Thropton To Harbottle

THE Coquet at Thropton, two miles west of Rothbury, receives its largest tributary, the Wreighburn. Thropton is a pleasant village possessing a pele tower, now a farmhouse. In the early nineteenth century a cross stood at each end of the village. One may have been placed there as a guide to the Hospitium of St. Leonard, which stood on the opposite side of the Coquet. It seems quite unnecessary to have removed medieval crosses.

A mile above Thropton, on the summit of a ridge, stands the curiously-named village of Snitter, between the Wreigh or Rithe burn and the Whittle burn. The original manor was called Sencher. The picturesque fourteenth-century ruins of Cartington Castle lie three miles north of Thropton, on the slope of Cartington Hill, looking down on the Coquet, with the Cheviot range to the north. In 1515 Lady Anne Radcliffe was’ hostess, in the old tower, to Margaret, Queen of Scotland, and her infant daughter, who had been born at Harbottle Castle. During the Civil War Cartington stood for King Charles, and Sir Edward Widdrington, who owned it, suffered great loss. The castle was besieged and badly damaged, and Lady Widdrington was fined 400 for giving intelligence to the Royalists. It may have been the same lady who in 1682, being asked her advice ” of a childe in sad condition,” said that she could not understand its illness unless it were be-witched. A witch at Long Edlingham was accused of looking at the child with an evil eye.

Two miles up-stream, on the opposite side of Coquet, is Bickerton, now only a farmhouse, where were noted osier beds. From Thomas de Bickertone the monks of Newminster had a right of way to the osier beds to get supplies for basket-making. The willow still grows, and the yellow iris on the marshy ground by Bickerton burn. A family who once lived at Bickerton and lost it through extravagance were thus described by Will Scott, who made the witty comment on the fox that bit him : ” Bicker-ton was beyked rig by rig i’ the big yuven o’ Bickerton a pie every day.”

The peewits are mustering on Bickerton haugh, And the swallows are racing round Hepple’s dark tower.

The grey walls of Hepple’s fourteenth-century pele still stand at the east end of the village. It was held by the de Hepples, the Tailbois, the Ogles, and several later owners. In the fourteenth century is a record of the proving of age of Walter Tailbois at Newcastle which did not rest on the word of any document, but on the evidence described in old law books as that which a man cannot deny before his neighbour : Robert de Lonthre deposed that the said Walter was 21 years old on the Feast of the Purification last past ; that he was born at Hephal and baptised in the church at Routh-bury. He recollected the day because he was a godfather. John de Walington recollected the day because he had a son baptised there on the same day. John Layson recollected the day because he had a son buried there the same day.

This heir, so quaintly and well attested, was taken prisoner in a raid by the Scots when he was commissoiner in defence of the Borders. He was exchanged for a Scottish prisoner called Peter of Crailing, evidently not a person of importance, as forty quarters of malt were also required by the bargaining Scots. The raids remind us of the weather conditions necessary for Zeppelins, for they always occurred on moonlit nights.

For they’ll be there by moonlight Though hell should bar the way

to adapt a line from ” The Highwayman.” September and October were favourite months for the pastime of getting rich at the Northumbrians’ expense. When November came, as there was no winter feeding-stuff, nearly all the sheep and oxen still left were killed and salted. Much indifferently cured mutton lay in the vaults of the pele towers. Even as late as the eighteenth century, Hepple had a number of bastle houses, the fortified type of houses still to be seen on the Borders. The tower of Hepple was about fifty feet high, the usual height of these strongholds, surmounted by a battlement. The basement vault, chiefly used for storing provisions, was seventeen feet high, with slits for light, and the holes for the sliding bar of the door are still to be seen. The internal arrangements were simple, uncomfortable, and badly lighted. Roaring fires no doubt helped to cheer the inmates ” when winter winds blew loud and shrill, o’er icy burn and sheeted hill.” After the battle of Neville’s Cross, the landowners were encouraged to build and fortify these towers. Previous to that a special licence was required from the King, who feared the barons’ growing power. The ruinous state of Hepple Tower is said to be due to the Scottish moss-troopers.

About half a mile west of Hepple, on Kirkhill, an ancient chapel stood, the remains of which were removed in 1760 to build a farmhouse. The baptismal font and pedestal were still in good preservation and are now at the neighbouring farmhouse. At the removal, a tombstone was found with a nearly obliterated inscription : ” Here lies . . . Countess of … who died . . . her age.” Underneath were a number of verses said to have been composed by the lady herself, probably the wife of a lord of Hepple. The English does not seem older than the eighteenth century, and it may probably be a forgery handed down by an audacious local maker of ballads and accepted by later authorities. One verse is pretty :

Then lay my head to Long Acres Where shearers sweetly sing And feet toward the Key heugh scares Which foxhounds cause to ring.

Scares, of course, is Scars.

The Keyheugh Scars are a mile over the moors in a wild and beautiful district where the Grasslees, Darden, and Keenshaw burns run, hiding-places for badger, fox and otter. In the sandstone cliffs or scars the raven and falcon are said to nest. The inaccessibility of these ravines can be gathered from the fact that in smuggling days an illicit still used to flourish up the Keenshaw burn. The three burns unite and make the Swindon burn, which runs past a small hamlet of that name, where once lived a Coquetdale poet called Lewis Proudlock, who died in 1826. An elegy he wrote on a tree that grew in front of his cottage is still remembered. The sooty ones mentioned were the pitmen who then worked for coal on Hepple moors :

Lament ye, Swindon, sooty thrang Lament it sairly, loud and lang ; Alas ! a muckle, waefu’ wrang Ye noo maun dree For handsomeness, it sure did bang Maist every tree.

It was by monie a sangster haunted, Oft linnets thro’ its leaves hae chanted, Oft round its roots hae tinklers ranted In merry key. It was the loveliest e’er was planted, My favourite tree.

It is perhaps the usual poetic plaint for wanton destruction of the ” Woodman, spare that tree ” variety. But the jolly tinkers and sooty pitmen have passed away for ever from Swindon. Where boisterous crowds once gathered to watch a main of cocks or a badger-baiting there is now a population of quiet rustics.

The Swindon burn runs round the south side of Harehaugh Camp, one of the strongest in the district, which has the Coquet on the east and the Harecleugh burn on the north. On the west, where there are no natural defences, are three earthen ramparts with ditches. On the high moor to the west, called Woodhouses Beacon, 988 feet high, is an immense cairn of stones, and on the slope were the standing stones known as ” The Five Kings ” ; but only four remain, as one monolith has been removed to make a gatepost. They are from five to eight feet high and may once have formed part of a monolithic circle, or of an avenue. Local tradition says they were to the memory of five kings, brothers, to whom this countryside belonged. Wood-house pele or bastle house, on the banks of the Coquet, is a picturesque ruin now used as a byre with the date 1602 over the doorhead. The road from Woodhouses to Harehaugh winds through a lovely dene.

From point to point here we move with gentle interest. Whitefield to the south-east, a prehistoric camp ; Hetchester, probably a Roman camp ; half a mile off, Wreighill – now a one-housed village, visited by the plague through a packet from London and devastated, and the birthplace of a mathematical celebrity. Wreighill Pike looks north on Plainfield Moor, to which Derwentwater summoned his timid mob in 1715.

Holystone, on the south bank of the river, is a tiny, diminishing village the claim of which to fame is the possession of the Lady’s Well, where Paulinus made his record baptism. The well is a quadrangular basin and the spring bubbles up clear and sparkling in numerous jets. In the centre is a cross with an inscription, ” In this place Paulinus the Bishop baptised three thousand Northumbrians Easter DCXXVII.” A stone statue of an ecclesiastic brought from Alnwick Castle in 1780 stands at the west end of the sacred pool, which is surrounded by a grove of fir trees.

A Benedictine Priory founded by an Umfraville has left hardly any traces, a few stones near the church on the roadway, and a field called the Nuns’ Close, and St. Mungo’s Well on the Holystone burn. The sisterhood was very poor, owing to the constant depredations of the Scots, and in 1311 they were granted the churches of Harbottle, Corsenside, and Holystone for ever. In 1296 Marjorie, the Prioress, did homage to Edward I at Berwick and signed the Ragman’s Roll. The seal is preserved still on a fragment of Homage, and represents a church with central tower, the crowned Virgin and Holy Child with a nun praying beneath, and the inscription ” Tu virgenis fili succere Marie.” It sounds more pathetic than usual when the position of the nuns subjected to the continual inroads and horrors of the Scots is considered. Holystone is now so remote amidst the hills, with the silver Coquet at its-feet, that only the dark towers in the neighbourhood speak of the wild thud of horses’ hoofs, the shouts under the suddenly lighted autumn sky from the fired cottages, and the succeeding desolation. In the beginning of the nineteenth century a great character and sportsman at Holystone was Ned Allan, the weaver, who was described in a fishing article in Blackwood in May, 1820. He was probably the most proficient of his day in handling the ” five-taed leister.” Mr. Dippie Dixon tells the following story of him in his book on Upper Coquetdale, to which the writer is very greatly indebted. Allan was one day asked by a farmer to help during the harvest, and he replied : ” Ye should saw ne mair nor ye can shear. A’ll help nane o’ ye.” One winter morning he arrived at the inn at Harbottle very early, much to the surprise of his friend the landlord, whom he called up. ” What’s fetched ye here se sune Ned ? ” ” Sune,” says Ned, ” a’ the watter i’ the Hallysteyn wunna myek a crowdie th’ mornin’.” It was oatmeal he was in search of. The village schoolmaster, Robert Hunter, wrote a very good epitaph for his grave, but no stone was ever erected to the wayward original.

Here lies old Ned in his cold bed, For hunting otters famed, A faithful friend lies by his side, And ” Tug ‘em ” he was named. Sport and rejoice ye finny tribes That glide in Coquet river, Your deadly foe no more you’ll see For he is gone forever.

The amphibious otter now secure, On Coquet’s peaceful shore, May roam at large for Ned and Tug Will never harm him more. Up Swindon burn he may return, When salmon time comes on ; For poor old Ned in his cold bed Sleeps sound at Holystone.

The Coquet has no village on its banks more beautifully situated than Harbottle, surrounded by hills purple in August with heather and topped by the historic ruins of the castle.

The Conqueror gave the lordship of Redesdale to Robert de Umfraville to be held for the service of defending that part of the country from enemies and wolves. Of the Saxon owners and the village then existing little is known. ” Har ” is Anglo–Saxon ” here,” an army, and ” bote,” abode – the abode of an army or military station. There was probably a Saxon stronghold, and a mote hill, as there was at Wark, Elsdon, and Haltwhistle, on which the inhabitants met to settle disputes and dispense justice. The Umfravilles died out in 1436 with Sir Robert, a Vice-Admiral of England, and Harbottle then went to the lords of Hepple, changing owners often in the centuries.

The famous castle of Harbottle was built by Henry II to protect the borders, and it had a history not unworthy of comparison with Wark and Norham. A great waste lay around it stretching to the marches of Scotland, unprotected and open to attack. The castle was captured not long after its erection by William the Lion, but after his defeat at Alnwick the Scots had to evacuate it. It suffered constantly from their attacks in the succeeding centuries. An event of great human as well as historical importance occurred at Harbottle in 1517, when the Dowager Queen Margaret of Scotland under obscure circumstances here gave birth to a daughter. Little could anyone have foreseen that this would lead to the fulfilment of Henry Vll’s dream when he dispatched his little daughter on her nuptial pilgrimage to Scotland. It will be remembered how she was escorted by that Earl of Northumberland who was called the Magnificent, what a Receivyng she got at Lamberton, how she danced with James IV and was welcomed to Holyrood by Dunbar as the ” princes most pleasing and preclare.” But marriage to a Lothario like James has its drawbacks. Soon after he was killed at Flodden, Queen Margaret married Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus.

Henry VHI had granted the temporary use of Harbottle to his sister and she occupied it at her confinement. But the ill-feeling left by Flodden had been fanned by many raids, and the Governor of the Castle, Lord Dacre, Warden of the Middle Marches, or his myrmidons, were not enthusiastic over their guest. Admission to any Scottish female attendant was refused and the birth took place under cruel circumstances. It is not to be surprised that her position at Harbottle was described as “uneaseful and costly, by the occasion of the far carriage of everything.” So she was removed to Morpeth via Cartington Castle. A letter to Henry VIII gives an account of her journey. ” She was so feeble that she could not bear horses in the litter, but Dacre caused his servants to carry it from Harbottle to Morpeth. I think her one of the lowest brought ladies with her great pain of sickness I have seen and scape. Nevertheless she has a wonderful love of apparel. She has caused the gown of cloth of gold and the gown of cloth of tynsen sent by Henry to be made against this time and likes the fashion so well, that she will send for them and have them held before her once or twice a day to look at.” A true picture of a Tudor with unquenchable vitality and frivolity, though she has just escaped the agony of death.

The surveys of the sixteenth century disclose a terrible state of affairs in Redesdale, for the raids of the Scots were not more disastrous than those of the Northumbrians from Tynedale. A clanship system prevailed and justice was impossible. The men of Redesdale would pour into Coquetdale and burn and destroy, and the men of Coquetdale, who were even more active in such campaigning, carried retribution into Redesdale. In later days animosity was often expressed through the medium of doggerel verse, insulting the amour propre of the dalesmen more subtly than using sticks and stones to break their bones.

Upper Redewitter for mosses and bogs, The main o’ their leevin’ is titties and hogs, An’ if an aad ewe chance to die o’ the rot There’s nae loss at her, she’s gud for the pot.

At Harbottle Fair grudges were often settled and free fights took place between the men of Rede and the men of Coquet. A story is told of some years ago, before the Fair was discontinued, of a Redewater man heard to exclaim as he paraded Harbottle Street, ” Sic a fair ! here we are ! it’s eleven o’clock i’ the fornyun an’ never a blow struck yet ! ”

Within six miles of Harbottle there were sixteen Border peles, the traces of which are now gone, but they availed little against the fierce lawlessness of the times. ” Villages, castles, and manor-houses were given to the flames ; border hate and border warfare recognized no distinction of age or sex, of things sacred or profane. Devastations were followed by famine and pestilence.” Sad accounts were sent by the wardens of Harbottle Castle praying for further up-keep, as it was gradually becoming very ruinous. In 1543 it is called the key of Redesdale, though falling into decay. After the Union, it was allowed to go to ruin, like many another Border stronghold. The new peaceful social conditions demanded more comfortable dwellings than could be found within the stark walls of peles. James, indeed, with that fatuousness in his character which was always cropping up, absurdly proscribed the use of the name Borders, and substituted Middle shires, to extinguish the memory of past hostilities. He also ordered the iron gates of strongholds to be converted into ploughshares and the inhabitants of the country to betake themselves to agriculture and peaceful arts.

Time and the hands of stonebreakers have dismantled the walls of the Umfravilles’ proud castle and the prison of many a Scot and Redesdale man who may well have wept in a barbarous age when he looked his last on the bright sky and Coquet water. A dungeon, however, must have survived the amenities of the Union if Mr. D. D. Dixon is correct in assigning to Harbottle Castle the honour of secreting Christie’s Will’s captive. The story is known to the readers of the Minstrelsy as the ” Ballad of Christie’s Will,” and the prison is the Tower of Graham in Annandale. Will Armstrong, or Christie’s Will, was in Jedburgh Jail in the reign of Charles I, when the Earl of Traquair happened to visit it. Inquiring why he was there, Will replied, ” For stealing two tethers,” but on being more closely interrogated he admitted there were two delicate colts at the end of them. The joke amused the earl, who succeeded in getting Will released. Some time after, the earl was engaged in a lawsuit in which he knew that the president, who had the casting vote, was against him. He reminded Will of his service to him and the dilemma he was in. So, when the judge was taking his airing on Leith sands, Will kidnapped him and conveyed him to Harbottle.

He shot him down to the dungeon deep Which garr’d his auld banes gie mony a crack.

There the president was kept till the trial was over. The only voices he ever heard was the old servant calling on Maudge, the cat, and the herd shouting to his dog, called Batty. These he thought were spirits being invoked by the ghostly inmates of the castle, for he never saw anyone, and was conveyed away, as he came, in the dark. The fact of the dog being called a Northumbrian name like Batty favours Harbottle as the place of detention.

The Coquet, after winding nearly round the castle, makes a sharp loop known as the ” Devil’s Elbow.” Hugh Miller notes it as the most interesting change of channel in Coquetdale. ” This curious bend is a scoop in the bank almost at the very point at which the modern gorge leaves the ancient valley, and is doubtless caused by the softness of the deposits that occupy the latter.” The buried channel is possibly underneath the village. On Harbottle Crag is the Drake Stone, a huge sandstone rock thirty feet high. A footpath leads past it to Harbottle Lough, a lonely tarn in the hollow of the hills, very pure and intensely cold, above which in summer the gulls wheel and scream, with gleam of erratic wing above the dark moor. Tradition says there was once a scheme to drain the water, but the workmen fled when a ghostly voice from among the rushes uttered the words:

Let alone, let alone Or a’ll droon Harbottle An’ the Peels An’ the bonny Hallystone.

From Harbottle to Otterburn there is a beautiful walk across the moors going past the Drake Stone.