I like borders – the edges where you can be in a different place just with a simple shift from one foot to the other – and today the torch will be crossing a whole bunch of them!
The border between Scotland and northern England has shifted and slid according to the strength of the various monarchies or even the weight of the mailed fists of the local families. Attempts to pin it down for good were futile, until quite recently as the history of the country goes.
The photo above shows one of the ‘mile’ castles and a stretch of Hadrian’s Wall snaking along a cliff and down into the infamous Sycamore Gap. Some of you may remember that this bit was relocated to Nottinghamshire especially so Kevin Kostner could jump about on it in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Click on the photo to refresh your memory.
The Romans took two swipes at nailing down the border. Everyone is familiar with Hadrian’s Wall, a massive construction running from the North Sea to the Irish Sea across what is now Cumbria and Northumbria but the later, shorter Antonine Wall is less familiar.
Antoninus Pius pushed the border 100 miles further north and ordered a wall built from the Clyde to the Firth of Forth to mark it. The task was undertaken by the governor of Britain, a man with the delightful name Quintus Lollius Urbicus and the 39 miles of turf bank, stone defences and 24 stone forts was completed in just under twelve years, a remarkable feat of engineering bearing in mind everything was shifted by muscle power, block and tackle and levers.
Students of Dark Ages lore will probably get the same little frisson I do on seeing the outpost northwest of Falkirk named Camelon and wonder whether the theory that Arthur’s story should be set in the north rather than the southwest is worth looking into.
In fact the Roman occupation of the northern wall only lasted a couple of decades before the legions withdrew. Instead local Brythonic kings were set up to act as a buffer between the Caledonian tribes and the soft lands to the south. Here in the Hen Ogledd [the Old North] little kings, each proud as Hades and prepared to defend their patch of land, their families and their cattle, dotted the landscape from Din Eidin down to Hadrian’s Wall and beyond.
What they had they held and eventually became the Maxwells, Elliots, Douglases, Scotts, Armstrongs, Kerrs and Mainwarings. Just google for Border Reivers and leave yourself plenty of time to read.
Why dost thou smile, noble Elliot of Lariston?
Why do the joy-candles gleam in thine eye?
Thou bold Border ranger,
Beware of thy danger;—
Thy foes are relentless, determined, and nigh.
Jock Elliot raised up his steel bonnet and lookit,
His hand grasped the sword with a nervous embrace;
‘Ah, welcome, brave foemen,
On earth there are no men
More gallant to meet in the foray or chase!
[From ‘Lock the door, Lariston’ by The Ettrick Shepherd ]
Some of the families faded with time, others became respectable, some achieved greatness. Which brings us to the other end of the torch relay for today – Alnwick, pronounced ‘annick’ – which was the family seat of the Percy’s, Earls of Northumberland and all round tough guys, They dabbled their fingers in every political pie of the Middle Ages. Their castle is probably most familiar as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
As I said I have a lot of time for this area. I have only managed the most fleeting visits in person but have been spending a lot of time there in my head as I write a story set between Din Eidin [Edinburgh] and the place south of the wall where the might of the Men of the North [the Gododdin] was broken. The story is based on an elegaic poem written some time during the 7th century AD and attributed to Aneurin. It takes the rather macabre form of obituaries for the 300 warriors who were sent south to break the advance of the Saxons at a place called Catraeth. It didn’t end well. Legend has it that of the 300 only 3 made it back to Din Eidin.
Men went to Catraeth, keen their war-band.
Pale mead their portion, it was poison.
Three hundred under orders to fight.
And after celebration, silence.
Though they went to churches for shriving,
True is the tale, death confronted them.
As before, since the story is not yet complete I have posted an excerpt on my own blog.