About Harbottle Castle

Walk up to the magical Drake Stone

When I was a boy, half a century ago, Harbottle Castle was one of my childhood haunts. As a dedicated anorak I knew all about mottes and baileys and a lot about the border wars. This was in the era when Walter Scott and Errol Flynn were the primary inspirations; the stark realism of George Macdonald Fraser came just a bit later and proved no less compelling. The stones are never completely silent and whilst I wouldn’t wish to sound like a new age dreamer, they possess eloquence. As a juvenile romantic I always found the place enthralling. After a sprint up to the majesty of the Drake Stone, the small, glittering tarn and evocative field of abandoned millstones the impressive bulk of the castle below, dwarfing the settlement, just fitted perfectly.

This setting is deceptive. For centuries this was a frontier, a threap where two dynamic nations battled it out. The Border wars weren’t nice at all, not tidy or in any way civilised. They were brutal and savage beyond belief. Our ancestors could easily match the horrors of modern wars such as we’ve seen in the Balkans and Syria. Just be thankful they didn’t have automatic weapons. It was war on several levels. Scottish national armies invaded, and English forces reciprocated. Fire and word were orders of the day, no such thing as a non-combatant. When we look at Harbottle and other survivors from this era we shouldn’t be swayed too much by the beauty of their surroundings. Our ancestors, the reivers, would have viewed this entire landscape quite differently. 

But these reivers are ours; that’s the thing. Well, ours and the Scots of course; we spent three long and bloody centuries debating the point. Naturally, to be a proper reiver, you need the right kit; a sturdy border garron is always a handy, if a rather time consuming and expensive accessory. If you’re a re-enactor, much of your Civil War gear, if you’re not too prissy, is easily recycled, shirt, breeches, doublets, and those long leather thigh boots you wouldn’t dare wear in the Bigg Market in Newcastle of a Friday evening.  Breast and back, burgonet with rapier, backsword, and dudgeon, all good; longbow and matchlock both in service, you’re dressed to rob. 

When England and Scotland were at last united under a single Crown in 1603, these two countries had been at war, outright or simmering. For three hundred years, since the time of William Wallace and the Wars of Independence, beginning in 1296, they’d banged it out. During the 16th Century there were times of intense, open warfare between the two.  Scotland had long been an ally of England’s old enemy, France. Indeed, in 1512 the ‘Auld Alliance’ between these two countries was extended, and all nationals of Scotland and France also became nationals of each other's countries, a status not repealed in France until 1903.

Our history ‘Lords of Redesdale – the story of a border fortress’ will be published by Partizan Press later this year.

Friends of
Harbottle Castle

John Sadler BA (Hons)
M.Phil, FRHistS, FSA (Scotl.),
Volunteer coordinator

T: 01661 881654

Mob. 07722 453875

john.sadler@islmail.co.uk

The Old Schoolhouse,
Whalton Road,
Belsay,
Newcastle upon Tyne
NE20 0EU