Once one of the most lawless parts of Britain, the so-called Debatable Land, on the English-Scottish border, is now a fascinating destination for anyone with an interest in history and legend
If you were visiting the region just north of Hadrian’s Wall 500 years ago, you might well think you’d stepped straight into the Wild West. This particular stretch of land wasn't big - from the Solway Firth, around 20 miles long and 3.5 miles wide - but it’s gone down in history as one of the most lawless places Britain has ever seen.
The Debatable Land, so-called because of the long-standing territorial feud between England and Scotland, was a grim, treacherous place, where marauding hordes terrorised their neighbours and each other on a daily basis. These murderous clans, known as the border reivers (or raiders) paid allegiance to no one but themselves and their families, and plundered when the mood took them. Not for them the daily grind: they stole what they needed and, while they wouldn’t necessarily kill their own granny, they wouldn’t think twice about killing yours.
It wasn’t until 1603, when James VI of Scotland took hold of the English throne, that the reivers were kicked out, many of them shipped off to Ireland or to the Netherlands, where they were used as cannon fodder in the Dutch fight against the Spanish. Some became pit men in Northumberland and Durham, while others emigrated to Australia and America.
The reivers’ legacy remains in the region’s architecture, culture and family names — the Armstrongs, Douglases, Grahams, Kerrs, Maxwells, Nixons and Robsons. In fact, three famous Americans - astronaut Neil Armstrong, evangelist Billy Graham and former president Richard (“I’m not a crook”) Nixon - are direct descendants.
Today, of course, you’re unlikely to be accosted by psychopathic locals and if you’re visiting Hadrian’s Wall, it’s well worth venturing northwards.
The small village of Bewcastle, set high on the remote fells beyond Brampton in North Cumbria, is surrounded by some of the most rugged and windswept countryside in England and was the scene of many a heinous crime during the reivers’ reign. It’s also steeped in Arthurian legend, with a church that dates back to 1277 and one of the finest Anglo-Saxon stone crosses in Britain, thought to have been made between 700 and 800AD and covered in runic inscriptions and references to King Alcfrith.
East of Longtown, in the rolling hills of the North Pennines, you’ll find some of the best-preserved parts of Hadrian’s Wall, most notably at Birdoswald Fort, which served as a base for over 1,000 Roman soldiers.
In 1542, the Battle of Solway Moss took place just outside Longtown, when nearly 15,000 rampaging Scots were laid to waste in less than an hour by a force of just 800 men, most of them reivers. Only a few thousand made it back home across the border, some of those coming to a grizzly end at the hands of the Graham family, the most bloodthirsty reiver clan of the lot.
Six miles south of Longtown is Carlisle, once a Roman settlement serving the forts along Hadrian’s Wall. The city has been passed from Scottish to English hands and back again over the centuries and, although it is sometimes overlooked by tourists, it makes an interesting pit stop. It’s also the starting point for the 72-mile train ride down to Settle in North Yorkshire, one of Britain’s most picturesque rail routes.
Carlisle’s imposing castle was founded in 1092 by William the Conqueror’s son and is where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in 1568. The Prior's Tower in Carlisle Cathedral is a good example of a pele (pronounced peel) tower, which the more well-to-do reivers built all over Cumbria to keep out other undesirables. These squat stone towers usually had three floors, the ground floor being taken up by livestock and the upper floors used as the living area and a lookout.
Most of the towers were destroyed or converted into stately homes but you can still see other good examples at Aydon Castle near Hexham, Lanercost Priory and Muncaster Castle.