escribed in the `Pennine Way National Trail Guidebook` as, “one of the most elegant and enigmatic of the Cheviot summits”, Windy Gyle is literally miles from anywhere. The windswept and lonely summit lies some three miles from the nearest public road, at White Bridge deep in Upper Coquetdale, and a further six miles by switchback, single track road from the tiny village of Alwinton.
Standing at a height of 619 metres, Windy Gyle is the fourth highest of the Cheviot Hills and the only one over the magical 2000 feet mark to which Scotland can lay half a claim. The international frontier between England and Scotland, in reality a mere post and wire fence for much of its length, virtually splits the hill in half. On the north side the steep slopes tumble away to the Kelsocleugh Burn, whilst on the south side the hill rolls down towards the River Coquet, as it winds its way to the farmsteads of Windyhaugh and Barrowburn.
Windy Gyle viewed from `The Street`
indy Gyle, and the surrounding area, oozes history, where for centuries armies fought bloody battles, families stole cattle from one another and violence was a way of life. Year after year the troubles rumbled on until the 13th century when, in an attempt to control the violence, the border area was split into three Marches. This created a buffer zone between England and Scotland and each March came under the stewardship of a Warden appointed by the King. The Wardens would meet on regular occasions, usually at isolated places along the border, and invariably these meetings would end in bloodshed. In 1585, at one such meeting on Windy Gyle, Lord Francis Russell was murdered and the large Bronze Age burial cairn on the summit of the hill was named Russell`s Cairn to commemorate the deadly event.
However disputed and lawless this part of the Cheviot Hills might have been, trade between the two countries was an important aspect of life on both sides of the border. Trade routes which had developed over the centuries continued to be utilised. Traders and drovers adopted direct routes through the wild and sometimes dangerous hills. They followed the easiest terrain over the foothills and valleys, crossing the border at long established passes. In 1543, 42 years before Lord Francis Russell`s violent death, a state paper listed a total of seventeen Cheviot border crossings. Three of these crossings were close to Windy Gyle and, from east to west, were named as Hexpethgate, Maiden Cross and Black Braes. To this day the clear tracks over both Hexpethgate and Black Braes are well known and regularly used by cross border walkers.
`The Street` climbing Black Braes
The crossing at Hexpethgate, sometimes known as the Border Gate or Cocklawgate, lies just over one mile north east of the summit of Windy Gyle and stands 542 metres above sea level. This is the point where Clennell Street crosses into Scotland on its journey from Alwinton, some 8 hilly miles away, to Cocklawfoot and the Bowmont Valley. Described in General Roy`s 1750 Military Survey of Scotland as, “the road from Morpeth to Kelso”, Clennell Street also carried `traffic` over the border at Hexpethgate from another ancient track, the Salters Road, which converged on Clennell Street a mere 400 metres south east of the border. Referred to in some old books as the `Thieves Road`, the Salters Road was used by traders and drovers travelling from Scotland to the Northumbrian coast and can still be walked from Alnham to Hexpethgate, an invigorating journey of 10 miles.
The view from Routin Well on the slopes of Windy Gyle
ust over one mile west of Windy Gyle summit lies the Black Braes border crossing which carries the ancient high level drove road known as `the Street` from England into Scotland. Shown on General Roy`s 1775 map of the area as `the Clattering Path`, the track runs from Upper Coquetdale to Hownam in the Kale Water Valley.
All reference to `Maiden Cross` appears to have long since disappeared from the maps of the area and the ancient route over the border, presumably once marked by a cross, fails to gain any mention in current walking books of the area. A useful, if slightly unsophisticated, map contained in Mackenzie & Dent`s 1811 book entitled, `A Historical and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland` firmly places Maiden Cross near to the summit of Windy Gyle. Two earlier maps, Armstrong`s of 1769 and Fryer`s of 1820, refer to “Maiden Crofs” (Cross) and “Maiden Cross Hill” respectively, and both are shown to be in close proximity to the summit.
However, by the time that the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map of the area appeared in November 1866, the name had disappeared. The current edition of the Ordnance Survey 1:25000 map shows a bridleway crossing Windy Gyle 400 metres from the summit, close to a former standing stone bearing the name of `Split the Deil`. Is it possible that this bridleway follows the ancient `Maiden Cross` route into Scotland? Pure speculation perhaps but, despite much debate on the point, no one has yet identified the exact route the crossing took. The mystery remains!
Hexpethgate with Windy Gyle behind
The somewhat unusual name of `Split the Deil` first appeared on the Second Edition of the Ordnance Survey map of the area, published in 1899, and its derivation appears obscure. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word `deil` is, “the Scotch vernacular form of the word devil “ but without further information it would be wrong to speculate on the origins of the name.
The summit of Windy Gyle is invariably a draughty spot, poised high above the surrounding valleys and exposed to the prevailing winds. The name `Windy` is, therefore, extremely appropriate. The derivation of the word `Gyle` seems less certain, although Oliver Heslop in his 1892 book, `Northumberland Words` appears to have no such doubts. Published by the English Dialect Society and, therefore carrying some considerable weight, the book links the words `Gyle` and `Gowl` together, giving the definition as, “ a hollow passage or pass between hills”. If this is correct, it is quite feasible that the pass to which the definition relates may have been the ancient border crossing of Maiden Cross.
Windy Gyle summit
The Rowhope Burn rises high on the western slopes of Windy Gyle and joins the River Coquet at White Bridge, tightly squeezed between the steep sided hills of Barrow Law and Tindale Law. It was near here, in the 18th century, that the infamous Slymefoot public house stood, where during the winter months the local sheep farmers spent their days gambling and drinking illicit whisky. At that time the traffic in illicit whisky flourished in Upper Coquetdale, an inaccessible area where `stills`, many operated by Highlanders who had deserted during the Jacobite campaigns, lay hidden in deep defiles among the hills. One such `still`, Rory`s Still, lay in Inner Hare Cleugh near Davidson`s Linn, less than a mile away from the lower slopes of Windy Gyle, and a few grey boulders still mark the spot where this real `mountain dew` was made.
The contraband traffic was carried out in a bold and daring manner. The barley required for the manufacturing process was transported in broad daylight from the lower parts of the valley and the peats were cut close to the `stills` without any attempt at concealment. Smugglers would visit isolated farms carrying `grey hens`, large stoneware bottles, full of the `innocent` whisky and many an excise man was said to have developed a taste for the peat-flavoured spirit.
The Pennine Way, England`s most arduous long distance trail, crosses over the summit of Windy Gyle on its 270 mile journey from Edale in Derbyshire to the quiet Scottish border town of Kirk Yetholm. The route is generally walked from south to north and Windy Gyle lies only half a day away from journey`s end over the final and, arguably, the most stunning part of this epic trip. When Tom Stephenson first proposed the Pennine Way in 1935 he rated the Cheviot Hills as his favourite walking area in the country. A recommendation indeed!
Below Windy Gyle summit on the Pennine Way
n the last Sunday (or thereabouts) in June the normally quiet valley road leading past Windyhaugh towards White Bridge becomes the energy charged starting line for the annual Windy Gyle Fell Race. First run in 2000, the race follows a 13.7 kilometre undulating course to the summit cairn and back, an invigorating route involving 1500 feet of ascent. The current course record stands at 57 minutes 18 seconds and was set in 2012 by Nick Swinburn. Prior to 2009, the record stood at 1 hour 45 seconds and was set in 2004 by Joe Blackett of North York Moors Athletic Club, who had warmed up for the race by walking and jogging to the start from his overnight stay in Byrness, some 11miles away in Redesdale. The current best ladies time of 1 hour 10 minutes 00 seconds was set in 2006 by Karen Robertson of Northumberland Fell Runners.
For the day walker, a trip to Upper Coquetdale would be incomplete without a visit to the summit cairn of Windy Gyle. Starting at White Bridge, a superb 8 miles circuit follows `the Street` over Black Braes to the Pennine Way, below Mozie Law, and then on to the impressive mass of Russell`s Cairn. From here there are magnificent views across seemingly endless miles of wild and empty hill country. The Cheviot, the Schil, Hedgehope Hill, Shillhope Law and many more hills are there to be admired. The circuit then descends back towards Scotchman`s Ford before veering down the broad, grassy ridge, caught between the valleys of the Trows and Wardlaw Burns, to the empty farmhouse of the Trows. An easy stroll alongside the delightful Rowhope Burn leads back to White Bridge and echoes of a fascinating and distant past. Nowadays, the nearest whisky, of the legal variety, lies 6 twisting miles away, behind the bar of Alwinton`s tiny Rose and Thistle public house. Thankfully, it is on the way home!
The valley of the Rowhope Burn
There are, of course, many more facets to this, one of the most iconic hills in the range. With two superb and rarely visited valleys dissecting the southern slopes of Windy Gyle and a host of interesting shanks tumbling down from the windswept summit there is more than sufficient to keep the inquisitive walker amused for many a long day. Take a look at the map and start to plan a less-than-ordinary day out on this hill of two nationalities.
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Written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2005 (Revised 2012, 2013 & 2017 (& new photographs added))