The early-modern landscape of Kielder


By Matt Greenhall

The present-day landscape of Kielder national park is a far cry from its early-modern predecessor and shows little sign of its place within the turbulent history of the Anglo-Scottish borders. Lying in the English ‘Middle March’, the inhabitants of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Kielder were often vulnerable to the raiding of quasi-kin groups, known locally as surnames, from either side of the border. As a reflection of such socio-economic turbulence, the Kielder area was pebble dashed with defensive homesteads, or bastles, used for the protection of both the landscape’s human inhabitants and their livestock. Made of rough-hewn stone, bastles were notable for their defensive construction and for making the greatest use of the landscape for their own protection. Often clustered amongst surname groupings, they were strategically placed within sight of one another. In addition to these features they had thick stone walls (sometimes up to a metre in width), narrow windows and a slate roof (to increase fire protection). The defining feature of a bastle was its floor design; the ground floor was reserved for livestock, whereas the first floor was for its human inhabitants. The latter was accessible via a removable ladder which could be withdrawn at night or during attack. In offering a family protection, bastles were defensive structures designed to withstand aggression and therefore lacked offensive elements. Built throughout the fifteenth, sixteenth and early-seventeenth century, it was during the gradual pacification of the borderlands in the mid-1600s that bastles began to fall from use as defensive structures and were gradually abandoned or transformed into semi-gentrified farmhouses. Many can still be seen throughout Northumberland on farm estates or as ruins.

In offering protection to humans and livestock, bastles were an integral element of the pastoral landscape of the borders and were largely built along the valley sides of Kielder rather than on high-moorland. This reflected their wider role in the pastoral economy in the process of transhumance. They were accompanied by other constructions, notably shielings, which had no defensive purpose but were rectangular buildings for the housing of livestock during their summer pasturing. The largely-flooded undulations of the Kielder landscape now obscure the geographical relationship between both of these buildings although the ruins of at least three sheilings and seven bastles can still be seen around the water’s edge. Kielder’s ruined bastles no longer enjoy their defensive position within the landscape and are now nestled amongst foreign-species conifers or along the banks of its reservoir. As a result they occupy a very alien landscape to that originally intended, something which obscures their original setting and purpose.

Kielder’s bastles and sheilings are also accompanied by a number of pele towers. The latter formed a gentrified counter-part to the more humble bastle and were multi-stored rectangular structures for the protection of families (but not livestock). At least seven pele towers can still be seen in the Kielder area. It should be noted that bastles, sheilings and pele towers are constructions synominous with borderlands and can also be seen in relation to the Pale of Ireland and in the Balkans.


Black Middens Bastle from south-west. Photo: Matt Greenhall.

Bastle on the edge of Kielder forest. Photo: Matt Greenhall

Bastle on Kielder’s northern shore. Photo: Matt Greenhall


View from the above bastle into Kielder valley, now the reservoir. Photo: Matt Greenhall


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