Pirn Hill Fort
Tablets of Stone
They flank the lower reaches of Leithen Water like two sentries on watch. Caerlee Hill and Pirn Hill, the latter better known in Innerleithen as Windy Knowe, are not particularly high but the summits between them nevertheless give commanding views of the Tweed valley in two directions, plus Leithen valley northwards and the vale of the Quair as far as Kirkhouse. Archaeological research suggests the tops of these hills were once fortified and occupied by Iron Age Celts (roughly 500BC to 500AD), evidence that people have been living in the vicinity of Innerleithen for over two thousand years.If names like “Lee Pen”, “Caerlee” and possibly “Leithen” is any guide these early inhabitants were of similar stock to Strathclyde Britons with a language similar to Welsh. They were known to the colonising Romans as Selgovae and were less compliant to Roman rule than the trading Votadini who held land east of Newstead. There were temporary military camps at Eshiels and on the level ground to the west of Innerleithen cemetery, possibly erected by Agricola’s troops around AD80. It is not too difficult to imagine the legionary sentries keeping a wary eye while the Celtic warriors glared down at them from the top of Curly (Caerlee Hill).
Both Curly and Windy Knowe give excellent views of Innerleithen. Though photographers of the past seemed to have favoured Caerlee I now prefer the closer and better all round view of the town afforded by the summit of Pirn Hill. It should be remembered, of course, that until relatively recently the hill was covered in forestry woodland as far as the outer ramparts of the fort, but now the cleared hillside allows a much more extensive vista. Old photographs show the grassy hilltop encircled by woods and giving an impression of a medieval monk’s tonsure.
John A. Anderson remembered the dense woodland of the 1880s when the trees extended from Windy Knowe to the level land on Pirn estate and shut out the light from the Walkerburn road: “One might leave the gloaming on the clear road above the quarry, and at once plunge into the blackness of the night, and the soughing of the wind through the trees and the eerie hoot of the early hunting hoolet tried the nerves of imaginative youth, and the lamps of Hillend when they came into view were hailed with a feeling of relief.” At the foot of the hillside descendents of those trees today provide a recreational area for the children at St. Ronan’s Primary School.
In 1999 the top of Windy Knowe was opened as an “official viewpoint”. A circle of cairns the circumference of a typical Iron Age dwelling marked the site and four were surmounted by panels describing the history of Innerleithen and the importance of the river system to its location. The previous year school children had been fascinated watching helicopters from 3 Flight, Army Air Corps (based at RAF Leuchars) transporting the stone for the cairns which had been brought by road to nearby Nether Pirn Farm. This was done to prevent damage to the ancient fort by the use of wheeled vehicles. The project, part of a scheme to improve visitor facilities in the Tweed valley, was achieved through a collaboration between Scottish Borders Council, Forest Enterprise, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Borders Enterprise, Scottish Borders Tourist Board (with funding from the European Regional Development Fund) and Innerleithen, Traquair and Glen Community Council. Tommy Cairns from Selkirk built the cairns.
About three years later the slabs and information boards on top of the cairns were replaced by a set of exquisitely carved sandstone tablets. Innerleithen artist and sculptor Mary Kenny was commissioned for this work and, in 2005, her musician brother John, from Edinburgh, caused the historic site to reverberate with the sound of a reproduction carynx, the powerful war trumpet of the Celtic peoples.
Lichen is only just beginning to very slightly soften the sharp lines of the carvings etched on the seven sandstone blocks surmounting the cairns. Two thousand years of Innerleithen history is superbly outlined by the artwork inscribed in stone. Look to the south towards the Roman camp and immediately to your front are depictions of a Celtic warrior and Roman legionary in fearless confrontation, with the margins of the carving illustrated by symbols and artefacts of the opposing cultures.
Moving clockwise the next panel shows a family gathered round a fire to receive the wisdom of a Druid, one of the mysterious pagan holy men believed by the Romans to wield tremendous power in Celtic society. Caerlee Hill, minus its twentieth century carbuncle, is shown in the background. Round the edge are items of value such as axe and arrow heads and a torc (a necklace or armband made of twisted metal), which have been discovered in cauldrons such as that shown in the bottom right corner. These vessels were often buried in a mere or river, possibly as votive offerings to their gods.
The next tablet on the right reminds the viewer that the surrounding landscape was once a forest of oak, hazel, wych elm and rowan. The leaves of these trees are clearly delineated in the margins of the stone by the artist. We also see the erstwhile denizens of the woods – bear, wolf and wild boar – long since eradicated by the most fearsome predator of all – Homo sapiens.
Moving right we see that the land has been cleared and the people are now leading a pastoral existence. Reflecting on the absolute importance of the river system this panel is dominated by a broad stream bisecting it diagonally. The river as a food source is aptly illustrated with a magnificent carving of a salmon lording over lesser fish such as trout and eel. Also shown are markings like those found on the Runic Cross, a reminder of the coming of Christianity brought here by itinerant Celtic monks like St. Ronan.
For a thousand years the hamlet of Innerleithen seems to have changed little until it gained a reputation in the late 18th century as a spa. Central to the next tablet is a posh lady imbibing the health-giving waters with a small etching of St. Ronan casting the Deil to the netherworld to remind us of the source of this bounty. Association with literary giants James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott served to increase the fame of the expanding town. The conversion to a Victorian industrial community is deftly marked with the railway along the bottom and workers pouring out of the gate of a mill at “lowsin’ time”.
The illustrations on the sixth panel straddle the 19th and 20th centuries. The three water wheels meticulously depicted are reminder of the many once powered by the current of the mill lade, which still flows from the golf course to the River Tweed. The artist also uses space on this tablet to remind us of the world wars that impacted our town when the mills switched to producing uniforms. A woman sits at her work – the men were away in the forces. A spitfire sets the period and poppies are a reminder of lives lost in the conflict.
The seventh and final sandstone tablet shows a scene that will hopefully remain timeless, reflecting a continuum from the past through the present and into the immediate future. In the centre is the Dux Boy representing St. Ronan, together with the Dux Girl and the Lantern Bearer – principals in the town’s annual Cleikum Ceremonies. Sash girls are arrayed along the top margin and monks occupy the bottom. The smiling faces of the crowd on the left of the picture evoke Innerleithen’s tremendous community spirit. The pipe and silver bands, essential elements in the enjoyment of all the town’s festivities, are represented by figures in the bottom left-hand corner while above them the torch-light procession wends its way up Caerlee Hill. A very sardonic looking Deil seems totally unconcerned about the fate that awaits him. But then, he’s been at hundreds of Games Weeks!
The view from the top of Windy Knowe has always been worth the exertion required to get there. Add the artistry of the tablets of stone and your efforts are doubly rewarded.
Ted McKie, May 2011