Tower houses in the Scottish Borders

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Smailholm heart yett   


In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the borders area of Scotland was lawless, rather like Afghanistan today. The borders saw frequent cross border incursions by the armies of Scotland and England, laying waste to their enemy’s territories and terrorising the inhabitants. The borderers became desensitised to violence and many supplemented their meagre farming income by raiding adjoining valleys or across the Border. The Border Wardens who were supposed to police this troublesome area were often as corrupt as, and in league with, the reivers, as the bandit bands were called.

For their protection border magnates and the more prosperous farmers usually had their own tower, a fortified residence designed for living in and for defence. A far higher number of towers existed in the borders than in any other part of the country. There is no definitive estimate of the number of border towers, but there were certainly many hundreds. Many have totally disappeared, the stone being reused in other building, or only fragments of the towers remain. But some tower houses have been incorporated into later buildings, or have been restored as unusual family homes.

Tower houses were usually three or four stories tall, with thick stone walls. They would usually have provision for a lookout to stand guard on the roof, and a beacon which could be lit to warn neighbours and summon help if the tower was threatened.

The only entrance was a door either on the ground floor, or sited above the ground floor and accessible by a removable ladder to provide an extra deterrent to the attacker. The entrance was usually protected by a thick wooden door with an iron yett behind it. The yett is an iron grill like a portcullis. Yetts are common in fortified houses in Scotland, and a few are found in northern England. But whilst a portcullis is raised and lowered vertically, a yett is simpler as it opens like a door. A photo of a yett is attached.

Many towers had a courtyard called a barmkin attached, protected by a wall of over 6 feet (about two metres) in height. The barmkin provided an enclosed and protected area with accommodation for farm workers and room for some prized livestock. The barmkin could be defended against minor attacks, but in a major attack everyone would have to retreat to the much more defensible tower.

Towers were dark places, with arrow slits or gun loops for defence, and windows restricted to the upper floors. The external and internal doorways were often below normal height, deliberately built so that an attacker would have to slow down and stoop a little to get through, making him vulnerable.

The first photo is of Smailholm tower. Smailholm is 5 miles northwest of the town of Kelso in the borders. At five storeys high Smailholm is tall for a tower house. It is set in a beautiful but rather bleak location on a rocky outcrop, giving it an excellent all round view of the area, and of any approaching danger. On a clear day from the parapet it is possible to see Bamburgh Castle, 33 miles away in England.

Smailholm, was originally owned by the Pringle family. The Pringles were squires of the Black Douglases, and the land was granted to them by the Earl of Douglas. Therefore the massive fireplace in the main hall has a heart motif, the Black Douglas emblem.

Smailholm saw plenty of action. Smailholm’s farm was raided twice in 1544. In a major raid in November 1544 English reivers took 100 prisoners, 600 cattle and 100 horses from the area. It was raided again in 1546, and again cattle were stolen and prisoners taken.

The tower has been restored to its past glory by Historic Environment Scotland, but the barmkin wall and the buildings which would have existed within it are ruinous.

See also:
•   Peles, towers and bastles of the Scottish Borders (pdf) by Sally Douglas


Sources for this article include:
  • Ian Douglas;  This article was posted on Facebook 11th January 2019.
    Ian Douglas is author of “Exploring History in the Scottish Borders”, and “Exploring Mary’s Scotland”.

  • Any contributions will be gratefully accepted


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    Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024