English Border Towns – Bewcastle, Liddel Moat, Netherby, Kirk Andrews, Gilnockie, Langholm

A PILGRIMAGE to Bewcastle cannot be recommended to persons animated by curiosity alone ; or even by a passion for the beauties of nature. From childhood the writer had a desire to behold Bewcastle, because it was the Captain of Bewcastle who, in the ballad of Jamie Teller, in The Border Minstrelsy, made such an unlucky raid on the cows of a farmer in Ettrickdale. The very word Bewcastle seemed to re-echo the trumpets of the Wardens’ Raids and the battles long ago. But when you actually find yourself, after a long walk or drive up a succession of long green ascents, in the broad bleak cup of the hills ; when you see the grassy heights, with traces of ancient earthworks that surround the blind grey oblong of the ruined castle ; the little old church, all modern within, and the tiny hamlet that nestles by the shrunken and prosaic burn ; then, unless you be an antiquary and a historian, you feel as if you had come very far to see very little. But if a secular antiquary and a ballad lover, you fill the landscape with galloping reivers, you restore the royal flag of England to the tower, and your mind is full of the rough riding life of Mus-graves and Grahams, Scotts, Elliots and Armstrongs. If, on the other hand, your tastes are ecclesiastical, and you are an amateur of Runic writing, you can pass hours with the tall headless Runic cross beside the church, a work of art dating from the middle of the seventh century of our era, according to the prevalent opinion.

Bewcastle is at least ten miles from the nearest railway at Penton; twelve from Brampton_; not easily approached by a fell path from Gilsland ; and is most easily if least romantically reached by motor car from Carlisle, a drive of nearly twenty miles. The Elliots and Scotts of the reiving days, got at Bewcastle by riding down Liddel water, crossing it at the Kershope burn ford, and then robbing all and sundry through some four miles. The castle they could not take in a casual expedition.

The oldest monument in the place, except the earthworks said to be Roman, is the Cross, which much resembles the more famous Cross of Ruthwell, near Dumfries, with the runes from the Song of the Rood. More fortunate than the Ruthwell relic of early Anglican Christianity, that of Bewcastle was never broken up by the bigots of the Covenant as ” a monument of idolatry.” The head, however, was removed by Belted Will of Naworth, and sent to Camden the historian, in the reign of James VI and I. The west face is the most interesting. The top panel contains a figure of St. John the Baptist ; our Lord is represented in the central panel, inscribed in runes, Gessus Kristtus. The figure is noble and broad in treatment ; done in the latest gloaming of classical art. Beneath is seated a layman, in garb of peace, with his falcon. The runic inscription on the central panel is black, painted black, it seems, by a recent rector, the Rev. Mr. Maughan, who laboured long at deciphering the characters. Professor Stephens read them :

This victory-column Thin set up Hwaetred Woth- gar Olfwolthu after Alcfrith Once King and son of Oswi Pray for the high sin of his soul.

Runes are difficult. Mr. Stephens once read a Greek epitaph in elegiac verse, for a Syrian boy, at Brough, as a Runic lament, in old English, for a martyred Christian lady. I have little confidence in Hwaetred, Olfwolthu, and Wothgar : who were they ; the artists employed in making the Cross ? Eac Oswiung, “and son of Oswin,” “the king,” is said to be plain enough, and to indicate Alchfrith, son of Oswin, who after a stormy youth accepted, as against the Celtic clerics, the positions of St. Wilfred. The decorative work, knot work, vine scrolls, birds and little animals among the grapes, is of Byzantine and Bewcastle must, it seems, have been a more important and populous place when this monument was erected, than even when the Royal castle was a centre of resistance to the Liddesdale clans in Queen Elizabeth’s day.

Returning from Bewcastle by Penton, we strike the Liddel near Penton Linn, not distant from the vanished peel of that Judas, Hector Armstrong of Harelaw, who betrayed the Earl of Northumberland into the hands of the Regent Murray in 1569. A little way below, near the junction of Liddel and Esk, on a commanding height that overhangs railway and river, is Liddel Moat. Locally this moat is called ” the Roman Camp,” but to the average amateur there is certainly nothing Roman about it. No doubt the Romans may have had an outpost here; the position is too strong not to have been held by them, especially as they had a station barely a couple of miles away, at Netherby. But the prominent remains of fortifications now to be seen here manifestly date from long after Roman days. It is, I believe, the site of the earliest Liddel Castle, erected by Ranulph de Soulis before either the Liddel Castle at Castleton, or Hermitage, was built. This Liddel Castle was razed to the ground, wiped out of existence, by the Scottish army under David Bruce, which invaded England in 1346 and was so totally routed at Neville’s Cross a few weeks later. On his march southward, says Ridpath, Bruce ” took the fortress of Liddel and put the garrison to the sword, . . . spreading terror and desolation all round him in his progress through Cumberland.” Liddel Moat is well worthy of a visit, but it is somewhat out of the beaten track and can only be reached by walking a little distance, preferably from the station at Riddings Junction. The position, defended on the landward side by an immensely deep moat, and on the other dropping almost sheer into the river— or rather, now, on to the intervening rail-way line—is a magnificent one, and the view obtained from the highest point is very fine,—at one’s feet, just beyond the two rivers, “Cannobie lea”;

” There was mounting ‘mong Graemes of the Netherby clan, Forsters, Fenwicks, and Musgraves, they rode and they ran, There was racing and chasing on Cannobie lea, But the lost bride of Netherby ne’er did they see.”

A short way farther down the Esk is Netherby, head-quarters of that clan whose peel towers once dotted this part of Cumberland and all the Debateable Land, and who in the early seventeenth century were so hardly used by James VI and I. They were no better, I suppose, than the others of that day, ‘but they were no worse, and the story of their banishment is not very pleasant reading. Lord Scrope believed that the Grahams were ” privy ” to Buccleuch’s rescue of Kinmont Willie, and certainly the Grahams did not love Lord Scrope, who, I suppose, was not likely to present the clan in a very favourable light to Queen Elizabeth. Their reputation, in any case, became increasingly black, and James I, when he came to the throne, issued a proclamation against them. In fact, the dog was given an exceedingly bad name—not of course wholly without cause—and hung ; or, rather, many of their houses were harried, their women and children turned out to fend for themselves in the wet and cold, and their men shipped off to banishment in Ireland and in Holland. Certainly, in driblets they made their way back to their own country again, after a time—those who survived, that is,—but their nests had been harried, their broods scattered down the wind, and, as a clan, their old status was never regained.

As has already been told, Netherby was the site of a Roman station, and it is rich in evidences of the old Legions—coins, altars, and what not. The original peel at Netherby-which still forms part of the present mansion—I take to have been such another as the Graham tower of Kirk Andrews, its near neighbour, which stands—still inhabited—just across the Esk, perched on a rising ground overhanging the river.

From a sporting point of view at least, the Esk here is a beautiful stream, famous for its salmon, which are plentiful and often of great size. In his Notes to “Redgauntlet,” Sir Walter Scott mentions that ” shortly after the close of the American war, Sir James Graham of Netherby constructed a dam-dike, or cauld, across the Esk, at a place where it flowed through his estate, though it has its origin, and the principal part of its course, in Scotland. The new barrier at Netherby was considered as an encroachment calculated to prevent the salmon from ascending into Scotland ; and the right of erecting it being an international question of law betwixt the sister kingdoms, there was no court in either competent to its decision. In this dilemma, the Scots people assembled in numbers by signal of rocket-lights, and, rudely armed with fowling-pieces, fish spears and such rustic weapons, marched to the banks of the river for the purpose of pulling down the dam-dike objected to. Sir James Graham armed many of his own people to protect his property, and had some military from Carlisle for the same purpose. A renewal of the Border wars had nearly taken place in the eighteenth century, when prudence and moderation on both sides saved much tumult, and perhaps some bloodshed. The English proprietor consented that a breach should be made in his dam-dike sufficient for the passage of the fish, and thus removed the Scottish grievance. I believe the river has since that time taken the matter into its own disposal, and entirely swept away the dam-dike in question.” I do not think there is now any trace of the obstruction which so roused the good people of Langholm and their supporters. The question, of course, was not a new one. As early as the middle of the fifteenth century, Cumberland folks and Scots were at logger-heads over a “fish-garth” constructed by the former, which the Scots maintained prevented salmon from ascending to the upper waters. The dispute raged for something like a hundred years.

Leaving Kirk Andrews, we get at once onto the old London and Edinburgh coach road close to Scot’s Dike, and in the course of two or three miles reach the village of Canonbie, where at a little distance from the bridge over Esk stands the comfortable old coaching inn, the Cross Keys, now favoured of anglers. Thence all the way to Langholm the road runs by the river-bank through very delightful scenery, said, in old days, indeed, to be the most beautiful of all between London and Edinburgh. In the twelfth century a Priory stood at Canonbie, and as late as 1576 there was still a resident Prior, but the building itself I think was wrecked by the English in 1542, after the battle of Solway Moss. A few of its stones are still to the fore, but I fear the ruin was used as a quarry during the building of Canonbie Bridge.

That also is a fate that waited on another famous building not far from Canonbie—Gilnockie Castle, the residence of the notorious Johnny Armstrong. Hollows Tower, a few hundred yards above the village of Hollows, is often confounded with Gilnockie, probably for the reason that no stone of the latter has been left standing on another, and that Hollows Tower is a conspicuous object in the foreground here. Perhaps, too, Sir Walter Scott was partly responsible for the belief prevalent in many quarters that the Hollows is Gilnockie. In ” Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,” he says : ” His [Johny Armstrong’s] place of residence (now a roofless tower) was at the Hollows, a few miles from Langholm, where its ruins still serve to adorn a scene which, in natural beauty, has few equals in Scotland ”

I am not certain, but I do not think that Sir Walter ever visited Gilnockie. If he had done so, it could scarcely have escaped his knowledge that another castle once stood less than half a mile from Hollows Tower, and that towards the end of the eighteenth century the stones from that castle were utilised in the building of Gilnockie Bridge. That they were so used is well authenticated ; and I should think it is probable that the ruin was found to be a convenient quarry also when houses in the neighbouring village of Hollows were being built.

Hollows Tower is a very good example of the old Border Keep, but it is small, much too small to have given anything like sufficient accommodation for Johny Armstrong’s ” tail,” which must necessarily have been of considerable strength. The dining hall, for instance, measures roughly only a little over twenty-two feet by thirteen, and the total outside length of the tower is less than thirty-five feet. I should imagine it to be certain that Johny never lived here ; indeed, I should be inclined to doubt if this particular Hollows Tower was even built during Johny Armstrong’s life-time. Neither is the position a very strong one,—though on that point it is perhaps not easy to judge, because, in old days no doubt (as in the case of Hermitage Castle,) impassable swamps probably helped to protect it from assault on one or more sides.

The place where Gilnockie stood is without any doubt a little lower down the Esk than Hollows Tower, at a point where the river makes a serpentine bend and contracts into a narrow, rocky gorge, impossible to ford. Here, at the Carlisle end of Gilnockie Bridge, on the high tongue of rocky land that projects into the stream, are faint but unmistakeable outlines of a large building, with outworks. The position is magnificent —impregnable, in fact, to any force of olden days unprovided with artillery. On three sides the rocky banks drop nearly sheer to the water, and across the root of the tongue are indications of a protecting fosse. It is impossible to imagine a site more perfect for a freebooter’s stronghold. To have neglected it, in favour of such a position as that occupied by the Hollows Tower, would have been on the reiver’s part to throw away the most obvious of the gifts of Providence.

Local tradition has it that Johny had a drawbridge by which, at will, he could cross the river. Certainly there is a projecting nose of rock just at the narrowest part of the stream, immediately above the present stone bridge, but one would be inclined to doubt if the engineering skill of Scotland in the sixteenth century was equal to the task of constructing a serviceable drawbridge capable of spanning a width so great.

There is a curious stone that projects inwards from high up in Hollows Tower, the original purpose of which forms to the amateur lover of ancient buildings a quite insolvable puzzle. The stone measures, roughly, from the wall to its tip about three feet in length, and its diameter is perhaps ten or twelve inches. Towards the end farthest from the wall it has a well-marked groove on the upper part and sides, as if heavy weights had frequently been suspended from it by ropes or chains. Its position is on the right of a narrow door that opens two or three feet above the floor-level of the room into which the stone projects, and the stone itself must have been close to the ceiling of the chamber. What was its use? An intelligent but youthful guide, when the writer was at Hollows, suggested with ghoulish delight that it was “a hangin’-stane.” But that, surely, would have been wilful waste on the part of the Armstrongs, so long as trees were available. Nor is it likely that they got rid of prisoners in this way with a regularity sufficient to account for the well-worn groove in the stone. It does, however, recall Sir Thomas Dick Lauder’s feelings, when ” at the top of the south-western angle of the Tower [of Neidpath], a large mass of the masonry had fallen, and laid open a chamber roofed with a Gothic arch of stone, from the centre of which swung, vibrating with every heavy gust of wind, an enormous iron ring. To what strange and wild horrors did this not awaken the fancy? ”

From a little beyond Hollows Tower, all the way to Langholm you catch through the trees glimpses of hurrying, foamflecked streams that speak most eloquently of ” sea-trout, rushing at the fly.” It has never been the writer’s fortune to cast a line in this water, but if looks go for anything the sport must be excellent.

It is impossible to imagine scenery more pleasing than the woody banks that overhang the river as Langholm is approached ; and the position of the town itself, nestling amongst beautiful hills, is singularly inviting. Langholm occupies the site of a famous old battle, that of Arkenholm, where in 1454 the power of the Douglas’s was finally broken. In and about the town there is much to interest those whose tastes lean towards archaeology ; the whole countryside, indeed, is sprinkled with towers and the remains of towers. In the burgh itself for example, there is what appears to be the remains of an old peel, now forming part of the wing of a hotel ; just above the upper bridge are the ruins—the sorely battered ruins—of Langholm Castle, once an Armstrong stronghold ; and most beautifully situated on Wauchope Water, just outside the town, is Wauchope Castle, long ago the seat of the Lindsays. Little now is left of the building, practically nothing, indeed, but two small portions of the outer wall on the rocks immediately overhanging the picturesque water of Wauchope. The position must in the days of its pride have been immensely strong, and the scene now is very beautiful.

In close proximity to the castle is an old graveyard, with remains—at least the foundations—of a pre-Reformation church and a few interesting old stones, two, at least, apparently very ancient, if one may judge from the style of sword cut on them. Not far from this are traces of the old Roman Road, and near at hand a stone bridge, also believed to be Roman, once crossed the stream. But it is said—with what truth I know not—to have been destroyed long ago by a Minister, whose care of his flock was such that, to prevent the lads of Langholm strolling that way of an evening, disturbing the peace of mind and pious meditations of his female domestics, he demolished it.

As in the case of Selkirk, and of Hawick, the great festival of the year at Langholm is on the occasion of the Fair and Common Riding. In the Proclamation of the Fair, after a statement of the penalties to be imposed on disturbers of the festival, the curious words occur : ” They shall sit down on their bare knees and pray seven times for the King, and thrice for the Muckle Laird o’ Ralton.” The Laird of Ralton was an illegitimate son of Charles II, but what he had to do with Eskdale, or what is the origin of the words, I have been quite unable to learn.

To go, even superficially, into the history of Langholm and of the interesting and beautiful country surrounding it, would occupy much space, and neither time nor space is available.

Here, amongst the hills and the many waters, we must leave the Border. It is a country whose mountains are seldom grand or awe-inspiring, as in some parts of the Scottish Highlands they may be; its streams do not flow with the rich majesty of Thames, nor with the mighty volume of Tay ; and there are, doubtless, rivers possessed of wilder scenery. But to the true Borderer, however long absent he be, into what part soever of the world he may have been driven by the Fates, there are no hills like the Border hills—they are indeed to him “the Delectable Mountains “; there are no waters so loved, none that sing to him so sweetly as Tweed and all the streams of his own land. “If I did not see the heather at least once a year, I think I should die,” said Scott. To a greater or less extent it is so with all of us. One of her most loving sons (he who should have guided the course of this volume, and who, had he lived, would have made of it some-thing worthy of the Border), once said, on his return from a visit to famed Killarney : “The beauty of the Irish Lakes is rather that of the Professional Beauty. When one comes back to the Border, there one finds the same beauty one used to see in the face of one’s mother, or of one’s old nurse.” And : ” I am never so happy as when I cross the Tweed at Berwick from the South,” he writes in an Introduction to Mr. Charles Murray’s ” Hamewith.” It was not only his own, but, I think, every Borderer’s sentiments that he voiced when he wrote :

“Brief are man’s days at best ; perchance I waste my own, who have not seen The castled palaces of France Shine on the Loire in summer green.

” And clear and fleet Eurotas still, You tell me, laves his reedy shore, And flows beneath his fabled hill Where Dian draye the chase of yore.

” And ` like a horse unbroken ‘ yet The yellow stream with rush and foam, ‘Neath tower, and bridge, and parapet, Girdles his ancient mistress, Rome !

” I may not see them, but I doubt If seen I’d find them half so fair As ripples of the rising trout That feed beneath the elms of Yair.

” Unseen, Eurotas, southward steal, Unknown, Alpheus, westward glide, You never heard the ringing reel, The music of the water side !

” Though Gods have walked your woods among, Though nymphs have fled your banks along ; You speak not that familiar tongue Tweed murmurs like my cradle song.

” My cradle song,—nor other hymn I’d choose, nor gentler requiem dear Than Tweed’s, that through death’s twilight dim, Mourned in the latest Minstrel’s ear ! ”

His love of the Border hills, ” the great, round-backed, kindly, solemn hills of Tweed, Yarrow, and Ettrick,” his devotion to the streams beside whose banks the-summers of his boyhood were spent, never lessened with the passing years. In prose and in verse continually it broke out. Tweed’s song is the same that she has ever sung; but now

” He who so loved her lies asleep, He hears no more her melody.”