Four great Border Abbeys - Melrose,
Dryburgh, Kelso and Jedburgh - can still be seen today in ruin. They were attacked by
various armies, including Edward I (the Hammer of the Scots) and Henry VIII during the
rough wooing. The Reformers finished destroying these abbeys in 1560 when the monks were
There were two basic types of fortified
dwellings along the border, the tower house which was the home of the border lord and the
bastle which was lived in by the less wealthy or by prosperous farmers. The vast majority
of these dwellings are found within 20 miles of the Border.
The English Acts of Parliament of 1555 and
1584 said that all fortresses, castles and towers within that distance of the Border were
to be put in good shape and all open ground was to be enclosed by hedges and ditches in
order to deter the riders.
The Scots built towers of earth which were
not easy to burn and which could be rebuilt quickly in the event they were destroyed.
These towers were enclosed by a perimeter of wooden states or 'pales.' Eventually the
pales gave way to oak trees bound together and covered with earth. The earth covering
A Border tower house was built of stone and
mortar and enclosed by a stone wall called a barmekin. The term pale or pele is still used
when referring to border towers. The barmekin was used to keep the cattle and sheep and
was about 15 feet high and 3 feet thick. There were other buildings built inside the stone
wall. Some of these buildings were for housing retainers. Towers were usually comprised of
a basement and two floors for living. The roof was steeply pitched and tiled with stone.
The whole thing was enclosed by a parapet. This provided some protection while the
defenders hurled anything they could, stones, hot oil, at the attackers. There were few
windows in these structures. The emphasis of the buildings was on security and not on
adornment. The cattle and the horses were locked in the basement.
The first floor had a fireplace and a few low
benches. The floor was strewn with moor grass, heather and herbs. The second floor was
used for sleeping or storage and led to the roof. The upper floors were reached by a
spiral staircase and it turned upwards in a clockwise right-handed direction which gave
freedom of movement to a right-handed defender's sword and could be used against an
attacker trying to climb up. The Kerrs built their staircases in a left-handed spiral.
Left-handed people in Scotland are still called Kerr-handed. The stairs also had a trip
step built in which was one step that was a little steeper than the rest. An attacker
would not be aware of the difference in height as he fought his way up the stairs and made
it likely that he would trip. The staircases at the top of each floor could be blocked by
furniture or stones which were placed at the ready on each floor.
If the tower had to be abandoned it would be
emptied of valuable sand stuffed with peat which was set on fire and caused a thick,
dense, smoldering smoke. The shell would remain intact for when the owners were able to
return after the invaders had left.
These towers could be taken by bombardment
but the terrain did not lend itself to large and cumbersome artillery. One way to take the
tower was called scumfishing. This was hacking through the outer doors and heaping wet
straw into the doorway and against the walls. It was then set on fire and the defenders
could be smoked out. Sometimes the attackers would use scaling ladders and get to the top
of the tower and uncover the roof. Then the men could jump together into the top room .
However, this was very risky. Mostly, stealth and surprise were used to win the battle.
The bastell house was a strong two story
building with walls over 4 fee thick. The roof was steeply pitched and covered with stone
slabs. Again, the basement was a shelter for livestock and had a strong door which was
bolted form the inside. A trapdoor in the ceiling was the means to reaching the upper
level living space. The upper floor usually had two or three rooms but again very few
windows. The upper floor could be reached from the outside by a ladder which was then
pulled up after the climber. Ladders ended at heavily bolted doors. Steps have been built
in place of the ladders in renovated bastell houses for tourists.