A solitary candle flickers in the topmost window of the stone tower. A faint red glow outlines the distant ridge, silhouetting a bank of horsemen against the sky. They thunder closer, intent on plunder . . . even murder.
We are at the Tullie House museum in Carlisle, England, viewing a sound and light show depicting a typical border raid by the Scottish reivers, or plunderers--the type of nighttime guerilla action that occurred from the 12th through the mid-17th centuries as Scottish clans, usually bitter enemies, joined forces, in this case, to repel English occupation.
The theater lights rise, illuminating the audience, and we note that the sign-in book is dominated by the signatures of visitors whose surnames are the same as many of the major players in those Anglo-Scottish border feuds that transformed law-abiding citizens by day into terrorists by night.
So it is that my husband, Boyd, and I discover that we are not the only ones on a foray into the past.
Our geographical destination is the area referred to as the Borders: the chunk of much-fought-over land defined loosely by Carlisle, England, on the south; Berwick, England, on the northeast and Dalkeith, Scotland (just south of Edinburgh), on the north. It is countryside once roamed by my forefathers, the Bells and the Maxwells. Not atypical Scottish border families, they were ruffians and cattle rustlers who in the 17th century were exiled by the British government to Northern Ireland.
A generation or so later, these tough and resolute people with strong clan loyalties sought their fortunes in North America; in my case, in western Pennsylvania. Fittingly, one of their kin, Neil Armstrong, was the first man on the moon.
I have come here to explore a culturally rich and beautiful area that is little known to Americans, but also to probe my family's gnarled roots. Along the way we will visit a storybook world of Roman ruins, castles, abbeys and enchanting villages.
Having vicariously experienced a typical border raid, Boyd and I wander across the street to explore Carlisle Castle, built by the Normans in 1092, and the nearby Carlisle Cathedral, notable for its medieval carvings, stained-glass windows and altar, where Sir Walter Scott was married in 1797.
Holding even greater fascination for us, Carlisle is headquarters for tours to Hadrian's Wall. From Solway Firth on the west to the River Tyne on the east, the 73-mile stone wall was built in 122-128 by Roman emperor Hadrian to protect Roman Britain from northern tribes. It tumbles across land at once desolate and felicitous. Except for mournful cries of curlews and relentless winds that whip across this archeological treasure, the surrounding moors are mute.
Nearly 2,000 years after the Romans left, their preserved forts and signal towers attest to their engineering skills. At each major excavation, a small museum houses relics revealing how the Romans made themselves at home in a harsh land. They had comfortable barracks, hospitals, granaries, shops, inns, bath houses and latrines. With so many examples of technology lying about, historians wonder why the barbaric natives learned nothing from their progressive conquerors and continued to live in primitive fashion for centuries afterward.
Boyd and I catch the next train to rendezvous with our genealogist-hostess, May McKerrill, addressed formally as the Lady Hillhouse (pronounced HILL iss), and her Scottish chieftain husband, Charles, referred to as Sir Charles or Lord Hillhouse.
The train rockets north from Carlisle, roughly 100 miles north of Liverpool, past Gretna into Scotland, giving us a foretaste of lovely Borders' scenery. The countryside is a quilt of grassy mounds speckled with grazing sheep, accented by rough hedges, meandering streams, stone fences and whitewashed cottages of bygone ages.
This is ideal walking territory. Hadrian's Wall marches through fresh, rugged countryside, bounded on the north by forests, parkland and barren crags rising nearly 2,000 feet. To its south, the Cumberland Plain is dotted with grazing sheep, ancient castles and crumbling abbeys, where monks once mass-produced beautiful wools for local use and export. Naworth, Featherstone, Corby, Toppin and Bellister castles lie along a 10-mile stretch parallel to the wall. Casual hikers and serious backpackers dot the roadsides, fortified with sturdy walking sticks, binoculars and rain gear.
A hiker-friendly dismantled railroad track leads from Lockerbie to Lochmaben, five miles to the west. Beyond its village green overlooking quaint brick and stone cottages, Lochmaben Castle, site of the boyhood home of Scottish King Robert the Bruce, who won his country's independence from England, lies in ruins.
Minutes later, we detrain in Lockerbie. Except for the stationmaster, we are alone. The late afternoon solitude is heightened by the adjacent barren hillock, site of the 1988 Pan Am explosion.
Momentarily, a Renault station wagon pulls up, the driver clad in trousers of the McKerrill clan's unmistakable blue tartan. Introductions aside, Sir Charles loads us and our luggage into his car for the 10-minute ride west to Lochmaben, 17 miles northwest of Carlisle.
Taking a cue from other Borders aristocrats bent on weathering a depressed British economy, May and Charles welcome guests into Magdalene House, their solid-looking brick dwelling named for the village's patron saint. The cellars of the house date back to the 14th century. First occupied by priests serving the now-deserted adjacent Roman Catholic church, it became a Presbyterian manse after the Reformation.
Resplendent with McKerrill heirlooms, Magdalene House warmly embraces guests eager to plumb their past. Beyond the entry hall's circular stairway, a parlor opens onto a walled garden abutting the church graveyard. Caressed by sunshine, its lush plantings offer food for thought over a steaming pot of Earl Grey tea.
At 7:30 each evening, May serves dinner in the stately dining room, its walls lavish with red velvet flocking. Candlelight romanticizes massive gilt-framed portraits of past lords Hillhouse--all clad in the clan's distinctive blue tartan--and their elegant ladies.
Magdalene House is large enough to serve several parties of ancestor seekers, yet small enough to accommodate all guests eager to join May on her daily treks. Mornings at 9, sated by a hearty English breakfast, guests scramble into May's station wagon for an excursion through villages and pastures dotted with ruined castles and towers marking ancient clan and family sites.
Genealogy is taken quite seriously here. Residents of ancestral farmhouses and towers throughout the area can recite their clan lineage by heart. Voluminous church records confirm their accuracy.
May has studied the history of each clan, and can recite facts, figures and lore. She says that my Bells are among the most visible of the Border families, with their shield of three bells still to be seen etched on gravestones and above numerous doorways throughout the area.
Our Bell country encounter begins the moment May hustles us into her car for a short drive to Dumfries, where, centuries earlier, poet Robert Burns lived in Burns House, a modest building where he died in 1796. (The Burns family mausoleum, where Burns is buried, is in St. Michael's churchyard across the road.) Today, as the Burns museum, it contains portraits of Burns family members and original copies of his work penned in his hand.
After perusing its relics, we contemplate more history at the Old Bridge House museum on the River Nith. Directly across the water is the village of Maxwell Town, made famous by the song named after one of Burns' loves, Annie Laurie. Later, from high within a refurbished windmill, the Burgh Museum, we view Dumfries as a town of red sandstone buildings and vast expanses of parkland. Little has changed since my ancestors made their way through these thriving, narrow streets--except for a huge Safeway market that anchors the main shopping mall on the edge of town.
On the road once again, we glimpse frequent traces of early Roman settlements and thick forests as we motor eastward. Beyond Lockerbie, May abandons the modern speedway for back roads that meander through tiny settlements at Nithsdale and Annandale to an ancient church dominating the village of Middlebie.
Now the raincoats and boots we packed reluctantly prove their worth as we slog through tall grass to inspect the cemetery thick with Bell gravestones. Although many are eroded and chipped, the etchings of three Bells are distinct on each.
The cold, steady rain slackens to a drizzle as we press on to two Bell homes dating to the 14th century. A direct view of one--the prosperous horse farm at Bankshill (this is horse country and some of the stables offer riding)--is blocked by a high knoll; the second is secluded beyond a narrow lane and a wobbly plank bridge spanning a deep gorge and waterfall.
Our camera clicks steadily and I quickly fill the pages of my notebook as May chauffeurs us over the scenic hills and dales, once vast battlefields on which my ancestors fought to defend their lands.
As we drive, May recounts tales of local intrigue, none more stirring than that of fair Helen Irving of Kirkconnel, whose brief life was bitterly entwined with my Bell line in the early 16th century. The daughter of a local land baron, Helen was hailed as the loveliest girl in the land. When her parents offered her hand to handsome, wealthy Richard Bell, heir to Blacket House, everyone declared it a perfect match.
Helen, however, had a secret love, Adam Fleming. Aided by an understanding servant, the sweethearts met secretly until the fateful evening when Bell materialized from the shadows bearing a crossbow. At the moment he aimed, Helen threw herself between the two men.
As Helen lay dying, Fleming chased his rival to the banks of the River Kirtle and pierced him with a sword. Fleming fled to France, but could not dismiss Helen's ghostly cry. Heartbroken, he returned to die draped across her grave and was buried beside her. The tragic event was later recounted in a poem by Sir Walter Scott. Its final verse:
I wish I were where Helen lies
Night and day on me she cries,
And I am weary of the skies,
For her sake that died for me.
After Bell's death, Blacket House was passed down to subsequent generations, but not without angst. Every resident since has reported the presence of Richard's evil ghost, which is generally credited with orchestrating family misfortune, from lost love to financial failure.
Today, Blacket House is recognized as the Bell family seat because it was the home of the clan's last recognized chief, William (Redcloak) Bell.
Near the village of Eaglesfield, the tower is all that remains of the original L-shaped Blacket House. Situated on 13 acres of lawn, garden and woodland bounded on the east by the River Kirtle, the surviving tower stretches to four floors, its walls and stairs intact, its topmost window an ideal lookout.
May cautions that the owners of the adjacent manor house, constructed last century, dislike cameras and prying eyes. But even as she speaks, she eases off the road onto the Blacket House driveway.
Parking in front of the tower, she urges, "While I'm chatting with the family, photograph everything you can. The pictures you snap could be the last taken here by a Bell descendant for many years."
Heeding May's advice, I photograph the grounds while she converses animatedly with the owner of the house. I am sitting serenely in the car when she slips into the driver's seat and fires the engine.
"That confirms it," she announces. "Bells are banned from the property except by advance appointment." She winks broadly. "Of course, I didn't say a word about your Bell connection."
Later, warmed by May's dinner of local roast lamb, herbed vegetables and lemon pudding, we anticipate a restful sleep.
Since Scottish nights are notably damp and brisk, we close our bedroom windows to avoid lighting the gas heater. Snuggled beneath the down quilt, I nod off, unaware that Boyd's fresh-air fanaticism is at work.
Halfway into a dream, I hear a crash. Then a faint cry for help.
Still groggy, I follow the voice into the bathroom. Boyd is standing spread-eagle on the windowsill. How did he get there, I wonder, and why is he gripping the upper half of the window?
Only after I climb up beside him do I grasp the true picture: In search of fresh air he rose to open the window. But the upper half of the casement fell parallel to the lower, wedging his fingers between.
Help arrives in the form of our vigilant hosts, who pry the heavy frame off Boyd's fingers.
Sir Charles surveys the window, shaking his head. "I can't imagine why the cable broke," he mutters, jaw clenched. Then May speaks, her voice joking, I think. "It's the Bell ghost! He was watching from the tower. He does mischief to declare himself the last proven chief of the Bell clan."
Boyd and I exchange glances. Who are we to dispute Scottish ken?
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GUIDEBOOK: Borders Music
Getting there: American, British Air, United, Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic and Delta fly nonstop from LAX to London. Northwest and Continental fly direct, with one change of planes. Lowest round-trip, advance-purchase fares start at about $860.
BritRail leaves London's Kings Cross station for Lockerbie, Scotland, several times a day; journey takes about 5 1/2 hours one way. Round-trip fares start at about $155. For schedule information, call BritRail at (212) 575-2667.
Where to stay: Balcary Bay Hotel, Shore Road, Auchencairn, Dumfrieshire, near Castle Douglas. Country house, built in 1625, in garden setting with golf, hiking, bird-watching; rates about $80 per person, per night, including breakfast; tel. 011-44-1556-640217, fax 011-44-1556-640272.
Dryfesdale Hotel, Lockerbie, Dumfriesshire, Scotland; 15 rooms, fine dining; rates $85 per person, per room, including breakfast; tel. 011-44-1576-202427, fax 011-44-1576-204187.
Forte Posthouse, Carlisle, England; 93 rooms, swimming pool, exercise gym, restaurant; rates $135; (800) 225-5843.
Magdalene House, Lochmaben, near Dumfries; rates about $40 per person, per night, including breakfast; dinner $25 per person, including wine. Genealogical tours available to groups; tel. 011-44-1387-810439.
For more information: British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176-0799; tel. (800) 462-2748 or (212) 986-2200; fax (212) 986-1188.