28 February 2011

An Ordinary Day In: The Night of a Border Reiver

Blythe Gifford

I write today not about a "day in the life," but a night in the life of a 16th century Border Reiver.

Because the Reivers did their work at night.

Let me set the scene. For hundreds of years, the area on either side of the line separating Scotland and England, was almost a third country. It even had its own laws.

The families living there had more in common with each other than with their distant governments in Edinburgh and London. Loyalty to family came first. Country was far down the list. Feuds and alliances respected no borders and there are tales aplenty of Scots and English Borderers chatting on the "official" battlefield when they were supposed to be fighting each other.

For more than three hundred years, this was a war zone where, in addition to the enemy, you were at the mercy of your own army, who was quite willing to burn you out in order to deprive the enemy of supplies.

As a result, the border families developed their own code of conduct.

To put it bluntly, they stole for a living.

Sheep, cattle, household goods, anything that wasn't nailed down was fair game. The Scots would steal from the English, and vice versa, but Scot would also steal from Scot and Englishmen from their brothers. And both sides would steal from the church.

The best of them, or the worst, depending on your point of view, knew how to ride at night and hide during the day, along with any sheep, cattle, or other booty they collected.

So, what was a typical night like for a Reiver?

Peak raiding season was fall and winter when nights were long. The boggy ground firmed with the frost, making surer footing for the horses. In addition, in winter, the livestock were gathered near the homes, instead of grazing the hills. That made them easier to steal.

Some "raids" were reported to have 3,000 men riding, but most were smaller than that, the number of men matched to the intended target.

The Reivers were superb horsemen, but they did not ride the large destriers that knights did. Their sturdy "ponies" (called hobblers or Galloway nags) were tireless, able to carry a man 60 to 80 miles during a raid.

The raiders did not weigh down their horses by wearing full armor. They dressed lightly, wearing "steel bonnets" for head protection, over the knee leather boots over hose, and leather gloves. For protection, they had home made "jak o' plaite" vests. Quilted of leather or wool, the vest had bits of steel and bone between the layers, good, lightweight protection which left the arms free.

That was important because carried a variety of weapons: daggers, broadswords, sometimes small cross bow called a latch. Most often, however, a Border would ride carrying an eight foot long pike (a lance or spear). With this in one hand, he had to guide the pony one-handed.

Over treacherous mountains.

In the dark of night.

Moonless nights were preferred, but even the cover of night did not make the task easy. Most towns were fortified, so isolated towers and homes were preferred targets. So ubiquitous was the threat, however, that individual homes and even churches became mini-forts, designed to withstand an assault. Eventually watches were set all along the hills and a system of beacons established to warn of approaching riders.

Here's a list, kept by an Englishman, of raids into one section of the border during ten days of July in 1587. This list records only Scots raids into England. A Scotsman's list would, no doubt, be a mirror.

July 8 – 4 men, took 4 horses
July 9 – 12 men took 40 "beasts"
July 13 – 30 men too 24 oxen and "kyne" (cows) and 60 sheep and hurt 5 men
July 14 - 4 men took 4 "webbes of leed" (lead) from a church
July 15 – 12 men took 120 sheep
July 16 - 40 men took 40 oxen and cows
July 18 – 300 men took 30 oxen and cows, 6 horses, and hurt 3 men

That's seven raids in ten days. And July was the off season.

According to Border law, a reiver could be pursued back across the border, if caught in the act. This "Hot Trod," was the equivalent of a vigilante posse and the Border laws were strict in differentiation between a "Hot Trod," and a reprisal raid.

If the reiver evaded the pursuers and was able to return across mountain and stream to his own country, he would hide the stolen animals in the surrounding hills, just in case the warden actually came looking for him later.

And so, as the sun rose, he could make his way to bed.

For more information on the Reivers, consult The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser, The Border Reivers, by Keith Durham, and The Reivers by Alistair Moffat.

Painting by Tom Scott RSA (1854-1927), downloaded from [1], a site dealing with Border Reivers in general and Walter Scott of Harden in particular. Original painting in the Mainhill Gallery, Ancrum.

Borders landscape photo was taken from the Geograph Project collection. See this photograph's page on the Geograph website for the photographer's contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Gordon Hatton and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Blythe Gifford has written five, 14th century medieval romances for Harlequin Historicals featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket, most recently HIS BORDER BRIDE. The Chicago Tribune called her work "the perfect balance between history and romance." She is working on her next book, which will again be set on the Scottish Borders.