In 1286, King Alexander III of Scotland was on his way to his new young wife’s bed, during a storm, when he fell over a cliff. Whether his tumble was assisted or not isn’t recorded but his lust-driven freefall to oblivion was to have enormous consequences for the border between Scotland and England. From this point in time begins the story of the Border Reivers, also known as Riding Surnames and Steel Bonnets – family bands of hard riding, tough and resourceful men. They existed on plunder, cattle rustling, mayhem and sometimes murder, brought about by a border in a constant state of flux and turmoil.
They were to be a law unto themselves in the Marches either side of the border for over three centuries. Their time finally ran out when the crowns of Scotland and England were joined in 1603 under the Scots King, James VI/I. He broke the power of the Reivers by hanging many of them, dispossessing others and scattering those who resisted his will. It was the end of an enthralling chapter in the history of the Borders.
Below is an account of a 16th century raid on Willmoteswick fortified manor house, the home of the Ridley’s, by the warlike Armstrongs of Liddesdale. This manor guarded the ford at Haltwhistle and is relayed in the famous border ballad, ‘The Fray of Hautwessel’. The death of Wat Armstrong is a sobering reminder of the power of the English longbow.
‘John Ridley thrust his spear right through Sim o’ the Cathills wame (belly) … Then Alec Ridley let flee a clothyard shaft, it struck Wat Armstrong in the ee’, went through his steel cap, head an a’, it made him quickly fa’, he could na’ rise … The best at thief-craft or the ba’ (football), he ne’er again shall ride a raid’.
At this point in the narrative, it would be a good time to get one very important thing clear about the Border Reivers. They did not wear kilts or plaid, nor did they paint their faces with blue woad. This is a fantastical invention, a fabrication by the actor and director Mel Gibson, in his highly inaccurate film Braveheart. I feel sure there must be many people with no real knowledge of the true history of Scotland, who have watched that dreadful piece of old hokum and fallen for the ‘tartanfest’ it peddles, along with its distorted historical perspectives. His dressing of non-Highlanders in kilts was ridiculous, as ridiculous as dressing the Plains Indians in business suits and ray-bans, whilst they were fighting General Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Edward and Wallace
The great families of the borders on both sides of it, were very closely connected and intermarriage was common if not the norm. In the late 16th century it was difficult to find one of the Scottish Armstrong clan for example, who wasn’t married to an Englishwoman. The governments of Scotland and England even passed laws to forbid cross-border marriages on pain of death. The independent borderers generally disregarded these laws and the governments were in no position to enforce them. The marriages continued unabated, as they still do to this day.
Anyway – back to 1286 and the airborne King Alexander III. After his date with destiny the kingdom passed to his infant grand-daughter, Margaret. King Edward I of England saw advantage in this and planned a marriage between the infant queen and his own son. Unfortunately Margaret died in 1290 and the Scottish succession was unclear. Edward I was invited to decide who should succeed to the Scottish throne and had his puppet Balliol installed as king. However, Balliol once installed began to have ideas of his own. He concluded an alliance with France and began to raid across the border into England. Edwards response was swift as he confiscated the property of all Scots in England. The Scots in turn massacred English sailors at Berwick. The Scots king then took the very unwise step of invading England where he met Edwards English army in battle.
It is interesting to note that as King Edward I waited at the border town of Wark with his army, he had with him some Scottish nobles. One of these nobles was a certain Robert the Bruce, later to become king of Scotland in his own right. In the west the Scots attempted to take Carlisle but the city held fast. In the east, Edward took Berwick and there was a great loss of life in that town. Edward and his army then entered Scotland and within five months he had brought the country to submission. The governor that Edward left in charge to control Scotland made a complete hash of the job and as a consequence of his misrule, the uprising of William Wallace happened.
Mighty Hermitage Castle – A Border Stronghold of Scotland
For years after the events described above, invasion followed counter invasion and the devastation all along the border went on for generations, it became a way of life. The area was never to be stable again whilst the two nations were dynastically separate. During this time a unique buffer region was being born, the lawless land of the Border Reivers.
The constant raids over the border made the growing of crops almost impossible and agriculture broke down. Crops were all too often burnt before they could be gathered and it made little sense to attempt to grow them. The people of the Borders mostly gave up on agriculture and lived by raiding, general skulduggery and blackmail, thus were born the fabled Border Reivers.
A common bond across the border
The word ‘blackmail’ entered the English language from the Border Reivers, along with the words ‘bereaved’ and ‘gang’. The people of the borders had taken a step backwards as far as the rule of law was concerned, everything fell away except the art of raiding and feuding. Powerful families evolved who raided across the border and often feuded with each other. There were also cross border alliances, marriages and even families such as the Grahams, who resided on both sides of the border. Even different branches of the same family feuded, the Kerr’s of Ferniehirst and Cessford were at each others throats for decades.
Another of the long lasting feuds was that between the Kerr’s and the Scott’s. Like Pirates and Smugglers, the Reivers have tended to be sanitised and romanticised over the past centuries and historical inaccuracies of the times have been stated as fact. Our friend Mel Gibson is a prime example of this with his fantastical version of the uprising of William Wallace, as mentioned earlier.
Such was the uniqueness of the people of the Borders, both Scots and English, that they had more in common with each other than those from outside the area, even those from their own country. They understood each other and lived by the same accepted rules. When Scotland and England were officially at war, the Borderers would be fighting on both sides. This was usually for the booty and plunder rather than from any sense of national allegiance. Their fights were never those of national sovereignty or for the rights of kings or the nobility.
The Border Reivers were Scottish when they will and English at their pleasure, or indeed the reverse. When they met on the field of battle as part of national armies, they invariably avoided each other and did each other little harm. Family was everything on the Borders and nationality was no more than a flag of convenience.
The Reivers were expert and skilful horsemen and rode hardy little horses called ‘Hobbys’. These horses were said to be capable of travelling up to 150 miles per day. It is little wonder that raids could happen so far from the border. Raids are documented as having taken place as far south as Yorkshire in England and within three miles of Edinburgh in Scotland. Sadly, these wonderful little horses no longer exist today. Probably the closest thing to them now is the Icelandic horse, which is another small and sturdy breed.
The Riders themselves wore a particular kind of clothing. They wore a steel helmet – hence their name of ‘steel bonnets’ – a shirt, over which could be worn a coat of mail but more usually was worn a ‘Jack’. A ‘Jack’ was a quilted coat of stout leather sewn with plates of metal or bone for added protection. It was an extremely good piece of protective clothing. They also wore breeches and high leather boots. They were considered to be some of the best light cavalry in the world during times of war.
No Robin Hoods
Over the centuries continual raiding laid waste to the Border Marches, so much so that at times the population in the areas found themselves in desperate circumstances. In the mid 1500’s the people of Dumfriesshire were close to starvation due to the depredations of the Reivers. The bands of Reivers were not solely English or Scottish, they could very easily consist of mixed bands and more often than not did. Family as ever on the border meant everything, nationality as we understand it today meant nothing.
The Reivers were no Robin Hoods, they were not robbing the rich to help the poor, they simply robbed to help themselves. They were not outlaws in the accepted modern sense either, as many of the nobles and ‘gentlemen’ were up to their necks in reiving. Often, March Wardens who were supposed to be keeping the actions of the Reivers in check were in fact Reivers themselves, or at least in league with them.
The March Lands of the Scottish Border Reivers
The demise of the Border Reivers
By the 16th century the unique conditions on the border had become an accepted way of life, people had never known anything else. The end came in 1603 with the joining of the crowns. No longer was there a border to be fought over, there was one crown and one country. King James set about breaking the power of the border families and he brutally harried and suppressed them. Whilst Scotland and England had been two separate countries, this pool of fine fighting men was a rich resource for both sides. When the crowns were united, in the eyes of the king they became nothing but brigands and scoundrels, and a menace to the stability of the realm.
Some of the great border families saw which way the wind was blowing and threw in their lot with the king, and prospered because of it. They eagerly rooted out other reiving families on behalf of the king, or even those of their own surname. Wanted men were hunted down and executed. They were now subject to ‘Jeddart Justice’, which was summary execution without trial. All Borderers were forbidden to carry weapons and they could only own horses of a value up to 50 shillings. Deprived of their basic reiving tools all unlawful activities eventually ceased. Many reiving families were also dispossessed of their lands by grasping heidsmen and nobles on the make.
Many were hung or transported to Ulster as part of the Protestant plantations that were to cause so much grief for Ireland over the coming centuries. For the first time in many long years, peace and stability returned to the Border region and it settled into a more civilised state of normality. Only a few powerful Reiver families remained in what was the old Marches with their land and positions intact. Many of the old Reivers who resisted change after 1603 moved to England, Ireland, America and Canada, where their descendents still reside to this day.
That has also been the story for the maternal side of our family, who having been uprooted from the Borders by dispossession migrated first to Cumberland in England, under threat from the noose of ‘Jeddart Justice’ and then a couple of generations later to Suffolk in East Anglia. From there they migrated to Canada, firstly to the province of Ontario and thence out to Saskatchewan and finally some of the family went on to the province of Alberta.
Our branch of this extended family, in the form of my grandfather, returned to the UK in the mid 20th century just before the onset of the Second World War. Others had returned prior to World War One. They served in the British forces rather than the Canadian during both world wars. Military service has tended to run in our family down the generations, myself included, probably a martial reminder in the bloodline of our old Reiving traditions.
We would recommend that anybody seeking to find out more about the Border Reivers and life on the Borders between 1286 and 1603, should read the excellent and highly readable book by George MacDonald Fraser called – ‘The Steel Bonnets,’ or that other excellent book about the Border Reivers called – ‘The Reivers’ by Alistair Moffat.
A Border Reiver’s Steel Helmet