Scotland – Crossing the Borders in Quest of the Bell Clan

A solitary candle flickers in the topmost window of the stone tower. A faint red glow outlines the distant ridge, silhouetting a bank of horsemen against the sky. They thunder closer, intent on plunder…even murder.

We are at the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, England viewing a sound and light show depicting a typical border raid by the reivers, or plunderers, the nighttime guerrilla action that occurred from the 12th through the mid-17th centuries. Sometimes the conflict was between neighboring clans; at other times, Scottish riding clans joined forces with their bitter enemies to repel English occupation.

The theater lights rise, illuminating the audience, and we note that the sign-in book is dominated by the signatures of visitors whose surnames are identical to those of the major players in the Anglo-Scottish border feuds that transformed law-abiding citizens by day into terrorists by night.

So it is that my husband, Boyd, and I discover we are not the only ones on a foray into the past. Our geographical destination is the area known as the Borders: the chunk of much-fought-over land defined loosely by Carlisle on the south; Berwick, England, on the northeast and Dalkeith, Scotland (just south of Edinburgh), on the north. It is countryside once roamed by my forefathers, the Bells and the Maxwells. Not atypical Scottish border families, they were among the ruffians and cattle rustlers who, in the 17th century, were exiled by the British government to Northern Ireland.

A generation or so later, these tough and resolute people with strong clan loyalties sought their fortunes in North America, in my case on the Pennsylvania frontier. American history books identify these immigrants as the Scotch-Irish. Fittingly, one of their descendants, Neil Armstrong, was the first man on the moon. While probing my family’s gnarled roots, we will view the storybook world they left behind along with their fears.

Having vicariously experienced a typical border raid, Boyd and I wander across the street to explore Carlisle Castle, built by the Normans in 1092, and the nearby Carlisle Cathedral, notable for its medieval carvings, stained-glass windows and the altar where Sir Walter Scott was married in 1797.

Holding even greater fascination for us, Carlisle is headquarters for tours to Hadrian’s Wall. The taxi driver at the head of the cue turns out to be an expert on the local history. He provides us with detailed maps to peruse throughout his informative narration. From Solway Firth on the west to the River Tyne on the east, he tells us, the 73-mile stone wall was built between 122-128 A.D. by Roman emperor Hadrian to protect Roman Britain from northern tribes. It tumbles across land at once desolate and felicitous. Except for mournful cries of curlews and relentless winds that whip across this archaeological treasure, the surrounding moors are mute.

Hadrian’s Wall marches through fresh, rugged countryside, bounded on the north by forests, parkland and barren crags rising nearly 2,000 feet. To its south, the Cumberland Plain is dotted with grazing sheep, Roman ruins, ancient castles, and crumbling abbeys where monks once mass-produced beautiful wools for local use and export. Naworth, Featherstone, Corby, Toppin and Bellister castles lie along a 10-mile stretch parallel to the wall. Casual hikers and serious backpackers dot the roadsides, fortified with sturdy walking sticks, binoculars, and rain gear.

Nearly 2,000 years after the Romans left, their preserved forts and signal towers attest to their engineering skills. At each major excavation, a small museum houses relics revealing how the ingenious Romans made themselves at home in a harsh land. They constructed comfortable barracks, hospitals, granaries, shops, inns, bath houses and latrines. With so many examples of technology lying about, historians wonder why the barbaric natives learned nothing from their progressive conquerors and continued to live in primitive fashion for centuries afterward. Our driver waits patiently while we study the exhibits and purchase booklets to read back home.

After capturing camera shots all the more photogenic for the brilliant blue sky dappled with cottony clouds, we return to Carlisle and catch the next train to rendezvous with our genealogist-hostess, May McKerrill. We learn in advance from others who have enjoyed her hospitality that she should be addressed formally as the Lady Hillhouse (pronounced Hill’-iss), and her Scottish chieftain husband, Charles, may be referred to as Sir Charles, or Lord Hillhouse.

The train rockets north from Carlisle past Gretna into Scotland. The countryside is a quilt of grassy mounds speckled with grazing sheep, accented by rough hedges, meandering streams, stone fences and whitewashed cottages of bygone ages.

Minutes later, we detrain in Lockerbie. Except for the stationmaster, we are alone. The late afternoon solitude is heightened by the adjacent barren hillock, site of the 1988 Pan Am explosion. Momentarily, a Renault station wagon pulls up, the driver clad in trousers of the McKerrill clan’s blue tartan Introductions aside, Sir Charles loads us and our luggage into his car for the 10-minute ride west to Lochmaben. On the way, he takes a brief detour to point out Remembrance Garden, Lockerbie’s most visited spot, dedicated to the Pan Am victims.

Our road parallels a hiker-friendly dismantled railroad track leading from Lockerbie to
Lochmaben, five miles to the west. Beyond the village green overlooking quaint brick and stone cottages, Lochmaben Castle – site of the boyhood home of Scottish King Robert the Bruce, who won his country’s independence from England – lies in ruins.

Taking a cue from other Borders aristocrats bent on weathering a depressed British economy, May and Sir Charles welcome guests into Magdalene House, their solid brick dwelling named for the village’s patron saint. The cellars of the house date back to the 14th century. First occupied by priests serving the now-deserted adjacent Roman Catholic church, it became a Presbyterian manse after the Reformation. Resplendent with McKerrill heirlooms, Magdalene House warmly embraces guests eager to plumb their past. Beyond the entry hall’s circular stairway, a parlor opens onto a walled garden abutting the church graveyard. Caressed by sunshine, its lush plantings offer food for thought over a steaming pot of Earl Grey tea.

At 7:30 each evening, May serves dinner in the stately dining room, its walls lavish with red velvet flocking. Candlelight romanticizes massive gilt-framed portraits of the past lords Hillhouse – all clad in the clan’s distinctive blue tartan – and their elegant ladies.

Magdalene House is large enough to serve several parties of ancestor seekers, yet small enough to be comfortable for all guests eager to join May on her daily treks. Mornings at nine sharp, sated by a hearty English breakfast, guests scramble into May’s station wagon for an excursion through villages and pastures dotted with ruined castles and towers marking ancient clan and family sites.

Genealogy is taken seriously here. Residents of ancestral farmhouses and towers throughout the area can recite their clan lineage by heart. Voluminous church records confirm their accuracy. May has studied the history of each clan and freely recites facts, figures, and lore. She says that my Bells are among the most visible of the Borders families, with their shield of three bells still to be seen etched on gravestones and above numerous doorways throughout the area.

Our Bell country encounter begins the moment May hustles us into her car for a short drive to Dumfries, the royal burgh and commercial headquarters of Dumfriesshire where, in 1306, Robert the Bruce slew Red Comyn and declared himself King of Scotland. This was the last home of poet Robert Burns. He died in Burns House in 1796 and is buried in the family mausoleum in St. Michael’s churchyard just across the road.

Today, Burns House is a museum offering a film about Burns’ life, portraits of his family members, and original copies of his writings penned in his hand. After perusing its relics, we contemplate more history at the Old Bridge House museum on the River Nith. Directly across the water is the village of Maxwell Town, made famous by the song dedicated to one of Burns’ loves, Annie Laurie.

Later, from high within a refurbished windmill, the Burgh Museum, we view the red sandstone buildings and vast expanses of parkland that comprise the town of Dumfries. Little has changed since my ancestors made their way through these thriving, narrow streets by foot or cart, except for a huge Safeway market that anchors the main shopping mall on the edge of town.

On the road once again, we glimpse frequent ruined towers and thick forests as we motor eastward. Beyond Lockerbie, May abandons the modern speedway for back roads that meander through tiny settlements at Nithsdale and Annandale to an ancient church dominating the village of Middlebie.

The raincoats and boots we packed reluctantly prove their worth as we slog through tall grass beaded with raindrops to inspect the cemetery thick with Bell gravestones. Despite erosion and chipping, the etchings of three bells are distinct on each. The cold, steady rain slackens to a drizzle as we press on to two Bell homes dating to the 14th century. A direct view of the prosperous horse farm at Bankshill is blocked by a high knoll; the next house is secluded beyond a narrow lane and a wobbly plank bridge spanning a deep gorge and waterfall.

Our camera clicks steadily and I quickly fill the pages of my notebook as May chauffeurs us over the scenic hills and dales, once vast battlefields on which my ancestors fought to defend their lands from other riding clans and the English. As we drive, May recounts tales of local intrigue, none more stirring than that of fair Helen Irving of Kirkconnel, whose brief life was bitterly entwined with my Bell line. The daughter of an early 16th century local land baron, Helen was hailed as the loveliest girl in Scotland. When her parents offered her hand to handsome, wealthy Richard Bell, heir to Blacket House, everyone declared it a perfect match.

Helen, however, had a secret love, Adam Fleming. Aided by an understanding servant, the sweethearts met secretly until the fateful evening when Bell materialized from the shadows bearing a crossbow. At the moment he aimed, Helen threw herself between the two men.

As Helen lay dying, Fleming chased his rival to the banks of the River Kirtle and pierced him with a sword. Fleming fled to France, but could not dismiss Helen’s ghostly cry. Heartbroken, he returned to die draped across her grave and was buried beside her. The tragic event was later recounted in a poem by Sir Walter Scott.

After Bell’s death, Blacket House was passed down to subsequent generations, but not without angst. Every resident since has reported the presence of Richard’s evil ghost, which is generally credited with orchestrating family misfortune, from lost love to financial failure. Today, Blacket House is recognized as the Bell family seat because it was the home of the clan’s last recognized chief, William (Redcloak) Bell. Near the village of Eaglesfield, the tower is all that remains of the original L-shaped Blacket House. Situated on 13 acres of lawn, garden, and woodland bounded on the east by the River Kirtle, the surviving tower stretches to four floors, its walls and stairs intact, its topmost window an ideal lookout.

Later, warmed by May’s dinner of local roast lamb, herbed vegetables and lemon pudding, we anticipate a restful sleep. Because Scottish nights are notably damp and brisk, we close our bedroom windows and avoid lighting the gas heater. Snuggled beneath the down quilt, I nod off, unaware that Boyd’s fresh-air fanaticism is at work.

Halfway into a dream, I hear a crash. Then a faint cry for help.

Still groggy, I follow the voice into the bathroom. Boyd is standing spread-eagle on the windowsill. How did he get there, I wonder, and why is he gripping the upper half of the window?

Moments later I grasp the full picture: overheated by the heavy quilt, he climbed out of bed to open the window less apt to funnel a draft on our heads. As he lifted the sash, the upper half of the casement fell parallel to the lower, wedging his fingers between. (We later learn that this style of vertical sliding sash and case window operated by pulleys and weights was first installed in Scottish houses in the late seventeenth century; we suspect that the errant window has received no maintenance since then.)

Help arrives promptly in the form of our vigilant hosts, who pry the heavy frame off Boyd’s fingers.

Sir Charles surveys the window, shaking his head. “I can’t imagine why the pulley broke,” he mutters, jaw clenched.

As May speaks, I notice that the color has drained from her face. “It’s the Bell ghost! He must have been watching from the tower. He does mischief to declare himself the last proven chief of the Bell clan.”

Boyd and I exchange glances. Who are we to dispute Scottish ken?

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