Halidon Hill

FROM Lamberton the road goes its wide, spacious way towards Berwick. The sea lies hidden beneath the high but flat fields beyond the railway. At Marshall Meadows, a house in a clump of trees, a path may be made to the sea by following a hedge, or, better still, at the farm further on called Steps of Grace, a little burn glides through a gentle valley dotted with gorse bushes. A fence must be climbed, the railway crossed – all trespassing but pleasant. In front the sea is spread and over a strip of land are the cliff tops. Where a tiny stream has found its way a path drops down to the shore, and on a green mound a deserted salmon-fisher’s shiel looks to the beach and the sea. The burn falls over the steep bank behind, and down its course meadowsweet and herb willow in high summer decorate the slope. But when May flings its sweets, the primroses thick as stars lighten the banks, and the violet too, for this bay is sheltered from the north. In June the sea pinks clothe the sward where it runs down to the rocks, and through a deep natural harbour the green water rushes to steal up the golden slip of sand. Far out are the brown sails of the fishing-boats or the streak of a steamer’s smoke. Only the seagulls fly over to feed behind the plough on the uplands beyond. One always fancies that here the rock pigeon might murmur unmolested in crannies like the grey pipits which chatter on the patch of sand below. It is hardly possible to walk along the shore to Berwick, though this can be done when the tide is back ; but a coastguard’s path on the brink of the cliffs makes to Berwick a finer sea walk than can be had on any other part of the coast to Newcastle. Below are caves not very large, but still sufficient to suggest smugglers. When the tide comes in through narrow gullies and straits it has cut in the rocks, and dashes with clamour and fury into the caves, and hollow splashings and gurgles of rising and withdrawing water ascend to the listener on the green head of the cliff, there are some wonderful scenes. In one place the sea has hollowed a deep chasm in the land and on either side dark cliffs drop precipitously down into the turbulent water, and at high tide the inlet is full of the sound and fury of meeting waves. It is known as Maggie’s Leap or some similar name, to recall where a girl in some black hour jumped. Then there is the Needle’s Eye, where the sea bursts through a slit in the prominent cliff. At the ” Greenses ” Harbour the cliffs stop. ” Greens,” officials write, but ” Greenses,” say the people. Above are wide pastures that stretch to the Bell Tower, and curving with emerald green the crumbling sandstone heights drop towards Berwick Pier. At Greenses Harbour, besides artificial bathing places when the tide is back, are beautful pools in the rocks known to generations of schoolboys as the Poddlers and the Narrow Way. This is the way by the cliffs. If the highway be preferred it goes past a number of little farm-places. A short two miles, and rising to the right of the main road is seen the long, upward road that leads past Conundrum, a farm curiously named, to the wide romantic view that unfolds from the top of Halidon Hill. Here history was made. Before that fated battle Berwick was the greatest seaport of Scotland and its commercial centre. A well-known writer says : ” Berwick-upon-Tweed, the capital, took rank with Ghent, Rotterdam, and the other great cities of the Low Countries, and was almost the rival of London in mercantile enterprise.” The English indeed got their revenge for Bannockburn, and, except for a brief period, never again did the Scots hold that fair and thriving town under their rule. The Scots Gate was closed to their hungry fingers and they hammered vainly on its iron-studded doors. The Scots, of course, could still annoy until the Union. In 1558 the French and Scottish soldiers at Eyemouth Fort fell on the Berwick garrison, who were on Halidon Hill protecting the towns-folk, who were mowing – far to the north of the town lie the freemens meadows even to this day. The English were out of their armour to shoote, boule, coyte and exercise such lyke games of pleasure,” with the haymakers, no doubt, joining in happily. Under the hot sun from one till four they skirmished with considerable loss on both sides.

After the battle of Halidon Hill, Berwick never again regained the prestige of her ancient name. Her fighting days passed away with the stronger government of England seated within her grey walls.

The trumpet’s silver sound was still The warder silent on the hill.

The formidable English bowmen soon to humble the pride of France at Cressy carried away the honours from the Border town.

After the lion heart of Robert the Bruce had ceased to beat and had started on its last journey to the Holy Sepulchre with the gallant Douglas, the evil days fell on Berwick.

In February, 1333, the splendid army of Edward III invested the town, under Sir William Montagu. It was still holding out, though in desperate straits, when Edward marched from New-castle. The Earl of Dunbar in the citadel, and Sir William Keith in the town, made a gallant resistance whilst the walls tottered before the furious English onslaught. The fate of Berwick was sealed unless assistance arrived, so Keith promised to deliver it up by the 19th of July, and the sons of the principal townsmen were handed out through the blackened walls as hostages. An army did come from Scotland, but after crossing the Tweed and sending in men and food to the distressed town it marched on to the siege of Bamburgh, in which was Queen Philippa. The day arrived for the capitulation of Berwick, but the citizens refused, saying they had been relieved. The situation that arose was one of the most dramatic in Border history. Edward erected a gallows in full view of the Castle. It probably stood on ground near one of the arches of the modern railway bridge on the Tweedmouth side. Here he declared would be hung one of the hostages, a son of Alexander de Seton, a new warden of the town, if it did not capitulate. The heroic Setons refused to sacrifice the town. A tradition says that Lady Seton relented, but that is not borne out by Andrew Wyntoun, who lived close to the time, was related to the Setons, and wrote the well known ” Chronicle of Scotland.”

Wyntoun says that they had already lost two sons in the defence, but did not shrink from sacrificing a third.

Then sayd the lady that she was young And her lord was young also of power till have bairns mair And allow that they twa deid were there Yet of their bairns some living were.

From the Water Tower, part of whose strong walls the high tide still washes, to which descend the broken flight of steps now called the Breakneck Stairs, the Setons must have witnessed every detail of the heartrending scene. The knoll on which the gallows stood is still called Hang a Dyke Neuk. The impression that this poignant tragedy made actually lasted for over 500 years. Almost within living memory a skull was shown in Tweedmouth reputed to be young Seton’s. This stern measure overcame the relatives of the other hostages. The English gave them fifteen days in which to surrender or give battle in the open and demanded three more hostages. Sir William Keith with a safe conduct galloped after the Scottish army invading Northumberland and overtook them at Walton Underwood. They found on reaching Berwick that the English army was arrayed on Halidon Hill about one and a half miles above the town. The Scots moved forward in four columns. Over the first floated the banner of John, Earl of Moray, and with him two notable veteran knights, John and Simon Fraser. Sir James Stewart rode at the head. The Regent Douglas commanded the third, supported by the Earl of Carrick. The reserve, the fourth, column was led by the Earl of Ross. It was July, when, even on that bleak coast, the richness of summer descends. From the height of Halidon the English hosts had on their right the silver winding Tweed, with the harbour at its mouth full of shipping, for Berwick was known then as the Alexandria of the North. On the southern side the rising moors stretched in the treeless solitude of that much-forayed land to the wide sides of noble Cheviot. On the left was the shimmering blue of the sea, calm in the brief Northern summer, and in front the huddled towers and roofs of Berwick that covered the suspense and suffering of the gallant townsfolk. On the flat Northumbrian coast sat the bold rock of Holy Island with its sacred edifice, and still further south the faint outline of Bamburgh. The Scots came forward to the foot of the hill and had to dismount. In front of them was marshy land, and above them the hill gleamed with the pennons and spears of English chivalry, and, most terrible of all, the kneeling bowmen. The Scots sent their horses to the rear whilst the English array watched them motionless. A huge Scot, called Turnbull, accompanied by a fierce mastiff, invited the English to produce a champion. A Norfolk knight, Robert Benhale, came forward. With one stroke he disabled the dog and then sliced off one arm of Turnbull and finally slashed off his head. It was an evil omen, and foreboding seized the Scots as they saw how closely knit stood the foe above them on the advantageous position, the sun glinting on their serried spears. The gallant Scots struggled through the marsh whilst into them poured sheaves of arrows. The ground was strewn with wounded and dying, and over them their comrades advanced and superbly drove with their long spears right into the thick formation of the English ranks. The unarmoured Irish slaves or mercenaries of the English army were thrust down and trampled on in the bloody clamour and the first ranks of the English were pushed back in disorder. Such was the onset of the Scots delivered with the renowned dash and valour which still to-day make the” kilties ” the most dreaded opponents in a charge. Balliol and Darcy saw with dismay the wavering ranks they commanded. With the decision of desperation they rallied the firmness of the troops and hurried up the reserves and poured the unceasing, deadly shafts into the panting Scots who, hurling themselves up the steep, weighted with armour, bathed in blood and sweat, strove to gain a footing on the level crown of Halidon. Shouting, fighting, resisting with unsurpassable bravery, they were rolled down the hill. The flower of the knights were perishing, falling, trodden on, cruelly smashed as their companions were thrust over them towards the marshy base. In despair they refused to fly, striking down with wrath and vengeance their better placed foe. At last, in total disorder, they rushed to their horses But the servitors in charge of them had fled. Encumbered in mail, the Scots could make no headway. A fearful slaughter followed. Edward, coming up from Berwick walls, which he had been attacking, followed the fugitives for five miles with Darcy’s Irish troops and English bowmen. The chronicler of Lanercost says : ” The English pursued them on horseback, felling the wretches as they fled in all directions with iron-shod maces.” The figures given of the slain are unreliable, as the English exaggerated and the Scots minimised their losses. As was characteristic of these Border battles the Scots lost a great many of their nobility, among whom were six Earls, Carrick, Ross, Athol, Lennox, Sutherland, and Menteith. The Regent Douglas also fell. It was a pitiful slaughter. Unhappy Berwick opened its gates to Edward. Near to the field of battle an altar was erected in a convent by the King, dedicated to St. Margaret, and £20 a year was granted to the nuns that they should for ever on the anniversary yield thanks to God.