The valleys of the border hills here have names which trip softly from the tongue and somehow manage to evoke a more idyllic and benign picture than they should of places so remote; Eskdale and Annandale, Liddesdale and Teviotdale, Lauderdale and Tweeddale. These places sound lovely but if they could talk they would tell tales of daring, heartbreak and hopelessness and you can sometimes feel it still as you drive through a border valley shadowed with hills dotted thickly with sheep, or down the side of a rushing river under a scabbard-grey sky. It can be beautiful and at the same time oppressing in its very beauty. It's a strange, fascinating and wonderful place.
These border lands of Scotland are thick with castles. Some have grown from humble beginnings into huge and ornate stately homes for the aristocracy while others have withered and died to become roofless ruins open to the skies, choked with ivy and left mouldering in forgotten corners; a fragment or a wall standing proud on a hillside or glimpsed through the trees across a river as you explore any one of the border valleys. But they first serve as a reminder that there are so many for a reason: these lands were a first line of defence for almost a thousand wild years of our wildest history.
The border between Scotland and England long ago was a moving feast dependant on treaty or whoever had the upper hand of power at the time. The people within came therefore to implicitly understand the need for protection regardless of which side of the border they were on. Borders in any case were often incidental to the families who lived here, linked as they were through affiliation, kinship or enmity. Any undefended site could be attacked by a fellow countryman on the make or a foreign invader, and locals would seek protection from those families able to build defensible positions. From the simple palisaded farmstead, to small thick walled and protective bastle houses to stark tall peel towers or the formidable castle of the wealthy landowner, all were built to protect themselves, their families or followers and above all, their interests. It gave too, to the inhabitants, a particular view of the world. It was a world where the self-seeking, double-dealing and oft underhand behaviours considered normal of the high Lords of the land were played out equally here by those of lower rank and on a more intimate scale. It was, more than any other, a place of bastions and belligerents. It's people were the most headstrong, self willed and defiant of any part of the kingdom and were almost constantly embroiled in conflict together whether through blood feud or blatant opportunism.
Gilnockie - A Border Tower House
Home of an Armstrong Riever
Sketch of Hermitage from MacGibbon and Ross'
'Castellated and Domestic Architecture Of Scotland'
From this lawless medieval wilderness grew 'The Border Reivers', light cavalry skilled in stealth and attack by surprise, masters of the lightning raid and sudden disappearance back into the night. Reiver is an old English word for a raider or looter. It was said of the Reivers that they were Dalesmen by summer and Highlanders by winter, preferring the cold winter nights for their illegal activities, grateful for long hours of darkness and because cattle are better for moving in the winter. Reiver crimes included cattle rustling, theft, looting, arson, blackmail, murder and prison breaking. Reiving was unique in that it was not restricted to a minority group, they came from all classes and lived by the same 'code'. Even Wardens responsible for law and order were at times implicated in personal feuds or raids. Generations of men learnt skills which made them feared by all. Ruthless, implacable and with no allegiance to any other than themselves, they created mayhem and were a sair thorn in the side of Scots and English kings for hundreds of years. Monarchs from both sides of the border would try to use, manipulate or buy them off until eventually they would be destroyed or the best of them incorporated into the establishment as aristocracy. Riever families would become influential in maintaining kings on the throne or in opposing them if the situation was right.
A Border Reiver
I first came to Hermitage Castle many years ago on an Autumn day full of heavy showers from a sky pressing down on the land yet seemingly determined to hurry past. The castle itself sits cold and dour in the isolated heart of Liddesdale which is the most bleak, hard and unwelcoming part of the borders. Possibly no valley or glen in Scotland has a more brutal past than Liddesdale even though many might put up strong competition. It's seen armies pass by and stop to brutalise the local inhabitants, seen too those same inhabitants dish out brutalities of their own to the unwary or unfortunate. It's fitting that local history would indicate such brutality as I find Hermitage to be the most moodily oppressive castle in Scotland. Its very position in the middle of the valley floor of the Liddel Water is aimed not to inspire notions of safety by a lofty position, not to show impressive power or welcome to a weary traveller but to dominate and intimidate, to ensure that all who come near understand that its presence is a stark statement of overwhelming and uncompromising power in the midst - maybe even in spite - of its isolation. I remember its walls, dark with rain and the huge arch gaping like a maw of glistening stone ready to spew forth forces hell-bent on destruction or to close behind souls destined to be lost forever. Several words come to mind as I try to describe it; sinister, malevolent, grotesque, implacable, hostile. Its massively thick walls and high window slits, its crow step gables and its square, squat bulk all remind me of a huge immovable beast sitting there ravenous, sullen and obstinate.