03 August 2012

Warriors: The Scottish Border Reivers

By Anita Davison

My recent research into the Massacre of Glencoe led me to delve deeper into the culture of the Scots/English relationship. Right up to the 17th Century, among the Highland Scots clans were Reivers –an old English word for a raider or looter, feared by the Scots as well as the English. Animosity has existed between the two countries for hundreds of years, illustrated by the fact the Scots are now trying to revoke the Act of Union of 1704.

Running a Foray

In 1525, the Archbishop of Glasgow put a curse on the Reivers that was read from every pulpit in the Scottish borderlands. It was hoped the raiders would be ‘swallowed down to hell’.

‘I curse thair heid and all the haris of thair heid…
I curse thaim gangand and I curse thaim rydand…
I curse thair wiffis, their barnis, their catales, their scheip…
May the erd mot oppin, riffle and swelly them quyk to hell!’

The curse continues for another 1458 words!  

The list of Reiving families is long, but the most feared were Armstrongs, Douglas, Grahams, Kerrs, Maxwells, Nixons, and Robsons – who destroyed crops, burned homesteads and murdered or dispersed families. For three hundred years, the borders of Scotland resembled the American Wild West, where the law held little influence, and robbery and blackmail were established ways of life. Regarded with no discredit amongst the Borderers, Reviers’ loyalty was not to King and country, but to his Clan or family name. If one clan member harmed another, the whole of both families would be drawn in, often with terrible consequences. 

'Steill Bonnet' dating from 1570

‘Raids’ or ‘forays’ on their victims homesteads varied from a quick moonlight plunder to forays that lasted days; the aim to take goods and chattels, destroy property and return home with as many cattle as possible. Even successful raids meant driving large numbers of stolen animals home, making riders vulnerable to attack.
Reivers wore padded jackets sewn with metal plates or rings, wore steel bonnets and carried either a lance, or bows and arrows and later on a ‘dag’ (heavy hand gun). Their horses were stockier than today's horses, good in the rough and boggy terrain.

In response to a foray, gangs of landowners and soldiers went "hot trodding" in pursuit of the reivers to reclaim their livestock and hand out summary justice to those they caught. Beacons were sited on Pele towers and hillsides; single fires signalled raiders approaching; four fires, that they rode in great numbers.

In 1249, 'Laws of the Marches' were established for maintaining peace amongst the clans and to deal with complaints.  Appointed from the local gentry, wardens, together with Deputies, Keepers, Captains, Land Sergeants and Troopers, met with their opposite numbers at monthly 'truce days', to administer the Border Laws.

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, his first goal was to restore law and order to the borderlands. On his way to London, he paused in Newcastle and issued a proclamation abolishing the Marches and the Wardens. The term 'the Borders' was forbidden and: "no supply should be given to all rebels and disorderly persons, their wives or their bairnes (children) and that they be prosecuted with fire and sword".

Wanted men were hunted down and executed, many the subject to 'Jeddart Justice'; summary execution without trial, and 140 of the "nimblest and most powerful thieves" were executed within weeks of James' proclamation.

Borderers were forbidden to carry weapons, and could only own horses of a value up to 50 shillings. Reiving families had their land seized, their homes were and the families scattered or deported. Some clans found favour with the King, mainly by joining in the subjugation of the old reiving families, often with poacher-turned gamekeeper enthusiasm. Some were rewarded with gifts of land, and acquired the lands of their former friends and allies. 

The Elliots, Armstrongs and Grahams were singled out for special attention, due to the fact that in the days between the death of Queen Elizabeth and the proclamation of James as King, they had launched a massive raid into Cumbria where they stole nearly 5,000 sheep - known as 'Ill Week'.

Exiled to Ireland, they were forced to live amongst the moors and bogs of Roscommon and Connaught, while any who dared return to Scotland faced the death penalty.

Kinmont Willie by John Faed 1820-1902
The Reiver William Armstrong of Kinmont’s raids into Tynedale, Northumberland, resulted in murder and the loss of thousands of animals, though he always managed to evade the English.

In March 1596, at the behest of his overlord, Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch, Kinmont attended a Truce Day at the Dayholme of Kershope, on the Border between England and Scotland. Everyone who attended were untouchable from dawn of the Truce Day to the sunrise following completion of the trials of felons brought to justice.

Before sunset, as Kinmont rode down the Scottish side of the river Liddel, a party of Englishmen spotted the great Scots Reiver, forded the river and ran Kinmont down, bound him to his horse and took him to Carlisle Castle.

Walter Scott demanded Kinmont’s released as the sanctity of the Day of Truce had been abused by the English. A diplomatic wrangle ensued, with even Queen Elizabeth and King James VI involved, but nothing was settled. Buccleuch gathered a group of Border Reivers and headed for Carlisle, swam across the river Eden, made swollen and fast moving by the torrential rain, and rescued Kinmont.

Some time later, when Walter Scott was on his way to the Low Countries, he met Queen Elizabeth. She asked him how he dared to attack the castle of Carlisle in peacetime. His response:

'What, Madam, is there that a brave man may not dare?'
Elizabeth is reputed to have turned to her courtiers and said:-
'Give me a thousand such leaders and I'll shake any throne in Europe'

Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch, was made a knight in 1606, and died, apparently in his bed around 1611, having never suffered for his attack on Carlisle Castle.

“Sentence first — verdict afterwards,” says the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland; and the trial of the Knave of Hearts



Blythe Gifford said...

Thanks for the recap of the Border Reivers' story. My upcoming trilogy revolves around a Reiver family during the time of King James V (not James VI) and I found the history fascinating. Another tidbit: The hobbler ponies they rode were viewed as so integral to their success that the breed was subsequently outlawed.

Erin OQuinn said...

Dear Anita, What a riveting account! Well written, almost a nail-biter, even though these people lived and fought hundreds of years ago. I love the way you put your article together, beginning with the provocative set of curses, and interlacing excellent photos. Congrats!

Erin O'Quinn

Anita Davison said...

Thank you Blythe and Erin, as I said this was accidental research, curious as to why feelings still run so high between the two countries, the more I read the more engrossed I became. The romance of the highlands is still a compelling image, even though the truth may be grittier.

J. R. Tomlin said...

It was the Acts (plural) of Union of 1707 not 1704. They are not "trying to revoke them".

The Acts of Union merely implemented the Treaty of Union of 1706 which was a treaty between two separate states (England and Scotland) which agreed they would be joined into a single Kingdom. The Treaty had to be approved by the respective parliaments, those of Scotland and England.

The Treaty met with massive opposition in Scotland. It is the treaty which is might be withdrawn from and it is, after all, the right of any nation to withdraw from a treaty.

Jody said...

Actually ( as per your first paragraph) though the Highlanderws did some cattle stealing, the "real" Reivers were Border Clans with almost no connection with the Gaels (highlanders) of the North. Many were direct descendants of the early Britons( Old Welsh where in Hawick they still use the old Welsh counting method for sheep herding) and Anglo/Saxons (who arrived when the Romans left in the 4th century) as well as the Gaels from the Southwest of Scotland( who either came before the Britons or more likely came to trade in the SW of Scotland BEFORE the Gaels of the North). Their culture was almost dirrectly opposite than the Highlands, with their own Border laws and their own system of justice as you say above sanction by the Border laws that were ever changing ( like young women and men could Not marry across the Border without permission for the March Warden). . Though this is a great account please don't confuse the Border Reivers ( where the word came from was the loss of goods left one bereived) with the Highlanders as their cultures including language and family structure was vastly different than the Highlanders. That is why when a romance historical has a scenario where they want to solve the Border issues between the two nations by having an English Lady marry a Highland it makes absolutely no sense because what went on the in the Border Marches had nothing to do with the Highlanders of Scotland. The Raid on Carlyle of KWA caused a diplmomatic problem for James VI in Scotland who was on thin ice with Elizabeth and he sent Scott to Berwick where he was found guilty and incarcerated by the English who moved him to London where he had the encounter with Elizabeth, who later released him. The whole game was a matter of each monarch saving face and it was forgone conclusion that Elizabeth was going to do nothing to punish Scott as it would have caused the Borders to erupt in warfare which would have caused problem for her because it didn't help to have many a Scot nobleman who was on the payroll of the Spanish catholic crown. If you are interest in more actuall accounts ( from the English pov) you might be interested in the Calendar of Border papers. http://archive.org/details/borderpaperscale02grea