Redesdale, Elsdon, Otterburn and Carter Bar


Leaving the valleys of North Tynedale and the Kielder Burn, the forest road from Kielder crosses the watershed between Tyne and Rede and follows the valley of the Blake Hope Burn into Redesdale where it crosses the river Rede, near the hamlet of Blakehopeburnhaugh.

This is in the Guiness Book of Records as the longest place name in England, with eighteen letters. The name is of a very Anglo-Saxon, `old Northumbrian' nature and means `black valley stream, with flat riverside land ' .

Blakehopeburnhaugh's status in the Book of Records is challenged by a hamlet called Cottonshopeburnfoot (19 letters), which lies less than half a mile up the valley, but this does not qualify because the Ordnance Survey writes the name in two parts as Cottonshopeburn Foot. (See also Place Names).


The valley of Redesdale has for many centuries provided an important through-route into Scotland and today it is followed by the A68 Jedburgh road into Scotland, which crosses the border six miles to the north west at Carter Bar in upper Redesdale.

Carter Bar was the scene in 1575 of the Redeswire Fray, one of the last major battles fought between the English and the Scots. The fray occured when a violent battle broke out, following an argument between a Warden of the English Marches and the Keeper of Liddesdale, who ironically, were both employed to keep the peace on their respective sides of the border.

The meeting between these two men was meant to be a day of truce, but the arrogance of the English Warden, John Forster, aggravated the Scottish representatives and a battle ensued (the Forsters were a family with reiving traditions).

Among the Scottish contingent were members of the Crozier family and among the English, the Fenwicks of Wallington, arch-enemies of the Croziers. This obviously gave added venom to the battle. At the end of the fray the English, who were largely unarmed, came off worst and among those killed was George Heron of Chipchase, the Keeper of Tynedale and Redesdale.


Although Otterburn is now regarded as the `capital' of Redesdale, in more historic times Elsdon held that distinction, when it was an important gathering place and market town for the clans of the valley who included the Storeys, Hedleys, Dunnes, Potts, Millburns and Halls.


Above: Elsdon and its Pele Tower photographed by David Simpson

The village, though pleasant and peaceful today saw its share of rough border, life in days gone by and was evidently not a great place for hospitality, as an old Northumbrian ballad records;

Hae ye ivver been at Elsdon ?
The world's unfinished neuk
It stands amang the hungry hills,
An' wears a frozen leuk.
The Elsdon folk like diein' stegs
At ivvery stranger stare;
An' hather broth an' curlew eggs,
Ye'll get for supper there.
Yen neet aw cam tiv Elsdon;
Sair tired efter dark
Aw'd trovell'd mony a lyensome meyle
Wet through the varra sark
Maw legs were warkin' fit ta brik,
An' empty was me kite,
But nowther love nor money could
Get owther bed or bite.
At ivvery hoose iv Elsdon
Aw teld me desperate need,
But nivver a corner had the churls
Where aw might lay me heed;
Sae at the public hoose aw boos'd
Till aw was sent away;
Then tiv a steyble- loft aw crept
An' coil'd amang the hay.
Should the Frenchers land iv England
Just gie them Elsdon fare;
By George ! they'll sharply hook it back,
An' nivver cum ne mair
For a hungry hole like Elsdon
Aw nivver yit did see;
An' if aw gan back tiv Elsdon,
The De'il may carry me.


Despite the poor image that the old rhyme creates of Elsdon in past times, it is quite an attractive village today. The most noticeable reminder of Elsdon's border history, is the village Pele tower, which is one of the best examples of its kind in Northumberland. Dating from around 1400, the tower was a fortified rectory, with walls 9 feet thick.

Its occupants once included the Reverend Charles Dodgson, a tutor of the Duke of Northumberland's son. He was also the Great Grandfather of Lewis Carroll. Dodgson was rector here between 1762 and 1765.

St Cuthbert's church to the south of the vicar's pele, was the nearest graveyard to the Battle of Otterburn (1388). During church restoration in the early nineteenth century, a mass grave containing the skeletons of hundreds of men and boys, who died in the battle was uncovered.

Another notable feature of Elsdon are the two curious hills at the northern end of the village which mark the site of an old Motte and Bailey castle. Tomlinson's Guide to Northumberland (1888) suggested that the earthworks were some kind of Celtic tribal capital at the time of the Roman occupation. There are certainly a number of ancient British camps and settlements in the vicinity of Elsdon.

In later times a Norman castle was built on top of these earthworks which became the home of the Umfravilles, Norman Lords of Redesdale. This family were heavily involved in many a border raid into Scotland and had a reputation which earned members of the family names like Robin `Mend the Market' - a reference to the destruction of Scottish towns.


An unclassified road from Elsdon to Wallington and Morpeth follows the course of an old drove road south eastwards, where it passes the site of Steng cross, an old medieval guiding post. Some good views of the Northumbrian border country can be obtained from this area looking north towards Harwood Forest, the Simonside Hills and the Cheviots, and south towards the Wild Hills of Wannie where the River Wansbeck rises.

Winter's Gibbet

Winter's Gibbet: Photo David Simpson

In the vicinity of Steng Cross, near to the roadside is the eerie site of a Gibbet or `stob', as the Northumbrians call them. Known as Winter's Gibbet, it was from this that the body of a certain William Winter was hung, following his execution at Westgate, Newcastle in 1791. Winter, a gypsy had been ecxecuted for the murder of an old woman, called Margaret Crozier, who lived in the vicinity of Elsdon.

The old woman ran a small drapery store in the neighbourhood, which led Winter to believe she was wealthy. He murdered her after breaking into her home to find that she had little worth stealing. He seems to have been a rather desperate character, as he had not long returned from transportation. His family did have a history of crime, as both his father and brother also died by execution.

Winter's body was returned to the Elsdon area following his execution in accordance with an old custom that murderer's corpses should be displayed near the scene of their crime.

The site of the body hanging from the gibbet is said to have haunted a young shepherd boy by the name of Robert Hindmarch, who at the age of eleven, had given the evidence which largely convicted Winter. Hindmarch's life was dominated by a constant fear of reprisals from Winter's friends and this probably led to his early death at the age of twenty two.

For a time the morbid site of Winter's body, drew sightseers from all around, until the stench from the corpse became so bad that people began to avoid using the road that passed that way.

Eventually the corpse was taken down and burried, but was replaced with a carved wooden effigy of Winter, of which only the head now remains. This gives the gibbet the curious appearance of an incompleted game of hangman.

In the last century the gibbet was viewed with considerable superstition, with one of the strangest claims being that chips taken from it had the magical ability to cure toothache.


Otterburn, the main village in the Rede valley, is famous the world over as the site of the Battle of Otterburn, which was fought to the north west of the village on the 19th August 1388. This battle was the bloodiest and best Known encounter between those great arch enemies of the Borders, the Percys of Northumberland and the Douglases of Scotland.

These two great families were not lawless clans like the Border Reivers of later centuries, but were wealthy landowning earls, the most powerful men in the border region, who fought each other as chivalrous knights defending their respective sides of the national boundary.

Both families are of ancient lineage, the Percys supposedly descended from a Viking warrior who settled in Normandy, acquiring the name De Percy from the name of a French village. The Douglases were descended from Flemish immigrants who came to Scotland in the reign of David I.

First head of the Douglas clan had been William De Douglas, who took his name from the lands of Douglas Water near Lanark, which were granted to him an Abbot of Kelso. William's descendants became rich and influential landowners in Scotland and later members of his family included Jamie, `The Black Douglas' (1286 - 1330), a friend and supporter of Robert the Bruce - a man greatly feared on the English side of the Border;

Hush thee!, hush thee!,
Little pet thee.
Hush thee!,hush thee!
Do not fret thee.
The Black Douglas
Shall not get thee.

It was during the reign of Richard II that the Scots, under the leadership of a certain Earl James Douglas, invaded northern England with an army of some 4000 men and ravaged the Northumberland and Durham countryside as far south as Brancepeth. Hamlets and villages were left burning and many of the local inhabitants were slain, though some fled to safety, taking refuge behind the walled defences of Durham City and Newcastle.

The region had been largely unprepared for this Scottish attack, though Harry `Hotspur' Percy, the Earl of Northumberland's son, was at Newcastle with his brother Ralph, ready to repel any Scottish attack upon that town.

The Scottish raid led by Douglas is commemorated in a lengthy Border Ballad recorded by Sir Walter Scott;

It fell about the Lammas tide,
When the muir-men win their hay,
The doughty Douglas bound him to ride
Into England to drive a prey.
He chose the Gordons and the Grahams,
With the Lindsays, light and gay;
But the Jardines wald not with him ride,
And they rue it to this day.
And he has burn'd the dales of Tyne,
And part of Bamburgh Shire;
And three good towers on Redeswire fells,
He left them all on fire.

As the `auld enemy' were returning from County Durham with the spoils of their raid, there was only a minor skirmish at Newcastle. The Scots did not really have the time or the resources to launch an attack upon the strong defences of that town and the English, under Hotspur had not yet mustered a large enough army to pursue the Scots, as they headed north.

Legend has it that during the skirmish at Newcastle, Douglas in the true tradition of that age of chivalry, challenged the Percys to battle by seizing Hotspur's pennant, exclaiming that it would hang from the Douglas castle at Dalkeith, for all Scots to see. Naturally Hotspur responded to the challenge and warned Douglas that he would not leave England alive.

The ballad of Otterburn records the visit of Douglas to Newcastle;

And he march'd up to Newcastle,
And rode it round about;
`O wha's the lord of this castle,
And wha's the lady o't ? '
But up spake proud Lord Percy, then,
And O but he spake hie !
`I am the lord of this castle,
My wife's the lady gay'
`If thou'rt the lord of this castle,
Sae well it pleases me !
For, ere I cross the Border fells,
The ane of us shall die'
`Had we twa been upon the green,
And never an eye to see,
I wad hae had you, flesh and fell;
But your sword sall gae wi' me.'
`..... gae ye up to Otterburn,
And wait there dayis three;
And if I come not ere three dayis end,
A fause lord ca' ye me.'

Crossing the Tyne near Newcastle, the Scots continued northwards burning the castle of Ponteland on their way, as they headed for Redesdale. Here they took up camp on the site of an ancient British hill-fort near Otterburn. According to the ballad there was little in the way of provision for Douglas at Otterburn ;

The Otterburn's a bonnie burn;
`Tis pleasant there to be;
But there is nought at Otterburn
To feed my men and me.
`The deer rins wild on hill and dale,
The birds fly wild from tree to tree;
But there is neither bread nor kale,
To fend my men and me.

The legend states that Douglas was willing to endure this lack of provision in order to honour the terms of the challenge in which he had agreed to wait for Percy;

`Yet I will stay at Otterburn,
Where you shall welcome be;
And, if ye come not at three days' end,
A coward I'll ca' thee.

While Douglas lay encamped at Otterburn, Henry Percy's army had increased in size, though it could have been bigger, but Hotspur instead of waiting for the support of the Prince Bishop of Durham immediately marched his own army of 8000 men north to Redesdale, arriving at Otterburn in the late evening of 19th August 1388.

Although his men were tired and there was only the light of the moon to help them see, Percy was determined to attack the Scots there and then, so giving his men the element of surprise (we can see why Shakespeare gave him the nickname `Hotspur'). It was decided that the attack would be two pronged, with a body of men under the leadership of Thomas Umfraville, Lord of Redesdale attacking the Scots from the rear, while Percy continued the advance from the south.

With chants of A Percy !, A Percy ! , Hotspur's contingent made their onslaught on the Scottish camp, but their shock and horror can be imagined when they discovered that in the confusion of darkness, they were not raiding the main camp, but instead a small encampment of Scottish servants and camp followers, who nevertheless still fought back.

Hotspur's mistake was costly for it meant that the English had now lost the element of surprise from their attack and the noise quickly alerted Douglas, whose men began to attack the English flanks with chants of a Douglas!, A Douglas!.

For a time the Scots seemed to be easily winning the battle, perhaps helped by the absence of Thomas Umfraville's contingent, which had got lost in the moors to the north. Eventually Umfraville decided to give up the plan of attacking the Scots from the rear and retraced his steps to rejoin the main English forces under Hotspur.

The reunification of the forces of Umfraville and Percy regained an advantage for the English, but the Scots began to fight more fiercely than ever. Douglas, sensing the danger rose to the challenge and began to violently hack his way through the English forces using a battle axe, rousing the chants of A Douglas! A Douglas ! as he proceeded. The Earl was to suffer for his actions; three spears pierced his body bringing wounds to his head and thigh. He fell from his horse and lay dying as the battle continued all around him.

The most senior of Douglas's men, clustered around their dying leader to give him protection, but the earl urged his men to keep on fighting. According to the Otterburn ballad, he told his men he had foreseen his fate;

But I hae dream'd a dreary dream
Beyond the isle of Skye
I saw a dead man win a fight
And I think that man was I.

Gradually the Scots regained control of the battle as the English began to tire from their long and hurried march from Newcastle. As more and more Englishmen were captured or slain, many of Percy's men began to flee the battlefield and Hotspur was eventually captured and forced to yield to a Scottish noble called Lord Montgommery, who had taken over the command from Douglas, who was by this time dead.

Despite the loss of their leader, the outcome of the Battle of Otterburn was a decisive victory for the Scots, who lost only two hundred men compared to English losses of over a thousand. The body of Douglas was taken back to Scotland and he was burried with honour at the abbey of Melrose in Tweeddale. Hotspur and his brother Ralph, were later released for a ransom.

In 1402 at the Battle of Humbleton Hill, near Wooler the Hotspur was at war with the Douglas family once again but in the following year when he was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury, he was ironically fighting on the same side as the Douglas family in rebellion against the king.


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