This is a strange and magical land – and whether you’ve traveled north or south to reach us, you may well feel that you’ve arrived at the ends of the earth. In fact, if you look at the map, you will see that, far from being at the ends of the earth – or at least the ends of the UK – we’re closer to being in the middle. Our English visitors often fail to appreciate quite how huge a country Scotland is – it’s some 750 miles from the south coast of England to John O’ Groats – and just 370 from the south coast to Carlisle, the Great Border City.
This means that the Scottish part of the journey is almost as long as the English part. Our Scottish visitors on the other hand can have their own misconceptions – regarding anything south of Carlisle as being “London”. Both are right – either side of us we have two very different cultures – and both are equally wrong – the Borders are not some frontier to another land to be mistrusted, but a gateway to some truly amazing places.
You may not think so today, but this particular part of Dumfries and Galloway has one of the most turbulent pasts of any in the UK. Where you now see ordered towns and villages with their one-way systems and traffic calming measures once stood small hamlets that were torched and pillaged by first one side and then the other in a battle that went on for hundreds of years.
The war between the Scots and the English lasted until 1707, when the Treaty of Union was signed and the Scottish Parliament dissolved. Only in 1997, some 290 years later, did Scotland again win back some of its former powers. Of course the landmark vote in 2014 reinforced that position. In the fight to get that far the war killed tens of thousands and destroyed much of the historical property in this area.
At the forefront of the war was a unique character known as a “Border Reiver”. If you want to see what a Reiver looked like, the best place is on the A7 going into Carlisle from junction 44 of the M6. About two miles in you will see a Bannatynes health club on the left hand side – just after that on a plinth is a life-sized model of a Reiver, with his distinctive steel helmet – or “bonnet” as they were called.
Although essentially a Scottish word, there were also English Reivers – there were even some who would fight for either side, depending on the state of feud between local families. To reive is to raid, pillage and steal – and the reivers did all three in abundance.
That said, they didn’t operate entirely outwith the law – there were in fact rules – if someone stole your cattle, there was a right way and a wrong way to take revenge! Signs of the struggle still exist in some of the buildings found in the region. The Peel Tower for example is unique to this area. It consists of a simple rectangular three or four storey building with plain walls and no windows on the lower floors.
The walls were a minimum of 2 feet thick and, when under siege, the lower floor would be filled with smouldering peat. This would burn for days and would prevent anyone from laying gunpowder charges or taking the tower by storm.
A peel tower can be seen from the Northbound M6 north of junction 43 just after the road goes under the B6264. By far the most famous peel tower is the Hermitage, which can be found beyond Newcastleton in Liddesdale. Although now derelict there is an eerie sense of foreboding at the Hermitage, even on the brightest sunny day.
If you’re at all interested in the history of the area and have little time to spare, make sure that you at least take the A7 towards Langholm and Newcastleton and eventually the Hermitage. The landscape is cold and barren and you can well imagine the area’s turbulent past.
You might also like to visit Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, which has an interactive display on the reiving days.