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Ferniehirst Castle
Chapter IX - Ferniehirst

If Scotland still exists as a nation in her own right — and there are those who would deny it, though they seldom last very long here — it is largely because of this house and those who lived in it and defended it.

Whatever our political convictions, most of us are deeply conscious of being another people in another land, rather than Englishmen with a different accent who occasionally like to wear fancy dress, eat barbarous foods and play strange music. We have retained this awareness because, in the period when States and their distinctive institutions were taking shape, this country was quite separate and Scotsmen, if they travelled at all, knew France and Holland better than England beyond the Tyne. When the Union came, our character as a people was formed and our separate identity was too well established simply to disappear.

The period when modern nations were being formed and when their Parliaments, legal systems and universities were slowly emerging, corresponds almost exactly to the period when the Kerrs of Kersheugh and Ferniehirst lived in this house or its predecessors and held their sector of the Border Line.

During that period, we played no outstanding part in Scotland’s cultural development, which was at times ahead of England’s, other than helping to compose a few of the anonymous and collectively-produced ballads which are the Borders’ distinctive contribution to Scottish literature; but we played our part in making it all possible, by providing the shield and the screen behind which our nation grew. Without the Kerrs of Ferniehirst and — let us be fair to them — our kinsmen of Cessford and our neighbours the Scotts, Douglases, Elliots and the Homes, not to mention a whole host of other Border "names" whose part in the nation’s defence, though not as conspicuous, was just as real, there would be no Scotland. There might have been a wild and untamed Caledonia beyond Loch Lomond and the Tay, or an ever-diminishing Celtic Fringe like Welsh-speaking Wales, but not a recognisable and recognised country, with a history and an ethos of its own.

This is not the place to give even a sketchy outline of Scotland’s story, or to discuss at length what it means to be Scottish. Enough to say that there are many important differences between this country and England, some of which were more visible before the advent of the mass media than they are today. One of these differences is that Scotland has long possessed a large reservoir of educated men — perhaps more than she was able or allowed to use. Their learning might not have gone very far by the time they left school, but it had gone far enough for them to learn more, given the motivation and the need.

Scotland was the first country anywhere in the world to have a law making education compulsory for anybody — in this instance the eldest sons of noblemen and "principal heritors" (a category which included the Lairds of Ferniehirst), enacted by the Scottish Parliament of 1496, and Jedburgh itself was one of the first communities of any size to make it compulsory for everybody — girls as well as boys — in 1628. The First Education Act further required the sons of lords and lairds to receive this education in a "grammar school" and not simply from private tutors, the objects of the exercise being, in part, to get them away from home and into a different environment where they might grow more civilised and where the King could keep some sort of eye on them. The idea thus emerged that the right place to get an education was in fact a school and that boys, if not girls, of all social classes should at least start together. whatever happened to them afterwards. It is difficult to believe that such a measure could have been enacted in a country wholly occupied with the struggle for survival as a country: but we were there to look after this survival while others got on with the business of living in such places as Edinburgh, Glasgow. Stirling, St. Andrews and Aberdeen, where the general level of insecurity was no worse than over most of Western Europe.

Linked with the general spread of education — even if it was fairly rudimentary in most cases — was the Scottish belief that "a man’s a man for a’ that". Robert Bums actually put it into words, but it had been around for a great deal longer, certainly from the time when Ferniehirst was one of Scotland’s major frontier fortresses, and probably even earlier. It was a belief developed and entrenched through generations of armed comradeship and through the way of life described by the Elizabethan spies, Constable and Haugh. Lairds, house servants, ploughmen and shepherds all felt themselves to be one family, and indeed all were one family, because those who came to live and work here, and many of those who simply offered their loyalty and accepted the protection of our chiefs, took up the name of Kerr as a sign that they belonged. Other families had a similar custom and it was the shared surname, rather than a proven line of descent that gave each of them its identity. Under those conditions, the ignominious phrase "the lower orders", still used in England almost within living memory, had no place here and still has none.

The "Burns doctrine" did not of course imply that differences in rank and wealth were non-existent or totally irrelevant, but that in the last analysis they were of no great importance. What counted for him was the common humanity of all mankind; what counted for us was that we stood, rode and fought side by side; but the overall effect was much the same, and the doctrine itself probably would not have evolved without the need to defend ourselves and one another.

In more peaceful surroundings, as in Central and Southern England, the "lord of the manor", whether a peer, a knight or simply a landed gentleman, lived in the "big house" and the peasants lived in their cottages all the time. They came to the manor to work, to pay rent in cash or kind, and to take part in the occasional feast, but it was still another world to them, and increasingly so as the standard of living of the upper class rose while that of the common people remained much the same. Here the peasants — tenants rather than serfs — lived in their cottages between raids, but frequently had to take refuge in "peels" and castles such as Ferniehirst, then joined the laird in a raid to replenish their livestock and built themselves another cottage. It was a harder and more dangerous life but one that left less scope for arrogance on one side and for envy on the other.

The raids and the burnings are over, but this spirit is with us yet.


1.An important factor in this non-doctrinaire sense of social compatibility (equality is perhaps too strong a word) was that every man had a horse. In England, except in the English Borders where a similar spirit prevailed, possession of a horse and ability to ride it was a status symbol. Here it was a necessity of life. The world does not look or feel the same from the saddle as it does when one’s feet are permanently fixed to the ground. The laird would of course have a better horse than the ploughman or the herd, and more of them, but the essential point was that they were all mounted and all saw the world the way a horseman sees it.

2.The last word may be spoken by James Simpson the architect of the 1984 Restoration who says: "Ferniehirst is an unrivalled example of a sixteenth century stronghold with a continuing story of occupation from prehistoric times through Roman, Dark Age, Norman and Medieval until today."

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