The 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.
The 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.