A forgotten history…

Once a year, I like to make a pilgrimage up north to Carlisle. It’s due North. A straight shot up the M6. A temporary migration to the homeland.

Part of my desire to head ‘up country’ could be explained by cynefin – a sense of being amongst one’s folks – that I’ve explored elsewhere (The Nostalgia of Blackberries). I travel to visit my brother, aunts, uncles and cousins who all share the same black humour as I do. Whilst I’m there I make a special visit to see my dad, buried at Blackford churchyard near to his parents, just a few miles south of the Scottish border. My dad never met my girls so it’s my way of keeping him in touch with us all as we grow and change.

I also travel north to see Carlisle, my dad’s home town and a city that has a strangely strong claim on my heart.

Carlisle has an interesting history – particularly military. Despite being pre-Roman in origin, it’s not included in the Domesday Book because it was then in Scotland. It’s a city small enough to be knowable, with a castle and a cathedral. It is a handsome old place but tourists are far more likely to go to the pretty towns of the Lake District or Hadrian’s Wall.

Perhaps it’s because Carlisle is just so far north? When you get to Penrith, ostensibly the Gateway to the Lakes (and the setting to Withnail and I), Carlisle is STILL another 25 miles.


The hills around Shap make motorway driving almost pleasurable for a good stretch of the M6. Dad would tell me that there were sleeping dinosaurs under the hills and it’s a piece of family lore that I’ve passed on to my girls.  He always praised the coming of the motorways for their convenience and speed.

Shap, looking due North

Very occasionally when he was young and living near Carlisle, his own father would announce a family visit to Blackpool for the day. They (mum, dad and five kids) would get up ridiculously early in the morning and head south. Before the M6, the return journey always saw his father kicking everyone out of the car at the foot of Shap, leaving them to climb the hill on their own whilst the ancient engine of their car slowly whined its way up to the top of the steep incline. No wonder the M6 felt like an improvement. My dad laboured on it during his university holidays and would proudly drive over a small bump in the motorway that he had made – so perhaps that’s worth the extra 25 miles?

But many people shoot past Carlisle on the way up to Scotland instead. Even the city’s tourist board have gone with the strapline that Carlisle is “the link between two world heritage sites” (the Lakes and Hadrian’s Wall): which is so utterly underwhelming that it’s almost like something Alan Patridge would have promoted.

It seems to be a place almost forgotten except by the people who live in it or have a specific reason to be there, a city that is neither here nor there: a liminal place (another concept I explored in The Restorative Power of Tea).

It’s a pity that Carlisle isn’t more at the forefront of national memory and history because it deserves better recognition. It has been an important military town for over two millennia, defending itself and the kingdom against marauding invaders of all sorts: Celts, Romans, Anglo Saxons, Christians (joke – haha, but they do get everywhere) Normans, English and Scottish armies – and Border Reivers.

I’d lay money on the bet that 90% of you have never heard of the Border Reivers (and that doesn’t include those friends previously bored into submission by me on the topic). And yet they were a serious force on the Borders for several centuries until their extirpation by Scottish kings of the late 1500s. I’ve always found it a fascinating piece of British history, not least because it is so little known, but because it is the story of my paternal family, the Armstrongs.

The problem was caused by the border in the first place. If you create a border, you create two sides and you make criminals of anyone attempting to live their life as they knew it before the border arrived. Moreover, you have to protect it or there’s no reason for having it in the first place, so there will be fighting. A border will always have a buffer zone for several miles either side where the fall out of war will be felt most strongly. It’ll be the first place to suffer and the last to get fixed.

All of the farming families living either side of the border in the medieval period were regularly trampled on throughout the dynastic scrapping of the Scottish and English crowns, watching their animals being ‘requisitioned’ for troops or their crops flattened. Many simply died of starvation or injury. Others sought other occupations, many continued to farm but, out of sheer bloody-minded defiance, some of those farmers armed themselves and became like the armies by whom they had suffered. They became known as the Reivers. They stole, burnt and pillaged the lands around them becoming warlords of the borders and terrors of their neighbours, be-reaving them by relieving them of their possessions and sometimes their lives.

Read more about the history of the Reivers via this link

The Reivers were at their height between the 13th and 16th centuries when it must have seemed like they had always been and would always be there. They were powerful in a way that was a real concern to both Scottish and English government. The Armstrongs in particular could raise a private army of 3,000 fighting men in a few hours, a formidable force when battles could be fought and won on just such numbers.

border reiver

The greatest danger, however, was that the families did not care for the border and some lived on both sides changing their allegiance when necessary, sometimes mid-battle. In fact, I think it was in Alistair Moffat’s book The Reivers: The Story of the Border Reivers where he recounts a story of Reivers paid to fight as mercenaries in one battle discovering each other on different sides of the battle lines and spending some considerable time pretending to fight each other until they were found out by their respective, incensed, officers.

Their only true allegiance was to their family name. In fact, they cared so little about nationality that in Liddesdale, not far outside Carlisle, they carved out their own space known as The Debateable Land: so called because no one knew where it began or ended or whether it was in Scotland or England. The regular rules didn’t apply and neither did the laws, temporal or spiritual. The special conditions of the border had created a liminal landscape that became a physical and (il)legal, then historical, reality.

The Reivers were expert cattle and sheep rustlers and would travel miles out of their strongholds (called peile towers) to steal animals – sometimes even going as far south as Lancashire. They were excellent horsemen, running alongside their Galloway Nags for miles at a time, who could disappear into the moss with several hundred head of sheep at a moment’s notice. However, if they were caught, they would be sent off to Carlisle Castle dungeons, probably to be hanged. Bewcastle churchyard is said to be largely stocked with women because the men mostly ended their days in Carlisle’s dungeons (I’ve been there and I’m not sure it’s true but it’s a pretty special place all the same). I took a motif from an ancient Armstrong grave here for my own father’s grave stone.

In 1524 Gavin Dunbar, Bishop of Glasgow, was so exasperated by the Reivers that he wrote a curse to be read at every church pulpit in the borders. This is just a tiny portion of a magnificent volley of angry cussing:

I curse thaim gangand (going), and I curse thaim rydand (riding); I curse them standand, and I curse thaim sittand; I curse thaim etand,
I curse thaim drinkand; I curse them walkand,
I curse them sleepand; I curse thaim rysand,
I curse thaim lyand; I curse thaim at hame;
I curse thaim fra hame; I curse thaim within the house; I curse thaim without the house; I curse thair wiffis (wifes), thair barnis (children), and thair servandis participand with thaim in thair deides.

curse stone
The Curse Stone outside Tullie House Museum in Carlisle which depicts the curse in full

The Reivers, who barely went to church, probably didn’t hear it or laughed if they did. They were far too busy enjoying themselves.

However, amongst the stealing and the raiding, the prison breaks and the blood feuds, they were well known for their poetry and song, betraying a soft centre that their victims never saw. The border ballads, quite tender voice-led songs, are still sung today of the exploits of these men.

Here’s a link to a Tony Robinson, of Time Team fame, programme about the Reivers and their ballads.

Their reign was eventually brought to a close by the union of the two kingdoms of England and Scotland in 1601: a tale for our times if ever there was one. If two powers join together then borders are erased and cease to be a line of contention. Those who made their livings according to such out of date traditions couldn’t hope to survive. Family chieftans were hanged, lands were taken, family troops were sent to fight in wars far away and, slowly, the Reiver lifestyle faded away, never to be replaced. This engendered a diaspora that eventually saw an Armstrong on the moon and a Nixon in the White House. The family surnames remained in the borders though, as did certain personality traits: a lack of patience for fools, almighty grudge-bearing, deepest loyalty to a cause or person and dark humour.

kinmont willie armstrong
Kinmont Willie Armstrong captured in 1596 and broken out of Carlisle Castle gaol shortly afterwards by Bold Buccleuch

Some 170 years later, a sickly little boy called Walter was sent to live with his father’s family on their farm at Sandyknowe in the borders. Six of his brothers and sisters had died in their home in Edinburgh and he had just recovered from polio so it was judged that it was the best place for him. Sandyknowe stood in the shadow of Smailholm, the ruined peile tower of the Scotts, once a reiving family.

Smailholm Tower

Long evenings were spent at his Aunt Jenny’s knee, learning the ballads and stories of the Border Reivers and those tales went deep into his psyche. Eventually they resurfaced in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders which records those ballads, but they also inspired him to create the modern historical novel in which he captured the feel of the border ballads with an added dash of Romantic flourish. Sickly little Wat grew up to be Sir Walter Scott. He knew the power of the old stories and repurposed them for a new Victorian audience, hungry for dashing heroes, beautiful heroines and tales both gory and glorious.

Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!

To all the sensual world proclaim,

One crowded hour of glorious life

Is worth an age without a name.

Sir Walter Scott

In 1808, Scott wrote Marmion. Lord Marmion was a particularly dastardly anti-hero who tries to force a beautiful rich young lady to marry him. His evil plan is defeated in the end (spoiler alert!) but it’s the few stanzas about Lochinvar (from Canto V of Marmion) that have always stood out in the larger work. They’re thumpingly vigorous and crazily romantic – like a distilled Mills & Boon (see the end of the post for a rollicking good read). No wonder they’ve since become a standard for dramatic poetry recitals.

Outlander 2014
Gratuitous Jamie Fraser picture…
For me, no one resembles young Lochinvar more than the hero of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series of novels, Jamie Fraser. Oor Jamie is brave, true and handsome – and not above stealing his love away from an undeserving cad. I know he’s an 18thC Highlander, not a 16thC Borderer like Lochinvar, but I think we can allow some slack.

Upon reading Lochinvar again recently, imagine my utter delight when I realised that Scott had set the story at Netherby Hall, near Longtown, in the borders. I had just booked a two day stay in a tree house on the Netherby Estate for me and my family whilst on the annual pilgrimage to Carlisle!

The sun was setting over the trees as we arrived at the tree house, giving a long, low, golden light of the kind you find only in autumn. There was a long, long track to follow, once we turned off the road, which wound its way through a mile or more of pastures and field gates raising our anticipation. We all gasped as the tree house hoved into view.

Stay at Netherby Treehouse yourself by checking out the link…


It stood on stilts in front of us, like a little piele tower, taking advantage of a grove of oak trees on a promontory above the gin-clear River Esk. Our kind hosts the Grahams (another reiving name) came to check on us and wish us well before leaving us to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the place. Just behind us sat Netherby Hall, itself built on the site of a Roman fort, and in front of us over the river stood Kirkandrews church and a piele tower in private hands (previously burnt down by my relatives in 1527, I learnt – sorry).

Kirkandrews church, rebuilt by in the 18thC by Temple Moore and Kirkandrew piele tower in the background

The autumnal sunshine gilded everything around us and, for a magical hour whilst we explored, it felt like time was suspended. In this most liminal of landscapes, close to Hallowe’en, a liminal time of year, we could almost feel the layers of previous centuries peeling back around us. Soon though, the shadows lengthened and we felt a little frisson that encouraged us to hurry back, past the flocks of sheep, to our house in the trees, safe above ground.

Eventually, the kids were fed, washed and put to bed with stories of the old days (and the eldest’s own re-telling of the Jungle Book) by the flickering fire. The pumpkins were lit, the wine was poured and the log burner stoked. The husband and I took all the blankets we could find and walked out onto the large balcony outside, looking up at the blaze of stars above us.

It’s a long-held tradition at this time of year that the dead are not far away. They can feel the warmth of the fires lit by the living to celebrate the last bursts of the sun before winter claims the land. As I sat there under the stars, I thought of my father buried a few short miles away in this debateable land. I thought of the exploits of Lochinvar who had braved the River Esk right underneath us to reach his fair Ellen at Netherby Hall. I thought of the silent bands of Reivers who stole through this same landscape at night on raids large and small, risking their lives and others in pursuit of livestock and renown. If ever there was a time to feel their proximity, it was now.

I raised my glass to them all but most of all to my father, who introduced me to this place and to this, my family history. Here’s to you dad and here’s to our family’s past and our future, here on the border and wherever we might be: we hold this place forever dear in our hearts.


This is my country,

The land that begat me,
These windy spaces
Are surely my own …

Sir Alexander Gray


The Ballad of Lochinvar

O young Lochinvar is come out of the west,

Through all the wide Border his steed was the best;

And save his good broadsword he weapons had none,

He rode all unarm’d, and he rode all alone.

So faithful in love, and so dauntless in war,

There never was knight like the young Lochinvar.


He staid not for brake, and he stopp’d not for stone,

He swam the Eske river where ford there was none;

But ere he alighted at Netherby gate,

The bride had consented, the gallant came late:

For a laggard in love, and a dastard in war,

Was to wed the fair Ellen of brave Lochinvar.


So boldly he enter’d the Netherby Hall,

Among bride’s-men, and kinsmen, and brothers and all:

Then spoke the bride’s father, his hand on his sword,

(For the poor craven bridegroom said never a word,)

“O come ye in peace here, or come ye in war,

Or to dance at our bridal, young Lord Lochinvar?”


“I long woo’d your daughter, my suit you denied;—

Love swells like the Solway, but ebbs like its tide—

And now I am come, with this lost love of mine,

To lead but one measure, drink one cup of wine.

There are maidens in Scotland more lovely by far,

That would gladly be bride to the young Lochinvar.”


The bride kiss’d the goblet: the knight took it up,

He quaff’d off the wine, and he threw down the cup.

She look’d down to blush, and she look’d up to sigh,

With a smile on her lips and a tear in her eye.

He took her soft hand, ere her mother could bar,—

“Now tread we a measure!” said young Lochinvar.


So stately his form, and so lovely her face,

That never a hall such a galliard did grace;

While her mother did fret, and her father did fume,

And the bridegroom stood dangling his bonnet and plume;

And the bride-maidens whisper’d, “’twere better by far

To have match’d our fair cousin with young Lochinvar.”


One touch to her hand, and one word in her ear,

When they reach’d the hall-door, and the charger stood near;

So light to the croupe the fair lady he swung,

So light to the saddle before her he sprung!

“She is won! we are gone, over bank, bush, and scaur;

They’ll have fleet steeds that follow,” quoth young Lochinvar.


There was mounting ’mong Graemes of the Netherby clan;

Forsters, Fenwicks, and Musgraves, they rode and they ran:

There was racing and chasing on Cannobie Lee,

But the lost bride of Netherby ne’er did they see.

So daring in love, and so dauntless in war,

Have ye e’er heard of gallant like young Lochinvar?

Sir Walter Scott


jamie in action
Another gratuitous Jamie photo for making it this far through the post!