Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Footprints of the Northumbrian Celts

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Illustrated by the author.


The traces of the ancient Celtic population of Northumberland appear chiefly in the northern part of the county, and mostly upon the lower slopes of the Cheviot Hills, a mountainous range extending from near Roxburgh, in Scotland, to the coast, at a length of about thirty-five miles. The height of the highest of those hills, distinguished as the “Cheviot,” rises at an elevation of 2856 feet. On nearly the whole of these hills are found remains conceived to have appertained to the Ancient Britons. The peculiarity which distinguishes these vestiges consists in the abundant use of large Cyclopean masonry instead of earthen bulwarks, as in the south of England, in the construction of the ramparts of the hill towns of the Northumbrian Celts, and of the habitations they comprehend. Tumuli, cairns, cromlechs, and stone circles are likewise found in the same district, together with large stones marked with a kind of hieroglyphic inscriptions which remain undeciphered, but which are conceived to have been the writings of the Druidic hierarchy of the Celtic tribes. Those rock inscriptions are likewise found in Cumberland, Ireland, Scotland, the Channel Islands, and at Carnac in Brittany; and even on one of the great masses of Stonehenge a hieroglyphic carving has been observed analogous in type to those mysterious inscriptions. Another interesting feature observable among the Cheviot hills consists in the appearance of ancient modes of cultivation; by which the hill-sides seem to have been rendered productive at a remote period. In these instances the acclivities of the hills have been scarped in terraces for the growth of the grain which supplied the numerous querns, or hand-mills, discovered among the Celtic remains. The research of Northumbrian antiquaries, furthered by the enlightened liberality of the Duke of Northumberland, has tended to throw considerable light upon the character of those remains by means of excavation and the investigation of the appearances thus revealed, which are being carried on in different sites among the hills, and promise to yield a rich harvest of archæological results.

The most important of these investigations has been made at Greaves Ash, near Lynhope, high up the Cheviot range, in the valley of the Breamish, just overlooking the point where the Lynhope burn runs into that water. Here, on the southern declivity of the hill of Greenshaw, by a moderate climb through the mountain fern, we reach the rocky platform of the Celtic town with its two dependencies, which form a group of fortified places of habitation. The situation is well chosen, for at a height above the level of the sea where the winds rage in full force it is so fixed as to be sheltered by the surrounding hills; the upper mass of Greenshaw hill and the great crag-crowned hill of Dunmore shelter its site on the north, the hill of Ritta performs the same office to the westward, and a little higher up the course of the Breamish are Standrop—its sides strewn with huge boulders, like the relics of some battle of primeval giants,—and Hedgehope, in altitude second only to its neighbouring height the main Cheviot. Facing its site is the contracted valley of the Breamish, with the scree-strewn sides of Harthope, the Alnham moors rising in the direction of Shillmoor, and eastward the steep heights of the Ingram hills, and Brough Law (where the Breamish escapes from its mountain barriers through a narrow gorge), with Bleakhope and Hogden in the further distance. Thus overlooked, the Celtic stronghold would, at a glance, seem to be placed at a disadvantage with relation to the commanding heights by which it is surrounded, especially on the north, where, as regards the upper fork, which lies immediately under the steep declivity of Greenshaw, its inhabitants might easily have been driven out by rolling down upon them the great boulder-stones which lie ready to hand; but it is to be understood from existing traces that the approach to the upper ridges of the hill had been sufficiently protected, and for the same reason we may account for the superior strength of the ramparts of the larger town on the lower face of the hill, where the approach is more open and access less easily prevented at a time when the scope of missiles was limited.

Celtic Fort: External face of the Inner Rampart.

The larger town, the westernmost of the triad of fortifications, is encompassed by two ramparts, the innermost of which incloses an area of somewhat less than acre, with a diameter of 213 feet, but that of the outer rampart comprehends a diameter of 309 feet, having an area of about two acres. The outermost and strongest rampart forms an irregular circle, and is strongly raised in large Cyclopean masonry of a substance varying from ten to twelve feet in width. The inner wall, which, however, is the more perfect, varies from five to seven feet, and on being excavated shows three, and in some parts four, courses of irregular masonry. But, although composed of unhewn stones, and destitute of any kind of cement, these walls display a considerable amount of constructive faculty, being composed at intervals with large upright blocks, by which the stones forming the intermediate substance of the wall are firmly bound. Those which form the faces of the wall are large and well fitted together, the space between being rammed in carefully with smaller stones.

But the walls show a further degree of nicety in construction, and a provision for increased strength by the projection of large courses of stones at right angles with the faces of the wall laid with great exactness, and forming a series of cross-walls or buttresses dividing the rubbled lining of their inner substance and imparting great stability to the whole mass. The whole masonry of these remains is composed of unhewn blocks of porphyry, the stone of the district.

The distance between the ramparts is unequal. On the south side it contracts to a space of twenty-two feet; and it is remarkable that between these two ramparts there is the appearance of there having been a wall of less width and rudely built. The order of the circumvallation being—first, the outermost wall carried along the edge of a steep declivity, its outer face being composed of large stones carefully laid; then, at a distance of ten feet, the intermediate wall, the space between being filled with small stones, so as to remove the idea that it has formed a separate line of bulwark; in fact, it appears to have been thrown up in order to increase the bulk and substance of the outer wall; and, lastly, with an interval of two feet, the inner rampart, which is six feet wide. To what height those ramparts may have been originally raised must be matter of conjecture; but with such a substance for their base they may well have reached an elevation of from twelve to fifteen feet. On the north, east, and west sides the space between the outer and inner ramparts opens to a breadth of about fifty feet. At the east side is a gateway, from which a road is carried down the hill to the Lynhope Burn, apparently with a view to the supply of water, although there is a spring on the hill side a little to the southward of the outer rampart; another hollow-way extends from the west wall down the hill to the Lynhope Burn, and takes up on the opposite side and ascends the hill of Ritta, where it joins another group of fortified towns lying on the hill-side. On the eastern side of the town there are three gateways in succession in the three ramparts placed diagonally to each other, so as to command from their angular position three several points of vantage, a display of military strategy observable in other Celtic fortifications.

The inner gateway remains pretty entire, with a passage eight and a-half feet broad. The sides are composed of very large blocks, some laid lengthwise and others set upright. On the north side of this gateway there is a guard-chamber, divided by a wall into two compartments, in one of which is a large stone, which seems to have served the purpose of a rude bench. Several other chambers are observable on the inside of the inner wall, some built on and others constructed in the substance of the wall itself; in most of these charcoal and broken pottery have been found, and in one of the wall-chambers a conduit was observed to penetrate the entire substance of the wall, opening on the outer side, and from being found to contain a quantity of charcoal it is conceived to have been constructed for the purpose of a flue, being twelve inches in height and fourteen inches wide at the bottom, narrowing to ten inches at the top. The area lying within the walls is occupied by the circular foundation of dwelling-places, eighteen of which remain clearly defined, and the traces of several more are discernible. These circles enclose a space varying from eleven to twenty-seven feet. The entrances are facing the east and south-east, some of them showing a rise in the pavement of three and a quarter inches, intended to serve as a check to a door. The floors have been paved with slabs of porphyry. It is only by speculation and comparison that we can arrive at a conception of the superstructures which once stood upon those basements. In some of the western isles of Scotland the people still use the ancient circular buildings for their dwellings. These are beehive-shaped constructions, the stones being so laid as to form a dome-shaped roof, the opening left being covered by a slab of stone. This mode of building is even practised to the present time where families increase so as to require additional habitations. The Cloghams in Ireland are similar; and, indeed, this mode of construction is so easy and simple—as may be observed in the grottoes of oyster-shells raised by the urchins at street-corners in London—that it may be taken as a fair type of the efforts of a rude people in the endeavour to provide for themselves a shelter from the elements; and something similar may be observed in the huts of most rude or semi-cultivated peoples, from the wigwam of the Hottentot to the ice-built winter habitation of the Copper Indian of North America.

The ramparts which surround the western town of Greaves Ash are carried on by some strong works, which display no small skill in military strategy, to a smaller town to the eastward, which occupies a position somewhat higher on the hill-side. This site, although much less than the other, is remarkable for the large size of the stones employed in its construction, some of which laid in the rampart reach the length of four feet. Several hut-circles lie scattered between the western and eastern ramparts. A gate in the rampart of the eastern town communicates with a road which is carried up-hill to a third town of still higher elevation. This station is planted to the north-east, at a distance of 100 yards, being near a ravine through which a small stream of water flows, and which probably supplied the more elevated retreat. This site is of an irregular figure, measuring 220 feet from north to south, by about 200 feet from east to west. Here the rampire stands, in some parts at a height of eight feet from the central area. This area is divided into two parts by a wall, which crosses it in a north-east direction. Within the sites thus divided a number of hut-circles appear, together with enclosures of an oval form. The rampire here has several openings, but one on the west leading to the lower forts is the principal. It is constructed of large blocks of stone particularly well laid together. The interior of this fort contains, besides the main dividing wall, several smaller enclosures or subdivisions, with the vestiges of fifteen hut-circles, the walls of which, in some instances, remain at a height of three feet. One of those huts, standing upon ground elevated about five feet, is reached by a short flight of rude steps.

This triple group of fortified dwellings forms, it will be perceived, a connected series of town and suburbs, and it seems not improbable that those to the east may have served the purpose of places of retreat in case of siege or assault, the easternmost having perhaps been reserved as a citadel for the last desperate struggle in defence of the place.

The vast strength of the walls, and the vestiges of numerous habitations, show that this place has been no camp of temporary refuge, but the fixed dwelling-place of a large tribe, which has not only inhabited the fortified towns, but planted itself over the whole of the southern slope of the hill, where, in quiet times, the cultivation of the soil may have been alternated with the chase of the forest bull, the boar, and other wild beasts with which the forests of Northumberland abounded in early times.

Celtic Fort: Eastern Gateway (see p. 587).

From the few rude articles which have been turned up during the excavations, no evidence has appeared to indicate any degree of wealth on the part of the ancient inhabitants, or the possession of arms and implements in any way superior to such as may have belonged to a people shut out from the more civilised tribes which evidently inhabited some parts of Britain before the Roman invasion.

The few fragments of pottery which have been found are of the most coarse description, some pieces being three-quarters of an inch in thickness, generally devoid of any kind of ornamentation, and apparently fashioned by hand, without the use of the lathe. Some of these fragments are parts of large vessels, and are blackened by smoke, like vessels which have been used in cooking. A few glass beads have probably served as amulets. In one hut a fragment of a glass armlet was found, and which, with the beads, may have reached this remote spot by indirect transmission from those tribes which were in communication with the Phœnician voyagers. Fragments of chipped flints, together with a javelin-head of the lowest type, which as flint does not occur in Northumberland, must have been brought from a considerable distance. Horns of the red deer are evidently the spoils of the noble animal from which the neighbouring hill of Hartside has been named. A few querns were found—the bottom stones only—as is commonly the case, apparently from the circumstance of these rude hand-mills having been in request among the people of those hills in times long subsequent. Indeed it is in the recollection of very old persons that, even when the miller plied his trade within reach of most people, many of them still adhered to the old hand-mill, probably in deference to the proverbial breadth of the miller’s golden thumb, and they could only be induced to bring grist to the mill by taking away and destroying the upper stones of the querns in their possession, and which had probably descended as heir-looms during a succession of many centuries.

With reference to the time when those rude strongholds were raised, or when they ceased to be inhabited, is matter of speculation only; but it may be supposed from the circumstance of their defences being strongest toward the south, that they were intended as a provision against a foe, whose assault had threatened from that direction. It is well known, that the different tribes of Celtic Britain lived in a continual state of hostility with each other, but there is a circumstance apparent in the connection of those towns with that on the opposite hill of Ritta, which would indicate an extended combination to resist a threatened assault or invasion; and if this connection can be traced to exist in common with other fortifications on these hills, there might appear grounds for the supposition that those settlements may have been strengthened and united into one common line of defence on the extension of the Roman occupation of Britain in a northern direction; and that, in fact, we have on the wild Cheviot hills a sort of counterpart to the great work of the Roman wall erected with a kindred view of limiting the incursion of a common enemy.

J. Wykeham Archer.