Society-funded Research

The Community of the Twelve Towers of Rule

An archival study into the development and everyday life of a rural Borders community

Professor Jane Bower FSAScot on behalf of the Campaign for a Scottish Borders National Park, received a Society of Antiquaries of Scotland grant to allow for the commissioning of archival research on the Community of the Twelve Towers of Rule.  

Amongst the great lordships of the Anglo-Scottish Border that first emerge into the historical record in the second quarter of the twelfth century, Rule or Bedrule is perhaps the most obscure. Although the archaeological remains of later pre-Roman, Roman, and early medieval settlement that are distributed throughout the uplands that flank the valley indicate a deep history of human settlement there, our understanding of settlement chronology, patterns and hierarchies is scant. Even the history of this district during the centuries of Anglian Northumbrian domination after c.600 AD is a blank, despite its proximity to both the early monastic centre at Old Melrose and the slightly later minster church at Jedburgh. The valley of the Rule Water – a clearly-defined territorial block contains all of the environmental elements needed to support an agricultural population.  It is likely to have continuous settlement and probably formed the estate of a man of rank throughout the era of the Late Antique Little Ice Ageand the sixth-century plague pandemic. The resulting population collapse and the readvancement of human settlement in the eleventh century, can be glimpsed in the shadowy figures who emerge in the fragmentary parchment record soon after 1100. 

The ruin of a 16th century stone towerhouse with only three sides remaining. Set in a grassy landscape with rolling green hills behind

The ruined Fulton Tower about two miles south of Bedrule

Bedrule appears in this period in the hands of Bethoc, who was possibly a daughter of the late eleventh-century Scottish king, Domnall III Bán, the younger brother of Mael Coluim III. She was married first to one of the important Northumbrian nobles of the region, Uhtred son of Waltheof, who also held part of North Tynedale in what is now western Northumberland, and secondly to Radulf son of Dunegal, lord of northern Nithsdale. Bethoc and her second husband were joint – but relatively minor – patrons of Jedburgh Abbey, to which they granted land at Rulecastle in the 1140s, suggesting that the lands of Rule perhaps formed part of her dower but were more likely her personal heritage. 

Research into the historical development of the named sites in the valley has been complicated by the uneven spread of the past historiography. Whilst there is a nineteenth-century family history of the Rutherford family – of variable reliability and quality – the other family whose presence was well established along the Rule Water, the Turnbulls, has not been the subject of systematic study. This unevenness in the secondary record has rendered it difficult to secure an overview understanding of the main historical trends or even to catch sight of some of the key properties and the descent of property holding. Sixteenth-century references to Bedrule Castle do appear to refer to the property possessed by the Turnbulls on the east side of the river just north of the church, but there is a question mark over the pre-1300 caput’s location. Only excavation can confirm if this building was the location of a new caput provided for the lordship in the great shake-up in property-holding that followed the Bruce victory in the first wars. In that redistribution, much of the local heritage in the Borders passed into the hands of Sir James Douglas, lord of Douglas, and his successors. Following the outbreak of the second phase of Anglo-Scottish conflict in 1332/3 the Rule Valley lay in that part of southern Scotland that was taken into English hands by gift of King Edward Balliol and the Bruce-supporting Douglases were dispossessed, at least in theory. It was not until Jedburgh Castle was retaken in 1409 that Douglas control over the lordship of Bedrule was secured and consolidated. It was through Douglas patronage that the Turnbulls seem to have secured a substantial piece of landed property that was to form the basis of their barony of Bedrule into the seventeenth century. Although it remained under the overarching superior lordship of the Douglas earls into the middle of the fifteenth century, the Turnbulls began to settle Bedrule with their own kinsmen, providing for junior branches of their expanding family with portions of the greater territory. It is in this period after 1409, therefore, that the fragmentation into the multiple smaller holdings gathered pace. 

Long brown grass in the foreground, a valley stretches off into the distance with rolling green hills dotted with evergreen plantations on either side

A view over Rulewater from Wauchope Rigg

While the above introduction provides only a barebones narrative for the period down to c.1450, the historical record for the four centuries after 1100 upon which it is based is extremely fragmentary and enables only a bare narrative of ownership at the top levels of the landholding hierarchy to be seen. While greater depth can be added to discussion of the emergence of the parish units in the valley and some indication of the overall landholding patterns, the physical landscape of lordship and especially the residences that formed the centres of administrative, economic and judicial power locally can barely be glimpsed. Much can be implied from the fragments but the results will always remain conjectural. Consequently, the discussion that follows the early period is focused on the post-1500 period when the documentary record becomes slightly more abundant and the spread of forms of evidence – letters and reports as well as charters of landholding – permit us to see the local structures of settlement and lordship with slightly more clarity. The emphasis, however, is on slightly, for despite deeply-entrenched local and relatively modern traditions, the castles and towers of the valley remain largely elusive. The next section of the report addresses that question of tradition and tackles the historiography of the Rule valley, from its first emergence in the narrative histories of the later sixteenth century down to the later twentieth century. It explores the nature of the presentation of the valley and its reputation and examines how the later eighteenth- and earlier nineteenth-century accounts have influenced more modern local traditions and wider popular perceptions of a profoundly militarised landscape stretching from Spittal-on-Rule south to Wauchope and the head of the valley. The following section works through the record evidence for the places of importance in the valley that have left an impression in the formal documentation, looking to construct outline histories for the identifiable sites. Wherever possible, specific references to buildings are highlighted, but in most cases the formulaic and usually legalistic formats of the sources are concerned with the generalities of what comprised the social entity of a landed estate and the building at its core is often present as little more than a concept rather than a physical reality. The final section of the report comprises an appendix of documentary material from which this analysis has been assembled and a series of brief observations on the pre-1500 period from primary sources. 

Thanks to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s generous co-funding of this research there is now a fuller understanding of the economy, society and culture of a rural Scottish Borders community in the late mediaeval period. This fills a critical gap in interpretation of the mainly archaeological evidence already collected as part of the Twelve Towers of Rule Programme, project managed by the Campaign for a Scottish Borders National Park.

The full report will shortly be available at https://scottishbordersnationalpark.scot, Richard Oram & Tom Turpie, “The Twelve Towers of Rule; Historical Evaluation”. 

Thanks are due to The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Scottish Borders Council and The Campaign for a Scottish Borders National Park for co-funding the project, and to Roger Curtis of HES for advice. 

The ruin of a 16th century stone towerhouse with only three sides remaining. Set in a grassy landscape with rolling green hills behind