The border country between Scotland and England was once known as ‘the Debatable Lands’ and, somewhat contrary to images conjured up by ‘Border Minstrels’ and the ‘Border Ballads’ of Sir Walter Scott and John Leyden, the valleys of Tweeddale and Teviotdale held a harsh environment. For centuries, warfare was common in the ‘Ridings’ as the English and Scots took turns invading each other. On the Scottish side, the fortified ‘pele’ castles in the Cheviot Hills, protected by the ‘Free Lances’ of Borders barons, such as the Homes, Maxwells, Kerrs and Rutherfords, held the balance of power. Those peles included the likes of Roxburgh, Smailholm Tower, Cessford – and Ferniehirst, the home of the Kerrs. On the English side, opposing the Kerrs and their like, were the [in]famous northern families of the Dacres and Percys; equally rapacious.
From the point of view of the rulers of England and Scotland, the Borders were effectively a buffer zone, but the dangers from granting (assuming they had any effective control) too much autonomy to these local barons were more obvious on the Scots side, since the Border was only fifty miles from Edinburgh, but over a week away from London. Many a Scots King could vouch for that. A certain amount of order was intended to prevail following the ‘Laws of the Marches’ agreed between the two countries in 1249. As a result, the border region was divvied up into East, West and Middle Marches, on either side, with each to be administered by a Warden, however, the first Wardens weren’t appointed until 1297. The Kerrs of Ferniehirst served as Wardens of the Middle March in Scotland, with appropriate judicial and military authority.
Providing protection and meting out justice frequently got mixed up – or interfered – with the (now romanticised and legendary) practice of ‘reiving’ across the border. Raids were made on either side by what amounted to troops of light cavalry, which expertise provided a force of superb fighting men when they could be legitimately harnessed by a Scottish army. Writing in ‘The Border Reivers’, Godfrey Watson suggested that these men played a constant game of musical chairs, ‘lifting’ one another’s sheep, cows and horses. Justice was rough, with opponents being captured and summarily executed; drowning or hanging being not uncommon, albeit prisoner exchanges or ransom were also common. Neither was it uncommon for Borderers to ‘go a reiving’ against their neighbours and fellow, but there was more satisfaction to be gained from ‘lifting’ English cattle and prolonging generations old feuds. At least; according to legend.
Watson’s game of ‘musical chairs’ was brought to an end by the Union of Crowns, in 1603, but back in the 16th Century, Ferniehirst still rang to the clamour of battle. The Kerrs of Ferniehirst, under Sir Andrew Kerr, fought for James IV at the Battle of Flodden, in 1513, but unlike his contemporaries, he cannot be listed amongst the fallen commemorated in Jean Eliot’s ballad, ‘The Floo’ers o’ the Forest (are a’ wede awa’)’.
In fact, Sir Andrew, known as 'Dand', survived for a good many years as he appears to have died in 1545, at Oxnam Tower, of wounds received at the Battle of Ancrum Moor, earlier in that year.
James was vulnerable, because of his minority and the ever present struggle for power amongst the Scottish nobles at the time. That struggle was aided and abetted by Henry VIII of England. The cross border turmoil continued the Anglo-Scottish Wars, with the attack on Ferniehirst, in 1523, being bracketed by the Flodden campaign of James IV and the Solway campaign of James V, who was just seventeen months old when his father was killed. During James’ minority, Scotland was ruled by a succession of Regents. His mother, Margaret Tudor, sister to Henry VIII, ruled until she married Archibald Douglas, the 6th Earl of Angus. Then the Regency was taken up by John Stewart, the 2nd Duke of Albany, who was in fact next in line to the throne.
In 1525, the Douglas Earl took custody of James and held him a virtual prisoner for three years, exercising power on his behalf. Coincident with that, peaceful relations were restored between England and Scotland, partly because Henry VIII began to fear that the disorders he had provoked in Scotland would spill over into England and give his northern barons food for rebellious thought. Incidentally, another Kerr, he of Cessford, was killed by Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch’s men in a skirmish at Darnick, near Melrose, in 1526, whilst Scott was attempting James’ rescue. The young King finally escaped from his stepfather’s care in 1528 and assumed the reins of government, besieging Tantallon Castle and forcing the Douglases into exile.
The origins of the castellation at Ferniehirst might well date back to over 700 years ago, but there was definitely a castle of some kind at Ferniehirst in 1445. Various histories indicate that the ancestral home of the Kerrs, sometimes spelt Firnihirst, Ferniherst or Ferniehurst, was built on the remains of that earlier foundation, either in 1470, 1476 or 1490, by Sir Thomas Kerr. Ferniehirst, in its position above the Jed Water, commanded the main Middle March invasion route across the Border, but, unlike say, Stirling, it was concealed by trees and the lie of the land. Today, approaching from nearby Jedburgh, you can still see an ancient ‘hanging tree’, albeit it’s now split in half.
In his irksome campaign of 1523, the Earl of Surrey besieged Ferniehirst as a major part of his onslaught against Jedburgh. He sent Lord Dacre with 800 men and several pieces of cannon to reduce the castle, but the stout resistance of the Kerrs meant he almost bit off more than he could chew. After suffering significant losses and only made possible by the heavy ordnance at his disposal, Dacre received the surrender of Ferniehirst on the 24th of September, 1523. According to the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII (iii, pt.2, no. 3364) Ferniehirst Castle was ‘thrown down’ and in writing to Cardinal Wolsey after its sacking, Surrey paid tribute to its stout defenders. The Earl wrote, “I assure your Grace I found the Scots at this time the boldest men and the hottest that ever I saw any nation.” Surrey went on to add, “They found hardy men that went nae back for theym, though after long skirmyshing and moche difficutie, gat for the ordynance within the house, and threw down the same.”
After pulling down Ferniehirst, Surrey’s English army, with a taste for such destruction, proceeded to torch the Abbey at Jedburgh. The Castle at Ferniehirst was rebuilt, but attacked and destroyed on several occasions during the next 100 years. It was besieged by the French in 1549, then, in 1570, it was attacked and burned by the English, only to be rebuilt once more until demolished by James VI in 1593 on the grounds that the Earl of Bothwell had found succour therein.