Berwick Coast

As strategically important as the Scottish Borders were (if not more so), during the many historic contests of land between Scotland and England, control of the Berwick Coast once changed hands over a dozen times, in the space of just four-hundred-years. One need not look far to find evidence of this. For one, the county of Berwickshire, lying northeast of Hawick and being part of the Scottish Borders Council Area, no longer contains the town of Berwick. Once known as South Berwick, a wealthy and populous settlement on the estuary of the River Tweed – ceded to Scotland after the Battle of Carham (c.1018CE) – today it is the English town of Berwick-Upon-Tweed: the most northern town in England, and one which still retains a feeling of close affinity to Scotland.

Berwick has long been a strategically important point on the map, and not just for the Scots and English. It was at Lindisfarne (Holy Island), just down the coast from Berwick, at which the Vikings made their first recorded raid. The town, inhabited by Britons in post-Roman times, became then part of Bernicia, then Northumbria, then England, before it passed for the first time into Scottish hands in the early 11th century. Its situation at the mouth of the Tweed, a natural border between the north and south, allowed the port-town to flourish economically, socially, and politically. So much so, that according to William Edington, a bishop and chancellor of England, Berwick was “so populous and of such commercial importance that it might rightly be called another Alexandria, whose riches were the sea and the water its walls” (quoted in The Border Line (2007) by Eric Robson).

During the Anglo-Scottish Wars, control of the area jumped back and forth, either through conquest or secession. (For example, following a failed invasion by William I of Scotland into northern England, Berwick was lost to the English in 1174, only to be sold back to King William by Richard I of England (‘the Lionheart’) less than twenty years later, in order to raise funds for his crusade.) As such, it should be of no surprise that the town and coastline it guarded have provided the setting for many crucially important historic events (the residents of Berwick often receiving the short end of the stick).

In 1291-92, the town was host to Edward I’s infamous arbitration in the contest for the Scottish crown between John Balliol (‘Toom Tabard’) and Robert Bruce, 5th Lord of Annandale (King Robert I’s grandfather). The decision in favour of Balliol was announced in the Great Hall of Berwick Castle on 17th November 1292. In 1296, in response to Edward I’s war with France, Balliol attacked Northern England (Scotland being allied with France); Edward in turn sacked Berwick, killing some twenty-thousand of its inhabitants in the process. Later that year, Edward I returned to Berwick to receive the homage of two-thousand Scottish nobles. A few decades later, Edward’s son, King Edward II, mustered troops on the Berwick Coast in preparation for what would prove to be a decisive defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn. The period after Bannockburn saw countless more occasions of conquest and secession, until Berwick was retaken by England for the last time in 1482. An arm of Sir William Wallace was displayed at Berwick after his execution and quartering on 23rd August 1305.

The Berwick Coast is, unsurprisingly, home to several impressively large and well-fortified castles and keeps. There is, of course, the remains of Berwick Castle, built in the early-13th century, rebuilt in the 1290s, and now in ruin just outside Berwick-Upon-Tweed’s medieval rampart-walls, west of the river. Further south along the Northumberland coast stands the monumental and awe-inspiring Bamburgh Castle, once the site of a Britonic fort, it became the one-time seat of Northumbria’s kings, and a jewel in medieval England’s border defence. On the Scottish side of the Border, there have stood one-hundred-and-twenty-two castles, keeps, and fortified houses in Berwickshire, many situated along the coast and border with England.