When in 1296 Edward I of England crossed the Scottish border, it marked the beginning of a conflict which was to endure for some 300 years. As late as 1543 Henry VIII would style himself ‘King of Scotland’ and refer to the Scots as rebels – this is the background to the narration.
Scotland was vulnerable to English invasion and, with its capital, Edinburgh a short two days march from Berwick, an ‘early warning’ system of ‘fire beacons’ was established.
These beacons were positioned on heights or castles in such a manner that each could communicate with the other and provide notice of impending danger.
An act of 1455 required ‘bales’ (hay or tar barrels) at Hume Castle to be ‘fired’ if an incursion was suspected. If certain, two bales were to be fired and, if the English were in ‘great number’, four bales. The signal would be picked up by Eggerhope Castle which in turn fired its bales to Soutra and so on to Edinburgh Castle:
A similar system was required for the border counties where cross border raiding – albeit on a smaller scale – was endemic. Armed parties from both sides would regularly lift live stock at night and set fire to buildings before fleeing home in the morning. In the 1570s both nations passed laws in an attempt to contain it:
In Scotland beacon stances are still to be found on the towers of Hollows, Repentance, Hoddom, and Elshieshields, all in Dumfries and perhaps the stance of an iron beacon at Barns, Peebles.
Repentance Tower stands on the summit of a small hill, about half a mile from Hoddom, and commands an extensive view on all sides. In 1579 its owner, Lord Herries, wrote to King James VI concerning it:
Article by Scottish Castles Association member Brian McGarrigle. *Thanks to © Pete Armstrong for his splendid illustration of Hollows Tower. ** Photographs of Repentance and Hoddom courtesy of Scottish Castles Association member John Pringle.