17 April 2012

Family Feuds on the Scottish Borders: Maxwells and Johnstones

Blythe Gifford

In the United States, when we want to reference a bitter family feud, we mention the Hatfields and the McCoys.

In Britain, a similar honor might belong to the Maxwells and the Johnstones, two families who competed for dominance in the 16th century just north of the Scottish border. Caerlaverock Castle, stronghold of the Maxwells, is pictured below as it looked in 1900.

During the height of the Border Reiver era, in the 1500s, the area surrounding the Anglo-Scottish border functioned almost as if it were a separate country. Beholding to their own code instead of to either king, the society could best be described as tribal. “Official” Border laws notwithstanding, the code of conduct was “an eye for an eye.”

Loyalty to family came above all else. So while there were raids ridden across the border, the fact that two families lived in the same country did not make them allies. In fact, it might make their rivalry even more bitter.

Thus it was for these two.

The origins of the enmity are not entirely clear. Though the bloodiest days came late in the century, the feud was referenced by the English as early as 1528. In fact, some blame the English for agitating the conflict.

At the same time these families were trying to extinguish one another, one (or the other) was usually the official Warden of the Scottish West March, (see map) charged with keeping law and order on the western reaches of the Scottish side of the border. That made the rivalry part of a struggle to control the entire March. It also meant that enforcement of Borders justice became personal.

The Johnstones’ smaller numbers and land holdings made it harder for them to prevail in battle. However, as the century progressed, the Maxwells’ loyalty to the Catholic Church worked against them as Scotland turned to the Reformation.

I shall not attempt to write a detailed history of the dizzying conflict, which persisted for nearly eighty years. In fact, the details vary, depending on the teller.

But much of what is remembered now comes to us from Scottish Ballads, which capture so many of the stories, true or romanticized, of the Border. These were originally collected and published in the late nineteenth century as "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads," usually called the Child Ballads for their collector, Frances James Child.

The ballad “The Lads of Wamphray” tells the story of a skirmish between William Johnstone of Wamphray, known as the Galliard, and the Crichtons in 1593. (Yes, it leads back to conflict with the Maxwells. Eventually.)

At this time, there had been a lull in the animosity. All that was to end when William Johnstone stole a horse from Willie Carmichael and, in a rare instance of law enforcement, was forced to return it.

He then tried to steal one from the Crichtons. This time, he was captured. (Due to having stolen a blind and lame horse, if the legend can be believed.) He pleaded for his life, to no avail. As the ballad reports, “they hanged him hie [high] upon a tree.”

For this, the “lads of Wamphray,” the rest of William Johnstone’s family, had to ride in revenge. In the ballad’s words, “O but the Johnstons were wondrous rude when the Biddes burn [stream] ran three days blood.”

Keep in mind, this celebration of the slaughter is in a song sung from the Johnstone’s perspective. Delighted, they boasted of their noble deed of revenge: “For every finger of the Galliard’s hand, I vow this day I’ve killed a man.”

The Crichton family saw it differently and called on the Warden of the March, who was a Maxwell, to punish the Johnstones. This led to the Battle of Dryfe Sands, “one of the bloodiest family fights on British soil,” according to George MacDonald Fraser. Maxwell had 2000 men. The Johnstone side 400. But the outcome was not what you might expect. The Johnstones ambushed Maxwell’s men and, literally fighting for the survival of their family, killed hundreds of Maxwells, including the Warden of the March.

The Johnstone’s youngest soldier? An eleven year old boy.

Ah, but the feud did not end there. Maxwell and Johnstone continued to switch places serving as Warden. And there’s one more ballad to be sung.

In 1608, a meeting was arranged between Lord John Maxwell and Sir James Johnstone to effect a reconciliation. All precautions had been taken to insure the participants’ safety, to no avail. John Maxwell shot James Johnstone. Twice. In the back.

The Maxwell’s had the last word this time, for they had the better ballad. Having killed in cold blood, Maxwell had to flee for the continent. “Lord Maxwell’s Last Goodnight” tells of his tender farewell to his family and friends. “Good my lord, will you stay…” his wife sings.
“I have killed the laird Johnstone…I may not stay with thee,” he answers.

And as the ship sails, his friends see him off:

“They ate the meat and drank the wine, presenting in that good lord’s sight
Then he is over the flood so gray.
Lord Maxwell’s ta’en his last goodnight.”

It is a lovely tune, and we sigh at the romance of the parting.

The reality was not so sweet. Maxwell had apparently started divorce proceedings against his wife and she had actually died by the time he left the country.

Maxwell himself returned to Scotland four years later. He was tried and beheaded.
Legend says, he was turned in by a family member.

For more information on the Reivers, consult The STEEL BONNETS, George MacDonald Fraser, and The REIVERS, Alistair Moffat. There are also numerous websites. Each tells a slightly different story.

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. A new trilogy, set on the Scottish Borders during the turbulent era of the Border Reivers, debuts in November with RETURN OF THE BORDER WARRIOR.