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Kith and Clans

Here is the kind of winter morning I love most. Ringed by clear azure skies the patchwork fields surrounding my home sparkle like crystal carpets as dawn gilds the hedges with bronze fire. And not a breath of wind stirs the stillness. There is a sense that nature is holding its breath, preparing for spring and yet not wanting to wake. But the far horizon has begun to melt already. Mist rises, sloughing winter behind a sentinel guard of skeletal oaks.

This landscape has barely altered through time but had I been here five hundred years ago there might have seemed better reason to praise the clear, frosty weather. Living less than twenty miles from the border (with Scotland) meant we’d be in fear of reivers. But reivers liked to pursue their prey under a cloak of darkness and/or dribbling rain.

What is a reiver? Rather a unique figure – he came from every social class and might live anywhere in the region called The Borders. For many generations reiving families formed a state within a state between the two countries of England and Scotland, organizing the region to suit their own rules and boundaries; fighting men who used tracking, ambush, raid and theft as second nature. The Borders were ‘badlands’ where freebooters, rustlers and raiders held sway. This was ‘their’ country and they understood every inch of ground, be it river, marsh or hillside, by day and most particularly by night. The geography of the region was perpetually used to their advantage, as many a traveller complained. Barbarous, crafty, vengeful, crooked, quarrelsome, tough, perverse, active, deceitful – contemporary descriptions vary little when explaining border people. They made excellent soldiers if disciplined but that raw material was hard, wild, and ill to tame.

winter sun

Having grown up in the south of England I knew nothing of reivers until we moved to Cumbria. It’s a parcel of history many historians prefer to ignore (or forget), better known to those who inhabit Britain’s former colonies. Why? Well one of the ‘solutions’ to the inherent problem of reiving was to ‘transport’ whole families (or clans) to populate those colonies. Thus the Grahams arrived in New Holland, with legal charges pending if they should ever return. Being a cagey lot some merely reversed the letters of their surname – Cumbria still contains many a native called Maharg. But the advent of a ‘united’ kingdom meant reiving families were no longer able to slip across the border to evade justice, after 1603 the border no longer existed!

For generation after generation, simmering over five hundred years, no outsider would dare travel unarmed and alone through the rolling countryside which stretches from the Scottish Southern Uplands to the Pennines. In these ‘middle shires’, where mainland Britain narrows between the shallow waters of the Solway Firth and the wild North Sea, where Rome threw up a boundary wall to separate the defeated from the free, few households slept soundly during the winter months. English or Scots, rich or poor, all lived in fear of reivers. This state of affairs gave rise to ‘protection’ being bought from tribal leaders who lived in formidable towers such as Hermitage, a building so grim it was recently described as ‘sod-off’ built in stone. Here was ‘no-man’s land’, where national laws had little jurisdiction. And the control centre of infamy resided in a district called the Debateable Land. Here you find the first use of words like ‘black-mail’ and ‘feud’, and the constant threat of raids, or the retaliatory march of a ‘hot trod’ stamped their hardy souls with a mistrust of all outsiders.


Just north of Carlisle the M6 motorway crosses the powerful river Esk at a place called Metalbridge. The green and pastoral landscape denies the myth that once upon a time this was actually the most dangerous place in all Christendom. Think Khyber Pass, Barbary Coast or Soho on a Saturday night. Across this moss-filled valley, where winter riding was mired in clay, lies the southern boundary of the ‘Debateable Land’. This hostile region stretched north and east for a dozen or so miles, almost up to Langholm and the mouth of Liddesdale, but was never more than four miles wide and twelve miles long. So lawless were its inhabitants neither Scotland nor England wanted responsibility for policing its crimes but pertly used it as a ‘buffer’ zone.

Touching the western limit is Gretna (a cross-border village created after the two kingdoms were joined), where the lesser river Sark marks the official border. Back in Elizabeth I’s reign a Scottish bishop venturing through the region on his way to Glasgow enquired whether the locals were Protestant or Catholic. He received the terse reply, ‘Na, we’se for Armstrongs or Elliots here’.

Hermitage Castle

Hermitage Castle.

Tradition and politics created a mongrel system for regulating the Border. The region was loosely divided into Marches and each March had a Warden nominated by national government – so, for example, there was a Scottish Warden of the West March and an English Warden of the West March. More often than not the Warden came from a major reiving family, inclined to protect his own interests, but the system worked, even during times of war, and so it persisted. But, by the middle of the sixteenth century, even the Wardens agreed the kind of people who called the Debateable Land home were so inclined to rob, burn, plunder and kill that someone had to take charge. After much deliberation (the final decision being laid upon a passing French ambassador) they decided to build a bank and ditch to mark the reach of each nation’s responsibilities. It’s still there, just to the south of Canonbie, and called the Scots’ Dike.

Recently there has been revived interest in ‘reiving’ families, encouraged no doubt by family historians eager to trace their roots. My mother, seeing her maiden name of Tait listed in our local museum, was keen to purchase a beautifully illustrated history of the family, until she read of their exploits. Taits were infamous on the North March, as were Rutherfords (grannie’s surname), for all the wrong reasons. The Privy Council of Scotland drew up an official ‘black list’ of reiver surnames: Armstrongs, Batesons/Beatties, Bells, Burns, Charltons, Crosiers, Dodds, Elliots, Forsters, Glendinnings, Hendersons, Hetheringtons, Irvines, Johnstones, Kerrs, Littles, Lowthers, Maxwells, Musgraves, Nixons, Pringles, Robsons, Routledges, Rutherfords, Scotts, Storeys, Taits, Trotters and Thomsons. Thieves and vagabonds ‘of great clans who encourage obstinacy’.

Further Reading:

The Reivers, by Alistair Moffat

The Steel Bonnets, by George Macdonald Fraser


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Putting an end to the old and giving warm welcome to the new…

On New Year’s Eve we embarked on an extraordinary journey into our pagan past. We went to watch an ancient festival called the Tar Bar’l (many spellings but it’s basically barrel in dialect) which takes place in Allendale, a small village hidden in wildest Northumberland.

We had no hesitation in joining the merry crowd spilling onto the streets from various village pubs lining the streets around the broad, village square. Being New Year’s Eve every adult had a (plastic) beer glass in hand and by eleven thirty most were well-whetted with fine local ale. The loud, persistent beat of a single drum added to our sense of expectation and suddenly plumes of golden smoke spewed above our heads as the bar’ls were lit. A brass band began to play, then yellow-coated stewards parted the crowd just moments before the procession marched through – not that you would choose to get in their way – and the acrid smell of burning tar and paraffin filled our every breath.

We watched transfixed as forty men paraded past with barrels of raging fire spewing from their heads. And some darkly primitive sentiment seems ignited by this pagan rite of fire. People fell silent as their mood changed and the whole scene became supercharged with danger. Yet there was a sense that something immutable was taking place – like the sacred moment when a child is christened or a marriage sanctified, or a king anointed with oil!  


Only Allendale men are allowed to bear the burden of carrying barrels full of burning tar on their heads! Some of the ‘guisers’ wear costumes which have been passed down father to son for generations. Others wear fancy-dress based on characters from films, such as Beetlejuice, or Smurfs (of which there were many). And the band parading behind them serenaded with well-known tunes such as T’ Blaydon Races.

When the procession has completed its tour the barrels are ceremoniously thrown onto a huge bonfire, and the shout goes up, ‘be damned to he who throws last’. Then everyone involved hurries back inside the pubs while we in the streets stand watching the blaze. Astonished, dumbfounded, uplifted, engrossed…..it’s impossible to describe how I felt, but I know I found it compelling. 




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Two Kings

Two Kings

Where did you see this star?

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December 18, 2013 · 1:10 pm

I believe in magic

 I love the magic of Christmas. But like anything magical it’s impossible to predict or prescribe. We can decorate the house and garden with glittery ornaments and twinkling lights but we can’t make the magic appear. Yet sometime during the heady season of panic, when there is more to do than there are hours in the day, there’s a special moment when something seen or said or done ignites the wonder, the magic, of Christmas.


Of course expectations are high. Christmas is formed through family traditions, heavily seasoned with memories and nostalgia. No wonder the magic is elusive. And it’s sparked by something different every year, despite the careful rituals, tangled inside the busy bustle obligatory to the season, between shopping and wrapping presents and writing cards and making lists and checking them twice.  


It’s also my experience that magic manifests itself through means which might, to others, appear mundane; a scene in a movie not seen for years; a forgotten piece of music; words from a song; an unexpected phone call, or letter, from a friend. If I could explain what triggered the magic I might know how to attract it. All I know is that something wonderful happens when the sparkle of magic ignites into Christmas.


My first experience of spine-tingling magic happened when I made my debut in pantomime. At the age of eight I was memorably cast as a Christmas pudding. All the role required was to walk on stage as a big, round pudding then tug a cord which allowed the top to open and reveal the pudding had been magically transformed into a little girl. I’m not sure how the cord got knotted, it always ran smoothly during rehearsals, but I wriggled and shook until I managed to squeeze out through the bottom, to tumultuous applause (and my one and only encore).


Later, as an apathetic art student, it was ‘cool’ to deny the sense of anticipation as the final week of winter term exploded into ‘Xmas’ parties. But I remember walking home by moonlight on Christmas Eve, in the wee small hours, and it began to snow for the first time in years. Soon big, white flakes lay thick on the ground and silhouetted against a window I caught sight of a small child jumping up and down with sheer delight. In that moment I realised it doesn’t matter what or where or when or how, you just have to believe, whether you are eight or eighty.


I hope the magic of Christmas stays with me forever. I accept remembrance of past happiness weighs heavily upon the present, and the coming together of family and friends also brings sadness for those no longer here to share our celebrations, but we hold them in our hearts as part of our collective memory of what Christmas means. And now I’m a grandmother I’ve discovered nothing can be more magical than seeing Christmas through my grandchildren’s eyes.



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Bavaria – Part Two

We nearly had a disaster the next day. Nearly, but not quite. The Hotel Muller obviously knew the routine. Eight o clock in the morning, sun shining, sky blue, scenery spectacular, and we were fully rested and replete with a magnificent Bavarian breakfast. A young hotel employee met us in the foyer and drove us by limo’ to the correct meeting place and dutifully put us on the bus. Except it was the wrong bus. Of course we didn’t know it was the wrong bus until it stopped at Füssen, the next town, and everyone else got off. The driver spoke no English, we spoke no German. We knew we were meant to stay on the same bus until Augsburg and felt very confused. Luckily I pulled the bright yellow itinerary out of my bag and the driver immediately nodded towards a bright yellow bus pulling out of the bus station on the opposite side of the road. He ran and flagged the vehicle down and we were duly invited on board. This was the right bus – the Romantic Road bus – and the driver was just coming to collect us (he had our names on his itinerary). He was furious with the hotel and rang them immediately (apparently driving while using your mobile phone isn’t frowned on in Germany). Well it could have been a disaster but it wasn’t. And as we were the only passengers that day to board the luxury, fifty-six seater coach we were treated to a personal tour.


After Germany became a FederalRepublic in 1950 the country sought many ways of reviving its tourist industry. The idea of a romantic road wasn’t new, but allied soldiers posted to Germany in the aftermath of the war began exploring the region’s ancient towns and cities, popularizing the notion. Nowadays the Romantic Road bus travels the whole 350 kilometres everyday, south to north and north to south. You can book to board the bus without taking any overnight stops, or you can take a bike and cycle some sections, or you can take your time and stop as long as you like at any of the many interesting places along the way. I’d specifically booked our tour to fill the four days and nights before the figure skating competition began in Oberstdorf. And after a morning drive through picturesque countryside and right into the heart of medieval towns like Schongau and Landsberg, we arrived at our next overnight stop at lunchtime.

Augsburg was once occupied by Romans, almost certainly due to its strategic position at the confluence of two rivers. By the middle ages it had developed into one of the richest, most powerful cities in Germany. And due to this prosperity it also became one of the most cultured in terms of art, philosophy and architecture. We visited a couple of the city’s museums, all very fascinating but particularly the Martin Luther exhibition. Because Augsburg was a FreeImperialCity it barely resisted the notion of reformation and many of Luther’s pamphlets and books were printed here. There are many other gems tucked away, including the oldest social housing in the world – the Fuggerei. Jacob Fugger, who became banker to the Pope, the Hapsburg Emperors and Henry VIII, founded the ‘village’ in the 1520’s and it is still occupied, although it currently provides affordable homes for pensioners. Residents are still obliged to pay one guilder a year rent (currently 0.88 Euros), following on the original concept to help artisan families down on their luck. One famous resident was Mozart’s great grandfather (a master mason) and his extensive family. Consider how different Amadeus’s life might have been if his forefathers hadn’t been rescued from poverty? 

But this is really the kind of city where the best thing to do is find a place to relax and watch the world go by, preferably with a large cup of coffee. Next morning we boarded the bus in the forecourt of Augsburg’s art-deco railway station and began the most nostalgic phase of our journey.

When we first travelled the Romantic Road, in 1973, my husband and I were both studying at Art College and had little experience of foreign travel but my brother-in-law had just finished his first degree (Geography) at Cambridge and was about to begin his masters at Sheffield so we left all the planning (and driving) to him. Dave died suddenly last year (aged 61) so we felt this journey was a sort of tribute to the dreams we once dreamed with him. And Rothenberg ob der Tauber lived up to those enchantments. If you’ve seen the film Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang you will probably recognise it, because these are the streets where the evil child catcher searched out his prey. Nowadays every sturdy mercantile house is decked with flowers and lines of bunting and the cobbled city streets are packed with tourists. However, once you leave the main thorofares behind, you meet a quieter city, and it is both extraordinary and captivating.

A taxi collected us from the bus and took us through the labyrinth of narrow streets to our hotel. The front door being locked we rang the bell and after a couple of moments a lady dressed in traditional costume of red dirndl skirt and black tight-laced bodice wandered up the lane to greet us. After a brief introduction she handed us a key (which apparently opened every one of the hotel’s doors) and gave us our room number without even entering the building. Once inside we found our room, on the third floor, and although the winding staircase had warped dangerously after six hundred years of use we embraced the experience of staying in such an ancient building. It was charming and we couldn’t have been better entertained.

We did so much walking around the walls and streets of Rothenberg that afternoon the soles of my shoes wore out but it isn’t often I get the opportunity to experience a city locked in a virtual time warp and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

We didn’t meet the hotel’s octogenarian owner until next morning, when he was directing all his guests to eat a hearty breakfast. Bavarians take their food very seriously. After handing us a platter that contained enough cold meats and cheeses to last a week he told us that when we went home we would dream of this moment! And he was right.


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