Wooler: Gateway to the Cheviots
Wooler is an attractive little market town and a popular centre for touring the neighbouring Cheviot Hills. The name Wooler has an uncertain origin but older spellings of the name suggest that it partly derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘wella’ meaning a well, spring or stream. Wooler is situated on a small river called the Wooler Water and the name of the town may mean ‘bank or hill overlooking a stream’.
The town lies on the edge of the Cheviots at the south end of the broad, low lying, Milfield Plain that sits below these hills. A number of rivers and streams meet on this beautiful plain, namely the Humbleton Burn, River Till, River Glen and the Wooler Water.
Being close to the junction of so many valleys Wooler is a natural point for roads to converge and the place serves as an important focal point for this northern corner of Northumberland.
Following the Norman Conquest Wooler became a barony given to the Muschamp family by Henry I. It included neighbouring places such as Hethpool, Lowick, Belford, Etal, Ford, Kimmerston, Crookham, Akeld, Coupland and Humbleton.
In 1199 a Robert Muschamp was granted a licence to hold a market at Wooler. His successor, another Robert De Muschamp who held Wooler during the reign of Henry III was apparently considered the mightiest baron in the north of England. This Muschamp had been a benefactor of Melrose abbey in Scotland and was buried there in 1250.
Later medieval families in Wooler included the Scropes, Darcys, Couplands and Percys and then the Greys who held the barony and manor of Wooler from the 1500s. It later passed through marriage to the Bennets who were the Earls of Tankerville. The Tankervilles owned the family seat of Chillingham Castle, until the 1980s.
Always an important agricultural centre, Wooler was noted for its wool by the 1300s though, as we have seen, this does not explain its name. By that time Wooler was shipping wool to Berwick and then onward to Flanders. With the troubles of the border country Wooler often fell victim to border raids and this perhaps prevented the place from developing into a more substantial town.
In 1595, it is recorded that a Scot called Andrew Ker, the Laird of Cessford entered Wooler and made off with all the sheep and movable goods of the Wooler parson who was away in London. The parson, failing to get assistance from the law, retaliated by stealing an equivalent number of Cessford’s sheep.
Things soon escalated, Cessford entered Wooler with a band of men, their trumpets blowing. The raiding party murdered two men in the town and then murdered another man called Storey about two miles distant. The parson meanwhile had fled to Berwick. The Storey family then took revenge, raiding in Scotland and murdering one of Cessford’s shepherds.
Wooler remained a somewhat isolated place for many centuries until the coming of the railways in the Victorian era and then the motor car in the following century. By the 1920s it was noted that Wooler’s numerous hotels were often full to the brim with visitors.
Wooler’s attractive main street is called the High Street, which includes a number of local independent shops. At the east end it becomes ‘The Peth’ which links the main street to the A697. This crosses the Wooler Water by a bridge nearby. Adjoining the High Street from the north is Church Street, hosting Wooler’s parish church which dates from 1856 and is dedicated to St Mary.
Nearby Glendale Road and Ryecroft Way also join the High Street from the north and lead into attractive residential areas. Ryecroft Way is close to Wooler’s Catholic church of 1847.
At the west end of the High Street, Burnhouse Road heads out west to the village of Humbleton and joins the A697. Here we can head north along the valley of the River Till to the villages of Milfield, Ford and Etal or west into the valley of Glendale.
On the northern edge of the town alongside the A697 is the historic Tankerville Arms built by Charles Bennet, the first Earl of Tankerville in the eighteenth century. It is thought to have been initially built to accommodate guests for the earl’s hunting parties when Chillingham Castle was full. Known in the nineteenth century as ‘The Cottage’ the inn was popular with visitors who wanted to explore Wooler’s wild remoteness and the supposed health-giving properties of its air. The writer Virginia Woolf stayed at the Tankerville Arms for a month during 1914.
Harthope, Happy Valley and Wooler Water
Cheviot Street joins Wooler’s main High Street from the south side and forms a steep climb which gradually takes us deeper into the Cheviot Hills along the valley of the Harthope Burn. The Wooler Water which enters Wooler from the south east is a tributary of the River Till which it joins in the fields of Milfield Plain to the north of the town.
In the hill country a couple of miles south of Wooler, the Wooler Water forms a pleasant spot called Happy Valley that is popular with walkers and picnickers. The Wooler Water is formed by the confluence of the Harthope Burn and the Carey Burn near a steep spot called Skirl Naked where there is a minor road into the hills.
The Harthope valley, formed by a geological fault, cuts its way in an almost straight line with its upper reaches sandwiched between the two highest and most prominent hills of the Cheviot range. Here Hedgehope Hill is found on the valley’s eastern side and the Cheviot itself is on the western side. These two hills can be seen for miles around as far south as central County Durham. The name Cheviot is almost certainly of Celtic origin but the meaning is obscure. A lovely notable feature of this remote stretch of the valley is the Harthope Linn waterfall.
Ingram and the Breamish Valley
About three miles south of the upper Harthope Valley across the wilderness of Hedgehope Hill, Comb Fell and Great Standrop is another river, the River Breamish, but there are no road links or paths linking the two valleys across these wild hills.
Here in the upper reaches of the Breamish we are in the wilds of the Cheviots in a watershed for local rivers and streams. To the west of here are the hills of Cushat Law and Bloodybush Edge and then nearby to the south west is Kidland Forest where the River Alwin, a tributary of the River Coquet rises. To the south the streams on Alnham Moor feed the neighbouring River Aln. The Aln valley runs parallel to the Breamish beyond the high hills a couple of miles to the south.
Linhope Spout, a waterfall situated in a ‘hope’ or side valley of the Breamish is the most notable natural feature of the upper Breamish. Waterfalls are normally termed ‘linns’ in Northumberland so ‘Linhope’ means ‘side valley of the waterfall’ with the word ‘spout’ added as an additional descriptive term.
The Breamish valley hereabouts is known as the Ingram Valley and is named from the village of Ingram, about three miles to the east. Much of the valley is littered with ancient cairns, earthworks and settlements. They include a prehistoric village at Greaves Ash near Linhope covering about twenty acres and a promontory fort with the intriguing name of ‘Clinch Castle’ to the south east of Ingram.
Ingram is a tiny village on narrow roads and the home to an attractive little medieval church dedicated to St Michael that has an eleventh century tower. The name Ingram comes from an Anglo-Saxon word for grass pastureland. The name of the River Breamish is incidentally, Celtic and may be related to the Old Welsh ‘brefu’ meaning ‘to roar’. There is no connection with the similar sounding Beamish in County Durham which is a name of French origin.
Brandon, Powburn and Glanton
A mile or so downstream from Ingram are the hamlets of Brandon and Branton respectively situated on the north and south side of the Breamish. Both are named from ‘broom’ or gorse and the names mean ‘broom-hill’ and ‘broom-farm’. In Norman times they were recorded as ‘Bremdona’ and ‘Bremetona’ and although this seems to confirm their origin as ‘broomy’ places their names may have been influenced by their location either side of the Breamish.
There are very scant remains of a thirteenth century church at Brandon. It is on the site of an earlier Saxon church.
Just to the east of Branton is Powburn, a village of stone houses alongside the A697. Its name means ‘pool stream’. About a mile south of Powburn is the picturesque village of Glanton half way between the valleys of the Aln and Breamish with views of both valleys. The name Glanton means ‘look-out farm or village’.
Old Bewick, Breamish and Till
The A697 crosses the River Breamish by a bridge just north of Powburn more or less where the Devil’s Causeway Roman road once crossed the same river in ancient times. East of the A697 the Breamish begins to change direction as it starts to wind its way northward towards the village of Old Bewick. It is around about here that the River Breamish inexplicably changes its name to the River Till, the exact point of change once being marked by a mill:
Foot of Breamish and head of Till,
Meet together at Bewick mill.
The change of river-name seems to be associated with the change in the direction of the river and the change of associated terrain. The River Till, which ultimately joins the River Tweed to the north, is very much a river of the lowland plains while the Breamish is mostly an upland river.
Old Bewick is a tiny village of stone cottages and farm buidlings situated on a remote country lane to the east of the A697. The village looks across the lovely countryside of the Till valley towards the hills to the west and the prominent Old Bewick hill fort site is found to the rear of the village to the east.
A Celtic style cross by the roadside about half a mile north of the village marks a turning into a minor road that leads east to Old Bewick church, a tiny enigmatic church of Norman origin dedicated to Holy Trinity.
Typical Norman architecture is found within and there is a sleeping stone effigy of a lady dating to the fourteenth century. According to tradition this church was given to the Priory of Tynemouth by Maud the daughter of the Scottish king Malcolm Canmore in memory of her father who was killed at the Battle of Alnwick in 1094.
To the south east of Old Bewick, a road leads to the village of Eglingham in the valley of the Eglingham Burn which joins the Aln near Alnwick. To the north of Old Bewick are the grounds of Chillingham Castle.
Hedgeley Moor and Percy’s Leap
West of the A697 just north of Powburn is the site of the Battle of Hedgeley Moor, a conflict that took place on April 25th, 1464 during the Wars of the Roses. That year, King James III of Scotland appointed ambassadors to meet with King Edward IV at York to negotiate peace.
A Lord Montagu was sent north with a band of men by King Edward to collect the ambassadors and escort them safely through Northumberland. However, a truce with Scotland was not in the interests of the Lancastrians who often used Scotland as a base, so the noted Lancastrian supporter Sir Ralph Percy (who supported the claims of King Henry VI) gathered his retainers and attempted to block Montagu’s way. Percy, who was the eldest son of the Duke of Northumberland, was slain in the ensuing battle.
A couple of ancient standing stones about 30 feet apart are found within the battlefield site. They date from a time long before the battle but are known as ‘Percy’s Leap’ and are said to mark the distance of a leap that Percy made as he was dealt a mortal blow.
About half a mile to the south just over the other side of the A697 is a stone called ‘Percy’s Cross’ that is said to have been erected in memory of Sir Ralph by his nephew, the fourth earl of Northumberland.
Wooperton Roddam and Ilderton
North of the battle site but back on the western side of the A697 is the little village of Wooperton and to its north Roddam Hall and the village of Ilderton. With a name that apparently comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘weah-berg denu’, Wooperton intriguingly means ‘temple hill valley’.
Roddam Hall dates from the 1700s, but this area was long associated with the Roddam family before the hall was built. The family took their name from the place and are supposed to have lived in the area since Saxon times. The place-name Roddam simply means ‘clearing’.
We should always treat noted family histories that go back to pre-Saxon times with caution, though a Scottish historian of the 1500s called John Major asserted that there was a charter issued by Athelstan, the Anglo-Saxon King of England confirming the Roddam rights to the land hereabouts. There is no other record of the document but it is said to have read:
“I King Athelstan
Giffis heir to paulane
Odam and Roddam
Als gud and als fair
Als ever tha myn ware
An yair to witness Mald my wife.”
The Roddams or Rodhams were men of influence in Northumberland and although the line of the Roddams who owned Roddam came to an end in the nineteenth century, lesser branches of the surname lived on and descendants include the US politician Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose ancestors moved from Northumberland into Durham where they later worked as coal miners at Kyo near Stanley.
By strange coincidence from 1775 Roddam Hall belonged to a British naval officer, Admiral Robert Roddam (1719-1808), who was the brother in law of Sir Henry Clinton (1730-1795), a British general in the American War of Independence.
Ilderton, on a hill top site to the north of Roddam Hall is the home to a church of mostly eighteenth century origin dedicated to St Michael though parts date to the thirteenth century. There is a mausoleum to members of the Roddam family in the churchyard dating to 1795.
Across the A697 to the north east of Wooler as we approach Wooler are East and West Lilburn where we find Lilburn Tower. This is a Tudor style house designed by the North Shields-born architect John Dobson around 1829. There is also an earlier ruined tower at Lilburn as well as the ruined remains of an early Norman chapel that was partly rebuilt in the twelfth and thirteenth century.
Historically Lilburn was owned by the De Ros family and then from the early 1300s it belonged to the Lilburn family who took their name from the place. It later passed to the Clennels and then to the Collingwoods in the late 1700s. John Lilburne, ‘Freeborn John’ who founded the Levellers political movement in the 1600s was descended from the Lilburns of Lilburn. By that time however, the Lilburne family connections were with Sunderland and Thickley in County Durham.
The place-name Lilburn comes from a nearby stream, the Lil Burn – which may mean ‘little stream’, or ‘Lilla’s stream’. It is a tributary of the River Till which it joins to the east. From Lilburn a road leads a mile or so east to Chillingham village, Chillingham Castle and Chillingham Park, passing close to a standing stone called the Hurl Stone which was reputedly connected with elves in times past. Nearby is the Hurlestone Tower, a lookout tower erected in 2000 by the owners of Lilburn Tower to celebrate the new millennium.
Chillingham and its castle lie to the east of the River Till. The village itself is small and a little bit scattered with a church dedicated to St Peter that dates back to medieval times and there are interesting tombs and effigies of the Grey family within. Chillingham is pronounced as it looks, unlike most places in Northumberland that end in ‘ingham’ which are usually pronounced ‘ing-Jum’
The castle at Chillingham was commenced in 1344 when a licence to crenellate was granted to a Thomas De Heton and an impressive four corner-towered castle was constructed around an earlier pele tower.
Later, the castle became the home of the Huntercombes and then the Greys and Bennets who were Earls of Tankerville. Around the mid eighteenth century new additions were made to the castle and the grounds and gardens were landscaped from 1753.
Visitors to Chillingham included Edward I who is supposed to have stayed at the earlier Chillingham tower in 1298 during a campaign against William Wallace in Scotland. Another visitor was James I of England (James VI of Scotland) who stayed here on his way south to take up the English crown.
One particularly interesting resident of the castle in later times was George Montagu Bennet, the seventh Earl of Tankerville (born 1852) who died at Chillingham in 1931. Known as the ‘Singing Earl’, he was a Christian Revival Baptist singer who had also worked for a time as a circus clown and as a cowboy in America. A true English eccentric, in New York he apparently first introduced himself to an American woman (who would later become his wife) by somersaulting over a sofa in an apparent attempt to land in her lap.
During the Second World War Chillingham Castle served as a World War Two barracks and over the years fell into a state of neglect. In 1982 it was purchased by Sir Humphry Wakefield, Baronet who has developed the castle as a popular heritage attraction.
The castle is particularly noted for its dungeon which lies below the north eastern tower of the building. It displays some rather gruesome (no longer used) implements of punishment including a stretching rack, a bed of nails, a nailed barrel and a spiked chair labelled with a warning not to sit on it because ‘it is very old and easily damaged’. Quirky and very dusty old displays are the somewhat eccentric offering of this unusual castle experience.
Chillingly, Chillingham claims to be Britain’s most haunted castle. One of Chillingham’s best-known resident ghosts, known as the ‘Radiant Boy’, was perhaps a victim of a dungeon punishment. He was regularly seen at the castle until the bones of a child were discovered buried within the walls of one of the bedrooms. The bones were removed and buried in a nearby churchyard and the ghost went into happy retirement.
The Chillingham Wild Cattle
Chillingham is certainly one of Northumberland’s most impressive castles but is equally well-known for its herd of wild white cattle, which have inhabited its grounds for seven hundred years. The Chillingham cattle are the purest surviving native wild white cattle in Britain and are descended from the British wild ox, which roamed the forested hills of northern Britain as early as the Bronze Age.
When Chillingham Castle’s parkland estate was enclosed in 1220, a wandering herd of the wild cattle are said to have been trapped within the grounds, where they were left without any interference from livestock breeders.
Another explanation for their existence at Chillingham is that the beasts were deliberately kept there as a food supply for the castle. They had an advantage over domesticated beasts in that because of their wild nature, they could not be easily stolen by the cattle thieving Border Reivers and mosstroopers, who inhabited Northumberland in days gone by.
Today the cattle can still be seen roaming the 365 acre walled parkland of the Chillingham estate. They may however only be viewed at certain times in the accompaniment of the keeper, and then only from a safe distance. They are creamy white in colour with curved horns, are quite shy, potentially dangerous and are ruled over by a king bull, in the same way as wild deer. The king bull keeps his status until challenged and defeated by a younger male.
The Chillingham Cattle were studied by Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), the famous Northumbrian-born naturalist and engraver, who on one occasion while illustrating a portrait of a Chillingham bull, was chased by the beast and forced to climb a tree for refuge. Here he gained a perfect close up view of his furious subject below.
On the 17th October 1872, Chillingham was visited by Edward the Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VII – who looking for a bit of ‘sport’ decided to take a chance at shooting the king bull of the Chillingham herd. Concealing himself in a hay cart the prince shot dead the bull from a distance of seventy yards. His exploits do not seem to have impressed the locals, including one local poet called Robert Elliott, who wrote:
He’s a warrior ye knaa and the papers are full
Iv a terrible encoonter he had wiv a bull!
He slowtered the bull, but his critics will say
That the prince was concealed in a bundle iv hay;
An’ thit it was ne feat at a’ te lie hid;
An’ slowter the bull in the way that he did;
But some folks are selfish, an’ winna hear tell
Iv ony greet feats unless done by thorsel.
Overlooking the grounds of Chillingham Castle, on a hilltop, not far to the south, are the remains of a much older fortress called Ross Castle, a promontory dating from Iron Age times.
Good views of the Northumbrian countryside can be seen from Ross Castle encompassing Alnwick, Lindisfarne, the Farne Islands, Bamburgh Castle, Dunstanburgh Castle and the Cheviot Hills, including views of Hedgehope Hill (2,348 feet) and The Cheviot itself (2,676 ft).
To the west of Chillingham, the River Till flows northward on its journey towards the Tweed passing close to the village of Chatton on its western bank. Shortly after passing Chatton the Till makes a sudden turn westward along the edge of Doddington Moor past Fowberry Tower near to which it was once crossed by the Devil’s Causeway Roman road.
Fowberry Tower which belonged to the Fowberry family for 400 years was built as a tower house in the 1400s then rebuilt as a larger house in 1666 with extensions of 1776. Later owners included the Strothers then the Blakes of Twizell in the 1700s and later Matthew Culley, the son of the noted agriculturalist, George Culley of Fenton on the edge of Milfield Plain. The River Till enters the Milfield Plain about a mile to the west of Fowberry Tower.
Battle of Humbleton Hill
Leaving Milfield Plain behind, the road north west out of Wooler leads us into the valley of Glendale formed by the River Glen, passing the site of the Battle of Humbleton Hill or Homildon Hill as it sometimes also known.
Here on the 13th August 1402, Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy defeated and captured Earl Archibold Douglas, who was returning to Scotland with an army of ten thousand men following a raid on Northumberland. The Scots had taken up position on the slopes of the hill, but were heavily defeated by the superior skills of the English archers.
Hotspur was not given much credit for his victory by King Henry IV, who claimed the ransom money for the release of the Scottish prisoners. The snub infuriated Percy and it was possibly this that eventually led the great Northumbrian warrior into rebellion against the king. If so it was a rebellion that ultimately resulted in Hotspur’s death at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.
An ancient standing stone called the Bendor Stone stands on the fields near the site of the Battle of Humbleton Hill and is said to commemorate the event but was probably here long before that time. It should not be confused with the ‘Battle Stone’ near Yeavering further to the west.
Yeavering and Glendale
Proceeding west from Humbleton we continue into Glendale, the valley of the River Glen (a tributary of the Till) and pass the little hamlet of Akeld which has a fortified farm house called ‘a bastle’ that dates from the fifteenth century. The name Akeld comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ac-helde’ meaning ‘oak slope’.
About a mile further west is the little village of Yeavering and to its west the standing stone called ‘The Battle Stone’ and to its west a place called Old Yeavering, all of which are overlooked to the south by the best-known feature of Glendale, the distinctive hill called Yeavering Bell (1,182 ft).
Yeavering Bell’s summit is the site of the largest Iron Age fort in the North East. Here we can trace the remains of 130 ancient huts. Good views of the Northumbrian countryside can be obtained from the top of Yeavering Bell, as one writer in the 1880s noted:
“Famous hills plains, rivers, castles, villages,
pele towers and battle fields lie stretched like a
beautiful picture before the delighted gaze”
At the foot of Yeavering Bell in the vale formed by the Glen and to the north of the present road once stood the Royal Anglo-Saxon palace and town of Ad Gefrin. Excavated in 1955, this consisted of timber halls and defensive works and is most closely associated with Edwin, the 6th century King of Northumbria.
King Edwin’s Palace at Yeavering, or another great hall much like it somewhere in the Kingdom of Northumbria (which stretched from the Forth to the Humber) is sometimes associated with a debate in which the king and his senior followers, made the momentous decision to convert from Paganism to Christianity.
In the ‘History of the English Church and People’ written only a century later by the Venerable Bede, details of a speech are recorded in which one of Edwin’s heathen followers speaks out in favour of converting to Christianity. The speech seems to give us an insight into the Anglo-Saxon mind and the atmosphere of a Anglo-Saxon hall:
“Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging.
This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter’s storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”
Aerial photos and excavations at Ad Gefrin have revealed that as well as the halls of the royal palace there was a temple, (and later a church), a cemetery, several buildings, a kitchen and a great enclosure representing a defended fort or coral of some kind.
Most intriguingly there was a wedge-shaped raked auditorium of an assembly structure where people were seated and addressed by perhaps the king, a noble or some other orator or performer from a podium.
Not a great deal is known of Yeavering’s history following Anglo-Saxon times, though in 1415 it was the site of a little-known battle in which an army led by Robin ‘Mend the Market’ Umfraville, defeated 4,000 Scots.
Across the river on the north side of the Glen from Yeavering is Coupland, a village which curiously has a Scandinavian name that means ‘bought land’. Coupland Castle, a neighbouring tower house, includes a date of ‘1619’ above a fireplace but the building may be older as tower houses generally date from earlier times.
About half a mile up the Glendale valley from Old Yeavering we find the village of Kirknewton. It is just to the north west of Yeavering Bell. Kirknewton’s church dates to the thirteenth century but the exterior is nineteenth century by John Dobson.
The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described the chancel and a south transept as “exciting survivals” of thirteenth or early fourteenth century architecture of a “very northern and primeval kind”. The church is also noted for a strange and primitive stone carving depicting three wise men wearing kilts, who are known as the ‘Kilted Magi’. The church is dedicated to St Gregory and the name of the village ‘Kirknewton’ – ‘the new church settlement’ perhaps suggests it was once a church of importance.
The College Burn
Kirknewton lies at the head of the River Glen, which is formed by the confluence of the College Burn and Bowmont Water.
The College Valley which joins the River Glen from the south near Kirknewton is an entirely English valley but rises close to the Scottish border which confusingly here actually lies to the south (and to the west) near the valley source. The name of the stream comes from ‘cold-letch’ – a cold stream.
In this hilly country the border takes a restless wandering course. The main settlement of the valley is Hethpool, a hamlet where there is a fourteenth century pele tower, a nearby waterfall and a neighbouring hill called Great Hetha with a hillfort on its summit.
Near the upper end of the valley we see the prominent hill called the Schill to the west. Its summit is crossed by the Scottish Border and by the Pennine Way. Then we have the Cheviot itself to the east which separates the College Valley from the neighbouring valley of Harthope.
Bowmont Water and Yetholm
The Bowmont Water is a much larger and less hemmed in stream (or little river) than the College Burn. Bowmont Water was originally called Bolbenda – the name’s meaning uncertain but perhaps somehow refers to bends in the river. Nearby, a place called Bowmont Hill was named from the stream and perhaps resulted in the change of the name.
The hamlets of the Bowmont Water valley heading upstream from east to west are Kilham, Thornington, Pawston and Mindrum. At Mindrum (which means ‘mountain ridge’) the valley turns southward and from here on as we continue up the valley we find ourselves heading, somewhat surprisingly, southwards into Scotland with the river crossing the border into Scotland less than two miles south of Mindrum.
The last English farm in the Bowmont valley is Shotton Farm which lies below Shotton Hill on the east side of the Bowmont Water.
The term ‘Shot’ in old names like Shotton or Shotley is ambiguous as it can come from either of the Anglo-Saxon words ‘Scot’ (a Scotsman) or ‘Sceat’ (a slope), both of which could apply to this farm near Mindrum. There are several other places called Shotton around the North East region and interestingly the place-name seems to be confined to the historic counties of Northumberland and Durham.
Just south of Shotton Farm, a little stream called the Shotton Burn actually forms the border with Scotland but the border then cuts straight across the Bowmont Water which the stream joins to the west.
Heading south, leaving England behind to the north, within a mile and a half we find the two largest settlements of the whole Bowmont valley. Here, we are referring to Town Yetholm to the west of the river and Kirk Yetholm to its east.
The name Yetholm derives from the words ‘yet’ meaning a gap or gateway and ‘holmr’ which signifies a river island. Kirk Yetholm is at the northern terminus of the long distance footpath called the Pennine Way.
Although Town Yetholm and Kirk Yetholm are linked by a bridge across the Bowmont Water the river forms a broad green vale, almost a quarter of a mile wide between the two places so they are quite separate but closely linked communities.
In days gone by Kirk Yetholm was associated with gypsies including the family called the Faas, who were the principal gypsy clan of the Border Country. Kirk Yetholm was the gypsy capital of all Scotland and the last gypsy king was crowned here in 1898. Many local people may claim gypsy descent and a stone on Kirk Yetholm green commemorates the gypsy connection.
There’s also a celebrated gypsy connection at Town Yeholm. During the village festival in June there’s a tradition of choosing a ‘Bari Gadgi’ and ‘Bari Manushi’ – which means ‘best boy’ and ‘best girl’ in the Romany gypsy language and the young man and young woman are dressed in a green coloured sash and rosette.
Each July during the Civic Week celebrations at the Scottish town of Kelso in the valley of the Tweed to the west, numerous horse riders led by the ‘Kelsae Laddie’ and his ‘left and right hand men’ leave that town wearing blue sashes and cross the countryside to head for Kirk Yetholm. They take a route not far from the English border and arrive in Kirk Yetholm from the north where they are greeted with a toast.
The riders then retire to Town Yetholm across the Bowmont Water for lunch in the Plough Hotel where they are joined by the Bari Gadgi and Bari Manushi to dance a reel to the accompaniment of a piper.
The Bowmont Water rises in the Cheviot Hills about eight miles to the south of Yetholm near the English border in the region of Windy Gyle. Here the English border now lies to the south with streams beyond the watershed across the border feeding the upper reaches of the River Coquet in Coquetdale.
Carham on Tweed
To the north of Yetholm the England-Scotland border crosses the Bowmont Water near Shotton Farm and from here west of Mindrum it heads northwards, bridging across the sparsely populated land of scattered farms between the Bowmont Water and River Tweed.
This part of the border stretches about five miles and it’s a land of relatively gentle hills where, save for the occasional tiny stream, the border struggles to find a natural boundary to follow. Things are different once it reaches the River Tweed near the English village of Carham on the south side of that river. From hereon the Tweed forms the border for several miles on its eastward route to Berwick.
West of Carham towards Kelso in Roxhburghshire, both sides of the River Tweed are in Scotland. Carham helps to define the border in a geographical sense but also defined it in an historical sense. In times past the land north of the Tweed stretching at one point as far north as Edinburgh and beyond was once part of the Kingdom of Northumbria.
In 1018 things changed at the Battle of Carham when Malcolm II, the King of Scotland fought against the Northumbrians under the leadership of their Earl, Uchtred of Bamburgh, who levied all Northumbrian men north of the Tees. Northumbria was by then no longer a kingdom and was now a remote northern earldom subject to England but not always supported by that realm.
The Northumbrians were defeated in the battle. Lands north of the Tweed and within the Tweed valley were then ceded to Scotland forever including places such as Melrose, long part of Northumbria with its strong links to St Cuthbert. So devastating was this outcome that the Bishop of Durham is said to have died, broken-hearted, on hearing the news.
So the outcome of the battle had an important result as it established the River Tweed as the Anglo-Scottish boundary and more or less defined the border as we know it today. Today, the quiet, pretty little village of Carham seems a long way remote from the days of the border struggle but it must have been at a greatly exposed point on the border from this time onward. Remarkably in medieval times there was once a little monastic cell of Augustinian canons based here, protected only by a tower.
Wark on Tweed
Two miles west of Carham is Wark on Tweed. Wark means ‘earthwork’ and this was the site of a grand castle built by Walter Espec in 1136. It was certainly a major castle but only the impressive mound of the motte and associated earthworks remain.
Scots destroyed the castle in 1138 but it was rebuilt by Henry II in the 1150s. The castle went on to have an extraordinarily eventful history and it’s worth listing some of those events. To begin, King Stephen used it as a base for raiding Scotland, then we have King John setting fire to it in 1216 along with the neighbouring village and we have Henry III taking up temporary residence for a time with his queen.
The castle’s history doesn’t end there however. William Wallace is said to have attacked it and Edward I celebrated Easter within it in 1296. Edward II assembled his army here prior to his disastrous Battle of Bannockburn and Robert the Bruce seized the castle in 1318.
In 1342, Sir William Montague, the Governor of Wark Castle attacked King David II’s Scottish army as they returned from a raid in England. King David then attacked and captured Wark Castle. Then King Edward III came to the garrison’s aid, and while he was here supposedly established the Order of the Garter – an order of chivalry to which several knights subscribed.
According to Northumbrian legend the garter of the Countess of Salisbury slipped as she danced at Wark, causing the courtiers to snigger. They were reprimanded by the king as he picked up the garter with his sword uttering the words that soon came to be the motto of the order:
“Honi soit qui mal y pense”
(Shame on him who thinks ill of it)
Unfortunately this legendary event is also claimed by a number of other places and in truth the turbulent and dangerous Wark was perhaps an unlikely setting for such frivolous activities.
Nevertheless Wark Castle continued to play its often bloody part in history. It was stormed in 1385, then it was seized by a Scot called William Haliburton in 1419, and retaken the same year by Sir Robert Ogle for the English after his men entered it by a sewer from the Tweed.
The Scots attacked the castle again in 1460 and they caused severe damage before the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Wark Castle was repaired in 1523 but had fallen out of use by the beginning of the next century when King James I became king. Wark’s eventful history is perhaps best summed up in an old rhyme:
“Auld Wark upon the Tweed
Has been many a man’s dead”
Cornhill on Tweed
Two miles west of Wark a sharp bend in the River Tweed and a bridge of 1783 across the river separates the English village of Cornhill on Tweed from the little Scottish town of Coldstream where the A697 crosses the river. Cornhill, like Wark, was the site of a castle, though not on the same scale. There are scant traces of this fortification near the Tweed to the west.