This week I joined the CDP’s Historic Environment residential field school in Bellingham, Northumbria, to understand how a particular monument type: medieval bastles (pronounced like castle, with a “b”), or fortified farmhouses, are currently being investigated by Historic England’s Assessment Team.
Bastles emerged during a period of instability in the Border region between England and Scotland in the 16th century, when warring families and clans, known as the Border Reivers, raided surrounding farms and holdings, stealing livestock, goods and kidnapping people for ransom. Massively fortified (with walls of over 1m thick), bastles were used to hastily keep livestock on the ground floor, when an incoming attack was known. The residents would then barricade the ground floor door before climbing up a ladder to the safety of the difficult to reach upper floor, which was used as the occupiers’ living space.
We visited bastles in a variety of different conditions. Some were modified when defence became less of a priority, following the Union of the Crowns, and stairs added to make access to the living quarters easier, like at Black Middens.
More information on Black Middens bastle, which we visited, can be found on English Heritage’s website: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/black-middens-bastle-house/history/
Others lie in ruin in varying levels of preservation and consolidation, whilst others have been adapted into storage buildings, reconstructed, and even turned into B&Bs and modern accommodation. All of these pose interesting challenges to the management, presentation and conservation of these historic sites, and it will be interesting to see how such issues are discussed when Historic England publishes the results of its new study into these intriguing monuments.
Whilst they’re of a different period to the focus of my research, its interesting that both bastles and brochs have similarities in being fortified homes, built of stone and with very similar door designs. The haar-hung wooden doors of bastles are very similar to descriptions of those found in the entrance ways of brochs, and both feature sockets hollowed out of the stone sides of the walls to insert draw bars, to keep invaders out, so it was great to see a reconstructed version of an original bastle door! More investigation is definitely needed…