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Black Middens Bastle House

DSC_0075.JPGThe architecture of any border territory is inevitably studded with fortifications; the largest being the castle. On the Scottish borders there are two other kinds of fortified building dating, in their present form, from the sixteenth century. The best known of these two is the pele or peel tower. These were three or four storey buildings with very thick walls. The ground floor was used for storage whilst the upper floors were for living. Some towers like the one at Clifton near Penrith were really only used during times of crisis.

Once James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England after Elizabeth I’s death and became James I of England (uniting the lion and the unicorn as heraldic supporters) he declared that hence forth the borders would be known as the ‘Middle Shires’ and that all peel towers should be dismantled.  Given the number of peel towers still standing on both sides of the border it may reasonably be suggested that not all the border families received that particular memo. Others incorporated the family tower into new builds such as at Hutton in the Forest and Dalemain.

DSC_0071.jpgThe third typical border fortification is the bastle house. A bastle house is a fortified farmhouse. Typically it presents as a two-storey building with very thick walls. The ground floor was a barn for livestock. If it had windows at all they would have been narrow slits for ventilation. At Black Middens the original door was in the gable end.   The rather dark and dingy upper floor with its tiny door and narrow window were the living quarters which were accessed, in the early days at least, by a ladder which could be hauled up behind the inhabitants in times of trouble. In later times an external stair case was often added along with more windows and doors. The bastle house at Black Middens near Bellingham also boasts some sturdy looking sockets for bars across the door as additional security. A farmer would have to be relatively wealthy in order to afford one of these stone buildings.

The Black Middens bastle house also boasts the remnants of an eighteenth century cottage that appears to have been built on the foundations of an earlier bastle house on the site reflecting that these dwellings evolved over time. The Tarset Valley is home to several bastle houses in varying states of decay and which now feature as part of a walking trail. The houses grouped as they are also hint at mutual support in times of trouble.

Black Middens is at the end of a long narrow winding sheep filled road with big views.  Its very easy to imagine Kinmont Willie, the Armstrong laird best known for being rescued from Carlisle Castle by one of Sir Walter Scott’s ancestors, arriving on the scene to do a spot of reiving. In addition to stealing sheep, horses, mares and a goat the Scot and his merry band of raiders also killed six people and maimed eleven more on one memorable occasion in 1583.

Of course, there’re bastle houses all over the borders and it isn’t always necessary to traipse to the back of beyond to find them.  In Haltwhistle for example every second house seems to bear a blue plaque announcing its provenance as a bastle house, though these days they have evolved to something barely recognisable as a fortified dwelling. The impact of the Scottish Wars of Independence and the growth of border reiving culture is also recalled in a ballad called ‘The Fray of Haltwhistle’ – yet another pesky Armstrong comes calling.

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Castles, pele towers and bastle houses on the borders.

castleCastle building began with the Normans –  motte and bailey affairs – or in straight forward terms a huge pile of earth topped off with a wooden crown of  wall and keep.  The aim was to dominate the landscape and afford themselves protection (keeping their fingers firmly crossed that no one turned up with the equivalent of an early medieval box of matches).

The key to Cumberland is Carlisle Castle which was begun by William Rufus during the eleventh century.  It’s history reflects the political upheavals of the medieval period as well as the fact that the border between England and Scotland was sometimes apt to shift quite dramatically!

In 1122 Henry I ordered that it should be strengthened with stone.  By the time of his death it was still unfinished and making the most of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, King David of Scotland moved into Carlisle and finished the building.  He died in Carlisle Castle in 1135.  Carlisle was regained by the English.

Henry II commanded that there should be further strengthening which was just as well because William the Lion of Scotland  attacked Carlisle twice with a large force in an attempt to regain the territory that his brother had lost.

King John stayed in the castle on several different occasions reflecting the fact that having lost his continental possessions he was the first Plantagenet king who really turned his attention to the north and the northern English barons – it wasn’t a happy relationship leading as it did to rebellion and for a time Carlisle ending up in the hands of the Scottish again – the town made no resistance to Alexander III but the castle garrison did.  It fell to the Scottish because miners sapped the south curtain wall.  The Scots also bombarded it with missiles but when John died in 1216 the Scots withdrew.  The fact that the roof of the castle needed repair by the mid thirteenth century demonstrates that the borders did undergo a period of peace.

That all changed with the death of Alexander III.  Edward I visited Carlisle many times, eventually dying at Burgh-By-Sands on his way to yet another campaign against the Scots.  The next two hundred and fifty years were pretty turbulent if you happened to live on the border and this is reflected once again in the Castle’s history.

July 1315 – Robert Bruce besieges Carlisle but it is ably defended by Sir Andrew Harclay who tried to establish peace but got himself hung, drawn and quartered for his efforts.

It was during this period of increased militarization that Hexham Goal was built and also Thirlwall Castle which used dressed stone from a rather large nearby wall… It is situated near the Tyne-Irthing Gap a way used by Scottish raiders so its strategic position is immediately obvious.  Some miles down the road, Aydon Castle turned from being a manor house into a fortified manor with its own barmkin wall.

In fact, those who could fortify their dwellings did so on both sides of the borders.   Peles or peel towers dot the border region and the Eden Valley.  They were not built to stop raiders they were built to keep families and their livestock safe during incursions.  They tend to be rectangular with a barrel-vaulted basement and two further stories above including a roof with a beacon to summon help.  The Vicar at Corbridge had his own pele tower and there’s one in the grounds of Carlisle Cathedral.  In other locations churches included fortified protection for local villagers in their design creating a landscape of romantic looking ruins today but which reflect the difficulties of living on the border until the two kingdoms came under the rule of one monarch.

Bastle Houses are very similar to peels but built on a smaller scale – they tended to be owned by better off tenant farmers. Most of them were built in the Sixteenth Century and lie within 15 miles of the border.

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Filed under Anglo-Scottish history, Border Reivers, Carlisle