I packed up my tent on yet another early morning, but this time after a more peaceful night’s sleep. The sky was radiant in gold and pink over those distance Cheviot hills and, today, I was headed for them.
This was the day where I planned to detour at Kirk Yetholm and go onto the Pennine Way into the Cheviots for the night instead, making my way down tomorrow to Wooler. Right now, first thing in the morning, it still seemed like an excellent idea as the hills beckoned to me and I walked off and away from the moor. The lane from the moor soon wound me round to the ruins of Cessford Castle, and here we have yet another story to tell of the bloody history of the borders.
Cessford Castle was home to the Kerrs; one of the most notoriously warlike and bloodthirsty of the Scottish clans whos loyalties were fickle, and who raided both sides of the border. They didn’t even like their own very much, with the clan branching off into two distinct groups and the Cessford Kerrs eventually changing the spelling of their name to have just one ‘r’ to distinguish themselves from their hated cousins, the Fernieherst Kerrs. Unlike the highland clans, the clans along the border were not passionately invested in being Scottish; only when the Scottish would pay their mercenaries more or happened to be winning whatever the latest gruesome clash with the English was.
Famously, at the battle of Ancrum Moor, the Fernieherst Kerrs initially sided with the English, until the Scots took the upper hand and then changed their allegiance mid battle. It is with a bit of tongue in cheek that the family motto is ‘Sero Sed Serio’ – Late, But In Earnest. It is even more cheeky that the peerage bestowed on the clan leader, even today, is ‘Lord Ancram’.
The Cessford Kerrs were infamous reivers with their main season of attack being the early winter when they would raid the nearby (and sometimes not so nearby) towns and villages for livestock and goods. Often this also included kidnapping, and progressed onto racketeering as well. And the occasional (or not so occasional) murder of someone that just happened to be in the way. Despite later centuries romanticising the reiver as something of an outlaw hero, just doing what they had to do to get by in a hostile land, it is somewhat undeniable that the Kerrs took great pride in the extent that they were feared and the fame of their deadly effectiveness.
The reign of the reivers saw its peak when the Tudors ruled England and the Stuarts ruled Scotland. On the ascent of King James of Scotland to the English throne and the later unification of the countries, the heads of both family branches received titles and lands and chilled out. For the most part.
At the height of Clan Kerr’s reign of terror over the borderlands, there appears to have been a strong genetic predisposition to left-handedness. Fernieherst Castle was even built with the prevalent left-handedness of its occupiers in mind.
At a time when left-handedness was still seen as some sordid work of the devil, the Kerrs relished and took pride in it. Their unusual dominant attack would take many opponents off guard and contributed to their battlefield talents. Their mercenaries could charge more for their services, and even those ordinary right-handed clansmen were encouraged, and often taught, to fight left handed under the Cessford or Fernieherst banners.
This trait appears to have died out, and Kerrs today are no more likely than any other family to be able to fight ‘Kerr-handed’.
Now Cessford Castle lies empty and in ruins, its crumbling fortifications danced over by grazing sheep, once hosting terror over the borderlands, now it is abandoned as the border towns thrive. Today, the main eleven border towns host ‘Common Ridings’ every year where horses are galloped around the towns every week from June to August, commemorating, in large part, the strength that grew within those communities when faced for centuries in fighting off and keeping away the reiving families.
The lane carried on from the castle, towards the village of Morebattle. Strangely, in a place with such a bloody history, ‘Morebattle’ has nothing to do with war. It comes from the Anglian mere-bōðl – ‘the dwelling by the lake’. Morebattle, though empty early in the morning, had signs throughout welcoming the walkers travelling through it. The small church even had a ‘St Cuthbert’s Tearoom’ and I was mildly annoyed with myself for not being able to take advantage. Right then, I was filled with a craving for scrambled eggs that would not cease for another day and a half.
The lane walking on tarmac for so long a time was getting old. Its a hard trudge after a while, and I was grateful to see the bridge that would lead me across to climb Wideopen Hill. I wasn’t grateful for very long as I found myself looking up what seemed like a mercilessly steep slope. Fortunately, I reassure you, it was easy enough to just put one foot in front of the other and make my way up. Unfortunately that wasn’t the top, and the next slope that looked like it lead to the top wouldn’t be it either. In fact, the summit of Wideopen Hill was up about three different slopes and along a ridge. It wasn’t particularly difficult, it was just drawn out enough to become a chore. That and, well, my old enemy – cows.
The cow and her calf sat directly on the path and she stood up and snorted when I had not taken more than five steps from the gate downhill. I retreated, she sat down, again on the path. I took five steps forward, she stood up and snorted, I retreated, she sat down. Again on the path.
What do I give off that cows just don’t like? What did this animal think I was going to do with her calf? I was surely among one of the smaller adult humans that she had experienced and her calf definitely already weighed more than me. I wasn’t about to just sling it over my shoulders and get on my jolly way. Or do they just pick on the smaller people so the smaller people warn the taller people and then they get left alone? Are cows that smart? I’m starting to think so.
Eventually I chose to give the cow a large berth. She clearly was in no hurry to move off anywhere and I clambered instead up a rockier side of the hilly field to give her the space she desired. She looked at me, across from the path, snorted, but didn’t rise up to her feet. I scarpered probably more quickly than I should have scarpered through the rest of the field until I could continue the ascent.
The views from the top were panoramic and entire in their bouncing, beautiful greenery. A small sign signalled that this was the centrepoint between Melrose and Lindisfarne and I soaked in this moment with a triumphant glare at the cows below. On the descent there were only sheep. Sheep were fine. The hardest part of the up and down was hauling myself over the ladder stiles with a backpack on. This would normally be the highest point of the trail as well, but I had made different choices.
The day’s heat started to kick in on my way down and I stickied myself up in sunscreen again before quickly sweating out the white droplets by the time I hit the lane for more tarmac walking for the final stretch into Kirk Yetholm. .
Kirk Yetholm, and its neighbour town of Town Yetholm, were originally seen as the gateway into England. ‘Yetholm’ itself translates as exactly that. Now it is the gateway to the Pennine Way, the National Trails’ flagship treasure, that stretches from here down to Edale in the Peak District along ‘the spine of England’. I went to go get an early lunch at the famous Border Hotel where hikers setting off on or ending the Pennine Way pose beneath the sign and are entitled to their free half pint and certificate upon completion.
Kirk Yetholm and the Gypsy King
For centuries Kirk Yetholm was home to the headquarters of the Scottish Gypsies. The Faa family ruled as royalty, with the last known gypsy king, Charles, crowned in 1898 in front of 10,000 spectators. He had a hare ceremoniously placed around his neck, and a bottle of whiskey cracked on his head.
The Faas had come to Kirk Yetholm in 1695. Believing their self governance was the only way to rule, they clashed with the nobility frequently. Despite the grandeur of his title, Charles Faa II and his contemporaries and ancestors lived in near poverty. Kirk Yetholm offered them access through the Cheviots to go in between England and Scotland as they wished, and to easily avoid whoever they had recently displeased.
Faa’s right to be crowned King of the Gypsies had been originally bestowed on his ancestor John Faa by James V with whom he had found unusual favour, but the coronation itself was widely acknowledged as a pageant for local tourism.
No coronation for the next king or queen was ever held after his death, but one does exist today, and whoever they are their name remains a secret within a notoriously secret community.
Two brothers were finishing their hike as I came by. They had chatted about walking the Pennine Way since they were kids and now, in their mid sixties, they had finally got round to it. Granted, one of them had their very supportive missus follow them in a caravan giving them a warm bed and food every night, but their elation and sense of victory was extremely well deserved. They posed inside the bar in their Covid facemasks and half pints while their supporters snapped up many pictures.
I’ll admit now, I had started to be a bit hesitant about continuing the way I had intended. I was tired, I was hungry, I was all a bit run down and out. And maybe all that was a slight excuse for being a bit scared that I was going to get lost and get eaten by a giant mountain cryptid. To be fair, this is a fear that doesn’t really stop. Sure, I walk alone all the time, but my fears have little to do with being murdered or hurt and I have decent enough faith in my own map-reading to reset a mis-stepped course and enough first aid to be useful, but….what if I was to get lost….and then get eaten by a giant mountain cryptid?
Well, I decided I was going to have to face the giant mountain cryptids. The uplifted, happy spirits of the celebrating brothers and a decently demolished burger at lunch had given me the buzz to get up and get going. So get going I did, initially up the course that the Pennine Way and St Cuthberts shared up, up and away from the town, and then, where St Cuthberts went left into the lowlands, I continued to climb.
The rolling Cheviots bundle together like cracked green marbles; marvellous and smooth looking but riddled with sudden dark ravines that splinter between the hills; old vent from when the hills were volcanoes. They, like most things here on the border, seem to fall into a strange void of a no man’s land of no distinct classification. They are either part of the Pennines or the Southern Uplands, or both, or neither and, maybe because of their lack of distinction, seem to get forgotten in the grand landscapes of the nation. Formed in a shuddery offshoot of the same collision of landmasses that created the Lake District, the Cheviots sit on a base of limestone with a centred crop of Devonian granite, surrounded by the igneous remains of lava flows, now grassed over and integrated into our British wilderness.
Throughout the northern Cheviots, there are the remains of hillforts. Some in more crumble than others. The normal St Cuthberts route would have taken me past Yeavering Bell; what remains of the largest iron age hill fort in the region. Its ramparts would have been three metres thick and, within, lie the platforms where over a hundred timber roundhouses would have stood. There’s even an inner fort. Up here the hillfort remnants are little more than tumbles of stone, but still thousands of years old.
Everything, it seems, built along the borders was built for defense. Everything was fortified, everything anticipated attack on the daily. And those structures that weren’t, like the abbeys, paid the price. These hillforts had already lived long lives of endurance and fighting and were already in decay, being claimed by the earth, by the time Cuthbert was born in his own age of uncertainty and war.
I was now following the National Trails acorn rather than the St Cuthberts cross, and mostly today along the border fence. If one crossed the border on St Cuthberts, they would do so under a sign that marks both the English and Scottish sides, but I didn’t get that photo opportunity; I got a ladder stile and a Pennine Way marker.
The border fence alternates between drywall and wire and wood with the path deviating very little. A couple times it met borders of agricultural boundaries where one could easily get confused and, obviously, I briefly did before realising pretty quickly that I was no longer walking on anything that resembled a distinct path, there were no acorns and, perhaps most obviously, I was heading west.
I would by lying if I said the walk was easy. It quickly became hard. The brothers back at the Border Hotel had said the last stretch was the hardest and that was with their legs hill fit after three weeks in the Pennines. Thankfully I wasn’t doing the whole stretch to Byrness, I just had to get to the hut.
As I rose upwards, I felt the winds more. But with a clear sky I was enthralled by my surroundings. I hadn’t quite expected to be so completely alone, seeing the prominence of my path, but so be it. Travelling upwards takes time, something often forgotten, far more time than walking flat, and the more up, the more time. My registered distance that day would not seem as great as it felt and after a few hours I was locked into a battle between tiredness and wanting to just set up camp and be done, and the desire to reach the hut. It seemed I’d already burned through that burger.
As I started up the Shil on a uneven trail, a man was descending. It had been hours since I had seen anyone and this chap seemed to just be skipping down without any bag or water bottle and a happy dog at his side. Was this some sort of mirage? No, it turns out, he was a ranger and therefore overly familiar with the hills. He confirmed that the hut was only another three miles or so away, and also warned that the top that I saw of the Shil was not the actual top. It was a fake top, and I’d see the real top after this one. Finally, he reassured me that once I was over the other side, it was a lot cooler. I took this to mean my face was now red from huffing and puffing. He asked what I was going to do. I told him I intended to stay at the hut, climb the Cheviot in the morning, and make my way to Wooler from there.
“Do you know how to camp out?” he asked. I took this to be a traditionally euphemistic British question, turned around and wriggled the trowel on my backpack. He laughed and he and his dog skipped on downwards, not troubled by the rocks or the dirt or the wind. He would be the last person I saw until Wooler.
I quickened my pace but the three miles seemed to go on forever. Eventually I saw the hut, a tiny dot in the distance on a curve in the fence looking incredibly frail in the flat sling of Auchope Rig before the slopes of Auchope Cairn waiting for me the next day. Now half the way up to the height of The Cheviot (which is, confusingly, the highest hill in the Cheviots) the wind was singing around me and it was, indeed, cooler on this side. Far cooler.
I knocked on the door of the hut and when no answer came, I set my things up for the night inside before taking my water bladder on a fifteen minute walk downhill to a stream to filter and fill up for the next day. I wasn’t particularly happy about this final task, but if one wants to experience the great outdoors, then they should experience the great outdoors. The brothers had said that apart from this stream, water would be scarce, especially if I was climbing higher into the peaty summits and whilst I had filled up at the hotel, the climb had had me sucking on the hose like Bathory on blood. I plopped a water purifying tablet into the filtered bag and took my last burst of energy to climb back up to the hut.
This wasn’t one of the grand bothies of the world, it really was more of a refuge. With three wide benches around the walls, a window and a broom it met needs and nowt else. For tonight this small and brave little shack was home, and a welcome one, holding its own against the hills and their howling winds. A visitors book was in a pocket on the wall, but unfortunately it was a new one and there wasn’t many entries. Not much hiker gossip going on just yet. I considered making some up, but eventually just wrote something standard and dull. Night would seem to take a long time to fall, but cosy and sheltered, I fell asleep quickly with the raucous winds slamming into the walls of the hut like a death metal lullaby.
Of course I would sleep well, there was even a lock on the door. Lets see the giant mountain cryptids try that one.
- Distance: 19 miles
- Ascent: 750 metres
- Terrain: field paths, woodlands, grass paths, steep hills, rocky paths
- Toughness: 7/10
- Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: St Cuthberts Way and Ordnance Survey Explorer OL16 (The Cheviot Hills)
Day T-1: Melrose to Bowden (4 miles)
Day 4: Wooler to Beal (13 miles)