A Borders Blog March 2019

Firstly, I suppose I should start by admitting “better late than never” with this one. A major dose of ‘flu which rendered January a complete right off (I will almost certainly be seeking a ‘flu jab next winter as I don’t remember ever feeling so ill!) plus pressures of work and some relentlessly wet weekend weather have delayed this one way beyond my expectation. Secondly thank you for those of you who continue to visit the site and especially for the kind words, Darwin in particular knows who he/she is. Anyway, here goes…

I left off last time round with a brief jog through 9th and 10th century English history promising a similar trot through Scottish history of the same period. This time however (pulling editorial rank, otherwise known as “its my blog and I’ll write about what I like”) I’m going to start a little earlier, in the post Roman period.

By the 5th Century, early historic Scotland was inhabited by 4 different peoples. These were namely, the Picts, the Gaels of Dal Riata, the Angles and Britons. More latterly of course the Vikings from their bases in Dublin and Man and the Norwegians in Caithness were to barge in but that’s for later discussions.

Traditionally, the first King of Scotland has generally been regarded as the Gael Cinaed mac AilpÍn, anglicised to Kenneth MacAlpin, the 9th century Pictish King who is credited (rather like Alfred the Great in England) with laying the foundations for what followed.

By the 10th century, the Picts, Gaels, Angles and Britons had morphed into one people living in one geographical area but it’s well worth a visit to earlier times if only to highlight the fact that modern scholarship is still shedding enough light on the era to cause a complete rethink on our ancestors and the steps we’ve taken from there into the modern world. One such is the kingdom of Rheged which overlapped the modern Anglo – Scottish border.

It cannot be said with any certainty how post Roman northern Britain developed into kingdoms since what evidence there is suggests that whilst parts of Scotland including the Lothian and Borders regions developed into Kingdoms, areas like Fife existed as “Farmer Republics” into the Viking age.(1) It seems reasonable to suggest that some families by a combination of luck, good management or simple ruthless determination achieved prominence amongst their peers. As they developed control of the agricultural surplus they prospered and their disposable wealth increased such that they were able to spread some largesse amongst their fellows thereby developing a following and that amongst that following would have been retinues of specialist fighting men.

It seems likely that it was precisely this development that led to an event known as the Great Barbarian Conspiracy when, in 367 a confederation of barbarian tribes invaded Roman Britain, an invasion that led to the death in action of one senior Roman commander and the capture of another. One of the reasons it took the Romans so long to restore order was the fact that their enemies were able to maintain their army in the field for the full duration which suggests that they were not needed for bringing crops in.

Howsoever kingdoms began to develop, and by the end of the 6th century several were up and running(2) one such, Rheged, was traditionally thought to have been

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Carlisle Castle, main gate and keep.

centred on Carlisle which would, on the face of it seem to be the perfectly logical centre for a kingdom to develop. It had been a major Roman site and was therefore furnished with all the trappings of Roman life including a legionary fortress, a wall, even a bishop as well as an aqueduct serving amongst other things a fountain that was said to be still working 250 years later.(2) Carlisle, defended by its Castle and thanks to its position so close to the border continued to be coveted by both Scottish and English Kings until well into the late medieval period.

There has however been one problem. There has been very little evidence to support the claim that Carlisle was the centre of the Kingdom of Rheged. Onwards then to 2012 and to a site known as Trusty’s hill in Galloway.

Situated on top of a low mound overlooking the Boreland hills near the village of Gatehouse of Fleet in Dumfries and Galloway near the mouth of the Water of Fleet where it empties into Wigtown Bay at the western end of the Solway Firth the site has been recognised as a vitrified fort since the late 18th century.

The site has been well known since the 18th century because of the carvings found near the summit which were attributed to the Picts.

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“Pictish” symbolism highlighted for ease of identification.

An archaeological dig during the early 60’s floated the theory that the carvings were left behind by the Pictish raiding party that had been responsible for its destruction in the early part of the 7th century however another dig started in 2012 whose results were published 5 years or so later came to some remarkable conclusions.

A range of finds which included ceramics, metalwork, evidence for metalworking and glass as well considerable numbers of animal bones indicate human habitation since around 400BC but suggest that by the 6th Century AD the site had become a nucleated fort and a centre of such symbolic importance it is possible to suggest that important rituals of state were performed there.(4)

The same image without the highlighting

Just outside the gate to the fortification is a small rock cut basin which may predate the fort but which can be compared to features found at Dunadd and Burghead and may very well have been associated with votive offering. Finds suggest that the feature has been used for such purposes well beyond the period of the fort’s habitation.(5)

Analysis of wood deposits indicate the ready availability of a local forestry resource not only used by the occupants of the fort but also plundered by those who destroyed it. The degree of vitrification of the stone cannot be attributed solely to the burning of the timber frame contained within the rampart itself and so it is assumed that local timber was used to fuel the fire. It is therefore suggested that family influence extended from the fort into the local economy and included forest management.(6)

At the foot of the same carved slab, a horned head

The finding of a lead ingot suggests that local ore was mined, cast and worked on the site as well as ornamental metalworking which appears to show influences from Germanic art of the same period.(7) It is tempting to think of our post Roman ancestors as a brutish, insular race whose life lacked comfort and yet there is ample evidence, some found at Trusty’s Hill that while it could indeed be hard, short and brought to a violent end they recognised and sought the finer things in life. This and the finding of pottery sherds manufactured in Gaul offer ample evidence for exposure to peoples far from home which should probably be no surprise given the location’s proximity to the sea.

All of which makes the conclusion that the Pictish carvings are not in fact Pictish at all easier to understand. To the tutored eye (not mine I hasten to add) there are sufficient differences in style to suggest that they were produced by a local craftsman who had encountered such art during his life and had copied it at Trusty’s Hill.(8) One can only surmise as to the reasons why but, whether they were carved to impress visiting Picts or merely because the mason reproduced something he and his master liked it merely confirms that contact with the outside world was regular and not merely confined to the warlike.

To wind this part up then, what the Trusty’s Hill archaeological dig has been able to conclude is that at some point during the 6th century the site was fortified by a very prominent family with a stone rampart, possibly topped with a parapet of wooden construction. The fortified summit was surrounded by a series of associated works both defensive and domestic in nature. Its entrance had a symbolic resonance designed to impress visitors, a sense heightened by the arrangement, including a hall, of the internal buildings.

The family’s prominence can be assumed because it did not appear to be directly associated with farming, rather, it relied on its control of the effort of others. The artefacts found on the site indicate influence from and contact with the wider world both in their acceptance and understanding of rituals found elsewhere and their possession of goods manufactured in distant lands. In short, there have been no other discoveries of sites of similar standing in the region.(9)

The history of the Kingdom of Rheged remains shrouded in mystery despite the fact that its most well-known personality, the legendary Urien, is said to have led a confederacy of northern kingdoms, including the Clyde rock against the Angles of Bernicia. The alliance came to an untimely end following the assassination of Urien by one of his own followers. The end of the Kingdom is equally hazy. What seems certain is that by the early 8th century it had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Northumbria, possibly by marriage. The destruction of the fort at Trusty’s hill does however give us a tantalising glimpse into events at a site that was certainly of major importance, potentially over a wide area and until further archaeological evidence to the contrary it seems reasonable to assume that it was, for a time at least, the pre-eminent site of the Kingdom of Rheged.

It’s impossible to miss this signpost

If you wish to visit the site it is easily found. Approaching Gatehouse of Fleet along the A75 from the east, turn right at Cardoness Castle, a late 15th century tower house built by the McCullochs. At the point where the road bends sharply to the right as it approaches the village there is a road on the left. When I visited in March, there was plenty of roadside parking available just beyond the turn off. Walk up the road until you come the sign on the gate to your left proclaiming that nothing happened here in 1782. Follow the path for approximately 500m as it winds up the slope, the entrance and carved stones can be seen as you reach the summit of the low hill upon which the fort sits.

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Follow the path beyond this gate to visit the site.

For visitors wishing for something to eat I had a nice, reasonably priced bar snack at the Masonic Arms pub in Gatehouse of Fleet accompanied by a very acceptable pint of bitter. Please note, that in the interests of impartiality, there are other eating establishments from which to choose.

And so to more modern times. Last time out (if you can remember that far back) I introduced the bastle house, a prominent feature of the Northumberland countryside. The year is 1583 and the location is the Tarset Valley through which the burn of the same name runs to its confluence with the River North Tyne. The principle character is William Armstrong of Kinmont aka Kinmont Willie.  An enthusiastic reiver, his notoriety was confirmed when, in 1596 he was sprung from imprisonment in Carlisle Castle, an event recounted in the ballad which takes his name.

The bastles of the Tarset valley are grouped quite closely together for mutual security. If one were attacked those in close proximity would know about it and be able to summon help. Such were the numbers that Kinmomt Willie was able to summon on his raids that he was able to split his force and attack each bastle at the same time. Such was the scale of the attack and such was the ferocity with which it was carried out, the victims made formal complaint to the Warden of the March.

Notice of the complaint was sent by Henry Scrope, Warden of the English West March to Sir Francis Walsingham, Principal Secretary to Elizabeth l in which “Compleynes Bartrame Myllburne of Keyme Gynkyne (Jenkin) Hunter of the Waterhead in Tyndale upon William Armestronge of Kinmonthe (amongst others) to the thre hundrethe parsons in warlyke maner….on Frydaie in mornynge last, being the xxxth of August in Tynedale unto certen places that is to say the Keyme, Reidhewghe, the Black Myddynes, the Hill howse, the Water head, the Starr head, the Bog head, the High feelde and there raysed fyer and brunte (burned) the most pairte of them….” During the raid 400 oxen were stolen along with 400 sheep and goats as well as 30 horses. They also “….slewe and murdered crewwellie six parsons, and maimed and hurte ellevin parsons and tooke and led awaye 30 presoners, and them do deteigne and keip in warlyke maner myndinge to ransom them contrarie to the vertewe of the trewse (truce) and lawes of the Marches.(10)

Although the violent days are now long gone and the Tarset valley is a quiet, indeed tranquil spot that the rush of modern life has completely bypassed it is possible to retrace the steps of Kinmont Willie and his marauding, murderous reiving band. The Tarset Bastle Trail is a clearly defined walk which can be started at the small car park a few yards from Black Middens Bastle. For anyone wishing to follow the walk the Trail leaflet can be downloaded from the internet. I would recommend a decent pair of shoes/boots as much of the path is “off piste” so to speak and it can get muddy after wet weather.

Black Middens is in the care of English Heritage who have restored it although in 1970 it reportedly still maintained its roof(11) that is now missing but the walls remain to their full height.

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Black Middens Bastle site including 18th century farmhouse to the right.

The interior can be viewed from the top of the exterior stairs which, with some imagination still conjures up a good sense of the isolation from creature comforts that the 16th century inhabitants lived with. There are also the remains of a second bastle of which little can now be discerned as it forms part of a stone field boundary a few yards to the east of Black Middens and, just beyond that, the site of a stack stand used by the inhabitants to store their winter fodder. The third building, is of more recent vintage dating from the 18th century.

From Black Middens car park take a left and follow the road a short distance until, where it bends sharp left, continue straight on following the path alongside the field boundary until it bears right and crosses the Tarset Burn. Once over the bridge I attempted to find a nearby Iron Age settlement but what started out as a clear path soon disappeared into the undergrowth so, since that was not the principle reason for my visit (plus the impediment of not untypical autumn weather, i.e alternating bright sunshine and torrential rain) I retraced my steps and picked up the path running alongside the burn until I arrived at the remains of Hill House

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Grass covered remains of Hill House Bastle

Bastle which is a curiosity since its low remains would suggest that it was more akin to a Tower House than a bastle. Although it shares the site with as many as four other buildings it has never been excavated so there is no dating evidence to suggest when it was built.

From Hill House the path continues in a north westerly direction until it arrives at Waterhead. There is a more modern house on this site so I have not included any photo’s and would urge anyone following my footsteps to respect the privacy of the owners. There is very little of the bastle left to see but this is where history jumps from the pages of the books because this was the home of the same Jenkin Hunter whose complaint was sent to Walsingham in 1593 and the immediate area probably hasn’t changed that much since then.

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Built to withstand weather and warlyke bandes alike, Shilla Hill Bastle.

From Waterhead the path continues on into open country until arriving at the site of Shilla Hill. One of the gables stands to a height of approximately 1.5 metres although in plan it measures somethingin the region of 7/8m by 15m in length making it a not inconsiderable building. With walls getting on for 1.5m thick it was built to last, or at least to withstand small scale assault by warlyke bandes of reivers.

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Home of Corby Jack in the background and to the right. Presumably the door to the front is the same one referred to in the tale told below.

The last bastle I visited on what had by this time become a fairly damp afternoon was Boghead, sometimes referred to as Corbies Castle as it was the home of Hodge Corby, known to posterity as Corby Jack about whom a tale, albeit in all likelihood an apocryphal one, probably describes border attitudes to property ownership and indeed life, or rather death, quite nicely.

A short distance away at what is now the site of Comb (Keyme in the 16th century) farmhouse lived Barty Milburn who woke one morning to discover some of his sheep missing. Naturally assuming therefore that they had been stolen by Scottish reivers he rounded up his friend Corby Jack and off they went to retrieve said sheep. Somewhere close to the Redeswire they lost the scent. However, reluctant to return home empty handed they “liberated” a nearby flock of sheep from their rightful Scottish owner and set off for home.

Determined to prevent the intrepid duo from “having it away on their toes” with his sheep their rightful Scottish owner, accompanied by his own friend followed and caught up with Barty and his sidekick. No doubt spurred on by the idea that nothing gets the heart beating like a good ruck, a fight ensued (see note below). During the fight Corby Jack was killed and Barty injured in the leg. Despite his wound Barty swung his sword, decapitating his victim so that “his heid (head) sprang alang the heather like an inion”. Despite an attempt to flee the scene the Barty caught the second Scot and killed him too before staunching his own wound, collecting the weapons of the deceased, rounding the sheep up, slinging Corby Jack’s body over his shoulder and heading for home. He dropped Corby’s body off outside the front door at Bog Head, penned the sheep and went home to bed.

And that folks is your lot for this month but for one last thing. Finally, I would like to thank Mike Parker, owner of KTL Tooling Ltd, supplier of bespoke manufacturing tooling solutions from design to final build and for whom I work for graciously allowing me to cut my working week from 39 hours to 36 over 4 days instead of 5 which allows me the time to get out and about and research pieces for this blog. So, please look out for April’s effort which I’m aiming to publish by the end of the month as I will have no excuse for it being late!!

Regards, Andy

Note. Just in case anyone runs away with the idea that I enjoy a good ruck with assorted sheep rustlers from time to time I’m actually a former GMP Police Officer who has, on occasion had to wade into the odd group of Mancunians letting off steam on a Friday night.

  1. Fraser, J.E., From Caledonia to Pictland Scotland to 795. Edinburgh University Press (2012).
  2. Fleming, R., Britain after Rome. The fall and rise 400-1070. Penguin Books (2011).
  3. Davies, N,. Vanished Kingdoms. The history of half-forgotten Europe. Allen Lane (2011).
  4. Toolis, R & Bowles, C., The lost Darl Age Kingdom of Rheged. The discovery of a Royal Stronghold at Trusty’s Hill, Galloway. Oxbow Books (2017).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ed Bain, J,. The Border Papers. Calendar of Letters and Papers relating to the affairs of the Borders of England and Scotland. Reprinted by facsimile publisher, India, on demand.
  11. Ramm, H.G., McDowall, R.W., Mercer, E., The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England) Shielings and Bastles. HMSO:London. (1970).

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