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From Aug 2006 - Nov 2013 WeDig provided a live forum for diggers & fans of Vindolanda. It has now been mothballed and will be maintained as a live archive.

Here you will find preserved 7 years of conversation, photos, & knowledge about a site many people love. Vindolanda gets under the skin. (Figuratively and literally as a volunteer excavator!) It's a place you remember, filled with people you remember!

Thanks for 7 great years!

Black Middens Bastle House

Two views of Black Middens bastle house
(scroll over for a second image)

"ReiversThe term comes originally from Old English "reafian" - to rob." The term is intertwined with the Northumbrian psyche.

Throughout the late Middle Ages, these families of cattle-rustlers held sway here, as England and Scotland fought a low-grade border war that spanned centuries. Hundreds of square miles of borderlands were essentially wild & lawless -- even as much of Europe, including southern England, enjoyed the Renaissance. As late as 1599, the antiquarian William Camden was unable to survey much of the central part of Hadrian's Wall for fear of the "rank robbers" who lived nearby.

Today, the physical remains of this anarchic period are dotted all across Northumberland, in the form of the bastle house. Among the best preserved both in architecture & setting is the 16th C Black Middens, outside Bellingham. It's a bit of a drive from Vindolanda, but well worth it for understanding a huge part of Northumbrian history & culture. Not to mention the views across the wild & rolling countryside.

Essentially, a bastle house was a fortified homestead, designed to protect people & their livestock from the local clans of outlaws, the reivers. After Bannockburn in the early 14th Century, kings of Scotland and England decided that little more was to be gained by open warfare. Instead, they lent support to various families who were willing to live in the disputed border and harass their neighbors on the other side.

In time, a new culture was born. Cattle-rustling and border raiding became a gentlemanly affair. Almost a sport, if one with often deadly consequences. Towns and villages couldn't take hold in the chaos, and life remained essentially rural and subsistence. The local homesteaders learned that their only protection was the four walls of their home. They also learned that their livestock needed to be inside those walls as well. And the bastle house was born.

Black Middens bastle house ground and upper floors
Interior of Black Middens

Nowhere was the phrase "A man's home is his castle" more apt than Northumbria during the time of the reivers. A bastle house served one purpose: security. Its walls were 3 to 4 feet thick. The entire ground floor was given over to livestock. Every night the herdsman would bring his family & animals inside. He then locked the door, and he his family would climb a ladderThe exterior staircase at Black Middens -- added in the relative safety of the 18th C -- is the only significant change made to the building. into the living quarters on the upper floor! Windows were tiny, again for security. Living spaces must have been gloomy, smoky, smelly, and dank.

To the left is a view from inside, overlooking what would have been the floor levels. Notice how remarkably thickThe exterior walls are over 4 1/2 feet in diameter! the walls are -- even the interior partition. Many bastle houses were even built with a stone barrel vault separating the ground & upper floors, rather than the wooden floor that was once at Black Middens.

Such protections weren't always successful. The code of the time called for a landowner to willingly hand over his animals if a reiver family came calling. Some families were smoked out or burned alive as punishment for daring to protect their flock or herd. Still, many families did hold out, and the bastle house quickly became an integral part of Northumbrian life. It was only with the Union of the Crowns in the early 17th Century that the reiving lifestyle came to an end.

Black Middens is about 25 miles, or about 45 minutes, from Vindolanda by car. (Click here for map & directions, courtesy of multimap.com.) The site is owned & maintained by English Heritage, but there is no fee for entry. You may visit it at any reasonable hour.

Hundreds of bastle houses once dottedThe "References" link to the Gatehouse will bring up a plot of all bastle houses, and their cousins, "Pele Towers," known in northern England. the landscape. They defined life here until peace finally returned in the 17th Century. Even today, in a way, the rural, wilderness culture imposed by the reiver lifestyle lives on. Northumberland is still a land of windswept fields, isolated farmhouses, small villages, and independent-minded inhabitants. And old reiver family names like Armstrong & Forster still populate the land.

Many bastles still exist, though usually incorporated in later buildings, or surviving only as poor ruins. Those lying close to Vindolanda -- Haltwhistle, Bardon Mill, and Greenhead all have one or two -- have been much altered. Black Middens bastle house is one of the most complete, unrestored, evocative examples left. Its setting deep in the countryside can at least give a hint of what life must have been like for generations of Northumbrians trying to eke out a living in a lawless world.

Black Middens within wild landscape

The Gatehouse (list of English/Welsh fortifications)

Page created by Harold Johnson