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