A Borders Blog April 2019

No self-respecting blog about the border region would be complete without covering in some detail the length of Hadrian’s Wall. At 80 Roman miles (73 miles, 117 km) it is probably the most significant of the Roman remains in Britain and one of the most well known frontiers in the world, an importance recognised by its status as a World Heritage site.

Hadrian’s Wall from Harrow Scar Milecastle

There are few better ways of getting to know something than by hopping out of the car and getting up close to it. The wall’s course is also a long established long distance path so, starting next month it is my intention to describe the Hadrian’s Wall walk. I’ve walked it before, once in each direction but on this occasion I’ll be completing it over a number of weekends in May and June and describing in more detail some of the features that may be found along its length as well as some of those nearby.

Any discussion about Hadrian’s wall must start with a look at what preceded it. The Roman Army, the most formidable organisation of its type, not just in this era, but for those that preceded it and for many that followed it, was designed to draw its opponents onto the field of battle. Once it had them there it sought, by a combination of superior organisation, high quality arms and armour, rigid discipline and hours of training to completely crush them. The building of a wall, a static line of defence, would seem to indicate a change of policy, a policy that recognised the limitations of Roman Imperial ambition to the north of Britain.

A wild frontier.

There can be few more evocative ideas than that of the frontier, the line between “us” and “them”. Whether it’s the fictional final frontier of James T. Kirk and his faithful lieutenants or the very physical North West Frontier of the British Empire, the idea of a frontier continues to exert a powerful pull on the popular imagination.  It’s a land of myth and legend and a place where the reputations of heroes are made. The truth is almost certainly a bit more gritty, occasionally a bit more blood-thirsty and for those entrusted with the daily grind of keeping “them” out, probably best characterised as

The 3rd Foot and Mouth prepare to courageously defend Her Majesties interests. A still from the film Carry on up the Khyber (actually filmed somewhere on the Watkin Path, one of the routes up Snowdon).

long periods of routine and mind – numbing tedium interspersed with odd bouts of intense excitement. And ultimately of course, as one or two modern politicians might do well to remember, the building of walls either real or imaginary always ends in failure as the world beyond is a vastly larger space and its peoples can never be ignored or kept out indefinitely.

What should also be considered is that the frontier, as defined by the Romans, paid no heed to what the indigenous population considered to be their area of influence. So it was with the Brigantes, through whose tribal territory Hadrian’s Wall cut an arbitrary swathe.

Yes, we know it’s on a hill….but it’s a mile from the last one, so here it stays.” The Milecastle at Poltross Burn.

Doubt remains as to the extents of the Brigantian tribal lands and the evidence is based largely on Roman literary as well as epigraphic sources. What there is suggests that their territory possibly extended up beyond the wall into the region around the Roman fort at Birrens in Dumfries and Galloway.(1)

The Brigantes.

The Brigantes remain an elusive tribe. The limits of their tribal area remain difficult to pin down due to the want of finding typically Brigantian pottery and metalworking at tribal sites. In addition, there are comparatively few hill forts of the type and size found in southern England.(2) It seems possible that the neighbouring Carvetii, found in what is modern Cumbria and beyond into southern Scotland were a sub group of the tribe although that is very much open to interpretation. What is certain is that by 47AD, under their Queen Cartimandua they had become a client state of the Romans.


Agricola’s victory over a confederation of barbarian tribes at the battle of Mons Graupius would suggest that the Roman intention to subdue the entire island to their control was going to plan (see note 1 below). Indeed, following the campaign Agricola was awarded the ornaments of a triumph so it seems clear that the first part of the Roman plan had been accomplished. A series of forts heading in a north easterly direction from the southern banks of Loch Lomond at Drumquhassle up to the Legionary fortress at Inchtuthil and beyond followed. The siting of these forts

Part of the extensive remains of the Baths at Chesters Roman Cavalry Fort

along what might be termed the Gask Ridge Frontier(3) as well as a series of forts built in apparent support suggest that the second stage of the plan would have been a larger scale invasion of the highland regions to the north using these forts, very often sited at the entrances to glens, as the jumping off point. Events on the

Danube frontier however, were to intervene. In response to the Dacian invasion of the Kingdom of Moesia, the Emperor Domitian recalled the Legio II Adiutrix to bolster Roman forces in the region. The precise timing is not clear but it is quite possible that it was the direct result of the complete destruction of the Legio V Alaudae during the early part of the war. The result of this was that the Legio XX Valeria Victrix had to be withdrawn from the north to replace the II Adiutrix who were never replaced, on garrison duties at Chester. As a result of the reduction of the forces available to Agricola’s replacement as Governor of Britain, any idea of completing the occupation of the whole island were shelved. One has to

The granaries at Hardknott Fort, Cumbria. It was built at the same time as the wall and in the shadow of the mountain which gives it its name. Photo taken during a not untypical spring day in Lakeland.

to remember that Britain had only just been brought under Roman control and so in order to maintain that control the new Legionary fortresses at Chester, York and Caerleon had to be garrisoned (4). As it turns out, by the early years of the second century a withdrawal to the Forth/Clyde isthmus was followed by a further withdrawal to the Tyne/Solway isthmus and, with the exception of a brief return to the Forth/Clyde line and the Antonine Wall, there it stayed.

The history of the Roman occupation of Britain during the final years of the 1st and early years of the 2nd centuries are not easy to decipher. There are a number of hints that the natives of these islands were reluctant to accept Roman rule without a fight although it seems that a further unit, the Legio IX Hispana were also withdrawn (see note 2 below). 

The first attempt at defining the new frontier was the series of watch towers and supporting forts built slightly to the south of the line Hadrian’s surveyors chose, along a linking road known as the Stanegate which has given its name to the frontier. A description of that will follow in next months blog as the final part of the introduction to the wall, including a look at the series of fortifications which ran along the west coast as far south as Maryport.

Right, 4th blog in and I’m beginning to develop a pattern for future efforts. Hadrian’s Wall and the history of the Roman northern frontier will become a regular feature as will the next one which is about a period of history which holds a particular fascination for me, namely the late medieval.

The Strength of Liddesdale. Hermitage Castle, a much sought after and fought over des res.

First up is a piece about Hermitage Castle near Newcastleton which is somewhat off the beaten track. I’ve been a regular visitor over the years as I find it to be a wonderful spot. The site can project a number of different atmospheric facets ranging from the benign to the downright brooding. A lonely site, on gloomy days with the wind moaning around the ruins and the light affected by low cloud and driving rain its violent past seems to push its way into the forefront of one’s consciousness and on days like that it seems almost possible to hear the cries of the tortured souls that have been incarcerated within its walls.

One of the more lurid tales associated with the site concerns one of the early Lords of the area. Sir Walter Scott claimed the story surrounded William II de Soules, the 14th century Butler of Scotland who died in mysterious circumstances in Dumbarton Castle whilst in captivity having opposed The Bruce. Even by the moderate standards of the day de Soules appears to have been a rather unpleasant character well versed in the “dark arts”. The alternative narrative has it that he was alleged to be the kidnapper of local children who were used in his satanic rituals. Protected from death by the more traditional methods of the day by his familiar, Robin Redcap the story has it that he was himself kidnapped by local people, rolled in a sheet of lead and boiled alive in a cauldron set up for the purpose within the nearby stone circle known as Nine Stane Rigg.

Nine Stane Rigg. Is this the place where a de Soules took the shortcut to valhalla?

There is however another de Soules who is perhaps a more likely “star” for our tale. An earlier 12th century de Soules, Sir Ranulph, is known to have been murdered by his tenants in retribution for his cruelty. This de Soules was said to have been tutored in the dark arts by the legendary Michael Scot who by reputation practised as a magician.

A grim frontier fortress. With few windows in any elevation it was built with defence in mind rather than comfort.

The strength of Liddesdale as it has also been known actually sits in a tributary valley of Liddesdale alongside Hermitage Water only a few miles from the Anglo – Scottish border. It is this proximity to a much fought over frontier that has been a contributory factor in its having changed hands on so many occasions.

What we can see today is a development of the first stone built fortified Manor House erected by a Cumbrian magnate, Lord Dacre who inherited the land by marriage. The cobbled courtyard area immediately inside the door is almost certainly a remnant of that building. It is still possible to see

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The door to the right admits the visitor to the remnants of the courtyard of the original fortified manor house.

an elaborately carved L on some of the ashlar representing the mason’s mark thereby ensuring that the mason was paid. The stonework is of a high quality and that, coupled with the marks is suggestive of the work of a prominent mason called John Lewyn known to have been active at the time.(5)

It’s not my intention to go into the details of the way the castle changed hands this month but suffice it to say that the land and the castle came into the possession of William, first Earl of Douglas whose principal seat of power was Tantallon (now that is an atmospheric place) who began to develop the original building into a
larger, single tower. Following his death, and that of his son four years latter in 1388 at the Battle of Otterburn the title and lands were inherited by George Douglas who added the corner towers.

By way of drawing this month’s blog to a conclusion, I have one last grisly tale to tell, this one certainly a factual one. By the mid 14th century both England and Scotland sought to govern the border region by a system of

Few things can capture the imagination quite like a medieval prison pit and this one is no exception.

Warden’s of the Marches appointed by both sides to settle border disputes. Already appointed Warden of the Scottish Middle March, an appointment William Douglas (the same William we encountered earlier) had come to see as his own, Sir Alaxander Ramsay of Dalhousie was further rewarded with the rank of Constable of Roxburgh Castle and Sheriffdom of Teviotdale having recaptured the castle from the English. Ramsay was kidnapped by Douglas and his men and imprisoned in the Dungeon at Hermitage where he died some 17 days later, starved of food and water.

And that’s all for this month folks. We will encounter Hermitage and the Douglas Earls in subsequent blogs as both played prominent roles in the history of the borders.

Note 1: The site of the battle of Mons Graupius, fought sometime during 83/84 AD remains enigmatically obscure. It is thought to have taken place somewhere close to the tribal lands of the Picts, traditionally ascribed to the area around Perth. It is now thought that the tribal area known as Fortriu, is more likely to have been in the area around modern Inverness and the Black Isle. As a result potential sites for the battle have also moved north with at least one website offering Quirrel Hill near to the town of Elgin as a likely contender for the site.

Note 2: There is considerable doubt as to what happened to Legio lX Hispana. That it had disappeared from the pages of British history by about 120AD seems to be beyond question, quite why remains a mystery. The novelist Rosemary Sutcliff was not alone in subscribing to the view that the Legion headed north to quell disturbances amongst the native tribes and, at some point after having marched into the northern mists it was destroyed in battle and its Eagle captured. Her novel, The Eagle of the Ninth is a story of how the Eagle was recovered. Despite having been written as a children’s novel it is a fine read and one I can recommend to children and adults alike.

Inscriptions to the IX Hispana have been found at the Legionary fortress at Nijmegen in The Netherlands after the date of their alleged disappearance in Caledonia and the jury remains out as to what actually happened to it. Whatever fate befell the Legion, by the late 2nd century it is not named in a list of the 33 Legions then in existence.

  1. Hartley, B., Fitts, R,L., The People of Roman Britain: The Brigantes. Alan Sutton (1988).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Breeze, D.J., The Northern Frontiers of Roman Britain. BCA by arrangement with B.T Batsford. London (1982).
  4. Breeze, D.J., Dobson, B,. Hadrian’s Wall, 4th Edition, Penguin Books, London (2000).
  5. Edited by Tabraham, C., Hermitage Castle, Historic Scotland, 2003.

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