Towering appeal

The house I visited with a 14th century peel tower still standing. The slits, through which residents would have fired arrows to defend themselves against their enemies, are clearly visible at the top.

As part of my travels recently I had the pleasure of visiting a house that still had an in-tact peel tower, a squarish fortified construction over three floors, with the third being open to the elements. Constructed in the 14th century, it was an essential tool for protection against any invaders, particularly the Scots, who regularly marched south in their quest to gain independence from the English in the 13th and 14th centuries. They are a particular feature of the north of England and Scotland, and especially prevalent along the border counties. Having said that, not many original full towers still exist, because when James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, uniting the Scottish and English crowns, he ordered that they be destroyed as a symbol of the end of conflict. Many ruins now dot the landscape along the border.

Sometimes called a ‘pele’ tower, this building is like a small fortified castle, built specifically to aid defence. Often over several floors, the windowless ground floor would usually be used for storage, holding enough supplies to withstand a sustained siege, but also with room to keep livestock while under attack. The first floor would usually be a kitchen and dining room, and any subsequent floors would be living and sleeping quarters. The walls were incredibly thick, some up to eight feet, and the upper floors could only be accessed by a ladder which would be drawn up when necessary.

In the example that I saw, which was attached to a private house in Bolton-on-Swale, the top floor had no roof, but was surrounded by a high wall which would allow the residents to stay shielded while keeping a bird’s eye view on what was going on for miles around. Each of the four walls had two narrow slits integrated into them so that arrows could be fired down on any marauding enemies.

I did wonder how these towers came across their name, and pondered the question when I visited my family. As usual, my brother put forward an interesting suggestion. The top floor, he said, was equipped with a bell, and when the enemy was spotted approaching, the alarm would be raised by the peels of the bell ringing out across the surrounding land. The warning would be heard by nearby residents who would be alerted and so able to prepare themselves, and if they too owned a peel tower, they would sound their own bell, and so the message would be relayed from village to village.

However, I also read that the very early versions of these towers would have been topped by a tall fence called a palisade which was made from wooden spikes called ‘pales’ and that is where the words ‘peel’ and ‘pele’ come from. So which is right?

My research also revealed that it wasn’t just bells that were used to sound the alarm. Some homeowners would light fires at the top of the towers which would have the same effect as lighting a beacon at the top of hill, and the flames could be seen from miles around, warning your allies that the opponents were approaching.

Obviously, peel towers were not owned by your average man, but were the preserve of rich English landowners and Scottish lairds, and in later centuries, when the threats of invasion had disappeared, these towers became a symbol of wealth and were added on to a country house as a display of status, its original purpose no longer being necessary.

In my dad’s column from 27th June 1981, he talks about the Yorkshire dialect word ‘lair’ and I wondered if it was connected to the word ‘laird’ but it seems not. Laird means ‘landed proprietor’  and is the Scottish version of ‘Lord’ with no apparent no connection to our dialect word at all. On the other hand, ‘lair’ in Old English meant ‘bed’ or ‘resting place’, and similar words exist in Old Norse, Dutch and German. Barns would have a space at one end for the labourers to sleep on a wooden platform strewn with hay or straw. It was often separated by a wooden partition and was known as a ‘lair’.

Over time, the barns themselves were referred to as ‘lairs’ by Yorkshire folk, although the word has largely fallen out of use now. Unless you know different?

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd July and the Gazette & Herald on 30th June  2021