This is a land of stone, which has been quarried for centuries from plentiful local sources. So when the Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to mark the borders of his Empire 2,000 years ago, building a wall along the Borders seemed the obvious thing to do. Several Roman Legions moved North to build the Wall, much of which stands to this day. It is said that originally the Wall may have been 20 feet high and there is some evidence that it was painted white facing North, a quite extraordinary sight to the native tribes of the North.
After the Romans left in the fourth century AD, the Wall fell into disuse. Over hundreds of years, many stones were removed for use elsewhere and can be found in the walls of Carlisle Castle amongst other local monuments. Briefly there was talk of rebuilding the Wall in the 16th Century during the reign of Henry VIII, at a time of great unrest in the Borders. This brings us to the infamous era of the Border Reiver.
Reiver is a local term denoting literally a “robber”. Reiving, however, was not quite viewed as robbing in those days. It was more a way of life, driven by the basic need to provide and protect and promoted by the prevailing absence of law and order in the Borders. Quite why this state of affairs arose has never been fully explained, but it undoubtedly had much to do with the rivalry between England and Scotland and the resulting opportunity for local families to play one side off against the other.
If you travel the Borders, you will notice that the older houses look like mini castles, which is exactly what they were, known as “bastle houses”. If a band of armed riders appeared on the skyline, at a moment’s notice families would have gathered in as many animals as possible and locked themselves into their bastles. Raiding parties might be a few horsemen or literally thousands of riders from a number of clans, who enjoyed long standing alliances and fought bloody feuds. The main target of the raiding parties, and the principal source of local wealth, was cattle.
The problem for the lawmen, such as they were, was that it was all too easy to “reive” in England and cross the border to Scotland with impunity, and vice versa. In theory “March Law” prevailed under which victims could pursue their attackers across the border in “hot trod”, signified by a smoking peat on a spearhead. In practice this was highly dangerous, as experienced Reivers would generally lay an ambush to protect their getaway. In any event the March Wardens, usually local aristocrats from landed families, were often the worst offenders.
You still get a sense of these times when you walk the streets of Carlisle, the home of Chapman Bags. Carlisle is a blustery frontier City, built on a hill and originally surrounded by City walls. The massive red stones of Carlisle Castle still dominate the North end of town. If you look North from the Castle, you can see the flat, sparsely populated meadows, split by the Rivers Eden and Esk, leading into the rolling hills of the Scottish borders, and known locally as the “debatable land”.The name derives from the competing claims of both England and Scotland to the land, which effectively prevented anyone from settling there.
The Reiver era closed when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England in 1603 following the death of Elizabeth I. He moved quickly to round up the worst offenders in the Borders and law and order was restored. Apart from the civil war years in the mid 17th Century, when so called “Moss Troopers” lurked around Hadrian’s Wall preying on unwary travellers, it has prevailed ever since.
The Borders remain an area of outstanding natural beauty, but there is also a strong industrial heritage. The reason lies in the abundance of natural resources, principally stone, coal and metals. One of the earliest railways was commissioned by the Duke of Cumberland in 1837, powered by Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive, and used to carry his quarry stones down to the sea and then haul the carriages back up again. The remains of the locomotive sheds are still to be found, with the original works clock set above the main doorway, near Brampton.
Carlisle became a major industrial City in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, a heritage which underpins the skills required to make Chapman bags. The City became a leading centre for textile mills, engineering, food manufacturing and railway transportation. Prominent local firms included Cowans Sheldon, one of the world’s leading marine cranemakers at the time, Carr’s Biscuits and Metal Box, the packaging business. Although much manufacturing has now left the City, the tradition is still maintained by companies like Pirelli, which operates a large specialist tyre factory, and of course John Chapman.