Tottergill before Tarmac
For much of the last half of the twentieth century, the Milburn family ran the farm along traditional lines, growing crops of turnips, barley and potatoes, with hay for fodder.
Swaledale and Blue Faced Leicester sheep grazed the fellsides, with cows in the lower pastures. White fantail pigeons fluttered from the tower and a large modern farm building was added to bring the farming enterprise up to date. The grouse shooting on the rougher fell land behind the farm was let out to sportsmen. Grouse depend on heather for their food; careful management of the heather by periodic burning and not overgrazing it, would increase their numbers. Gamebirds, ducks, rabbits and hares abounded and were hunted in their turn. The Milburns continued a tradition of providing bed and breakfast accommodation. Visitors enjoyed the nearby walks, along the hillside past the disused limekilns and quarries, or down to the reservoir.
The local landscape was already shaped as you see it today. Journeying further back in time, you can meet their predecessors and discover Tottergill before tarmac, electricity and motor cars: to a time when there was no reservoir in the valley below, when the local railway was thriving; when the limekilns and quarries were in use, when horses were everyday companions and neighbours were relied on for help and support with the farming, and friendship when the day’s work was done. Or even further back to days when this was the most lawless region in the country, when Castle Carrock survived raids by Border Reiver gangs*, mainly by keeping a low profile, hidden by a fold in the land. A time when life was so transitory that few written records were kept. Houses in the borders were regularly burned in raids, cattle were stolen and murders committed. Little is known about this area then, because surviving was more important than writing things down. It is not until the 17th century, at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, that Tottergill starts to be mentioned in old documents.
The site of the house follows a pattern of farmsteads along the Castle Carrock geological fault where limestone meets more impervious rock. Here, springs came to the surface and made setting up home possible and deposits of coal and easily quarried stone were to be found on the surrounding hillsides. Behind the farms the Geltsdale Forest belonged, until its downfall, to Hexham Abbey and may have been used as a royal hunting forest, for the pursuit of wild pigs and red, roe and fallow deer.
The name Tottergill first appears in records around 1603 and is derived from ‘tod (fox) hill gill’, – the ‘gill’ part having Viking origins and referring to the nearby beck in its ravine. The oak tree was already well established then and may have witnessed the rides of the Reiver gangs, or hunting parties pursuing herds of deer over the fells.
A stone farmhouse stood in a cobbled courtyard, with sandstone steps leading up to the bedrooms, this was replaced by the current house in the next century. Some of the stone was recycled around the farm. Another dwelling stood in the field to the south east, possibly home to the succession of farm labourers recorded here.
* Border Reivers – lawless bands of local families i.e. the Armstrongs, who feuded along the Scotish/English border