The Scottish Borders are to the north. Its North Sea coastline is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with a 64 mile long distance path.
The county flag of Northumberland can be seen here.
The county council is located in Morpeth, situated in the east of the county. The county is noted for its undeveloped landscape of high moorland, a favourite with landscape painters, and now largely protected as a National Park.
Northumberland is the most sparsely populated county in England, with only 62 people per square kilometre.
Being on the border of England and Scotland, Northumberland has been the site of a number of battles. The area was once part of the Roman Empire and as Northumberland it was the scene of many wars between England and Scotland.
Northumberland once formed the core of the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia, which was later united with Deira south of the River Tees to form the kingdom of Northumbria.
The historical boundaries of Northumbria under King Edwin stretched from the Humber in the south to the river Forth in the north, though it was reduced to having its traditional northern border of the River Tweed after the area from the Tweed to the Forth was ceded to the Kingdom of Scotland in 1018, including Lothian, the region which contains Edinburgh.
Northumberland is often called the ‘cradle of Christianity’ in England, because it was on Lindisfarne, a tidal island north of Bamburgh, also called Holy Island, that Christianity flourished when monks from Iona were sent to convert the English.
Lindisfarne was the home of the Lindisfarne Gospels and Saint Cuthbert, who is buried in Durham Cathedral. Bamburgh is the historic capital of Northumberland from before the unification of England under one monarch. Alnwick and Morpeth contest which of the two is the county town.
The Earldom of Northumberland was briefly held by the Scottish Royal Family via marriage from 1139 – 1157 and 1215 – 1217. Scotland relinquished all claims to the region as part of the Treaty of York. The Earls of Northumberland once wielded significant power in English affairs because, as the Marcher Lords, they were entrusted with protecting England from Scottish invasion.
Northumberland has a history of revolt and rebellion against the government, as seen in the Rising of the North in Tudor times. These revolts were usually led by the then Dukes of Northumberland, the Percy family. (Shakespeare makes the dashing Harry Hotspur, a Percy, the real hero of his Henry IV, Part 1)
After the Restoration, Northumberland became a sort of wild county, where outlaws and Border Reivers hid from the law. However, the frequent cross-border skirmishes and accompanying local lawlessness largely subsided after the Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England under King James I in 1603.
Northumberland played a key role in the industrial revolution. Coal mines were widespread in Northumberland until widespread closures were carried out under Labour and subsequent Conservative governments in the 1970’s and 1980’s. There were collieries at Ashington, Bedlington, Choppington, Netherton, Ellington and Pegswood. The region’s coalfields fuelled industrial expansion in other areas of the country, and the need to transport the coal from the collieries to the Tyne led to the development of the first railways. Shipbuilding and armaments manufacture were other important industries before the de-industrialisation of the 1980’s.
Today, Northumberland is still largely rural. As the least densely populated county in England it commands much less influence in British affairs than in times past. Today the county enjoys a healthy tourist industry due to its scenic beauty and the abundant evidence of its historical significance. Earl Grey, creator of the tea, was born here, as were Grace Darling and George Stephenson.
Being in the far north of England and having many areas of high land, Northumberland is one of the coldest areas of the country. Approximately a quarter of the county is protected as the Northumberland National Park. The park stretches south from the Scottish border and includes Hadrian’s Wall (below).
The culture of Northumberland includes some traditions not found elsewhere in England. These include the rapper sword dance, the Clog dance and the Northumbrian smallpipe, a sweet chamber instrument, quite unlike the Scottish bagpipe. Northumberland also has its own tartan or check, sometimes referred to in Scotland as the Shepherd’s Tartan. Traditional Northumberland music sounds similar to Lowland Scottish music, reflecting the strong historical links between Northumbria and the Lowlands of Scotland.
The Border ballads of the region have been famous since late mediaeval times. Thomas Percy, whose celebrated Reliques of Ancient English Poetry appeared in 1765, states that most of the minstrels who sang the Border ballads in London and elsewhere in the 15th and 16th centuries belonged to the North.
The activities of Sir Walter Scott and others in the 19th century gave the ballads an even wider popularity. William Morris considered them to be the greatest poems in the language, while Algernon Charles Swinburne knew virtually all of them by heart.
One of the best-known is the stirring Chevy Chase, which tells of the Earl of Northumberland’s vow to hunt for three days across the Border ‘maugre the doughty Douglas’. Of it, the Elizabethan courtier, soldier and poet Sir Philip Sidney famously said: ‘I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet’. Ben Jonson said that he would give all his works to have written Chevy Chase.
Northumberland has much more in common with Scottish Lowland and Northern English culture. Both regions have their cultural origins in the old Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria. The linguistic links between the two regions, which include many Old English words not found in other forms of Modern English, such as bairn for child. Also, there are more Scots in England than English people in Scotland!
The lands just north or south of the border have long shared certain aspects of history and heritage and thus it is thought by some that the Anglo-Scottish border is largely political rather than cultural. Attempts to raise the level of awareness of Northumberland culture have begun with the formation of a Northumbrian Language Society to preserve the unique dialects such as Pitmatic.