Haunting Sites: Thirlwall Castle, Northumberland

Thirlwall Castle, Site Investigation , 11th June 2011

Thirlwall Castle, NorthumberlandOn the 11th June 2011, the Otherworld North East team undertook a field investigation at Thirlwall Castle, Greenhead, Northumberland (NGR NY659661), on behalf of the Northumberland National Park Authority.
The fieldwork was undertaken to examine claims of alleged paranormal activity within the ruins of the medieval castle. The reported activity revolved around stones being thrown, music and voices being heard and the feeling of being touched by unseen hands. Two items of local folklore were also found to bear relevance to Thirlwall. These claims were investigated using a number of data-collection surveys, including video, photography, radio frequency testing, electromagnetic field detection, structural surveys and wildlife detection.

Thirlwall Castle in 2011Thirlwall Castle stands proud on a spur of land above the Tipalt Burn, north of the village of Greenhead and only about 3 miles from the town of Haltwhistle. The castle is currently owned by the Scott family, members of whom live in the immediate vicinity in Thirlwall Castle Farm, and the site is currently managed under a long term lease by the Northumberland National Park Authority, who commissioned work on the consolidation of the structure to begin in 1998. The site benefits from Scheduled Ancient Monument status, as well as being a Grade I Listed building. The castle was built out of stone from Hadrian’s Wall and potentially from the nearby fort of Carvoran in the 14th century, and was the seat for the Thirlwalle family. In AD 1384, John Thirlwalle was recorded as being lieutenant to the the Earl of Northumberland and warden of Carlisle Castle. This makes sense of the strong and secure stronghold at Thirlwall, as his family seat would have to have been one able to withstand the pressures such roles of office would have brought.

By the 16th century the reputation of the family name had failed somewhat and were even portrayed as villains in Sir Walter Scott’s poem Marmion.

Andrea recording audioThe 16th century however was a time of uncertainty and fear, with relations with Scotland plummeting further, putting border castles and lands such as Thirlwall directly in harm’s way. Permanent watches were put in place to spy an invasion or raid from the north, specifically from the Reiver clans named as the Armstrongs, Nixons, Scotts and Elliots. In this time of constant alertness and suspicion, it is little wonder that families such as the Thirlwalls gained somewhat interesting reputations for themselves.

However, in the early 17th century the Union of the Crowns took the threat of Scottish plunderers off the map to the greatest extent, and fortified homes such as Thirlwall Castle very quickly became unused. In Thirlwall’s case, the family abandoned the castle as their homestead but retained ownership of the building and the land. The castle was put to use as a farm, until once again military need saw the castle being taken by the Scots as a supply depot sometime around 1642 during the Civil War.

During the investigationThe eighteenth century finally saw Thirlwall Castle pass out of the hands of the Thirlwall family, when William Thirlwall died in c.1710 and his holdings passed to the Matthew Swinburne by marriage. In 1748, Swinburne sold the castle and lands to the Earl of Carlisle, who had no need of the stronghold but wanted the land. Thus, the castle began to fall into ruin.

The nineteenth century saw the ruinous castle become a victim of stone plundering. The 1841 census records ‘farmers’ at Thirlwall, under successive generations of the Borrow family. Thirlwall Castle farmhouse was built in 1873 to the northwest of the ruin and was constructed primarily out of Roman cut stone from the castle itself. The twentieth century saw the house and castle change hands to the Henderson family by 1911, and then they were bought by the Scott family in the 1970s.

In 1999 the castle was procured by the Northumberland National Park Authority who acquired a 99 year lease on the castle and ten hectares of adjacent woodland. The remains of the castle were cleaned out and consolidated, securing the homes of a number of species of animals, from birds to bats. Thirlwall Castle officially opened to the public in September 2002 after three years of restoration work, winning a Civic Trust Commendation for the works.

will-o'-the-wisp anomaly caused by a torchbeam carried by an investigator crossing a long exposure photograph
Will-o’-the-wisp anomaly caused by a torchbeam carried by an investigator crossing a long exposure photograph

The ghostlore and folklore surrounding Thirlwall revolves around two distinct ‘entities’, one native to the walls of Thirlwall and one ‘borrowed’ from nearby Blenkinsopp Castle. The former is said to be the spirit of what is described as a ‘hideous dwarf’, said to guard one of John de Thirlwall’s treasures. Legend has it that de Thirlwall returned from his journeys abroad laden with precious items. One of these items was said to be a table made of solid gold and encrusted by precious gems. This table became an heirloom of the de Thirlwalls, and remained so until the Scottish raiders finally breached the walls of the castle.

As the Scots broke their way in, the manservant at the time (the dwarf in question) seized the table and threw it down the well positioned beneath the internal stairwell. The treasure hidden in the well, the dwarf jumped in after it and sealed the well above him with magic. Naturally, legend tells us that the dwarf’s spirit still guards the treasure, awaiting rediscovery by the ‘only son of a widow.’

The latter piece of ghostlore revolves around the White Lady of Blenkinsopp, and it seems that this ghost is perhaps the one most commonly described as haunting Thirlwall. Certainly, when The Archaeological Practice of the University of Newcastle undertook a documentary survey of Thirlwall back in 2001, studies into the memories and oral history surrounding the castle mention children playing around the castle ruins, but nervous of the White Lady of Blenkinsopp.

So why Blenkinsopp? Basically, tradition has it that a tunnel exists between the two castles, haunted by the ghost of the Lady de Blenkinsopp, said to have been a foreign bride of Bryan de Blenkinsopp. The lady, it appears, hid her dowry of gold in the tunnel beneath the castle, infuriating the baron and causing him to pick up and leave. The White Lady is said to be the sad spirit of his wife, awaiting someone who will find the gold and release her tortured spirit. Due to the fact that she is said to haunt the tunnel, coupled with the idea of a tunnel between the two castles, its a simple leap to see why many regard Thirlwall as a possible haunt of the Lady de Blenkinsopp.

Interestingly, discussion with previous owners of Blenkinsopp revealed that a tunnel was discovered years ago at Blenkinsopp, but was permanently blocked due to health and safety reasons.

Previous investigations at the site (and visitor reports) list the following phenomena at the site:

  • Whispering voices;
  • Feelings of being touched;
  • Hearing music;
  • Visual lights caught on camera or camcorder;
  • Odd sounds.

The site investigation on the 11th June 2011 was recorded as a 4-part Youtube presentation, links to which can be found on this page.

Thirlwall at night, 2011It was found that the phenomena of whispering voices and music could easily be sound being carried from nearby farmhouses and the main road, or even just the effects of wind and weather. Feelings of being touched could be due to the presence of insects, bats and dripping moisture as well as again effects of breezes and wind: visual lights caught in torchlight are likely the presence of insects reflecting flash or infra-red, and odd sounds and EVP recordings could be simply radio wave interference.

Please have a watch of the YouTube presentations and Subscribe to our Youtube channel and Social Media feed. Thanks!