The Border Dales

The Border Dales

In the late medieval period the Northumbrian valleys of Redesdale and North Tynedale developed a wild society very distinct from the rest of Northumberland. To some extent this distinctiveness may go back to the sparse Anglian settlement of these valleys, as the many Celtic place-names testify, and to the strongly pastoral economy. In the main, though, it was the result of the medieval history of the area, combined with the physical isolation of these narrow border dales, cut off from the rest of the county by wide moorlands.

In Norman times, North and South Tynedale became a Liberty,

long held by the Scottish king, whilst Redesdale was granted as a

Liberty to the Umfraville family, barons of Prudhoe. The Redesdale Liberty included not only the Rede valley itself, but all the south bank of the Coquet upstream from Holystone, so that one finds places in upper Coquetdale described as in Redesdale. The Umfraville head­quarters in Redesdale were at Elsdon, until, by command of Henry II after 1157, they built the castle at Harbottle.

Although Redesdale and Tynedale were outside royal jurisdiction for long periods, there is no sign of greater lawlessness than elsewhere in Northumberland. In the 1160s, during a period of royal control, Henry II’s judges were chasing Richard of Emmethaugh, up in Kielder, for the last lOs. (50p) of a fine, whilst the Assizes of the Scots’ king, as lord of Tynedale, held at Wark-on-Tyne in 1279, and Edward I’s Assize in 1293 portray much the same picture as the 1256 Northum­berland Assizes. There are detailed enquiries about minor thefts, and coroners’ reports on tragic deaths, such as the child who perished ‘in quodam cacabo pleno aqua calida’, ‘in a pot full of boiling water’, or the several people who died of cold on the moors between Bellingham and Haltwhistle. It is a sad picture, but not one of a lawless society. As elsewhere in Northumberland, 1150  to 1300 saw economic expansion in the border dales, with settlement and shielings spreading. By 1300 there was extensive arable land at Ridlees and Quickening’ Cote on the southern flanks of upper Coquetdale. Routes led through the hills into Scotland, with meeting points on the border line where international disputes could be settled. Gamelspath, the upper stretch of Dere Street to the border, is noted as such a point in the 1249 ‘Laws of Marches’.

The Scottish wars destroyed this way of life. The dales were prime targets for Scots’ raiding groups, burning crops and stealing cattle. Remote upland shielings and farms were soon abandoned. The border dales also suffered because as Liberties they were particularly susceptible to breakdowns in lordship and law enforcement. After Edward I’s seizure of Tynedale in 1290, North Tynedale was re-granted six times in 40 years, largely to absentees, finally being sold to Queen Philippa in 1336. Clearly order broke down, for after Philippa’s death the people of Tynedale petitioned the King in 1369-73 for the restoration of law and administration in the valley. In Redesdale the gradual retreat of the Umfravilles to their Lincoln­shire lands had a similar effect. In the absence of effective rule, extended kinship groups or ‘surnames’ sprang up to supply a type of law and order. As Dr. J. A. Tuck has noted, social anthropologists have found such reactions in many societies when lordship collapses. In North Tynedale the Charitons were the main surname, together with the Dodds, Robsons and Milburns, and in Redesdale it was the Halls together with the Reeds, Hedleys, Dunns, Potts and Fletchers. On the Scottish side the lowland clans or surnames of the Armstrongs, Croziers, Elliotts, Nixons and others also sprang up in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Blood-feuds, alliances and thieving between the surnames often ignored the Border itself. It was a wild, cruel society. In 1498 Bishop Fox of Durham issued his ‘Monitio contra famosos latrones de Tynedale’, admonition against the notorious thieves of Tynedale, excommunicating many of the inhabitants. Yet this wild society, on both sides of the border, has left us with the melancholy yet moving poetry of the Border Ballads. Perhaps the finest come from the Scots side, but many good ballads originate in the English valleys, such as The Death of Parcy Reed. This records the death of Percy Reed of Troughend and Keeper of Redesdale, who got into feud with the Croziers. Reed was lured into a Crozier ambush on Carter Fell by his neighbours, the Halls, whilst out hunting with them.

The Tudor kings and their servants did not look kindly on these surnames. The special status of North Tynedale was formally abolished by Henry VII, and that of Redesdale in 1546, but so long as the Marches were left under control of the border magnates like the Percies and Dacres, the surname tribes were not suppressed. The patronage of the border lords perpetuated the surnames, whom the Percies found useful for border raids or personal quarrels. Playing with these groups was a dangerous game, however. In 1523 the Earl of Northumberland used them in a Scottish raid and wrote to Henry VIII promising ‘to lette slippe secretlie them of Tindaill and Riddisdaill for th’annoyance of Scotland—God sende them all goode spede’, with Sir Ralph Fenwick to lead the Tynedale men and Sir William Heron the Redesdale men. But only 10 months later when Sir Ralph went into Tynedale with 80 horsemen to arrest the outlaw William Ridley for murder, William Charlton of Bellingham got together 200 men and ‘set upon the said Sir Rauff . . . (and) chased the said Sir Rauff out of Tyndaill’. Retribution from the royal officers was swift, but this sort of incident was common. The surnames were also ready to ally with the Scots. In March 1 524 William Franklin wrote from Durham to Cardinal Wolsey that ‘the Hyland theeves with banyshed men, to the numbre of foure hundread men, accompanyed with many Scotts, came to Ingoo and Kirkheton, in Northumberland, and overrane the countrey too within eight myles of Newcastell, when they slew seven mene out of hande, and hurte dyvers moo in perell of dethe, setting fyer on the said townes, and drove away all the goodes and cattaill lying in their way’. It is scarcely surprising that the Merchant Adventurers of Newcastle agreed in 1554 that they should not take any apprentice ‘to serve in this Fellysshype of non suche as is or shalbe borne or brought up in Tyndall, Ryddisdall, or anye other suche lyke places’ because they were not of ‘honest conversation’, nor that a line of night watches set up ‘at diverse places, passages and fords, endlong all the said Middle Marches, for the better preservation of the same from thieves and spoils’ should run east of Tynedale and Redesdale.

The decline of the surname groups came after 1560, when Elizabeth replaced Earl Percy as Warden of the Middle Marches by Sir John Forster, a lowland Northumbrian squire, and support for the groups ceased. Key jobs were given to outsiders, and offending headsmen were dealt with severely. The ending of surname patronage led the surname leaders to seek acceptance as equals of the lowland gentry, and it is significant that in the 1580s Edward Chariton went to the Court of Requests in London in a dispute with the Halls rather than starting a feud. The 1570s and 1580s were a period of many Scottish raids, when men like Buccleugh tried to revive old feuds, and the decline of the surname groups was not always smooth, but ‘by 1601 the Northumbrian surnames were of little significance’ (S. J. Watts).

One feature of these Elizabethan years is quite notable. In a series of surveys in 1541, 1550 and 1584 royal commissioners enquired into the decay of border fortifications and organised improvements. In contrast to the castles and peel towers of the rest of Northumberland, they found few stone buildings at all in Redesdale and North Tynedale. Sir Robert Bowes found in 1541 that there even the headsmen had houses ‘made of great sware oak trees, strongly bound and joined together with great tenons of the same . . . The timber, as well as the said walls and roofs, be so great, and covered for the most part with turf and earth, so that they will not easily burn or be set on fire’. After 1560, with the decay of surnames and under government encouragement, the distinctive stone bastle-houses were built in these dales, and many of them, with their strong walls and living quarters above the ground-floor animal shelters, can still be seen in the statutory defensive zone set up by the Elizabethan parliament within 20 miles of the border.

With the transition from Border to Middle Shire, these over­populated, poor valleys changed. Many sought occupations outside, notably as Tyneside keelmen. Agriculture improved, and very quickly after 1603 landlords were altering traditional tenures into lease agreements. As early as spring 1604, farmers were re-occupying the upland pastures of Coquetdale, long deserted. In 1608 the Earl of Northumberland was granting 21-year leases at £40 a year on highland cattle pastures and promising permanent ‘winter

houses where yet never may have been’. But it was in the late 17th and 18th centuries that seasonal grazing gave way to all-year pastoral farming and shielings were replaced by neat Georgian farmsteads. Northumberland provided a refuge for many Scots dissenters persecuted in the Killing Time after 1660, and in the mid-18th century the Rev. Dodgson of Elsdon noted that ‘The greater part of the richest farmers are Scotch dissenters’.

The old border routes over Redeswire and Carter Bar became important as drove roads for the southward movement of Scottish cattle to the growing industrial and urban markets in England, and in Northumberland to the great cattle market at Stagshaw Bank, outside Corbridge. Bailey and Culley record that in the early 18th century ‘Mr. J. M. Bates, of Aydon White House, bought a Gaellic grammar . . . to converse with the Highland Drovers of Stagshaw Bank who could speak hardly any English’. The routes across the border were also used down to the 19th century for smuggling, for English and Scots excise duties were often different. In 1830 the English tax on a gallon of whisky was 7s. 6d. (371/2p), but the Haddington rate only 3s. 4d.(1 6½p). Whisky was also illegally distilled in the hills, as at Rory’s still in Upper Coquetdale, dateable to the early 19th century by Newcastle pottery found in excavations there. Dutch gin and other commodities also found their way from Boulmer, the main smuggling village on the Northumbrian coast, over the border to Scotland. An old Cheviots rhyme says:

‘Jimmy Turner, of Ford, did not think it a sin,

To saddle his horse on a Sunday, and ride to Boulmer for gin.’