If you type the name Fairhaugh (the destination of our strange winter walk in the Cheviot hills) into your search engine the search results describe a holiday cottage set in the beautiful and remote Cheviot Hills. I have often wondered what it would be like to stay there. It is very remote with no electricity. Despite this it may appeal to those of us who enjoy comfortable adventure.
Haugh is a Scottish word meaning a low-lying meadow by the side of a river. The word maybe originates from old English healh which meant corner of land. It is also very like the word holh which is an old english word for hole. Fairhaugh stands on the river Usway on an area of low meadow. The Fair in its name is self descriptive.
In years gone by it would probably have been a shepherd’s cottage. There are many tales of hardship about the people who have lived in this region and Fairhaugh has its share. Around 1874 an avalanche nearly crushed the old house. The shepherd who lived there at that time was out. From the crest of one of the hills on his route home, he noticed that during his absence a large area of snow had slipped. The avalanche had demolished an out house and hay stack but had stopped within a few feet of his cottage.
Over the years during times of heavy snowfall there have been other similar incidents. Although not all of them had such fortunate outcomes.
There are numerous accounts of mysterious goings on in this area.
There are countless tales of travellers becoming lost in the thick mists that descended onto the hills and hung in the valleys. When the rivers were in flood it would have been dangerous to attempt a crossing anywhere other than over a bridge. The main bridges across the Coquet were at Warkworth, Felton and Rothbury. This left a large area of inhospitable land to cross. This could have been perilous for anyone without local knowledge.
The area was therefore well suited to the development of the innocent whisky trade. Whisky stills were easily hidden in the wild landscape. To anyone who was unfamiliar with the terrain it would have been difficult to navigate. Because of this the Whisky stills often remained undetected by the authorities. Smugglers sold this contraband at the farmhouses up and down the valley. They carried it in kegs and large stone-ware bottles known as ‘grey hens.’ It is said that the smugglers were so confident of their natural concealment that the raw materials for the manufacture of the whisky were carried on a cart in the open and during daylight hours.
While I was researching this post, I found this piece of writing in D. D. Dixon’s Upper Coquetdale, in which the author himself quotes from another source about the borderlands…
“There is an attraction in these billowy uplands which increases the better we know them; beauty in the mighty stretches of green pasture, sloping upwards and backwards, as often as not vanishing into grey mist in the acres of waving brake, the many coloured rocks and boulders, the flashing streams and burns, the flowers wild birds, less wild here than in the peopled lowlands. Then there is the silence and all-aloneness of the borderlands, you may walk all day and see no one except some solitary fisher, or a shepherd and his collies on the fellside; above all, perhaps there is the consciousness that you are treading on historic ground, where each hill could tell of some fierce conflict, and where each valley and stream is associated with the loves, the passions, and the death throes of buried races.
(Cheviot Mountains Lone – Field, Oct 3rd, 1885.)”
This quote seems to encompass everything I feel when I visit this area. There is so much emotion tied up in this landscape one wonders if it still lingers – “above all, perhaps there is the consciousness that you are treading on historic ground,”
During the 1500s the families of the borderlands lived by their own rules. Marauding Border Reivers carried out fierce raids, on their neighbours stealing sheep and cattle. Reiver gangs extorted money from the local farmers in return for protection. It appears that some border families lost their sense of kinship and nationality so much so that they almost became a singular race. Blood spilt upon the blood of ancestors across the hills and valleys. This harsh period in Northumberland history did not come to an end until the Union of the Crowns in 1603.
During the Roman occupation there was a military fort at Chew Green. The remains of standing- stones and cairns studded around the hills bear witness to the lives of a pre historic people who also lived in or had a close association to this archaic landscape.
The area known as upper Coquetdale is one of those places where the ancient past, the historical past and the present mingle readily. The area still holds so much of the primitive it is easy to imagine life in other times.