Just an arrow flight across the River Esk from the border with England, Canonbie was at the heart of the anarchic Debatable Land where,
until the end of the sixteenth century, the writ of neither Scotland nor England could be effectively enforced and the cross-border reivers
were in the ascendancy (see The Border).
It was a twelfth-century Augustinian priory that put the 'canon' into Canonbie. Exploiting the legal ambiguities of the Debatable Land,
Henry VIII of England ordered the priory to be suppressed as part of his dissolution of the monasteries. English forces finished it off
after their victory at the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542 and now no trace of it remains. However, it is thought that a piece of its stonework
may have been brought to the parish kirk when it was built in the 1820s and that the architectural souvenir may have ended up being incorporated
into the kirkyard monument for Rev James Donaldson who died in 1854. The name of nearby Priorslynn farm is a pleasant echo of Canonbie's vanished religious heritage.
Along the River Esk, two miles to the north of Canonbie, is a sixteenth-century building which it might be prudent to refer to as Gilnockie/Hollows Tower.
The officials responsible for the adjacent information board decided to play safe by using both names, for the matter is controversial
and some people take it very seriously indeed. In 2008 the 'Hollows' part of its name had been scored out and an indignant explanatory note fixed
to the castle door by E H Armstrong FSA Scot, chairman of 'Clan Armstrong Centre Ltd':
'Hollows' was NOT the name of this Scottish fortified tower house. It is the name of the village to the south-west.
The correct name was the HOLEHOUSE (according to the 1603 printed map on sale here) abbreviated to HollUS by usage.
'Hollows' was used by map-makers. The 'hole' was the QUARRY behind the Tower!
The alternative argument is that this really is Hollows and that the original Gilnockie was an earlier structure on the other side of the river.
Nigel Tranter, the great chronicler of Scotland's fortified houses, is adamant: 'This building is sometimes mistakenly called Gilnockie Tower,
the foundations of which in fact survive not far away.'
Whatever its correct name may be, the tower is associated with the notorious gang leader
Johnnie Armstrong whose reign of terror throughout the
Debatable Land was finally and brutally ended in 1530 by the personal armed intervention of King James V.
In the 1950s the local kirk minister, contributing to the Third Statistical Account of Scotland, wrote with sweet piety about the inhabitants of Canonbie parish:
'The green fields and russet glades of this parish are symbolic of the hearts and minds of the people.
They are a peace-loving folk...living out their earthly days in sylvan surroundings.'
This very same sylvan scene hosted until 1922 a coal-mining industry. The village of Rowanburn, to the east, was built in the 1860s to house the colliers.
The Canonbie coalfield is still rich with reserves and from time to time the possibility of re-opening the pits is publicly aired.
A colourful reminder of Rowanburn's mining past