Kinmont Willie Armstrong Trail
History of Scotland-Border Reivers-Kinmont Willie Armstrong Trail.
A Trail in Kinmont Country embraces the places associated with the homes of the main protagonists in the capture and rescue of Kinmont Willie Armstrong,most notorious of the 16th century Border Reivers, and the sites where men of the Scottish Border clans and their English adherents met in secrecy to lay their plans, and thus challenge the might of one of England’s seemingly impregnable Border fortresses, Carlisle castle. Also included are some of the sites that will forever enrich the great heritage of the Borders.
At the southern point of the trail is the formidable pile of Carlisle castle, its keep still proud and massively squat against any invader. A fort or castle has stood here for two millennia, so important has the site been in times past in maintaining a balance of power between the north and south of mainland Britain.
Carlisle Castle Cumbria was the Place of Imprisonment for Kinmont Willie Armstrong
It was here, in March 1596, that Kinmont was imprisoned and from where he was rescued after four weeks.
The Kinmont Willie Armstrong Trail
The river which runs to its north is the Eden, a beautiful sight to behold in the warmth and serenity of a bright midsummer’s evening yet tumultuous and turbulent after the rains of spring or awesome in its swell during dark midwinter gale.
Head north from the castle to the M6 and junction 44 and from here follow the A7. On the second bend to the right out of Longtown, a small market town about nine miles north of Carlisle, stands a cottage on the left named Dickstree. At the time of Kinmont Will it was the home of a blacksmith. According to tradition it was here that Buccleuch’s rescue party awoke the inmates on that rain-soaked dawn in April 1596 and asked that Kinmont’s chains should be removed. It is said that Buccleuch thrust his lance through the window of the cottage and coaxed the sleeping inmates awake with a gentle poke of the otherwise fearful weapon. It is a worthy little anecdote that conjures thoughts of the finality of Kinmont’s deliverance, albeit far from the truth. Kinmont was never in chains, never required the services of a blacksmith although we are told in the ballad of Kinmont Willie by Sir Walter Scott that Kinmont’s ‘airns played clang’. Poetic licence indeed, but such wonderful imagery!
About one and three quarter miles further north on the A7, to the right, Kirkandrews Tower stands proud on the banks of the Esk. Its name tells a story of its own. If Kirk is the Scots for Church then this place, most definitely on English ground now, would at one time have been Scottish. Standing in what was debateable ground from the original formation of the Border Line, its name is a poignant reminder that the Scots influence can still prevail on land that has been English for centuries.
The Border Reiving Family of Graham helped rescue Kinmont Willie Armstrong
A visit to the vicinity of the tower is definitely worth the effort of a detour. It is surely a pleasure to walk along the banks of the Esk here with Kirkandrews Tower and church on one side of the river and Netherby, a mansion of fine proportions in the distance, on the other. On the site of Netherby once stood the tower of the main branch of the Graham clan, the real force behind the springing of Kinmont. Going back to the time of the Roman occupation of Britain a fort, Castra Exploratorum, existed on this site with a road from there to the Mote, where, in the reiving times, another grayne of the Grahams had their place of residence. Netherby and Mote were often at feud.
There are some beautiful walks within the grounds of Netherby. To sample the delights of its sylvan attraction it is necessary to follow the signs for Netherby and Catlowdy which point to the right off the main street in Longtown.
To reach the charming lands surrounding Kirkandrews tower turn to the right off the A7 at the sign for Kirkandrews on Esk Church, follow the track down to the church, and park.
Reflect. The scenery is beautiful especially in the days of autumn when the trees to the east and south, aware that winter will soon be here, hold one last delight in the changing colours and contrasts of their leaves.
Return to the A7 and turn right and north. Prior to the right turn for Canonbie off the A7 a sign welcoming all to Scotland at the Border between the two countries stands near where once the Scots Dyke divided the Debateable Land into Scottish and English ground. The Debateable Land was an area about 12 miles long from north to south and up to 4 miles wide from east to west. Prior to the division in 1552 there were centuries of arguments about which country owned the ground. A haven for those on the run from authority, it became a place where murderers and thieves were wont to settle, happy in the confidence that few who endeavoured to maintain the law would dare to enter its limits. At one stage in its long and dubious history, in an effort by the authorities of the day to reduce its population, it was not a crime to kill within its borders.
The Border folk were allowed to pasture cattle within its bounds but only from the rising of the sun to its going down. No-one was allowed to build a house in the Debateable as such an act signified a desire for permanency, a state not to be condoned by the law of either country on ground that was ‘threap’ or of debateable ownership. In the wonderful vernacular of the time to build by ‘stob and stake’ was a crime.
To the east, but not seen from this road stood the tower of Carvinley where the Carletons met with some of the Grahams prior to moving over the Border to meet Buccleuch at Archerbeck.
The road that leads to Canonbie is the B7201. Follow this road off the A7. Canonbie is a beautiful Borders village. It nestles snugly in its confines, is a mix of bright and modern housing and the more traditional stone built dwellings so evocative of the area. It is hard to believe that little more than a mere two centuries ago Canonbie could not boast of one stone-house. Confidence in a more settled future, free of the threat of the endless squabble and confrontation over its nationality was still a sticking point perhaps, or old habits were taking a long time to die.
The river Esk shows off its beauty to stunning effect in the vicinity of this lovely place. There is a serenity and peace there now at complete odds with the days when it was the centre of controversy, the hub of the Debateable Land, and subject of perpetual argument between English and Scots.
The River Esk at Canonbie is a beautiful River in the Scottish Borders
Follow the road through Canonbie and cross the bridge over the river Esk. The B6357 leads from here to Newcastleton. The village of Rowanburn is soon reached. Here, by the roadside, on the right, is a larger than life carving to the memory of Sandie Armstrong, an inhabitant of the village in the reiving times. His tower, it is said, stood on the ground behind the memorial. If the representation of the man seen here is a true reflection of his size, then he surely was ‘Lang Sandie of Rowanburn’. He was hanged in 1606 after being on the run for almost six years. He was a member of the ambush crew who murdered Sir John Carmichael in 1600. Carmichael was a Scottish Warden noted for his fairness to all irrespective of nationality. He was waylaid as he rode the ground between Langholm and Lockerbie at a place called Raesnowes. His crime? He had incurred the wrath of the Armstrongs who were humiliated by a boyish prank of some of his followers. Alexander Airmestrang, known as Lang Sandie of Rowanburn, was hanged at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh for his part in the crime. He admitted that he had taken part in the murder, ‘which he declared was brought upon against his will.’
About half-a-mile further on, still on the B6357, to the left, stands the farm of Archerbeck. It was here that a number of the men behind the rescue of Kinmont met, some for the first time, to bond and declare their commitment to the freeing of the great Scottish reiver. Soon the village of Harelaw is reached. It was here in the tower of Hector Armstrong that Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland was lured after his rising to free Mary, Queen of Scots had failed. He was betrayed, some say, by Hector and eventually beheaded in the Street in York in 1573. ‘To take Hector’s cloak’, a saying still common in the Scottish Borders, refers to this despicable act and its meaning of betraying friend or ally.
After about another four and a half miles, on the same road, the sign for Kershopefoot is seen. This sleepy little hamlet is just about ½ mile to the right of this road across the bridge over the river Liddel. As the bridge is crossed the Kershope Burn can be seen to the left where it joins the Liddel. This insignificant little burn is the Border between England and Scotland. In the reiving times from its source to its confluence with the Liddel, the English patrolled its length day and night in the autumn and winter months. It was easily fordable, easy for the formidable Scottish clans of Liddesdale to enter the opposite realm and embark on yet another spoiling raid of innocent or enemy. The nerves of the English watches would be fraught and edgy were they assigned such an insufferable commission. Many would be the sighs of relief when the dawn broke over the cold winter landscape.
Follow the minor road until the sign for Sorbietrees and Newcastleton is seen to the left. Bear left here and follow this road for about a mile until, at a ‘T’ junction, the sign for Brampton and Bewcastle is met. Turn right here and follow this road for just over a mile. At this point a bridge over the Kershope Burn is reached. Park where convenient off the road.
A lovely little walk is in prospect.
Walk across the bridge and take the path immediately to the left. Follow this for about ¾ mile until the Dayholme of Kershope can be seen across the burn. It is situated at a bend in the burn, on Scottish soil, and instantly recognisable by its wide expanse of level ground. All is peaceful here now in stark contrast to the reiving days when hundreds of armed men from both the nations of Scotland and England would gather to witness the trials of those who had fallen foul of the Border Law. Many of those present would be as guilty of crime as those on trial or at deadly feud with others in attendance. Often they would be seeking vengeance from those they rubbed shoulders with at the Day of Truce.
It was following a Day of Truce at the Dayholme of Kershope that Kinmont Willie Armstrong was captured by the English.
The Dayholme of Kershope
Further to the east, and a long walk of many miles and thus not for the fainthearted, lies the Limey Syke or Lamisik ford, a spot where two countries, England and Scotland, and three counties reach out and join in uneasy harmony. A hostile and lonely place is the Lamisik. In the day when Rome ruled in these northern parts it was a crossing place on the route from Bewcastle to the Wheel Rig and what was known in other times as the Catrail. It was a route of much interest in that the Whele Causeway traversed the heady tops of the hills to the north. The Causeway was the much used passage of Scottish armies heading down Liddesdale and into England bent on teaching their southern neighbours a lesson in might is right or in response to the latest list of atrocities that devastated their northern homelands. It was at the Whele Kirk, a church on the Causeway, in 1296, that Edward 1 rested on his journey north to subdue the Scots. His vengeance, taken out on the poor folk of Berwick, was to lead to two hundred and fifty years of bitter and atrocious conflict between the nations of Scotland and England. Alas it is a frustrating quest to find the remains of this important place. The modern blight of endless trees overtakes all, obliterates everything in its path. What might have been clear to see in the earlier part of the twentieth century is no longer obvious. The mind and soul rest easier though when at last the hallowed ground is seen. It is there!
In the reiving times the Lamisik ford was the oft-traversed line of entry into England and Tynedale for the clans of Liddesdale. Here is ground that harbours many a tale of the reiving times and further to our east and south, and not part of our immediate trail but well worth a visit, are the lands of Bewcastledale, home, in the sixteenth century of some of the most violent men who ever rode the Borders. One such was the Jack Musgrave of the story.
The castle of Bewcastle, once a stronghold against Scottish raids into Tynedale, stands ruined and impassive on the site of even older forts which can be traced back to the days of the Roman occupation.
The land is a mix of lush pasture and upland moor and bog, pleasing to the eye on the lower slopes of the hills, harsh and daunting towards the skyline. Looking up the valleys to the hill tops it is not hard to imagine that one is in a different time when men eked out a living from the barren land and lived in constant fear of the next raid. The next band of violence, appearing as if from nowhere, would often bring destitution in its wake and sorrow and despair for those left alive. Loved ones were lost in defence of the meagre living, and, inevitably, the pursuit of vengeance invaded the hearts of those left behind and kick-started the feud that was not resolved for generations.
A notable scholar once visited the graveyard at Bewcastle in the days of feud, theft and murder, and was struck by the absence of graves to adult men. There seemed to be mainly the graves of women and those unfortunate enough to die young. On enquiring of a local woman why this should be, he was told that most of the men of Bewcastle had ‘a’ been hangit at weary Caerl.’ They had been hanged for their reiving ways at Carlisle!
Walk back to the bridge over the Kershope burn and drive back to the point where the ‘T’ junction was encountered. Here the sign points directly ahead for Newcastleton. Please follow it. Within ½ mile the house of Sorbietrees is seen. Here stood another Armstrong tower in the reiving days. Just over a mile further on this same road a tarmac road to the left goes to Mangerton Tower. The road is signposted Riverview Holiday Park.
Given the power and sway that the Armstrongs once held in lower Liddesdale it is a disappointment that such scant remains are all that are to be seen. But hope in a future that will preserve what is left raises the mind to a more positive frame. At least some of it has survived its violent history and, more surprisingly, the depredations of what should have been a more enlightened age when its massive stone was used for the bed of a railway line!
Mangerton tower was the main residence of the Chief of the Armstrongs for centuries. It lies to the right of the old Waverley railway line. It can be reached by driving past the holiday caravans that now stand in what was once a place of bitterly contested ground, but the tower is far better walked to, either from the village of Newcastleton, or at least this intersection of the roads. Forget the sights and sounds of the modern times and think on a time when only the wistful call of the curlew or the alarm ‘scaap’ of the snipe, the gentle lap and gurgle of the river Liddel, and the pastoral and homely visions of the valley opening to the south would be the only companions there on the journey home. At least on a good day!
Return to the place where you turned left on the road to Mangerton and turn left.
Newcastleton is less than mile away. Cross the bridge over the river Liddel and turn right. Here stood the tower of John Elliot of Copshaw, another who answered the call to free Kinmont. The tower is long gone but the village still evokes thoughts of the reivers. Nearby are the Side and the Park. They are names for the most part forgotten but there was a time when they would strike terror into many a heart. Jock of the Park was the reiver who almost killed James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, the most powerful man in southern Scotland, and third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Jock of the Side was to offer shelter to the Earl of Northumberland after the Rising of the North failed to free Mary and re-instate Catholicism as the religion of England. Northumberland was shunned by his erstwhile partner in rebellion, a Dacre of Gilsland, and headed for Liddesdale where he knew he could count on succour and aid.
To the north still in Newcastleton, on the banks of the Liddel to the right of the road, stand the decaying remains of an early nineteenth century mansion. Beneath it lies the vault of what was the tower of Whithaugh, the home of another branch of the Armstrong clan. The Whithaugh Armstrongs were particularly active in the last days of the reiver, at feud with many of the neighbouring clans as well as the English.
Take the road through the village should a mere view of Whithaugh on the opposite bank of the Liddel be of interest, otherwise turn left at the sign for Langholm. It is by the building occupied by the Bank of Scotland.
This road goes past the site of John of Copshaw’s tower situated where the Helcaldron burn is now channelled past what was the railway station. The road takes a steep ascent at this point and passes, on the left, a monument to John Byers, pseudonym Bluebell, who was a great worthy of a great little village. His love and knowledge of Liddesdale is yet unsurpassed. His ability to turn that love into words brings the valley alive. His homely descriptions are rendered with a poetical lilt and command of the language that complements his vast knowledge of the times, people and places now long gone. His history of Liddesdale is a pure delight. Incomparable!
The Remains of the Vault of Allanhaugh Tower
Return over the fords to the A7 and turn right. Two miles north of Newmill, on the left whilst negotiating a left-hand bend, the tower of Branxholme can be viewed. It is easily missed given the attention necessary to drive safely around the bend so stop in the lay-by to the right over a narrow bridge just north of the Tower and walk back to the place where one of the major forces of the reiving times held sway for many a generation. Branxholme is a place long associated with Walter Scott of Buccleuch of the story, indeed the whole family of that name, for centuries. The original castle containing four corner towers was burned in 1532 and again in 1570. Indeed in that year it was gutted with explosives by the Earl of Sussex. But the resilience of the Border Lords is to be admired as rebuilding immediately commenced. The five story tower that stands on the skyline above the river Teviot, known as the Nesby or Nebsie Tower, is the only prominent vestige of that rebuilding. A mile further on, across the river Teviot and the valley to the north and east, seemingly imperious on the skyline, is Goldielands Tower, home of another Walter Scott who also rode for Carlisle and the freeing of Kinmont. Should the site of Goldielands be of interest there is a track to the right off the main A7 opposite a tourist sign for Wiltonburn Country Cashmeres. Although it is difficult to park in this vicinity it is possible with a little thought and ingenuity. Park on the verge, just to the south, where a minor road leads to Whitchesters. From the tourist sign it is only ½ mile to the top of the hill and this impressive Border pele tower.
The Nesby Tower Branxholme
Travelling further up the beautiful valley of the river Teviot, still on the A7, the signpost for Roberton is encountered which points to the left over a bridge across the river Teviot. This road is the B711. By following this road the enchanting glen of Harden is to be found to the right after about 1½ miles. Deep and steep-banked, it was a perfect lodge for beasts stolen from the English side. Perched above the glen is Harden House. Lost in its grandeur are the remains of Harden Tower, home of the irascible Auld (Old) Wat of the story.. The glen alone is worth the detour from the main road. It has a timeless air, seems to the mind to be little changed from the days when English beef was coaxed and cajoled to move on and surrender itself, lose itself in the confines of the steep-sided banks below the tower.
Turn and head back for the A7. Watch out for a sight of Goldielands Tower on the skyline across the valley, an impressive sight if ever there was one. On reaching the A7 turn left and head north until Hawick is reached. At the little roundabout head right for the town centre then immediately right again at the signpost of the B6399 for Newcastleton. Follow the valley south past Stobs Castle and its Black Lodge. After just about 13 miles, past the farm named Whiteropefoot an old animal byre is seen on the right. Opposite this, but unseen because of the trees, stands the Nine Stane Rig. It was here that legend and lore says the wicked warlock De Soulis, Lord of Liddesdale, was wrapped in lead and boiled alive. An eerie place is the Nine Stane Rig to this day, be rest assured; a place, foreboding would dictate, is not to be visited in the gloaming. Carry on down the valley for about another two miles and a sign to the right invites the traveller to Hermitage Castle.
This minor road, which leads to Hermitage, takes us through a valley which, together with the road that leads from Newcastleton to Langholm, typifies the terrain of the reiving times more than any other in the southern borders. Here there is no forestry to blight the contour of hill or burn or to hide the harsh magnificence of a land that comes alive with the spirit and soul of a time now forgotten.
To the western end of the valley the views are superb, outstanding, and somewhat comforting after being hit with the aggression and austerity which is Hermitage castle.
Standing on the banks of the Hermitage water, the castle is a tangible testimony to a more violent time when hatred and fear, aggression and caution ran hand in glove and ruled the everyday lives of the people of Liddesdale. It stands tall, strong and aloof and almost reeks of war, murder, and intrigue. Yet there is more than a hint of sadness and shame emanating from its hoary walls.
Once a bastion of the Scots against English armies moving north, and yet often in English hands, it was home to the Keeper of Liddesdale. At the time of the rescue of Kinmont Willie from Carlisle castle that role was filled by Walter Scott, 11th Laird of Branxholme and Buccleuch. Today the castle sleeps uneasily, still ready to spring into life and defend the valley against all aggressors.
It was here that James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was taken after being knifed by Jock of the Park, an Elliot of Liddesdale, at Bilhope to the west of the castle. It is often said that this furious encounter took place at the Tourneyholme at Kershopefoot nigh Will o’ Greena’s stone, but the Billhope is the place where the man bent on subduing his unruly border charges was to meet a man of too hot a mettle to be easily silenced. Bothwell, at the time of his clash with Elliot was Warden General of the Borders. Hermitage was his residence. Following the attack by Elliot, Bothwell was carried back to the castle, his own headquarters near to death. He could only gain access by pardoning those reivers of Liddesdale who had broken out of the dungeons in his absence and taken over the castle. An Elliot of the Shaws, a place still to be seen in Liddesdale, was prominent in negotiating the release of the reivers, much to the chagrin of Bothwell’s followers.
Bothwell married Mary, Queen of Scots in May 1567. Only one month later, together, they faced the rebel Lords of Scotland at Carberry Hill near Musselborough. The Lords, all fearing the power of Bothwell now that he was King consort, had rebelled on the pretext that he was the main instigator in the murder of Mary’s second husband, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. There were many of those who opposed Bothwell and Mary equally as guilty, and had been main players in the murderous plot. They were only too aware that Bothwell was party to their involvement and could tell a different tale to that which they promoted.
Although the two armies were evenly matched and initially spoiling for a fight, not a blow was struck as the contest became a personal confrontation between Bothwell on the one side and the Lords on the other. At one stage it was decided that the outcome of the conflict should be determined by single combat between Bothwell and anyone of the army of the Lords who was his equal. Although a match was eventually agreed, Mary, at the last minute, forbade it to take place. She gave herself up to the Lords in return for a promise that Bothwell would be allowed to leave the field without immediate pursuit and she would receive honourable treatment. Mary and Bothwell would never see each other again.
Bothwell fled north to Orkney of which he was now Duke: his mission purportedly to drum up support and levy troops for his wife. Eventually, after being pursued on behalf of the Lords by Kirkcaldy of Grange, in a sea chase which would end in a battle lasting three hours and in which the main mast of Bothwell’s ship would be shot away, he escaped by the skin of his teeth. Fortunately, at the time when Kirkcaldy’s men were to board Bothwell’s ship, a gale blew up. Bothwell, taking advantage of this, boarded one of his smaller ships and ran before the storm. He was driven across the North Sea to Norway and apprehended on his arrival. He was taken to Bergen where Frederick 11, king of Norway and Denmark, realising the importance of his prisoner, had him arrested. He saw in Bothwell, a hostage of such position and renown, a possibility of exchange for the islands of Orkney and Shetland. Up to about a century before these had been Danish possessions but now were part of the Scottish nation.
Bothwell would eventually end his days incarcerated for ten years, the last five of which were spent in the castle of Dragsholm in Denmark.
It is said that from the minute of his arrival in Dragsholm he was chained to a post half his height in the dungeons of the castle and left to rot. He would not see the light of day again, had no contact with any other being, and would eventually die a victim to insanity in 1578.
Up to the early 1970s it was still possible to view what was claimed to be his body, which had been preserved. It lay then in an open-topped coffin on display in the church of Faarvejle, a village six miles from Dragsholm. In the mid nineteen thirties the body was supposedly verified as that of Bothwell from a scar which could still be seen on the forehead. This had, it was said, resulted from one of the wounds inflicted in the brawl with Jock of the Park.
On the orders of the future Queen of Denmark the coffin was closed and can now be seen in a side chapel. If this was Bothwell’s end then the light finally went out on a man who had brought down a kingdom and, unwittingly, been instrumental in bringing to a head the clash between two of the most remarkable monarchs in our history, the queens of Scotland and England. Bothwell would die ten years after Mary fled south of the Border intent on enlisting the aid and succour of her ‘dear cousin’ Elizabeth to promote her re-instatement to the Scottish throne. As a result of her rash and foolish impetuosity, like Bothwell she would spend the rest of her life in close confinement. Unlike him she was surrounded by a small army of servants, was allowed to ride out on occasion, and had many well-wishers. There were many who espoused her cause, had sympathy with her predicament, and dreamed of the day when she should be free once more.
Bothwell would die a horrendous death after years of total isolation, no contact with another human being. Held in the blackness of the dungeons of Dragsholm for the last five years of his life, it is a perfect irony that in death he would spend many years within the next four centuries exposed to the light of day.
But alas, this is only one, and perhaps the more sensationalised version of his death. True there were many of his contemporaries who vouched that he died insane, unable to endure the absolute horror and filth of his confinement. Records of the time would seem to corroborate that from 1576 he figured little in the expenditure of the castle and had been left to rot.
It is, though, a possibility that Bothwell was always treated as a state prisoner whilst in Dragsholm and that the biggest threat to his wellbeing was inactivity and boredom. He could have died of liver failure due to the excessive drinking which alleviated the torment of that ‘glorious, rash and hazardous young man’ who was caged and wasted after a life of high position and riches, adventure, conspiracy and defiance.
Whatever his end there is no doubt that Bothwell, in his day, Duke, Earl Admiral, and the consort of a queen, was one of those special characters that help to bring an age alive. Brash and tempestuous though he might have been, with one eye always on the main chance, seemingly out for his own gain at the expense of all around him, he exhibited many other facets to a personality which are now, and it would seem, have always been, conveniently ignored. Look a little closer and there are more than just hints of longstanding loyalty and devotion to his country and those who had the right and, just as importantly to him, the wit to rule it.
There has been a castle here at Hermitage, of some sort, for many centuries. Originally a wooden fort in the times when the family of De Soulis reigned supreme in Liddesdale, it developed in later times into the formidable pile which can be viewed today. The family of De Soulis had other fortified residences in the fearsome valley of the Liddel, firstly at Clintwood, not far from Dinlabyre, and then overlooking the river at Old Castleton, near to the churchyard of Castleton. This was the site of Liddel Castle, not to be confused with Liddel Strength, which was the Mote of Liddel.
Many are the tales of injustice and murder at Hermitage, some undisputed fact, others that have been embellished down the years; many put into verse by the great Border poets.
The castle is said to be sinking in its own iniquity. It was the home of the De Soulis family for generations when they were Lords of Liddesdale. According to tradition they were a tribe to be reckoned with in more ways than one. One of their number was reputed to be a warlock and so alarmed the minions and servants within the castle, that they eventually overpowered him and carried him away to the Nine Stane Rig and did away with him in the manner already related. At least tradition and folklore would tell us that this is the case. It is an improbable story but such is the stuff of legend!
Hermitage was the scene of the murder of the Cout of Kielder, a brave young giant of a man of Northumberland, son purportedly of Sir Richard Knout, with whose family the De Soulis’ were at odds. After being invited to hunt with De Soulis on the pretext that the two families should resolve their differences he was invited to dine within the castle. When at his ease a boar’s head was brought to the table, an ancient portent that death was imminent. Alarmed, he forced his way out of the castle only to be overpowered by superior forces and drowned in the Hermitage Water at a spot still known as the Cout of Kielder’s pool. There is a long mound to the west of the castle. It is reputed to be the grave of this unfortunate young man. The great poet and humanist of the early nineteenth century John Leyden was much taken by the fate of the Cout, and put his feelings into verse which is still admired. Today a monument to the memory of Leyden stands in the village of Denholm, four miles north-east of Hawick. Here his home can also be seen.
At Hermitage Alexander Ramsay was starved to death for daring to compete with the power of the Douglas’s. Long after the castle was abandoned, the skeleton of a man and that of a horse were said to be found sleeping in the earth beneath the dungeons. Some said they were the remains of Ramsay and his horse, though why a horse should be imprisoned is beyond comprehension. Strange bedfellows indeed!
All the tales add to the rich and fascinating heritage of Hermitage; give meaning to the cold, imperious and sombre stone.
On leaving the castle carry on westwards and delight in the sights of hill and burn.. Along the route pass the sites of two towers of the Elliots, Braidlie and Gorranberry. Above them stands the hilltop still called the Queensmire. It was in this place that Mary, Queen of Scots supposedly lost a watch, some accounts say a spur, when her horse stumbled after her visit to see Bothwell following his encounter with Jock of the Park. It turned up over two centuries later when the land was drained.
The spirit of the Reiver is still very much alive in this district. As the gate of Braidlie is passed an ominous warning could be seen until quite recently. Drive quietly past. The sign said ‘Forget the dog, beware of the Owner.’ It would seem the spirit of the Elliots still reigns in this little vale.
At Burnfoot of Ewes the A7 is reached once more. Turn left and head for Langholm. It is about 7 miles. It was at Burnfoot that Buccleuch and Andrew Graham were in deep conversation about the ‘springing of Kinmont’ in the story.
Deeply proud are the people of Langholm of its rich and varied heritage. Today it is quiet, but there was a time when its ground was bloodily contested, when its people were caught up in feud and the quest for power. Tarry a while and venture from its homely high street. There is many a gem to encounter within its bounds; valley, river bank and hill thrive with a beauty unsurpassed.
Confluence of the Rivers of Ewes and Esk at Langholm
It was within the walls of Langholm castle that the raiding party met and planned the ‘springing’ of Kinmont. Alas, little remains, but it was a place of splendid proportions in its hey-day; a place of major significance, strategically situated as a defence against English marauders intent on moving north to the Scottish heartlands or west to the valley of the Annan.
Head south. The remains of Auchenrivock or Stakeheugh can be seen about 3 miles after leaving Langholm. It is but a short walk of ½ mile up the hill from the sign for Auchenrivock cottages to see the remains of what must have been a formidable place in times gone by. Stakeheugh was one of the homes of the notorious clan of the Kang-Irvines in the reiving days.
Just further south, on the same side of the A7 is Hagg on Esk.
Both are mentioned in the story.
Take the sign to the left off the A7 for Hollows and follow the road until, meeting an opening to the left, a track leads to the Tower, known in former days as the ‘Hollas’ or the ‘Holehouse.’ On the verge of the beautiful river of Esk, it has witnessed many an English inroad into the Debateable Land and stands today when many of its ilk were razed to the ground.. Perhaps it escaped demolition because it was used as a centre of operations in the horror of the Pacification of the Borders, the killing times, when the Border clans were hanged without trial or, the lesser of two evils, viciously evicted from the lands they had inhabited for centuries. Once there note the massive stone and the small door-way.
The consideration tells a story all its own of days when men knew the need to be safe in their beds and able to defend themselves against the next wave of intended destruction coming screaming out of the dark landscape. Today the Tower is a museum to the Armstrongs and contains much information about that most famous of all the reivers of that name, Neil Armstrong, who made a raid of 240,000 miles in July 1969! He went to the moon! His ancestors can be traced back to the ‘muckle toon’ of Langholm. It was a proud day when he visited the town and was given its freedom. It is fitting that he is remembered in the homelands of his ancestors.
Go through the gate to the left of the tower and the banks of the Esk are soon reached. A beautiful river is the Esk. It is a pleasure to behold its serenity on a high summer’s day and its strength when autumn gale whips up its waters. Linger on its banks; revel in the birdsong and sylvan beauty or the tumultuous white spate of a river that can show its anger. They are both part and parcel of this wonderful place.
Return to the minor road, turn left. Go past the cottages on the right and turn right at the ‘give way’ sign. The A7 is literally yards away at the top of the hill. Here turn to the right and within yards turn left for Annan. Follow this road which is the B720. Although the road number changes follow without any divergence until Evertown is reached. Less than half-a-mile through Evertown the sign for a school can be seen on the left. Next left off the road, just over a mile past the school opposite a red telephone box, a minor road leads to Tower of Sark farm. To the right of the farm lies the churchyard of Sark and the end of the journey.
Near at hand to this lonely but still hallowed ground stood Morton Rigg, in the Scottish Debateable Land. The tower, home of Kinmont, overlooked the Scots Dyke.
Spend a while in the churchyard. Like many a cemetery in the southern borders the church is long gone. One has to wonder if the Whithaugh tribe of Armstrongs were responsible for its destruction. Following the Monition of Cursing of the Archbishop of Glasgow, Gavin Dunbar in 1525, when he berated and excommunicated the reiver families for their murder and feud, their response was to knock down as many as thirty churches within the vicinity.
Kinmont, we are told, lies under the sod here but there is no headstone to mark the spot. If he does lie here, and, should he have died in his bed there is no reason to dispute it, then he rests in a peaceful place. In recent years the turf has been fleetingly removed from a particular spot to reveal a slab covering the grave of a notable person. It is marked with the strong arm of the Armstrongs, and is likely to be the resting place of Kinmont Will. The cemetery is a quiet spot, serene and somehow timeless. The river Sark runs below the site, a gentle curve of water here, meandering to the Solway.
Return to the A7 and home.
Whatever the direction, the trail passes places of particular interest to our story.
All are accessible.
Some still invoke thoughts of the day of the reiver. They are stark, seemingly impenetrable and little changed.
Others have succumbed firstly to destruction in the day of supposed atonement when the reiver was to be eradicated from home and hearth, and then to the vagaries of time. These strong houses and towers might be ruined and have lost their meaning in a more settled time.
But all still tell a story.
The imaginative mind, sensitive to the aura of these places, can still conjure up thoughts of a different age when strength of character, fortitude and indomitable will strove to overcome destruction, theft, fear and adversity; when life was hard and precarious and often unjustly lost.
The soul of the Borderer is there yet.
Stop on your journey around the Trail: enjoy and reflect.