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The ruins of an early 17th century bastle or defensible farmhouse in the Anglo-Scottish Borders as protection against Border Reivers. Source: drhfoto/Adobe Stock

The Hot Trod: A History of the Anglo-Scottish Border

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Here are two peoples almost identical in blood – the same language and religion; and yet a few years of quarrelsome isolation – in comparison with the great historical cycles – have so separated their thoughts and ways, that not unions nor mutual dangers, not steamers nor railways, nor all the king’s horses nor all the king’s men seem able to obliterate the broad distinction.

Robert Louis Stephenson

By the dawn of the 16th century, the upland riders – latterly known as ‘hobilers’ and then, in the reign of Henry VIII, as the ‘Border Horse’ – knew no occupation other than war. The riding names of North Tynedale and Redesdale – Charltons, Robsons, Milburns, Ridleys, Reeds, Dodds, Herons, and Halls – hounded Teviotdale and the Merse. Their Scottish contemporaries from Liddesdale – Armstrongs, Elliots, Bells and Crozers, along with the Scotts, Kerrs, and Homes – reciprocated with gusto. These border knights – or ‘Steel Bonnets’ [4], as they were later known, fought a never-ending intercnine conflict at a local level. It was one element in the broader canvas of the long war between the kingdoms, which often took on a European dimension.

Scotland had long been an ally of England’s old enemy, France. Indeed, in 1512, the ‘Auld Alliance’ between these two countries was extended, and all nationals of Scotland and France also became nationals of each other's countries, a status not repealed in France until 1903. The following year (1513) saw James IV of Scotland attack the English in support of his French allies, who were locked in battle with Henry VIII (1509–1547). The result was the bloody Battle of Flodden, in which the Scottish king, many of his nobles and 10,000 other men were killed. Things did not improve over the century.

In exchange for land and low rents, the monarch required military service on demand. The reivers served as prickers, light horsemen with considerable skill at reconnoitering and armed engagement. Their region soon became heavily populated, a situation exacerbated by the gavelkind inheritance system, which on his death divided a man’s land between his sons; the parcels of land thus handed down were too small to provide an honest living. What had seemed a smart move proved disastrous. Like Frankenstein’s creature, armed service for tenure developed a life of its own. The unique provenance and nature of the reivers probably accounts for the need for defensive buildings along this border; the fortified bastles. No such building for domestic protection appears anywhere else in Britain.

On 9 th September 2013, the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden in North Northumberland, I was taking a tour group up to the monument on Piper’s Hill. New pathways had been laid in anticipation of a big turnout. We trudged along to the base of the conical mound where a rather nervous young community policewoman informed us there was a number of ‘Scottish’ people already on top and she hoped there wasn’t going to be any ‘bother’. The folk in the group with me were all of pensionable age, so I was able to reassure her that we could either climb the hill or start a fight but not both together. She seemed reassured and, as it turned out, the Scots bore no grudges, indeed they obligingly proffered whisky.

George Macdonald Fraser pithily described Hermitage Castle in Liddesdale as shouting ‘sod off in Stone’. As a one sentence summary of the Anglo-Scottish border, that’s pretty hard to beat. The men and women, who inhabited this desolate threap (‘wasteland’) during three centuries of endemic warfare and sustained inter-tribal hatreds, make ISIS seem almost cordial. They didn’t just cut off your head, they hacked you into pieces sma’ so whoever was left to tidy up wouldn’t have much to work with. Borderers on both sides of the line were targeted by many but loved by few. When their era passed, fittingly, in a fury of Stalinist suppression, there weren’t any mourners. Yet, just look in the phone books for Liddesdale, Tynedale, Redesdale or the Eden Valley and you’ll still see the old ‘riding’ names flourishing. They’re damned hard to kill off.

Like Macdonald Fraser, Hermitage Castle pretty much sums it up for me, one of the two most instantly atmospheric sites I’ve ever encountered, (Culloden battlefield being the other). It resonates with its very remoteness, its uncompromising and unique starkness, exuding menace, reminding us of a very dark and violent past and, at the same time, a kind of freedom. If the place had never been built then someone, perhaps Tolkien, (who is said to have used the Marches as inspiration), would have had to imagine it.

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This is an extract from ‘The Hot Trod: A History of the Anglo-Scottish Border’ by John Sadler.  John is a native Northumbrian of extended lineage and inherited his love of the borders and their turbulent history from both his father and grandfather. He was a lawyer by profession but achieved his millennial goal of moving to full time writing, alongside lecturing, tour guiding and living history/historical interpretation.

He can claim to have walked over most of the ground he writes about, often more than once and in some instances, many times! He’s marched over every battlefield and visited just about every castle, bastle and pele tower that survives, (and there are a lot of these). He regularly leads tour groups across the border country and on battlefield walks. As a living history exponent and great believer in experimental archaeology, he is a partner in John Sadler’s Time Bandits (with Bev Palin). As a duo, they appear in a variety of historical locations on both sides of the line in a range of character guises – as Lord Bothwell, Sir John Forster, Kinmont Will Armstrong and Bastard Heron. He lives in Northumberland, is married, has two daughters and three grandsons and is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the author of The Hot Trod: A History of the Anglo-Scottish Border.

Top image: The ruins of an early 17th century bastle or defensible farmhouse in the Anglo-Scottish Borders as protection against Border Reivers. Source: drhfoto/Adobe Stock

By John Sadler

 

John

John Sadler is a native Northumbrian of extended lineage and inherited his love of the borders and their turbulent history from both his father and grandfather. He was a lawyer by profession but achieved his millennial goal of moving to... Read More

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