English Border Towns – Liddesdale, Hermitage, Castleton

COMING into Liddesdale by the route followed by Prince Charlie, over the hills by Note o’ the Gate, one finds, a few miles past that curiously-named spot and no great distance from the road, the scene of a momentous battle of ancient times. It is claimed that it was here on Dawstane Rig the mighty struggle took place in the year 603 between Edelfrid, King of the Northumbrians, and Aidan, King of the Scots, the result of which, says Bede, writing a century and a quarter later, was that “from that time no king of the Scots durst come into Britain to make war on the Angles to this day.” As written by Bede, the name of the place where the battle was fought is Daegsastan,–a “famous place” he calls it. Dalston, near Carlisle, also claims the honour of being the true site of this great defeat of the Scots ; But Dawstane Rig seems the more probable spot, for, judging from the number of camps in the immediate vicinity, it must assuredly in old days have answered the description of a ” famous place.” There are numerous signs, also, that a great fight did at some remote period take place here ; traces of escarpments are numerous on the hill side, arrowheads and other suggestive implements have frequently been picked up, and over all the hill are low cairns or mounds of stones, probably burial places of the slain. So far as I am aware, no excavations have ever been made here ; the dead if these stones do indeed cover the dead—sleep undisturbed where they fell. But if the work were judiciously done, it would be interesting and instructive to make a systematic search over the reputed battle ground.

Not far distant from this ancient field of battle, but a little closer to the base of Peel Fell, runs a Roman road, the old Wheel Causeway, and into, or almost into, this road comes the Catrail, here finally disappearing. I have never heard any suggestion made of a reason why this Picts’ Work Dyke should stop abruptly in, or at least on the very verge of, a Roman high-way. It is difficult to accept the theory that the Catrail was a road, because, in places where it crosses streams, no attempt is made to diverge towards a ford, or even to an easy entrance to the river bed ; it plunges in where the bank is often most inconveniently precipitous, and emerges again where it is equally steep. Yet if it was not a road, why should it run into and end in a recognised road that must have been in existence when the Catrail was formed ?

Up the Wheel Causeway, a little distance beyond the spot where the Catrail disappears, and between the Wormscleuch and Peel burns, there stood at one time an ancient ecclesiastical building, the Wheel Chapel, of whose walls faint traces still remain. It was in this building that Edward I of England passed the night of 24th May 1296, during his Border Progress; in the record of his expedition the chapel is spoken of as the ” Wyel.” When the Statistical Account of 1798 was written, probably a considerable part of the ruin yet stood, for the writer of that account speaks of it as being of ” excellent workmanship,” and ” pretty large.” And he remarks on the great number of grave-stones in the churchyard, from which he concludes that the surrounding population must at one time have been very considerable. Over all this district, indeed, that seems to have been the case. Chapels were numerous among these hills ; in this part of Liddesdale there were no fewer than five, and the Wheel Chapel itself is not more than six miles or so, as the crow flies, from Southdean, where it is certain that about the date of the battle of Otterburne the population was much more dense than it is at the present day.

What changes little more than one hundred years have wrought in this countryside. Six years before the Statistical Account of 1798 was penned, there were neither roads nor bridges in Liddesdale; ” through these deep and broken bogs and mosses we must crawl, to the great fatigue of ourselves but the much greater injury of our horses,” pathetically says the reverend Writer of the account. Every article of merchandise had to be carried on horseback. Sir Walter Scott himself—in August 1800–was the first who ever drove a wheeled vehicle among the Liddesdale hills, and we know from ” Guy Mannering,” and from Lockhart’s ” Life,” pretty well what a wild country it then was. There was not an inn or a public house in the whole valley, says Lockhart; “the travellers passed from the shepherd’s hut to the minister’s manse, and again from the cheerful hospitality of the manse to the rough and jolly welcome of the homestead.” Inns, to be sure, even now are not to be found, and are not needed, by every roadside, but at least there are excellent main roads down both Liddel and Hermitage, and a main line of railway runs through the valley; the moors are well drained, and the necessity no longer exists to ” crawl ” through broken bogs and mosses. Yet still the hills in appearance are as they were in Scott’s day, still they retain features which render them distinct from any other of the Border hills ; they are “greener and more abrupt . . . . sinking their sides at once upon the river.” “They had no pretensions to magnificence of height, or to romantic shapes, nor did their smooth swelling slopes exhibit either rocks or woods. Yet the view was wild, solitary, and pleasingly rural. No enclosures, no roads, almost no tillage,—it seemed a land which a patriarch would have chosen to feed his flocks and herds. The remains of here and there a dismantled and ruined tower showed that it had once harboured beings of a very different description from its present inhabitants,—those freebooters, namely, to whose exploits the wars between England and Scotland bear witness.” The description might almost have been written to-day. The wild; hard riding, hard living freebooter of Johnie Armstrong’s day is gone, leaving but a name and a tradition, or at most the mouldering walls of some old peel tower. But Dandie Dinmont himself, I think may still be found here in the flesh, as true a friend, as generous, as brave and steadfast as ever was his prototype,—but no longer as hard drinking. The days of ” run” brandy from the Solway Firth are over, and the scene mentioned by Lockhart is now impossible, where Scott’s host, a Liddesdale farmer, on a slight noise being heard outside, the evening of the traveller’s arrival, banged up from his knees during family prayers, shouting “By -, here’s the keg at last!”

On hearing the previous day of Scott’s proposed visit, he had sent off two men to some smuggler’s haunt to obtain a supply of liquor, that his reputation for hospitality might not be shamed. And here it was, to the great prejudice of that evening’s family worship ! I do not suppose that the present day ” Dandie” leisters fish any longer,—though one would not take on oneself rashly to swear that such a thing is even now entirely impossible; but certainly within recent years fox hunts have taken place amongst these hills much after the fashion described in ” Guy Mannering.” In such a country, indeed, what other means can there be of dealing with the hill foxes ?

There is another road into Liddesdale from the north, that which comes from Hawick up the Slitrig, past Stobs camp, then through the gap • in the hills by Shankend and over the watershed by Limekilnedge, where Whitterhope Burn—tributary of Hermitage Water—takes its rise. As you drop down to heights less elevated, you pass on your left the Nine Stane Rig, a Druidical Circle, but locally more famed as the spot where the cruel and detestable Sorcerer, Lord Soulis, came to his grisly end. ” Oh, BOIL him, if you like, but let me be plagued no more,” cried (according to tradition) a Scottish Monarch, wearied by the importunities of those who endlessly brought before him their grievances against the wicked lord. So—as Leyden wrote

” On a circle of stones they placed the pot, On a circle of stones but barely nine ; They heated it red and fiery hot, Till the burnished brass did glimmer and shine.

“They rolled him up in a sheet of lead—. A sheet of lead for a funeral pall ; They plunged him in the cauldron red, And melted him, lead, and bones, and all.

” At the Skelf-hill, the cauldron still The men of Liddesdale can show ; And on the spot, where they boiled the pot, The spreat and the deer-hair ne’er shall grow.”

(” Spreat ” is a species of rush, and ” deer-hair ” a coarse kind of grass.) Not the least painful part of the operation one would think must have been the getting so large a body into so small a cauldron. Some necromancy stronger than his own must have been employed to get him into a pot of the dimensions of that long preserved at Skelf-hill and shown to the curious as the identical cauldron. Of the stones that still remain of the original nine, two used to be pointed out as those between which the muckle pot was suspended on an iron bar, gipsy-kettle fashion. In reality, I believe this last of the de Soulis family died in Dumbarton Castle, a prisoner accused of conspiracy and treason.

A little way up Hermitage Water from the junction of Whitterhope Burn, stands the massive and most striking ruin of Hermitage Castle. Externally, the walls of this formidable stronghold are said to be mostly of the fifteenth century, but in part, of course, the building is very much older. The first castle built here is said to have been erected by Nicholas de Soulis in the beginning of the thirteenth century, and on a map of about the year 1300 Hermitage is shown as one of the great frontier fortresses. There were, however, earlier proprietors of these lands than the de Soulis’s, who may, presumably, have lived here in some stronghold of their own, to which their successors may have added. About the year 1180, Walter de Bolbeck granted ” to God and Saint Mary and Brother William of Mercheley ” the hermitage in his ” waste ” called Mercheley, beside Hermitage Water—then called the Merching burn. But from a much earlier date than this, possibly as early as the sixth century, the place had been famed as the retreat of a succession of holy men, and probably something in the nature of a chapel existed even then. The chapel whose remains still stand, close by the bank of the tumbling stream, a few hundred yards higher up than the castle, is, I understand, of thirteenth century origin. It measures a little over fifty-one feet in length and twenty-four in width, and the ruins are of much interest, if it were only for the thought of those who in their day must have heard mass within its walls, and perhaps there confessed their sins.

And surely, if sinners ever required absolution, some of those who must have knelt here had need to ask it. On the shoulders of ‘de Soulis and Bothwell alone—among those who from time to time held the castle of Hermitage perhaps the chief of sinners,—there rested a load of iniquity too heavy to be borne by ordinary mortal ; and of the others, some perhaps did not lag far behind in cruelty and wickedness. If the tale be all true regarding the last days of Sir Alexander Ramsay in 1342, the Knight of Liddesdale had a good deal to answer for during his tenancy of the castle. The interior of the building is in so much more ruinous a state than the outside, that it is not possible to follow with any degree of accuracy incidents that took place within its walls. It is said that before death ended his pangs, Sir Alexander Ramsay eked out a miserable existence for seventeen days on grains of corn that dribbled down from a granary overhead into the dungeon where he lay. But the small dungeon where he is said to have been confined has a vaulted roof, and the room above was manifestly a guard room so that—unless there was some other dungeon–probably this story too, so far at least as the grains of corn are concerned, must go the way of other picturesque old tales. Some interesting relics were found among the rubbish on the floor when the dungeon was opened early in the nineteenth century, but I do riot know that there was anything that could in any way be connected with Sir Alexander’s fate. Many an unhappy wretch no doubt had occupied the place since his day. But what there was I believe was given to Sir Walter Scott, who also, as readers may see in Lockhart’s ” Life,” got from Dr. Elliot of Cleuchhead ” the large old Border war-horn, which ye may still see hanging in the armoury at Abbotsford. One of the doctor’s servants had used it many a day as a grease-horn for his scythe, before they discovered its history. When cleaned out, it was never a hair the worse–the original chain, hoop, and mouth-piece of steel, were all entire, just as you now see them. Sir Walter carried it home all the way from Liddesdale to Jedburgh, slung about his neck like Johnny Gilpin’s bottle, while I [Shortreed] was intrusted with an ancient bridle-bit which we had likewise picked up.” The horn I think had been found in a marshy bit of land near the castle.

Since about 1594, Hermitage has been the property of the Scotts of Buccleuch, into whose hands it came through their connection with Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell. A sketch done in 1810 shows that at that date one wall of the castle was rent from top to bottom by an enormous fissure, seemingly almost beyond redemption. But about 1821, careful repairs’ were undertaken by order of the then Duke of Buccleuch, and, externally, the building now seems to be in excellent condition.

Many a warrior, no doubt, lies buried in the graveyard of Hermitage chapel, but I do not think any tombstones of very great age have ever been found. Outside, however, between the wall of the burial ground and the river, there is an interesting mound, the reputed grave of the famous Cout o’ Keilder. Keilder is a district of Northumberland adjoining Peel Fell, and in the day of the wizard Soulis, that iniquitous lord’s most noted adversary was the chief of Keilder, locally called, from his great size and strength and activity, ” the Cout.” In his last desperate fight with Soulis and his followers on the banks of Hermitage Water, the Cout was hewing a bloody path through the press of men, towards his chief enemy, when weight of numbers forced him, like a wounded stag, to take to the water. Here, at bay in the rushing stream, guarding him-self from the foes who swarmed on either bank, the Cout stumbled and fell, and, hampered by his armour, he could not regain his feet ; for each time that the drowning man got his head above water, Soulis and his band thrust him back with their long spears. Finally, as he became more exhausted, they held him down. And so the Cout perished. Here on the grassy bank, hard by what is still called ” The Cout o’ Keilder’s pool,” is his grave. But one is disappointed to learn that when an examination of it was made some years ago, no gigantic bones were unearthed, nor indeed any bones at all.

There is in some of the hills near Hermitage a peculiarity which cannot fail to strike observers ; and that is, the deep gashes—you cannot call them glens—that have been cut here and there by the small burns. Scored wide and deep into the smooth sides of the hills, they are yet not so wide as to force themselves on the eye. It would be possible to drive into them, and there effectually to conceal for a time, large mobs of cattle, and I do not doubt that in old days these fissures were often so used when a hostile English force was moving up the valley.

As one goes down Hermitage Water towards its junction with the Liddel, the country, one finds, is plentifully sprinkled with the ruins of peel towers,—abandoned rookeries of the Elliot clan, I suppose, for the Armstrong holdings were a little lower down. But in old days, when the de Soulis’s held all Liddesdale, there were other strong castles besides Hermitage. Near Dinlabyre there stood the castle of Clintwood, and not far from the meeting of the two streams, on the high bank of Liddel, stood one of their strongholds—Liddel Castle. It was from this castle that the old village of Castleton took its name : the village was at first merely a settlement of de Soulis’s followers.

The old Statistical Account of the Parish gives an extract from the Session Records of Castleton church which is of interest. It is as follows “17 January 1649. The English army commanded by Colonels Bright and Pride, and under the conduct of General Cromwell, on their return to England, did lie at the Kirk of Castleton several nights, in which time they brak down and burnt the Communion table and the seats of the Kirk ; and at their removing carried away the minister’s books, to the value of one thousand merks and above, and also the books of Session, with which they lighted their tobacco pipes, the baptism, marriage, and examination rolls from October 1612 to September 1648, all which were lost and destroyed.”

Castleton as a village does not now exist, and the old church has disappeared, though the churchyard is still used. The other village, the present Newcastleton, is of course entirely a township of yesterday—to be precise, it dates only from 1793 But it is interesting from the fact that the present railway station occupies the site where once stood the tower of Park, the peel of that ” Little Jock Elliot ” who so nearly put an end to the life of Bothwell. What a difference it might have made if he had but stabbed in a more vital spot, or a little deeper.

Not far from Castleton was the home of the notorious Willie of Westburnflat, last of the old reivers, and–it almost goes without saying—an Armstrong; the last of those of whom it was written :

” Of Liddisdail the common thiefis, Sa peartlie stellis now and reifis, That nane may keip Horse, nolt, nor scheip, Nor yett dar sleip For their mischeifis.”

But Willie` lived in degenerate days ; the times were out of joint, and reiving as a profession had gone out of fashion. People now resented having their kye “lifted,” and meanly invoked the new-fangled aid of the Law in redressing such grievances. Nevertheless, Willie did his best to maintain old customs, and consequently he was feared and hated far beyond the bounds of Liddesdale.

Modern prejudice however at length became too strong for him. It so fell out that a dozen or so of cows, raided one night from Teviotdale, were traced to Westburnflat. In the dead of night, when Willie was peacefully asleep, tired perhaps, and soothed by the consciousness of a deed well done, the men of Teviotdale arrived, and, bursting in, before Willie could gather his scattered wits or realise what was happening he was overpowered by numbers, and they had bound him fast, hand and foot. His trial, along with that of nine friends and neighbours, was held at Selkirk, and though the lost cattle had not been found in his possession, and the evidence of this particular theft was in no way conclusive, on the question of general character alone the jury thought it safer to find all the prisoners guilty. Sentence of death was pronounced. Thereupon Willie arose in wrath, seized the heavy oak chair on which he had been seated, broke it in pieces by main strength, kept a strong leg for himself, and passing the remainder to his condemned comrades, called to them to stand by him and they would fight their way out of Selkirk. There is little doubt, too, that he would have succeeded had he been properly backed up. But his friends—poor ” fushionless,” spiritless creatures, degenerate Armstrongs surely, if they were Armstrongs—seized his hands and cried to him to ” let them die like Christians.” Perhaps it was a kind of equivalent to turning King’s Evidence ; they may have hoped to curry favour and to be treated leniently because of their services in helping to secure the chief villain. But they might better have died fighting ; pusillanimity availed them nothing. They were all duly hanged.

A few miles down the Liddel from Westburnflat is the site of Mangerton Castle, home of the chief of the Armstrong clan, Johnie of Gilnockie’s brother. Nothing now is left of the building, but Sir Walter mentions that an old carved stone from its walls is built into a neighbouring mill. Near to Mangerton, in a field between Newcastleton and Ettletown Churchyard, is the interesting Milnholm Cross, said to have been erected somewhere about six hundred years ago to mark the spot where a dead chief of the Armstrongs lay, prior to being buried at Ettletown. The tradition as given in the Statistical Account of 1798, is as follows : “One of the governors of Hermitage Castle, some say Lord Soulis, others Lord Douglas, having entertained a passion for a young woman in the lower part of the parish, went to her house, and was met by her father, who, wishing to conceal his daughter, was instantly killed by the Governor. He was soon pursued by the people, and, in extreme danger, took refuge with Armstrong of Mangerton, who had influence enough to prevail on the people to desist from the pursuit, and by this means saved his life. Seemingly with a view to make a return for this favour, but secretly jealous of the power and influence of Arm-strong, he invited him to Hermitage, where he was basely murdered. He himself, in his turn, was killed by Jock of the Side, of famous memory, and brother to Armstrong. The cross was erected in memory of the transaction.” Here, too, I fear tradition is untrustworthy. Jock of the Syde—” a greater thief did never ride “—lived long .after the day of the de Soulis’s or of Douglas ; he was, indeed, contemporary with the equally notorious ” Johne of the Parke,”—Little Jock Elliot. This Milnholm Cross is a little over eight feet in height. The carving is worn, and not very distinct, but on a shield there is the heraldic device of the Armstrongs, a bent arm ; some lettering, I.H.S. ; below, the initials M.A., and what appears to be A.A. ; and on the shaft is cut a two-handed sword, about four feet in length. In his ” History of Liddesdale,” (1883). Bruce Armstrong says the shield was added ” recently.”