Listen to an Introduction:
here is no archaeological or historical record of when or why the Catrail was built but different sections were probably constructed at different periods in the late 4th and 5th centuries. It is a low rounded ditch which runs in sections for about fifty miles. It is not continuous but the apparent gaps may have been filled with palisades.
East of you, there are indications of a less monumental section running for seven miles to Peel Fell. West of you is one of the best preserved sections running thirteen and a half miles to the Borthwick Burn. The ditch is rarely wider than six to twelve feet and about two to four and a half feet deep. The bank is about two feet high and eight to thirteen feet wide. The conclusion is that this was a monumental boundary marker, like Offa’s Dyke on the Welsh border, which dates back to the mid 5th century, demarcating a ‘no trespassing’ line. Cat means “battle,” and treyl, “to turn”; so perhaps the name signifies “a battle-turning,” “a defence.” The Catrail then swings north to the Yarrow Valley and turns east again across the Minchmoor near Selkirk, a distance of twenty-two and a half miles. This section is of slighter construction. From Linglie Hill crossing the Tweed to the Gala Water there is a final section with the same standard of construction as the one you are looking at.
In Roman times, this area was inhabited by the Selgovae – the Hunters (and this may be the origin of the names “Solway” and “Selkirk”). Before the Roman invasion, they inhabited an area which ran from Nithsdale in the west to the line of the A68 in the east and from Hadrian’s Wall up to the Pentlands in the north. When the Romans invaded in 79AD, the Selgovae abandoned their frontier forts and retreated into the Cheviots which were densely forested and provided ideal cover for guerrilla warfare and surprise ambush. The Romans treated it as a no-go area. Their routes north were up Dere Street (now the A68) in the east which marked the eastern boundary of the Gododdin. In the west, they built a line of forts to protect their road which ran alongside the present A74. In the north, they connected east and west with the A702 along the south side of the Pentlands. This encircled the Selgovae and kept them contained.
Once or twice a year there were trade fairs when skins, animals and produce were exchanged for imported luxuries. But contact was limited and the clan became increasingly insular and backward. In the latter days of the Roman occupation, the coastal clans were equipped, trained and paid to defend and patrol what is now Southern Scotland and it seems likely that it was they who constructed the Catrail to mark the Selcovian border.
By the middle of the sixth century, Selcovian lands in the south had probably been annexed by Caer Guenddolou. In the 550s, the younger brother of the High Chief of Strathclyde seems to have gradually annexed the rest. The Angles represented an increasing threat in the east and occupation of this new territory created a potential buffer zone for Strathclyde.
How to get here
The Catrail. From Yarrow, continue on the A708 to Selkirk and take the A7 to Hawick. Towards the end of the High Street, just before the bridge, turn left on the B6399 to Newcastleton. Before you reach the The Old Schoolhouse, Cogsmill B&B, which is clearly sign posted, the road climbs to a forested area at Sandy Edge. The road crosses a burn (Robert’s Linn) and on your right is one of the best preserved sections of the Catrail following the line of a fire-break.
Places to Visit and Things to Do
Discover a history filled with intrigue, murder, torture and treason. This awesome, eerie ruin has plenty of tales to tell, thanks to its role as “the guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain”.
In 2009 Borders Textile Towerhouse opened, celebrating the Borders’ textile industry. Garments, artefacts and photographs on display bring to life over 200 years of tradition and innovation in the local knitwear and tweed industries.
Find out about the heritage of Johnstons of Elgin at this fantastic new visitor centre on the banks of the River Teviot in Hawick.
‘Johnstons of Elgin: 216 years in the making’.
Fatlips Castle is a restored traditional Scottish Towerhouse. It is said to have obtained its unusual name from the habit of the members of the house to greet guests with less discretion than was considered decent at the time. [photo:Danielle Steele]
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Buy the Book by Robin Crichton
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This is the true story behind the legend of Merlin. Born of a royal family to a life of privilege and luxury, his place in society was ordained until he lost everything in a bloodbath of pillage and genocide. Forced to live on the run he survived as an outlaw hiding out in a cave, living off what the forest could provide.
It is the story of the clash between Christianity and traditional belief – a duel between St Mungo the priest and Merlin the pagan, played out against a webs of late 6th century political intrigue and the strife of a land tearing itself apart.
Until now, our Early Dark Age heritage has been largely ignored by historians because of the lack of cross-checkable written data. This book combines history, archaeology, etymology, topography, botany and folk memory in a giant jigsaw. With nearly 150 colour illustrations and maps, the book is accompanied by a gazetteer of 28 Dark Age sites. It presents the evidence, suggests various interpretations and invites the reader to be the historical detective.
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