Author Gary Dolman on the legend of Sewingshields
It was over forty years later, when my father was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and I was grasping for something to stimulate conversation with him that I happened to mention it back to him. He grinned and said, ‘aye,’ and it would seem now that he might well have been right.
There is a legend, which has persisted for centuries, centred on that part of Hadrian’s Wall country called Sewingshields. Here, where the Great Whin Sill drops away steeply into spectacular, north-facing cliffs is an area known as the Fogy Moss.
The legend runs something like this:
Then will they be awoken. They sleep with a knight’s garter, a sword and a bugle-horn.
To break the enchantment, one need only to draw the sword, cut the garter and sound a note on the bugle.
Guessing what had happened King Arthur bellowed these words after the shepherd:
On which this witless wight was born.
Who drew the sword, the garter cut,
But never blew the bugle-horn.’
‘an old towre of thinherytaunce of John Heron of Chypchase esquier in great decaye in the rooffe & flores & lyeth waste & unplenyshed.’
By 1847, it had been reduced by decay and pilferage of the stone to a ruin of 1.5 metres or so in height and by the end of the 19th Century all traces of it had gone barring the by-then rather ploughed-out ditch, stagnant fishponds and a smattering of rubble.
On the wild heath, but those that Fancy builds.
And save a fosse that tracks the moor with green,
Is naught remains to tell of what may there have been.’
Harold the Dauntless, Sir Walter Scott
-on the Castle of the Seven Shields (Sewingshields).
The Legend of 'The Watery Tart'
Certainly anyone who has ever down looked over Broomlee Lough from the high ridge of the Whin Sill won’t help but to feel the magic of the place.
Once he had done so, he wove an enchantment over the treasure that it should never be recovered except by the use of ‘Twa twin yauds, twa twin oxen, twa twin lads, and a chain forged by a smith of kind’.
The dangerous business of doing one's hair...
King Arthur, being seated on one of the rocks was talking with his queen who herself was engaged in dressing her, 'back hair’. Something the queen happened to say offended Arthur. He seized a rock which lay near him, and heaved it at her – a distance of about a quarter of a mile. The queen, with great skill and no little strength herself caught it upon her comb and deflected the blow. The rock fell between them where it lies to this very day. As proof of the tale, one may see the marks of the comb still upon it. The stone probably weighs around twenty tons!
Finally, near the farm-house of Sewingshields, several whinstone columns rise up rather curiously in front of the high cliffs. One of these in particular is called by some, King Arthur’s, (and by others King Ethel's) Chair. It was apparently ‘a single, many-sided shaft, about ten feet high, and had a natural seat on its top, like a chair with a back.’ However it, ‘was most wantonly overturned a few years since by a mischievous lad, well known in the neighbourhood, but unworthy of punishment by the mention of his name. Vulgar malignity loves to torment the orderly and ingenuous by destroying works, which time has sanctified and rendered objects of their veneration.’
(Hodgson’s Northd Part III Vol II.)
Increasingly however, scholarly opinion seems to be that Arthur was a real, historical figure of the early medieval period and that he held power across several fortified sites in the North of England and the Borders. (A court known specifically as ‘Camelot’ was not actually mentioned until the late 12th Century when it appeared in the Chrétien de Troyes' poem Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart.)
As to the question of whether or not King Arthur once commanded the moorlands of Sewingshields, I know of one person at least, now sadly passed away, who would have said, ‘aye,’ to that.