The day dawns heavily overcast... so much so that the very sky seems to be inexorably forcing the landscape into a uniform plane more reminiscent of Essex, my home county, than the Scottish Borders. Trouble is I've set my heart upon visiting Cow Castle, seemingly impressive when viewed from White Hill late yesterday afternoon, but its c1,000ft summit currently obscured by a thick, impenetrable wall of grey vapour. What to do? The answer comes to me from Anna and Graham Ritchie's well-thumbed 'Oxford Archaeological Guide to Scotland'... or what's left of it. Head approx north-east toward Romannobridge and Whiteside Hill. Apparently another rather good hillfort and might, perhaps, be clearer. So that was decided upon.
At Romannobridge the B7059 heads south to follow, approximately, the course of Lyne Water, a tributary of the iconic River Tweed, no less. After about a mile I park opposite a church at Newlands Bridge and set off up the signed farm track to its right, heading for Whiteside Farm. Well, wouldn't be a farm track otherwise. If you decide to come hopefully you will see Whiteside Hill rising above to the east (your left), as I later do upon returning to the car... however.... the cloud base is no higher here this morning, forcing me to either rely on the compass or back down. I decide that if I'm unable to reach and identify a bloody great hill fort in mist I should really hang up my boots immediately. Start playing Grand Theft Auto, or something. Fair enough. On we go, then. The track continues past the farm for a fine view of Lyne Water receding into the distance, whereby I veer left (approx east) to ascend - hopefully - to the summit of Whiteside Hill alongside a substantial drystone wall. Before engaging upon the final, very steep ascent, I come across what looks very much to me like the grassy remains of a relatively large, overgrown cairn. Sadly it's not marked on the map and I can find no reference in Canmore.
So, up into the mist we go.... unfortunately not metaphorically, but meteorologically speaking. Eventually the angle of attack eases and then relents, massive ramparts suddenly looming out of nowhere. Granted, not quite the derelict spaceship materialising from the fog in Alien - you know the scene - but no doubt the nearest I'll get to such a Geigeresque otherworldly vibe. These banks are much larger than I anticipated and appear of tri-vallate configuration, with ancillary enclosures to north and south... although I found the latter to be quite difficult to define coherently, possibly since the northern is apparently 'unfinished'. Then again I wouldn't be surprised if the swirling vapour induced a mildly claustrophobic disorientation. There is also an 'cross-bank' upon the col separating Whiteside Hill from White Knowe to the north-east. According to Canmore this latter defensive feature is "45 yds long, consisting of a ditch about 15ft wide with a bank on its SW side. The earthwork is probably contemporary with the pre Roman fort [RCAHMS 1967]".
As I walk the substantial earthworks - well, it makes a welcome change to walk around in circles intentionally - the cloud base begins to peel away, enabling this latter day visitor to appreciate the fantastic landscape context of this top drawer hillfort. Yeah, set overlooking the confluence of Flemington Burn with Lyne Water, I wonder, perhaps with some degree of justification, whether there were other than just military aspects taken into consideration when choosing to establish the enclosure here? Yeah, nicely defensive.... but is there more to it than that? An attempt at inducing some metaphysical protection, too? Is that really a Bronze Age cairn down below?
Whatever, by all accounts people appear to be have been quite taken with Whiteside Hill, a later walled enclosure being erected partly overlying the innermost rampart, presumably following the Roman withdrawal from these Isles. It seems that a final phase of occupation saw a small earthwork being established within this enclosure. I can picture the Dark Age wife now.... "Is that the best you can do. Haven't you heard what the great lord Vortigen has built in the far away land of the Cymry. And I've got to live in this?" Dark Age warrior (mumbling)... "at least his dragons are inside the rock"....
Following on from the excellent Mitchelhill Rings, I guess the White Hill enclosure had an awful lot to live up to in my perception. That, in my opinion, it does not - at least in terms of archaeology - is therefore no great shakes... and certainly no reason not to come and enjoy this well located, highly defensible hilltop. In fact I'd suggest the inherent natural strength of the site, the ground falling sharply away except to the north-east, may well have been the overriding factor in the relatively low-key, insubstantial ramparts to be found here. These, it would appear from excavation, were most probably designed to support a palisade as primary defence. Walking around the site I'm of the opinion that might well have been enough, an assumption the occupiers were no doubt more than qualified enough to make as their lives may well have depended upon it. Much more than I, of course
Anyway, enough of this supposition. According to Canmore the summit of White Hill is crowned by:
"...a fort whose principle lines of enclosure have been timber palisades. These have been supplemented on the shallower slopes around the E, N and W by a dump rampart on which the palisade probably ran, and an external ditch. There is no reason from the visible earthworks to assume that this is an unfinished work...Limited field survey in the interior of the fort has identified....An additional palisaded enclosure... is visible in the interior of the fort, predating the previously recognized palisade [RCAHMS (DCC) 28 March 2002]".
Archaeology aside, White Hill is a fabulous viewpoint, even taking into account today's murky conditions. I tell you these Border hills are really impressing me with their rounded contours and ethereal vibe. Not to mention the fact that almost every one seems to have been the home of people back in the day. OK, slight exaggeration, but a glance at Landranger 72 tells its own story. For example... looking south-east as I eat my lunch, tell tale, regular contours upon the hillside beyond give me cause to refer to the aformentioned map. Yeah, Cow Castle and subsidiary enclosures. Only the three?
Feeling somewhat tired and jaded... as you might expect following the long, long, long drive from Essex... I park below Gosland and follow the farm track toward the Kilbucho valley, the overcast conditions not the best, to be honest. But at least it isn't raining, something that is never welcome upon the first day of a two week wild camp. The track veers right to ascend through trees, a subsequent left hand fork accessing the ruins of a church suggesting a larger resident community in times past. Ignoring this, at least physically, I pass farm buildings to arrive at the foot of Mitchelhill. Guess the 'fort must be up there, then? Not the most inspired of deductions, perhaps, but at least it is accurate.
A short, but tiring scramble later, my mood rises sky high, unlike the low cloud base which resolutely refuses to permit passage to even a solitary ray of sunlight. The swine that it is. How could it be otherwise when faced with such a fine hillfort as this, perched airily upon the eastern flank of White Hill, the summit of which, also crowned by a hillfort, rises to the approx south-west?
According to Canmore the compact, bi-vallate enclosure is a "roughly circular fort measuring internally 175' by 160', with a secondary settlement inside it.... The entrance, measuring 10' in width, is on the SE (RCAHMS 1967)."
It's a great viewpoint, too, no doubt even better than I suppose under clearer conditions. Even today the vistas, particularly of the narrow glen carrying the Mitchelhill Burn between the left-hand brooding flanks of 2,000ft plus Cardon Hill - together with the not far off that Scawdman's Hill - and the lower, but nonetheless substantial enough White Hill (anything but 'white' today, it has to be said), are inspiring. In actual fact so much so that, duly picking up the evocative vibe, I decide to go have a look at the summit of White Hill itself. Hell, why not?