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Destination: Scotland

Crossing the 'Borders' : A raid on clan lineage with a little history and scenery thrown in

July 28, 1996|EMILY PRITCHARD CARY | Cary is a Scottsdale, Ariz., freelance writer

LOCHMABEN, Scotland — A solitary candle flickers in the topmost window of the stone tower. A faint red glow outlines the distant ridge, silhouetting a bank of horsemen against the sky. They thunder closer, intent on plunder . . . even murder.

We are at the Tullie House museum in Carlisle, England, viewing a sound and light show depicting a typical border raid by the Scottish reivers, or plunderers--the type of nighttime guerilla action that occurred from the 12th through the mid-17th centuries as Scottish clans, usually bitter enemies, joined forces, in this case, to repel English occupation.

The theater lights rise, illuminating the audience, and we note that the sign-in book is dominated by the signatures of visitors whose surnames are the same as many of the major players in those Anglo-Scottish border feuds that transformed law-abiding citizens by day into terrorists by night.

So it is that my husband, Boyd, and I discover that we are not the only ones on a foray into the past.

Our geographical destination is the area referred to as the Borders: the chunk of much-fought-over land defined loosely by Carlisle, England, on the south; Berwick, England, on the northeast and Dalkeith, Scotland (just south of Edinburgh), on the north. It is countryside once roamed by my forefathers, the Bells and the Maxwells. Not atypical Scottish border families, they were ruffians and cattle rustlers who in the 17th century were exiled by the British government to Northern Ireland.

A generation or so later, these tough and resolute people with strong clan loyalties sought their fortunes in North America; in my case, in western Pennsylvania. Fittingly, one of their kin, Neil Armstrong, was the first man on the moon.

I have come here to explore a culturally rich and beautiful area that is little known to Americans, but also to probe my family's gnarled roots. Along the way we will visit a storybook world of Roman ruins, castles, abbeys and enchanting villages.


Having vicariously experienced a typical border raid, Boyd and I wander across the street to explore Carlisle Castle, built by the Normans in 1092, and the nearby Carlisle Cathedral, notable for its medieval carvings, stained-glass windows and altar, where Sir Walter Scott was married in 1797.

Holding even greater fascination for us, Carlisle is headquarters for tours to Hadrian's Wall. From Solway Firth on the west to the River Tyne on the east, the 73-mile stone wall was built in 122-128 by Roman emperor Hadrian to protect Roman Britain from northern tribes. It tumbles across land at once desolate and felicitous. Except for mournful cries of curlews and relentless winds that whip across this archeological treasure, the surrounding moors are mute.

Nearly 2,000 years after the Romans left, their preserved forts and signal towers attest to their engineering skills. At each major excavation, a small museum houses relics revealing how the Romans made themselves at home in a harsh land. They had comfortable barracks, hospitals, granaries, shops, inns, bath houses and latrines. With so many examples of technology lying about, historians wonder why the barbaric natives learned nothing from their progressive conquerors and continued to live in primitive fashion for centuries afterward.

Boyd and I catch the next train to rendezvous with our genealogist-hostess, May McKerrill, addressed formally as the Lady Hillhouse (pronounced HILL iss), and her Scottish chieftain husband, Charles, referred to as Sir Charles or Lord Hillhouse.

The train rockets north from Carlisle, roughly 100 miles north of Liverpool, past Gretna into Scotland, giving us a foretaste of lovely Borders' scenery. The countryside is a quilt of grassy mounds speckled with grazing sheep, accented by rough hedges, meandering streams, stone fences and whitewashed cottages of bygone ages.

This is ideal walking territory. Hadrian's Wall marches through fresh, rugged countryside, bounded on the north by forests, parkland and barren crags rising nearly 2,000 feet. To its south, the Cumberland Plain is dotted with grazing sheep, ancient castles and crumbling abbeys, where monks once mass-produced beautiful wools for local use and export. Naworth, Featherstone, Corby, Toppin and Bellister castles lie along a 10-mile stretch parallel to the wall. Casual hikers and serious backpackers dot the roadsides, fortified with sturdy walking sticks, binoculars and rain gear.

A hiker-friendly dismantled railroad track leads from Lockerbie to Lochmaben, five miles to the west. Beyond its village green overlooking quaint brick and stone cottages, Lochmaben Castle, site of the boyhood home of Scottish King Robert the Bruce, who won his country's independence from England, lies in ruins.

Minutes later, we detrain in Lockerbie. Except for the stationmaster, we are alone. The late afternoon solitude is heightened by the adjacent barren hillock, site of the 1988 Pan Am explosion.

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