No place like home?

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the homes of border reivers recently…

In The Raided Heart, there was the village of Long Ridge, home to the Mathers family, then in Doorways to the Past, we visited Lyneholm, where Judd Mathers was living before returning to Long Ridge, and the family home. Most recently, I’ve been working on my current WIP, tentatively entitled The Warriors’ Prize, again set in the borders, but this time, north of the border.

It’s led to a lot of thought about how these various families lived then, and it was another thing I was able to gain a great insight into at Hexham Gaol.

Essentially, it was a tiered system, with three general ‘levels’ of house, depending on your wealth and social status.

A turf house

The turf house was the lowest rung for a reiver, and was, well, exactly what it sounds like. Although, as you can see in this example, there may have been solid lower walls and a chimney to form a structure to the home, these were primarily built from turf, layered onto a wooden frame. This has advantages and disadvantages. You may have been more vulnerable to attack, but equally, if you lost your home, it would have been quick and relatively cheap to rebuild.

A turf house is definitely the house I saw poor Judd living in, at the start of Judd’s Story. He’s down on his luck, away from his home and family, and doesn’t have the money to have anything better.

A bastle house

The next stage up, the first of two fortified house-styles, and the home of the Mathers family, is the bastle house. In simple terms, little more than a fortified barn with upper living chambers, this was the home of the wealthier families, and gave an element of security. Large doors to the ground floor allowed livestock to be brought inside, with ladders to the upper floors (both internally and externally), which could be thrown down to prevent attackers getting upstairs, if they did breach the main door. Built of stone, they were more expensive to build, but also less prone to destruction. There are still plenty of these to be seen dotted throughout the countryside on both sides of the border.

A peel tower

Finally, the peel tower was home to the wealthiest families. They are, at a simple level, a grander version of the bastle, being a form of tower house, or keep. As you can see from the image, some still had space for livestock at the ground floor, but there were also more storeys above, providing greater comfort. In the world of The Raided Heart, the Gray residence is a peel tower, due to the wealth Gray has accumulated over the years. Such families would have wanted greater protection from raids, and being larger, they also had the benefit of being able to protect a whole village, if a raid were to strike.

So much of my research days are spent wandering around historical buildings and sites, thinking about who lived there in the past, so it’s been strange not being able to do that in such a direct way for the reivers. Although a lot of bastle houses remain, they are usually part of existing farms, and not open to the public. Turf houses obviously haven’t got the longevity of stone, and oddly, there aren’t too many peel towers either.

At least there are these models in existence, to give us a chance to see how the reivers and their families might have lived…


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