Elsdon : Prehistory
The attractions of the Redesdale for early hunter-gatherer populations can be readily appreciated and in an extensively forested landscape would have provided such groups with a convenient route for seasonal migration from the coast to the uplands allowing access to a wide range of resources. Communities in this Mesolithic - Middle Stone Age - period would have been small - essentially extended family groups - and foraged over very extensive areas.
Following the introduction of farming c. 4000-3500 BC, more permanent settlement was possible, but evidence for Neolithic - New Stone Age - occupation and dwellings has proved elusive in this part of Northumberland. The possible persistence of regular seasonal migration, or 'transhumance', but now with domesticated flocks and herds, along the lines practised in the medieval and early modern periods, cannot be excluded. The adoption of agriculture and pastoralism enabled population sizes and densities to increase.
Kinship groups probably grew larger as a result, whilst occasional festivals may have prompted wider population gatherings for the purposes of exchanging goods and marriage partners etc., providing a mechanism for the development of wider clan or tribal associations. Polished stone axes of the sort which would have been used for this early clearance activity have been found at Otterburn and Elishaw.
The long cairns further up Redesdale, on Dour Hill, and Bellshiel Law, provide an impressive and atmospheric relic of these early communities. Such monuments would have been the focus of communal burial practices centred on worship of the ancestors. It has also been suggested that by placing such a prominent monument to their forefathers in the landscape these early farming groups were also establishing a powerful ancestral claim to this land.
From the Bronze Age onwards, distinct settlements from the can be identified. At Todlaw Pike, c. 4km north west of Elsdon, for example, an extensive unenclosed settlement of round houses with an adjacent field system and both burial and field clearance cairns has been recorded (Charlton 1996). In the late Bronze Age and Iron Age, defensible hillforts were built in this part of Redesdale and in neighbouring areas of Coquetdale, representing obvious central places or focal points for entire communities.
Examples include the univallate site at Fawdon Hill to the north west, plus Harehaugh to the north overlooking the confluence of the Coquet and the Grasslees Burn. It is even possible that, at Elsdon itself, the outer bailey rampart of the later Norman castle originated during this period, and were later economically adapted by inserting a ringwork at the end of the ridge and refurbishing the original rampart as an outer defence in the 12th century AD (cf. Welfare et al. 1999, 58-9; Welfare 2002, 77).
Recent excavations at Harehaugh have provided a better understanding of these hillforts, revealing the impressive stone-faced defences crowning the rampart and evidence for iron working in the interior. Nevertheless it is still unclear how these sites were used by the communities which established them. Were they permanent defensible settlements or occasional refuges, places where the community could securely store its grain stocks and other wealth, or ceremonial centres, or perhaps a mixture of these roles perhaps?