Debateable Northumberland

Ask anyone where the Debatable Lands were, and they’ll point you in the direction of the famous strip between Canonbie and Longtown at the West end of the Anglo-Scottish Border near the Solway Firth. And they’d be right.

However, there were other spots of Debatable Land along the length of the Border that were the cause of consternation, dispute and conflict between Scotland and England in the dark days of the past – and all of them were in Northumberland.

Recent thinking has it that the term Debatable comes from the Old English word ‘Batable’ meaning good pasturing land for cattle, and that may well be true. But the phrase ‘Debatable Land’ was very much being applied to the Border in the sense of dispute, controversy and contention in the contemporary Border records.

The unnamed author of a ‘Memorandum on the Borders’ in December 1580 stated that the ‘just bounds towards Scotland is in debate in divers (several) places where the two realms touch and have been cause of great controversy between the nations. By means whereof there be certain parcels of ground upon the edge of the frontier doubtful, to whether realm they appertain, and these are called the Debatable Lands.’

He went on to list three places in the East March, between ‘Bushment Hole and Cauldron Burn,’ up near Carham and Wark in modern north Northumberland (the Old East March), before the text is frustratingly cut off in mid-flow.

The writer, who was English, claimed that the lands had been ‘usurped by the Scots during the wars while our people retiring themselves into the countries, left the same desolate, and they that revived possession after many years, either remembered not how much to challenge, or looked not narrowly after a small quantity of land in so large habitation and tickle hold. As also in the time of peace, wherein they never leave encroaching upon the English Borders, in such sort as by a survey taken in the time of King Henry the Eighth, it was found that the ancient marks of the bounds were in sundry places of purpose defaced, and that many towns lying end-long the said Borders, had ploughed and sown all the ground within their townships that would bear corn, and pastured their cattle within the ground of England.’

There are many historical examples of Scottish Middle March reiver families such as the Rutherfords, Kerrs and Youngs being accused of having sheep rakes on English ground in Northumberland, and it was always a matter of much disagreement – and even bloodshed.

Tynedale and neighbouring Redesdale had both been Liberties at one time (not belonging to either nation, but a Lord of the Manor – the Umfravilles in Redesdale, with the Scottish Comyns once holding Tynedale) and two parcels of land remained ‘Debatable’ in North Tynedale. Both faced the notorious Scottish valley of Liddesdale near the boundary with Cumberland, most likely around the wild moorlands above Kielder. There was another disputed spot near where the English Middle and East Marches met, placing it somewhere in the Cheviot hills up beyond Barrow Burn below East Teviotdale.

So there were numerous grey areas on the beautiful but often barren and windswept geography of the Border – much like the social history of the Borderers themselves.


Norham Castle

Norham Castle guards an important crossing ford over the River Tweed and was the fortification most attacked by the Scots.

The castle was built around 1121 by the Bishop of Durham and was besieged around 13 times, putting it on a par with Carlisle. It’s now an English Heritage property.

Norham was pounded by Scottish guns for several days and eventually surrendered to the army on their way to Flodden Field in 1513. Brian Layton was the Captain of Norham from 1542 until he was killed at the Battle of Ancrum Moor three years later.

It was in a ruinous state towards the end of the reiver times and in 1590 the workmen repairing it weren’t getting their pay and were ‘crying daily’ for it.

Sidwood Bastle

Tarset and Tarret burn, hard and heather bred, Yet! Yet! Yet! Was the rallying call of the men of the remote and wild North Tyne vale.

Notorious thief Tristam Dodd of Sidwood was a fugitive in the East March with a band of Halls, Chartlons, Potts and Shaftoes in 1597. Seven years earlier, along with his brother Randal, he’d been burned out, robbed and his crops destroyed by the Laird of Ferniehirst and 100 men, and taken prisoner into Scotland.

The few remaining stones and grassy hump of Sidwood are now in a peaceful forest, but the nearby Black Middens is a superb example of an English border bastle house and there are the ruins of old pele towers at Shilla Hill, Bog Head, Waterhead and Hill House, all in within walking distance on a trail. You can learn more about the North Tyne and Redewater riders at the Bellingham Heritage Centre.

Hexham Old Gaol

Nowhere celebrates the heritage of the Northumbrian riding families more than the museum at Hexham Old Gaol – reputed to be the first purpose-built prison in the Country.

You can have fun putting one of your family in the stocks and spook yourself with a visit to the dungeon. There is armour and weaponry on display and the information boards can help you learn more about the Border Laws and March Wardens as well as the families that caused havoc in the surrounding countryside. Hexham was often used to lock up the troublesome local North Tyne Reivers but they weren’t too bothered and often rode into town to break out their relatives. Notorious raider Jerry ‘Topping’ Charlton was sprung, along with a couple of Dodds and an Armstrong in 1538 when it appears that the wardens were paid, or ‘encouraged’ to look the other way. Not an uncommon event during the reiver period.

Hexham Old Gaol was built in around 1330 and was used by the Archbishop of York for detaining law-breakers. It is situated right in the centre of Hexham.

Author Jon Tait’s new book ‘Dick the Devil’s Bairns – Breaking the Border Mafia’ is available now from the publishers Tredition as a paperback (£12) or eBook (£2.99).