger son, whereas in the north of England it generally involved the wholesale movement of the entire family. In the mediaeval period the term shieling also was used to describe miners huts.

Black Middens bastle, typical of its type.

There are a few things which distinguish the bastle from its contemporary, the shieling. The shieling tends to be grouped very closely with others. The bastle is at the very least defensible if not fortified and grouped in such a way as to be close enough to its neighbour for its inhabitants to be able to offer assistance in times of trouble rather than as closely as a group of shielings. There are exceptions to this rule as at Wall which is a bastle village with the buildings grouped closely together around the village green almost in the fashion of the bastide of the French countryside.

Bastles are generally found built in the same form, suggestive of having been constructed by itinerant tradesmen. The vast majority are built within 20 miles of the border and consist of two floors, the lower for the housing of animals and the upper, originally accessed by ladder rather than the staircases frequently added at a later date, for the housing of people. Typically, they are rectangular in plan with dimensions of about 12m x 8m with a steeply pitched roof. They are generally furnished with walls in excess of 1m thick and small windows to the upper floor.

In order to understand the bastle, one has to understand the nature of the society that built them and continued to live in them throughout the most turbulent period of Anglo-Scottish history. There is, for example, no equivalent in the border areas between England and Wales. The ancestors of the 15th/16th century people of the border region had been deliberately “relocated” to an area that had been repeatedly ravaged by almost continual warfare between England and Scotland from the end of the 13th century onwards. Edward lll followed a deliberate policy of encouraging people to settle northern England to act as a kind of buffer against the Scots. In exchange for low rents on their land, Edward expected military service as required and in time of need, the borderers provided him with his hobilers, or lightly armed, but highly skilled mounted troops.

The new settlers were a particular type of individual capable of considerable brutishness bordering on savagery. Whilst they were by no means all outlaws, the term Reiver itself is derived from the Old English rēafian – to rob,(11) some clearly were and in any case it required a certain type of individual to thrive in such an environment.

The area was very quickly repopulated which led to another type of problem. The habit of the deceased to share their property equally amongst sons or other heirs, known as gavelkind, led to a shortage of land and inheritances too small from which to make a living. The unexpected result of an imaginative policy was therefore to drive more of the inhabitants into a life of stealing from each other. One should be very wary of imagining the borders population as romantic Robin Hood types of people. Rather they were frequently a collection of murderous thugs for whom life could be genuinely brutal and short. Not for no reason has the term “bereaved” been passed onto us along with “blackmail” from this very period.

And that’s your lot for this month….

….I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it. Next month, time and weather permitting I’ll be continuing along the border itself as well as describing Scotland’s development into a separate and distinct nation as well as describing the Tarset Bastle Trail.

Until then, enjoy the New Year festivities,



*Note on the battle of Brunanburh.

The battle of Brunanburh, fought in 937 is one of the pivotal moments in the 10th century development of the English State. Despite the claims to the contrary of the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclers Athelstan’s grip on power to the northern extremities of the land he claimed for the English crown was not as strong as he may have liked to think, bordering as it did on the Danelaw to the north as well as the Viking Kingdoms of Dublin and Man and facing the challenge of the Alban King, Constantine ll allied to the Welsh speaking Owain of the Kingdom of Strathclyde.

Whilst Athelstan was campaigning in the south of England, as well as assisting allies with their territorial claims in Brittany the aforementioned alliance invaded northern England. Athelstan immediately headed north and confronted his enemies at a site now lost in a battle said to have lasted all day and causing considerable loses to both sides.

Something in the region of 40 places have been offered as potential sites but in the continued and complete absence of any hard evidence no-one can say with any certainty where the battle was fought. Much academic opinion now leans with more certainty towards Bromborough on the Wirral Peninsula but this is based largely on place name evidence and folklore although the Wirral would appear to be good strategically as a haven for the 615 ships that transported the Danish forces.

Wherever the battle of Brunanburh took place its effect was to remove the immediate threat posed by the Irish-Viking/Welsh/Alban alliance. Olaf returned to Dublin, Owain to Strathclyde and Constantine to Alba where, 4 years later he retired to the Monastery of St Andrews to live the final 10 years of his life as a Monk.

** St Augustine of Canterbury, 26th May.

  1. Neville, C.J., Violence, Custom and Law. The Anglo-Scottish Border Lands in the Later Middle Ages. Edinburgh University Press (1998).
  2. Trans & Edited by Swanton, M., The Anglo – Saxon Chronicle, (Dent, J.M 1997)
  3. Trans & Edited by Swanton, M., The Anglo – Saxon Chronicle, (Dent, J.M 1997).
  4. Williams, T., Viking Britain. (William Collins 2017).
  5. Trans & Edited by Swanton, M., The Anglo – Saxon Chronicle, (Dent, J.M 1997).
  6. Williams, T., Viking Britain. (William Collins 2017).
  7. Trans & Edited by Swanton, M., The Anglo – Saxon Chronicle, (Dent, J.M 1997).
  8. Edited by McClure, J & Collins, R., Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, (Oxford University Press 1999).
  9. Unknown, The Dacre Bears, (For the Diocese of Carlisle).
  10. Ramm, H.G., McDowall, R.W., Mercer, E., Shielings and Bastles, Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England). London: HMSO 1970.
  11. Grint, J., Bastles. An introduction to the Bastle Houses of Northumberland. Ergo Press (2008).

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