Battle of Hornshole

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In 1514 a skirmish took place at Hornshole, a few miles out of Hawick, when English soldiers were pillaging the area which was still recovering from the disaster of Flodden. Local youth (most of Hawick’s men were killed at Flodden) rode out from the town, fought the soldiers and won, something which is still celebrated in Hawick every year through various ceremonies during the Common Riding.

The seven-hundred strong band of unlikely allies whom chased Lord Dacre and his brothers back over the border in November 1513, would no doubt have dispersed into Hawick and its surrounding valleys, spreading word of his campaign of “sword and fire”, prepared to protect themselves and their kin to the last.

Sclaterford was an embarrassment to Lord Dacre and his reputation, an incident he’d be keen not to repeat or in future report to his superiors. He had other worries to contend with, first and foremost the charge of illicit meetings with Lord Home. Most of the prisoners taken in the aftermath of Flodden were ransomed or exchanged between October 1513 and February 1514, and it would certainly make sense for Dacre and Home, as Warden-General and Lord Chamberlain respectively, to be in contact with one another. Three such meetings are believed to have occurred over that period, with Dacre admitting to seeing Home in February 1514 at “Coklawe for redress…for the ransoming and getting to liberty their kynnesmen”; ‘Coklawe’ perhaps being Hawick’s forgotten castle at Ormiston (see The Hawick Paper, May 4, 2018).

And although the Dacres were one of the major landowners in Tudor England, Lord Thomas was carefully watched and occasionally restrained by Henry VIII for his questionable allegiances. The rates he received in his role were inferior to medieval wages, and it took years of loyal service to the crown for him to achieve an annual income of more than £1500, making him latterly one of the wealthiest peers of the realm.

As stated last week, the break-up of Lord Dacre’s raiding party - which until that point had proven measurably successful - bought the Borders breathing space when it was most needed.

Hawick had been established as a burgh of barony in 1511 when James IV granted a charter of novodamus to Sir William Douglas of Drumlanrig, removing any doubt about who owned the newly-elevated town and its common lands. Sir William had been slain at Flodden, and his successor James - a hot-headed teenager - would not inherit the Barony of Hawick (because of his age) until after the Battle of Hornshole; even then he required special dispensation from the Council of Regency.

Without a baron, the key decisions around defence and arms would have fallen upon the shoulders of the town’s magistrates and burgesses (or freemen), and Hawick was well defended by the baron’s tower – referred to in 1507 as “turrim edificatam burgo de Hawic inter pontes” ie the tower built in Hawick between the bridges – and other stone fortifications, making it an unlikely target in the short-term.

No major raids or forays enter the written record between November 1513 and May 1514, during which time Lord Dacre would have been able to rest his battle-weary men, gather reinforcements, and tug at the state’s purse strings. In a letter sent to the Lords of Council at London, dated May 17, 1514, he reports: “That inasmuch as I am Warden of the Marches, and has the hole authorite in my hands under the King’s grace, the Scottes have, and daily doth distress the King’s bordours and subgietts, without any great hurte is done again unto them.” The underlying tone of the message was clear; here was a man infuriated by the nous and skill of the Border Reivers, who continued their way of life right under his nose.

It was in this spirit of vengeance that a fresh campaign of terror began in early May 1514. Lord Dacre was keen to impress upon his superiors that he was still able to execute his duties, noting: “There never was so mekill myschefe, robbery, spoiling and vengeance in Scotland as there is nowe, without hope of remedye, which I pray our Lord Gode to continewe.” For every sheep or kye taken by the Scots, one or two hundred were taken in kind by his men, and six times as many towns and homes were burned on the Scottish side of the border.

The traditional date of the riding of the marches suggests that the Battle of Hornshole took place near the end of May, although the letter from Dacre describing English raids was written on May 17 and the full moon when raids often took place was around May 8 in the Julian calendar.

The letter also provides us with the historical backdrop to Hornshole, detailing the raiding party’s destructive route through the Borders: “Along the Liddall (twelve miles) were one hundred ploughs, the Ludder (six miles) forty, in the two Carlangriggs [Teviothead] forty, along the Ewse (eight miles) one hundred and forty, the Teviot (from Branksholme to Ewse Doores (eight miles) eighty, the Borthuike (eight miles from Borthwykemouth to Craikecross) one hundred, the Ale (from Askrige [Ashkirk] to Elmartour [Alemoor Tower]) fifty lies all,” describing that “all, and every of them, waist now, and noo corne sawne upon none of the said grounds.”

These were Douglas-held lands, and at Branxholme, Lord Dacre’s command was just three miles from the door of the baron’s tower; by now the inhabitants of Hawick would have been well aware of the number and strength of the enemy. Any record of the raid stops at Ashkirk, a barony in its own right and prior to the Reformation a place of at least equal importance to Hawick; this was after all the home of the Bishop’s Palace, a country retreat owned by the Diocese of Glasgow that would be a fruitful target for any budding reiver.

Quite why the raid stopped here is unknown, but the likelihood is that this was another successful foray, and Lord Dacre’s men had simply overstretched their supply lines and were a step too far from their bases in Redesdale and Tynedale. Lord Dacre, as was custom, would likely have divided his men into smaller companies, one or two hundred strong, taking alternate routes back over the border. The most direct route, one followed on previous raids, was in a roughly south-easterly diagonal over Synton Moss and Groundistone Heights, via Alton and Courthill, to the banks of the Teviot at Hornshole, onward to the Rule valley and Carter Fell; the end goal perhaps being the warden’s castle at Harbottle, and maybe even a chance raid at the Douglas seat of Cavers, another place of great ecclesiastical and political importance in those days (see The Hawick Paper, July 14, September 29, and October 6, 2017).

Hornshole is an old name by any account. James Turnbull of Hornshole was witness to a document for the Scotts of Buccleuch in 1456, his lands lying to the east of Courthill. And Hornshole in 1514 was by no means the small parcel of land that it is today; the name originally applied to a farm on the north side of the river, also taking in large sections of Breryzardis (Briery Yards), the Trows, and Midshiels.

Local etymologist Michael Braithwaite attributes the name to the River Teviot’s deep pools and twisting narrows at this point in the land. Others have suggested that it could mean Heron’s Hole ie a fishing spot for Hawick’s national bird, or possibly Orm’s Hole, sharing roots with nearby Ormiston.

The visit of Dorothy and William Wordsworth to Hornshole in 1803 did much to muddy the waters, as their guide on that occasion, Sir Walter Scott, introduced the place as ‘Horne’s Pool’, said to be named after “a contemplative schoolmaster” who lived nearby and often walked there, known to Scott in his youth.

So why would an English raiding party under the command of Lord Dacre choose to camp here overnight? There was no metalled road or bridge over the ravine as there is now, and the likeliest crossing point on the river, en route to Cavers, would have been the ford at Midshiels, as established by Alan G. Brydon in Reflections O’ Hawick.

I have a theory to support this. Although the Douglases held superiority over most of the surrounding lands, the Turnbulls had been lairds of Hornshole since 1456. The incumbent laird in 1514 was John Turnbull, and his immediate predecessor Adam had previously brought in Englishmen from Tynedale to plunder Minto. They also owned land stretching to the Barony of Newton Chamberlain and beyond, which aligns nicely with the proposed route of the raiding party south from Ashkirk. So, perhaps Hornshole served as a temporary refuge for the English. Logic would state otherwise; this branch of Turnbulls were “broken Scots” who held no allegiance to either crown, and in the years following Hornshole they were given remission for supporting the treasonous Homes.

Truth is, we’ll never know!

Whatever the reason, a decision had to be made tout suite. Tradition states that having received word of Lord Dacre’s raiding party, the magistrates called a meeting of Hawick’s inhabitants and proposed that the enemy should be resisted at all costs, rather than give the town over to plunder. Should they stand their ground and defend the baron’s tower, or take the initiative and ambush the enemy, as at Sclaterford?

It is said a makeshift band of around two hundred callant youths, those young enough to have been spared the horrors of Flodden but not yet old enough to be burgesses in their own right, mustered any weaponry within the common armoury that they could lay their hands on: pikes, halberds, swords, bows, arrows, spears etc. The following morning, as the English soldiers slumbered, the youths of Hawick set off along the banks of the Teviot to Hornshole, most of them by foot and some on horseback, taking the soldiers by surprise in a skilled and methodical way, killing around forty of them.

As was customary, the spoils of war were gathered following the battle, including armour, horses, loot – and a flag bearing the arms of the Priory of St Andrew in Hexham, one of the key recruiting grounds for Lord Dacre’s military campaign. We can trace the roots of the Hawick Flag directly back to a monogrammed stone carving at Hexham Abbey during the time of Prior Thomas Smithson (1499-1524). The carving design was also used on the seal of the Manor of Hexhamshire, an ancient feudal body with administrative responsibility for the Tynedale area, while an even earlier example of the saltire on Hexham’s official arms still exists today, from the time of Prior Rowland Leschman (1480-1491).

The captured flag was pennon-shaped (ie a pennoncelle or pencell), containing a golden saltire cross of St. Andrew on an azure blue background – “It’s Royal Blue, wi’ gold running through,” as the song goes. These were usually carried on a lance by an individual of less rank than a standard bearer, bearing a personal device, richly fringed with gold. And although it was highly unusual for such a flag to be employed during a raid, this was no ordinary raid; this was a church and state-sponsored operation “for the special hurt and destruction of the Scots”.

Tradition tells that the captured English flag was joyously carried to Hawick at a gallop. Sir Walter Scott was the first to hazard a guess as to who that person may have been – in his eyes, Watt Tinlin - while other accounts say it was young James Douglas(1), the soon-to-be baron.

It may come as a surprise to some that there is absolutely no written historical record of the Battle of Hornshole; what we know, or at least what can extrapolate, has “come doon thrae lang syne” ie through song, verse and spoken tradition.

Collectively these predate the publication of Henry VIII’s state papers and Dacre’s despatches, which support the basics of the tradition and provide an invaluable insight into the border campaign. The rest is essentially educated guesswork.

The first mention of the battle in print occurs in Arthur Balbirnie’s Auld Sang, which simply states “By Teviotside they took this Colour, A dear memorial of their valour”; this dates from around 1800. James Hogg’s slightly later song, published in 1819, devotes about half its verses to these events: “Nigh where Teviot falls sonorous, Into Hornshole dashing furious, Lay their foes with spoil encumbered: Quite secure, even sent’nels slumbered”.

However, the first detailed account - Robert Wilson’s 1825 History of Hawick - refers to the site of the battle as “the Trows” rather than Hornshole (this making sense in the days before the bridge). There is no evidence to support the numbers stated in his account, and most likely there were far fewer people involved.

Aside from the flag, another possible nod to history are the halberds carried by the burgh officers at the Common-Riding, said to be exact copies of those taken from the English at Hornshole. James Wilson in his Annals of Hawick states that there were people living around 1850 who claimed to have seen the originals.

If the tradition holds true, then it is understandable that Dacre would conceal his losses and make no mention in his dispatches to an already psychopathic king. Lord Thomas was married to Elizabeth de Greystoke, through whom he gained vast tracts of land, and was succeeded by his son William. Henry VIII named Thomas a Knight of the Garter in 1518, and he was ultimately killed in a fall from his horse in 1525 and is buried at Lanercost Priory near Brampton.

The Hawick Archaeological Society has twice made field trips to Lanercost, first in 1933 and more recently in 2017. It was such a peculiar feeling to witness first-hand the final resting place of Thomas Dacre, 2nd Baron Dacre of Gilsland, orchestrator of some of Teviotdale’s darkest days, when we have few surviving graves from anyone of that era in Hawick. It can rightly be argued that Hornshole was in many respects the genesis of our town’s culture and time-served traditions, but it also proved a false dawn for the victors: a century of upheaval and uncertainty was to follow in its wake.

In one final twist of fate, on July 26, 1951, William Douglas-Home, a younger brother of the former Prime Minister Sir Alec, married Rachel Brand, 27th Baroness Dacre, thereby uniting the two families that once stood on opposing sides at both Flodden and Sclaterford.

This article was first published in the June 6, 2019 edition of The Hawick Paper, and was written by Alastair M. Redpath. Enquiries and corrections to

1.  It was suggested that this was the 'Good' Sir James, who, however, was long dead by then!



Sources for this article include:
  • The Hawick Tradition of 1514 (1898), R.S. Craig & Adam Laing; Reflections O’ Hawick (2015) -‘1514’, Alan G. Brydon; The Story of Hawick (1937), W.S. Robson; Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 1, 1509-1514 (1920), J. S. Brewer; Rulewater and Its People (1907), George Tancred; Hawick Archaeological Society Transactions (1913, 1922, 1951, 2006, 2013), William Murray, George Watson, J.C.G. Landles; A Hawick Word Book (2019 ed.), Professor Douglas Scott; Hawick and the Border (1927), R.S. Craig; Tom Scott, Hawick Museum

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    Last modified: Tuesday, 01 February 2022