Looking East from Kirkby Stephen and from many other places in the Upper Eden Valley, the highest point on the skyline is dominated by a line of tall drystone cairns known as the Nine Standards, just over 5 km from the town centre. They lie at a height of 650m on the east/west Coast-to-Coast route from St. Bees Head on the Irish Sea to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea; they are also close to the north/south Pennine Way, and are a focus for several other lesser known walks on these fells. They are by far the most striking and popular landmark on these fells, and whatever time of year you visit them, you may be surprised how many others have had the same idea.
There are supposed to be nine of these cairns, but you may find any number from seven to ten or even eleven, before some local person indignantly reasserts the magic number. In height, they vary from 2 metres to almost 4 metres; in shape they are mostly round and cylindrical, except the northernmost one which is square; one is pyramidal and another stepped. They extend in a line some 75 metres long, pointing roughly north-north-east. They are sturdily built, but on the skyline they catch the worst weather, so freezing and thawing over time can collapse the weaker ones, and such is their popularity that rebuilds are frequent. The latest was in 2005 so at present the northernmost ones look new, while those at the southern end are showing signs of wear. The odd thing is that they are never allowed to fall apart completely, to shrink back into the earth and disappear. People want to see them up there, in the belief perhaps that they keep watch over the valley as they seem always to have done. But have they? We simply do not know who built them, when and why.
This is very surprising; so prominent a landmark should have some history – or at least a legend or two – attached to it. And if, as some sceptics say, they had been built in the last few hundred years, we would surely know of it. Just think of Frank’s Bridge over the Eden (built by Francis Birkbeck the Brewer), Rowlandson Point up on Tailbrigg (for the firm of Rowlandson and Harker), and the Fox Tower at nearby Brough (built by John Metcalfe Carleton in 1775). Local memory knows why they were so called, after whom they were so named, when they were built. These are easy examples, as they date only from the 18th and 19th centuries. If, as local tradition has it, the Nine Standards were built to resemble an armed encampment that might deter invading Scots prior to the Union of the Crowns in 1603, we would know of it. But local memory goes much further back than that.
For example, we know that Lady Ann Clifford built a small cairn on the top of Mallerstang Edge in 1664; the cairn is still there, with the date on it. And we also know that the adjacent fell which is now called Hugh’s Seat, and an equally modest fell near Tan Hill called Hugh Seat Nab, are named after Hugh de Morville (1105-1162), lord of Appleby, or perhaps his more famous son Hugh, Lord of Westmorland, who died in 1174, just four years after murdering Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury. When compared to the Nine Standards which dominate the whole of the upper Eden Valley, these minor watershed landmarks are insignificant in size, yet we know their history. There is a story attached to each one, but not to the Nine Standards.
So how old are the Nine Standards as a monument? A recent book summarising five years of research in local and national libraries and archives contains all known historical references to them*. Nine Standards Rigg is shown on the First Edition of the OS 6 inch maps (scale 1:10,560) dated 1862; Nine Standards are shown on a tithe map of Hartley Parish dated 1844 and on a disputed boundaries map of 1841. Both Kitchin’s 1777 map and Thomas Jefferys’ 1770 map of Westmorland show them as a named group of six or nine dots, hard to count amongst the formlines. These are all official, published maps. They are also found on an old hand-drawn parchment sketch map of Swaledale; a receipt note on the back says it changed hands in 1738, but the cartographic style suggests it was drawn at a much earlier date, possibly mid-16th century when Lord Wharton purchased the Swaledale manors after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The cairns are also mentioned as a prominent waypoint on over 30 parish and manorial boundary perambulations dating back almost 500 years. On the Westmorland side, the earliest is a perambulation of East Stainmore for the Brough Court in 1617, and on the Swaledale side, Joshua Fryer records a perambulation of Swaledale’s boundaries that can be dated to between 1534 and 1538. These papers are in the libraries of the various County Record Offices at Kendal, Carlisle, Northallerton and Durham, and the curious may consult them there.
It is probable that they were used as waypoints and landmarks even earlier. Lord Wharton’s bailiff Cornelius Fryer (1667 – 1741) testified in court proceedings in year six of Queen Anne’s reign, 1707/8, that the boundary of Swaledale which he transcribed was originally given by Gilbert de Gant, one of the Norman Lords who held the Knight’s fee of Swaledale. Between the Norman Conquest and 1298, five men bore that name, all from the same family. The Charter Rolls for 1251 and the Patent Rolls for 1332 both record royal confirmations of a charter which gifted pasture rights within a defined area of upper Swaledale to Rievaulx Abbey. The Charter Rolls simply name the donor as Gilbert de Gant; the Patent Rolls specify Gilbert son of Robert, so it was Gilbert III which indicates a date between 1206 and 1217. As these were simply confirmations, it has been suggested that the original grant may in fact date from the chaotic times of King Stephen’s reign, in 1146.
But there may be another early mention. Walter de Gant, nephew of William I, acquired Swaledale in 1108 as part of the dowry of Maud, his wife, but at that time no boundaries were defined for the lordship; when New Forest law was imposed, it is probable that Gilbert II, son of Walter, had to define his own boundaries around 1138 or 1139. Either way, the manorial bailiff Cornelius Fryer transcribed and listed the Swaledale boundary waypoints as he had received them from his predecessors in that office, and he believed them to have been given by Gilbert de Gant, though we cannot be certain which Gilbert. The originals of these two early documents are still being sought and until found, definitive dates for the first mention cannot be confirmed.
Finally, an Old Welsh document about events in the 6th century describes a crucial defeat of the invading Saxons by Britons in the mountains northwest of York at a place called “toothed mountain”, a vivid description of the Nine Standards.
So there are good grounds for thinking that the Nine Standards have been on the Kirkby Stephen skyline certainly for over 500 years, probably for 800 years, and maybe for a great deal longer than that. Which raises more questions. Why are there nine? Are they boundary landmarks, signposts or burials? What is known of their history over the last thousand years is fully documented and referenced in the first half of the book below; the second half of the book deals in a lighter and more speculative vein with some of the possibilities for their origins in the pre-Conquest period, extending back as far as the Bronze Age.
It should be evident by now that there is no accepted archaeology to recount; no professionals have so far taken a serious look at the Nine Standards, or if they have, the results were evidently not worth recording. Even a negative result or recent origin would be of value, but so far the author has been unable to find a single mention in the relevant antiquarian or archaeological literature. However, it can only be a matter of time before someone provides definitive answers to the many questions we all ask. And needless to say, if anybody reading these brief notes can contribute to the debate, locate the Gant charters, or suggest where other historical evidence may be unearthed, we should all be very grateful – so please do get in touch!
Dr Stephen H Walker 21/12/09
* Stephen Walker, 2008. “Nine Standards: Ancient Cairns or Modern Folly?” Hayloft Publishing Ltd., South Stainmore, Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria CA17 4DJ web: www.hayloft.eu
For further information, visit the Friends of Nine Standards website, www.ninestandards.eu