Blood on Burnswark Hill

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History, for me, becomes most alive when ancient and modern uses are found for the same device. I first realized this when I read about the historical and contemporary uses of the term wall-chalking.

During the Great Depression, an estimated 4,000,000 adults left their homes in search of work. These ‘hobos’ roamed the United States, taking jobs wherever they could. Relying on the benevolence of strangers for food and a bed for the night.

Over time, certain houses gained a reputation for kindness, others to avoid. On fences, buildings, walls, and pavements, markings would appear. Written in chalk, directing other itinerants to a cat (a kind lady lives here), a top hat (wealthy home) or 3 diagonal lines (not a safe place). Over one hundred different codes mapped out the route of those who followed the first hoe-boys or farm hands.

Wall Chalking Codes
Wall-Chalking Codes

Wall-chalking is still used today, but with a modern twist, and a modern name; war-chalking. Marks are still chalked on walls and pavements of our cities but now indicate where to access password-free wi-fi. Symbols indicate open or closed node access points. A circled W indicates a WEP Node where the wireless network key is required. If known, the access key will be chalked above the circle. The first pathfinders are still lighting the way for others to follow and a recent walk up an unusual hill reminded me of this.

Stand just about anywhere in north Cumbria, with a view to the north and you will see Burnswark Hill. Its prominence on the skyline is dictated by its tabletop summit, raised to a height of 287m (942ft) by two symmetrically shaped flanks.

I have always wanted to visit Burnswark Hill because of its unique place in history. Even the issue of accessibility on a private estate was more persuasive than dissuasive. Curiosity had got the better of me.

Aerial view of the Roman Camp with its three ballista mounts facing the southern ramparts of the Celtic hillfort on Burnswark Hill

Crossing the English-Scottish border at Gretna is much quicker than it used to be. The original mail road between Carlisle and Glasgow, built by the turnpike trust, had become ‘nearly impassable’ in an 1814 survey by Thomas Telford’s Assistant William Provis. It was Telford’s Metal Box design bridge that took the A74 over the River Esk that gives this section of the ‘Cumberland Gap’ its name. The Border now runs unglamorously through a subway underpass beneath the M74.

Ecclefechan is the nearest town to and is overshadowed by the bulk of Burnswark. The town derives its name from eglwys (church) and bychan (small). It has 2 claims to fame. One well known, as advertised by the tourist sign on the M74, as the birthplace of philosopher Thomas Carlyle. The other less well known:

In Burnswark Wood. A natural barrier to accessing the lower slopes of Burnswark Hill
Photo © Dave Brooks

During his final days, in exile on the Atlantic island of St Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte befriended British Army Surgeon Dr. Archibald Arnott. Two days before he died Napoleon gave instructions that no British doctor but Arnott should touch him. A weeping willow tree was Napoleon’s favoured spot for contemplation on the island, and he asked to be buried under its shade. This wish was carried out when he died in 1821 and he was interred there until being repatriated to France nearly 20 years later. Arnott took a cutting from the tree, planting it on his return home to Ecclefechan where it still grows in the grounds of Kirkconnel Hall Hotel. The tree was a finalist in the Scottish Tree of the Year 2018.

The single track road, in sharp contrast to the M74, winds its way northwards, hemmed in by banks of hedgerow blooming with gorse and Mayflower. The tarmac becomes dirt and the car is now bouncing along a shady forest track in Burnswark Plantation. Now on foot, visible through the regimented lines of spruces, the green bulk of Burnswark looms.

The Roman Fort on the southern slope of Burnswark Hill, one of the ‘Three Brethren’ ballista mounds aggressively placed in front of the gateway | Photo © Dave Brooks

Emerging from the claustrophobic damp of the plantation, the hillside grasses seeth in a cool westerly breeze. The first earthwork is striking. Almost at once, you are amidst a huge Roman Camp, the walls and ditches etched clearly in the grass. The familiar playing-card shape of the Camp clings to the southern flank, at a precarious angle, stopping itself from sliding down the slope. Unfamiliar, are the ‘Three Brethren’, three conical mounds adjacent to the north wall of the camp, that mounted ballistas. The whole complex aggressively built 130 metres from the Celt’s front door.

Burnswark Hill is witness to a greater number and variety of Roman projectiles on one site than anywhere else in Britain. Until the 1960s this was interpreted as a place of major conflict. But a suggestion that Burnswark may have been a Roman projectile training camp grew into a fully developed hypothesis by David Breeze (Breeze: Roman Seige or Army Training Ground 2011). This hypothesis has been challenged by two archaeologists who suggest that the finds and the earthworks represent an episode of significant and bloody warfare.

In an attempt to shed more light on this enigma, the Burnswark Project, under the auspices of the Scottish Borders-based Trimontium Trust has gleaned new facts about the reasons for what was clearly an intense period of Roman military activity. 

The view from the summit of Burnswark is simply stunning, with unobstructed 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside. From the Cheviots in the east, to the Solway estuary in the west, the Moffat hills to the north and the Lakeland fells to the south, it is easy to see why the Celts originally chose Burnswark as a strategic hillfort.

Drone footage of Burnswark Hill, the 17-acre Celtic hillfort held in a vice-like grip by two Roman camps.

What was most surprising was that I wasn’t alone. Two figures slowly making their way towards me from the northern slopes of Burnswark. “What the hell are you doing up here?” is what I imagined they were about to say. The middle-aged couple had deep warm Scottish accents and didn’t seem at all surprised to have company.

The couple were farm hands. Hired by local estates to plant crops on farms across Dumfries & Galloway. They pointed to fields of maize in the distance; “We’ve just finished planting that this morning. We come up here so we can see what crops all the other farms are planting and how far along they are.”

That’s when the wall-chalking analogy struck. Burnswark Hill, one of the best views in the Scottish lowlands. Used since the Iron Age for the defence of the Celtic Selgovae tribe and used again in 2019 for the observation of neighbouring farms crops. History then and now with the same lofty purpose.

A hoard of Roman sling bullets unearthed on Burnswark Hill
Photo © The Burnswark Project

Project Burnswark unearthed a lot of projectiles. Over seven days, 2,000 ‘targets’ were identified by detectors, of which 700 had the characteristics of lead sling-bullets. It is the quality and lethal design of these bullets once excavated that point experts away from the training camp theory towards a cataclysmic event of Roman destruction on a vast scale, when the blood, quite literally, ran down the slopes of Burnswark Hill.

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