Border Troubles 1286 - 1746

by Emma Bray

'Plate 160: Yanwath, Yanwath Hall', in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Westmorland (London, 1936), p. 160. British History Online

Uncertain Scottish Succession

For the first century after the Normans arrived in Cumbria, relations between those north and south of the Scottish border were relatively peaceful, in spite of the wars which occurred between the countries at the time. However, in 1286, the Scottish King Alexander III fell over a cliff and the throne passed to his infant daughter, Margaret. She died soon after and the succession was left uncertain. Edward I saw the opportunity to take control of Scotland and a bloody period of war ensued. The people of the borderlands on both sides suffered terribly with massacres, raids and scorching and in desperation they turned to raiding farms on the opposite side of the border, a practice which was known as reiving

Border Reivers

The Border Reivers operated in clans or families and there were culprits in both England and Scotland. Raiding parties would cross the border at night, burn down farms and drive the livestock back over the border for their own use. In order to defend themselves, farmers who had the means constructed fortified farmsteads known as bastle houses or pele towers. A pele tower was initially a wooden, but later stone tower with a fortified door, to which a family could retreat on hearing that a raid was coming. Animals might be herded into the ground floor room, known as the pend, and the family would retreat to the upstairs rooms. There was usually a spiral staircase for defence and small windows on the upper floor only.

Dacre Castle by Anne Clarke
Dacre Castle © Anne Clarke

Pele Towers

The Ullswater valley was not too distant from the border for its inhabitants to be victims of Scottish Reivers. Pele towers were built in or around the mid 14th century at Hutton John, Dalemain, Dacre and Yanwath, all of which exist today, although in the case of Dalemain, there was an earlier 12th century tower. Dalemain’s 14th century tower was incorporated within later additions to the house and the crenelated roof removed. The inhabitants of these houses would have been warned of an imminent raid by series of beacons such as the one in Penrith.

The Marches

The practice continued for over three hundred years. The borderlands seemed beyond the control of the authorities, who divided the lands into six Marches. Each March had a Warden who was to guard against raiders in his areas and punish those living in his March who carried out atrocities over the border.

Ullswater fell within the English West March. Complaints to the Warden were tried on “Truce Days” – large gatherings at which 6 English and 6 Scotsmen, picked by Wardens from the opposing nation, would act as a jury and decide on the complaint and any redress. The system failed to bring order to the borderlands, however and reiving heightened in the 16th century. It was not until James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne in 1603 that the national authorities acted to stamp out Border Reivers. The ring-leaders were rounded up and either executed or deported. By 1610, Border society was more peaceful and the pele towers were no longer used in defence.

The troubles continue

That was not the end to Border troubles, however. During the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-6, Bonnie Prince Charlie was stationed at Penrith and the Cumberland militia was raised. The Highlanders marched south and requisitioned hay and oats from local houses such as Dalemain and Hutton John. To assist the Duke of Cumberland’s advance against the Jacobites, parishes on the route such as Watermillock and Dacre were called upon to provide horses, carts and men to assist in the advance. Following a skirmish at Clifton on 18 December 1745, the Duke relieved Penrith on 19 December. Edward Hasell of Dalemain served on the Grand Jury to try the Jacobite prisoners in Carlisle in 1746.

By Emma Bray

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