From the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries, the borderlands of England and Scotland suffered from a vicious culture of reiving where robbery, murder and localised warfare were commonplace. The Tarset valley was not immune and the local populace built bastle houses to protect their farmsteads.



Prior to the late thirteenth century, the borderland between England and Scotland was a relatively peaceful place with its dispersed communities sharing a common culture and landscape. All this changed following the outbreak of the Wars of Scottish Independence when, following the catastrophic English defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), Robert the Bruce mounted numerous raids into northern England destroying property or extracting ransoms. This set the tone for warfare between the two nations over the next two and half centuries and was made worse as each country encouraged its own borderers to raid their opponents even in times of peace. This soon evolved into a vicious culture of reiving where robbery, localised warfare and murder was common place. Against this backdrop of violence the residents of the borderland inevitably sought to protect their homes. Whilst the aristocracy built the great castles of the north, lower ranking landowners or high status tenants looked for cheaper solutions. Invariably these came in the form of peles, tower houses and bastles.


Pele Towers. In their earliest form peles (also called peels) were timber fortifications. Some would have been a simple palisade built around an existing house, others a sturdy timber cabin. Later these evolved into stone towers, some three or four storeys tall, and were designed to provide refuge for a small family group or local community. Numerous peles survive across Cumbria and Northumberland. Classic examples can be seen at Edlingham (St John's Church), Ford (Parson's Tower) or Corbridge (the Vicar's Pele).


Tower Houses. Although very common in Scotland, Tower Houses were rarer in England although examples do survive for example at Elsdon, Etal and Halton. These structures were built by wealthier landowners and were part of a wider fortlice with the ancillary buildings enclosed within a barmkin (curtain wall). They offered the same defensive insurance offered by Pele towers but also played a much more significant daily role in their communities acting as both the home for the settlement's leader and also discharged an administrative role over their communities. The size and scale of Tower Houses meant they would have been unaffordable to most minor landowners.


Bastles. Whereas a pele offered protection to individuals, a bastle was a fortified farmhouse and was the most common type of fortification along the border. They were two storey structures measuring around  12 metres by 6 metres with shelter for valuable livestock on the ground floor and residential accommodation above. Tarset offers a superb insight into this type of fortification.


Throughout the period of the border troubles, the Tarset valley was occupied by a small number of family run farmsteads spread along the line of the Tarset Burn. These settlements, which were occupied by members of the Dodds and Milburn families, sought to protect themselves from raids and over a dozen bastles were built throughout the valley. They are typical examples of their kind and were clustered together so they could provided mutual support. Built from roughly squared blocks of stone, they were probably constructed by travelling craftsmen who would have toured the area. All were two storey structures with the ground level used for occasional shelter of animals, presumably only when an attack was anticipated, whilst the upper floor provided permanent accommodation for the resident family. Access into the animal enclosure was through a small wooden door at ground level which would often have been overlooked by a quenching hole - a means of allowing the defenders to pour water on the exterior of the door to prevent it being burnt. The residential quarters would have been reached through an entrance on the first floor accessed via a wooden ladder that would have been pulled up in times of trouble. Normally the ground floor of a bastle had a stone vault roof, the benefit being that an attacker who penetrated the lower level could not ignite a fire to burn out the residents on the first floor, but this was not the case in the surviving Tarset bastles where the ground floor ceilings were timber.


Given its proximity to the border, it is likely that Tarset suffered many raids during the three centuries in which reiving plagued the area. However an attack that occurred on 30 August 1583 was recorded in some detail by Henry Scrope, Warden of the English West March. In his report he described eight farmsteads being sacked at Black Middens, Boghead, Keyne, High Field, Hill House, Redheugh, Shilla Hill and Waterhead. During the attack six people were killed, a further three hundred taken prisoner and large quantities of livestock driven away. The attack was led by Kinmont Willie Armstrong. Kinmont went on to become an infamous reiver pillaging properties in England and Scotland alike and ultimately evaded justice despite Lord Scrope incarcerating him in Carlisle Castle in 1596.


Many of the Tarset bastles continued to be used into the nineteenth centuries, long after the border reivers had been suppressed. Today, whilst modern farmhouses may have been built, many of the sites remain working farms just as they have been since pre-history.




Allen, R (1976). English Castles. Batsford, London.

Durham, K (2008). Strongholds of the Border Reivers. Osprey, Oxford.

Dodds, J.F (1999). Bastions and Belligerents. Keepdate Publishing, Newcastle.

Graham, F (1976). The Castles of Northumberland. Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Grint, J (2008). Bastles an introduction to the bastle houses of Northumberland. Ergo press, Hexham.

Headlam, C (1939). The Three Northern Countries of England. Northumberland Press, Gateshead.

Historic England (2015). Two bastles at Black Middings. List entry 1011643. Historic England, London.

Ramm, H.G, McDowall, R.W and Mercer, E (1970). Shielings and Bastles. London.

Rowland, T.H (1987). Medieval Castles, Towers, Peles and Bastles of Northumberland. Sandhill Press.

Ryder, P F (1990). Bastles and Towers in Northumberland National Park

What's There?

The Tarset bastle trail offers a superb introduction to this common type of border fortification. The highlight is Black Middens which is a well preserved (but roofless) example of a bastle along with with earthworks of the associated field systems and farming activity. The trail includes numerous other bastles in various states of ruin whilst a number of others can be seen incorporated into modern housing.

Black Middens I. This was a two-storey structure with walls over 1 metre thick. The upper floor had two small windows and the roof, now missing, would originally have been timber. The exterior stone steps were added at a later date.

Black Middens II. Now ruined, the masonry of this bastle has been incorporated into a drystone field wall. It is likely the building was contemporary with Black Middens I.

Hill House. Also known as the Woodhouse or Haugh-Hill House, this bastle was a square structure that was smaller than the others of the Tarset valley.

Shilla Hill. This bastle was set back from the Tarset Burn but was located on a small hill giving it good all-round visibility. It was also known as Starheyd, Stair Head or Starr Head.

Gatehouse. This bastle forms part of a private residence and remains roofed and in use.

Boghead. Unusually this bastle was at the foot of a steep slope but its defences were enhanced by the surrounding ground that was a permanent bog. The bastle seemed to lack any upper windows. Also known as Barty's Pele or Corbie Castle.

Getting There

Tarset is found on an unnamed road off the A68. Take the turning for Highgreen and keep following the road through that hamlet after which Black Middens bastle is sign-posted. There is car park adjacent to the access to Black Middens with an information board with details of the bastle walk.

Car Park / Trail Start

NE48 1NE

55.202193N 2.359509W

Black Middens

No Postcode

55.203780N 2.358034W

Hill House


No Postcode

55.201815N 2.361869W

Shilla Hill

No Postcode

55.207194N 2.372985W


No Postcode

55.212599N 2.376336W


NE48 1NG

55.194646N 2.334811W