Peles (also spelt ‘peels’) are a form of fortified keep or tower house, peculiar to the lands either side of the Anglo-Scottish border. They were mostly constructed during the war-torn and largely-lawless years in which the Border reivers flourished, from the mid-14th century to around 1600, and were mostly constructed by these self-same reivers.
Pele towers were free-standing buildings, typically of three or four sheer floors, crowned oftentimes with a parapet walk, and in almost every case with an iron basket at their summits, where a smoke or fire signal – for day or night use – was always to hand. Around the towers a barmkin was typically constructed – this being a walled enclosure, in a corner of which would have stood the pele itself.
The primary purpose of peles was defence, though they were also used as watchtowers, and served as status-symbols, too. They could be used both to raise the alarm against the approach of hostile forces, and to shelter those locals allied to the towers’ occupants. Most towers were constructed by reiving families, the lairds of which would use the towers as houses, their vassals often housed in huts either within the barmkin walls, or without them. Following a successful reive, the cattle-rustling bands of borderers could stash their prized ‘kye’ within the barmkin walls (or, of course, reiving families could shelter their livestock within the barmkin to protect them from other thieves). Furthermore, in the (all too common) event that a community need escape the ravages of an enemy party (or army), peles were typically constructed large enough that they could house all local villagers until the danger had passed. In fact, in some areas, ‘vicar’s peles’ were constructed for the use of the whole community.
Despite the many bloody centuries during which these peles were captured, re-captured, razed and rebuilt, only to be razed again, many fine examples of Border peles do still survive. Some of the better-preserved towers in the Borders include: Smailholm Tower, Fatlips Castle, Dryhope Tower, and Branxholme Castle.