A fortified dwelling, 17th century Northumberland and Scottish Borders.
"The Pele Tower has come to symbolise border warfare and the age of the border reivers" - Scottish Heritage
The border between Scotland and England was for a long time a topic of some debate, and occasional warfare. Since Hadrian's Wall was built in the second century, disputes between the two countries have flared up in the area, from occasional raiding into full-blown military campaigns.
Edward I waged a bloody war against the Scots and spent both time and money fortifying the area against incursions into England. At this time, the borders were moving all the while, and towns like Berwick switched between both countries. In short, the area was in turmoil.
It was during this time of trouble that people in the Border area began taking matters into their own hands. Clans on both sides of the divide began raiding ("reiving") and pretty soon, the Borders were a hotbed of strife, as rival clans raided across the debatable lands, eager to stay one step ahead of the opposition.
The origin of the towers
The word pele originally meant an enclosured fort, from the French word pel ("stake") and could refer to almost any wooden defensive structure. Over time, the word came to mean the squat towers built as places of refuge for local clan chieftains and their families. These small rectangular stone buildings had thick walls (between three and ten feet thick), normally had three storeys and were primarily intended to defend against short seiges.
Pele towers were, in effect, small single-family castles, into which livestock and defenders alike could gather during the raidy season. The ground floor was windowless, upper floors had arrow loops for defensive purposes, and the roof was flat. They were built to a square plan (there was little need to protect against mining as most raids were short-lived affairs) up to 60 feet (20 metres) across.
The border reivers were active during the 14th to 17th centuries across the whole of the Border area, and most of the major players in the internecine feud built pele towers for protection. Estimates on the actual number vary, but the total number constructed was probably well over a hundred.
Pele towers today
Following the end of the border conflicts, the need for family defences declined dramatically. As a result, many of the towers fell into disrepair, and many were either demolished for building material, or extended or incorporated into larger buildings.
Brackenhill Tower is probably the finest example of an original tower left standing - many others remain, as part of vicarages to farms (Yanwath Hall), stately homes and even within churches.
Towers still standing, or as part of larger, more modern buildings are scattered across Cumbria, and through Northumberland, as well as the Scottish border counties of Peeblesshire and Lothian. As you pass through the area, you will see them everywhere. Beating their swords into ploughshares may have taken a long time, but peace now lies over this once violent land, and the pele towers still stand, a testament to the history of the North.
Personal experience and many visits
Lometa reminds me that the expression beyond the pale also originates with "pel"