The melancholy ruin of medieval Thirlwall Castle sits on a spur by a farm above the Tipalt Burn about 2 km east of the Northumberland village of Gilsland. On one of several interpretation boards, this L-shaped structure is described as a ‘hall house’ although the term ‘tower house’ with the defensible features appropriate to the Anglo-Scottish border regions of the period seems more appropriate. A particularly compelling feature that sets it apart from many of its contemporaries elsewhere in the region are the vaulted remnants of a room that the interpretation board suggests may have been a ‘prison’.
The castle itself is said to have been built by John Thirlwall around 1330 using stone from the Roman wall that runs close by, however the entry on the Keys to the Past website suggests that the building was first recorded in 1369. Certainly none of the medieval chronicles that tell of David II’s invasion of northern England in 1346 which culminated in his capture at the battle of Neville’s Cross mention it, although it lies squarely on his documented path down the Tyne Valley.
Keys to the Past also states that the building was ‘…described as being in good repair in 1542’; understandable in the middle of a century that was notorious for the murderous lawlessness created by the reiving families of England and Scotland. The castle’s resources may not have been entirely defensive however: ‘The Rookhope Ryde (or Raid)’, an old Weardale ballad, tells of the ‘false thieves…of Thirlwa’’ who crossed into Weardale in a failed and bloody attempt to steal cattle while many of the men of the dale were ‘…with the two earls’ during the 1569 rebellion known as ‘The Rising of the North’. Perhaps the stabling illustrated on the interpretation board was intended to host some of the ill-gotten gains!
Despite its shape (not fully square) and lack of size, the castle is similar in many ways to other Northumbrian ‘castles’ including Langley Castle further down the Tyne Valley. On the south-west side of the building a noticeably flat area of land slopes gently away from the tower and in the absence of any information that I’ve been able to find might possibly have been associated with a courtyard, bailey or in Scottish terms, a barmkin* similar in layout to that at Smailholm Tower near Kelso.
After being occupied by the Scots during the period of the English Civil War the castle fell into disrepair when peace came to the borders that brought with it a desire for a more comfortable lifestyle with dwellings to match. After it was finally abandoned in the 17th century the castle became a popular subject for artists and photographers and is now – as well as being a roost for bats – a Scheduled Monument and a Grade I Listed Building protected by law.
*Also known as a barnekin or barmekin
Keys to the Past archaeology website – Durham and Northumberland County Councils
Interpretation board – Northumberland National Park, Thirlwall Castle
Scott, Walter. ‘The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott, Baronet, in ten volumes. Vol 1: Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border – The Rookhope Ryde’ Archibald Constable and Co 1821