The Border Reivers were the descendants of the British Middle Kingdoms along the Anglo-Scottish border from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century. Their ranks consisted of both Scottish and English families, and they raided the entire border country without regard to Scottish or English “nationality”. Their heyday was perhaps in the last hundred years of their existence, during the time of the Stewart Kings in Scotland and the Tudor Dynasty in England. The Norman kingdoms of Scotland and England were frequently at war during the late Middle Ages, divided as they were artificially by the Roman Wall of Hadrian. During these wars, the livelihood of the people on the borders was devastated by the contending armies. Even when the countries were not at war, tension remained high, and royal authority in either kingdom was often weak. The uncertainty of existence meant that communities or people kindred to each other would seek security through their own strength and cunning, and improve their livelihoods at their nominal enemies’ expense. Loyalty to a feeble or distant monarch and reliance on the effectiveness of the law usually made people a target for depredations rather than conferring any security.
There were other factors which promoted theirmode of living. Among them was the survival in the Borders of the inheritance system of gavelkind, by which estates were divided equally between all sons on a man’s death, so that many people owned insufficient land to maintain themselves. Also, much of the border region is mountainous or open moorland, unsuitable for arable farming but good for grazing. Livestock was easily rustled and driven back to raiders’ territory by mounted reivers who knew the country well. The raiders also often removed “insight,” easily portable household goods or valuables, and took prisoners for ransom.
The attitudes of the English and Scottish governments towards the border families alternated between indulgence or even encouragement, as these fierce families served as the first line of defence against invasion from the other side of the border, and draconian and indiscriminate punishment when their lawlessness became intolerable to the authorities.
The popular story handed down within reiver families is that from earliest times, reivers would visit the homesteads prior to wars or invasions and remove the cattle and items of value to a place of safety. Lords and Wardens unable to guarantee their masters’ supply lines would claim wrongdoing by ruffians and broken men. It is easy to conjecture that this attitude of defiance to authority would grow into outright lawlessness.
“Reive” is an early English word for “to rob”, from the Northumbrian and Scots verb reifen from the Old English rēafian, and thus related to the archaic Standard English verb reave (“to plunder”, “to rob”), and to the modern English word “ruffian”.
The reivers were both English and Scottish and raided both sides of the border impartially, so long as the people they raided had no powerful protectors and no connection to their own kin. Their activities, although usually within a day’s ride of the Border, extended both north and south of their main haunts. English raiders were reported to have hit the outskirts of Edinburgh, and Scottish raids were known as far south as Yorkshire. The main raiding season ran through the early winter months, when the nights were longest and the cattle and horses fat from having spent the summer grazing. The numbers involved in a raid might range from a few dozen to organised campaigns involving up to three thousand riders.
When raiding, or riding, as it was termed, the Reivers rode light on hardy nags or ponies renowned for the ability to pick their way over the boggy moss lands.The original dress of a shepherd’s plaid was later replaced by light armour such as Brigantines or jacks of plaite (a type of sleeveless doublet into which small plates of steel were stitched), and a metal helmet such as a burgonet or morion; hence their nickname of the steel bonnets. They were armed with a lance and small shield, and sometimes also with a longbow, or a light crossbow known as a “latch”, or later on in their history with one or more pistols. They invariably also carried a sword and dirk.
As soldiers, the Border Reivers were considered among the finest light cavalry in all of Europe. After meeting one Reiver (the Bold Buccleugh), Queen Elizabeth I is quoted as having said that “with ten thousand such men, James VI could shake any throne in Europe.” Reivers served as mercenaries, or were forced to serve in English and Scots armies in the Low Countries and in Ireland. Such service was often handed down as a penalty in lieu of that of death upon their families.
Reivers fighting as levied soldiers played important parts at the battles of Flodden Field and Solway Moss. When fighting as part of larger English or Scottish armies, Borderers were difficult to control as many had relatives on both sides of the border, despite laws forbidding international marriage. They could claim to be of either nationality, describing themselves as Scottish if forced, English at will and a Reiver or Old British by grace of blood. They were badly-behaved in camp, frequently plundered for their own benefit instead of obeying orders, and there were always questions about how loyal they were. At battles such as Ancrum Moor in Scotland in 1545, borderers changed sides in mid-battle, to curry favour with the likely victors, and at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, an observer (William Patten) noticed that the Scottish and English borderers were talking to each other in the midst of battle, and on being spotted put on a show of fighting.
The inhabitants of the Borders had to live in a state of constant alert, and for self-protection, they built fortified tower houses.
In the very worst periods of warfare, people were unable to construct more than crude turf cabins, the destruction of which would be little loss. When times allowed however, they built houses designed as much for defence as shelter. The Bastle House was a stout two-storeyed building. The lower floor was used to keep the most valuable livestock and horses. The upper storey housed the people, and often could be reached only by an external ladder which was pulled up at night or if danger threatened. The stone walls were up to 3 feet (0.91 m) thick, and the roof was of slate or stone tiles. Only narrow arrow slits provided light and ventilation.
Such dwellings could not be set on fire, and while they could be captured, for example by smoking out the defenders with fires of damp straw or using scaling ladders to reach the roof, they were not worth the time and effort. If necessary, they could be temporarily abandoned and stuffed full of smouldering turf to prevent an enemy (such as a government army) destroying them with gunpowder.
Peel towers (also spelled Pele Towers) were usually three-storeyed buildings. They were usually constructed specifically for defensive purposes by the authorities, or for prestigious individuals such as the heads of clans. Smailholm Tower is one of many surviving Peel towers.
Peel towers and bastle houses were often surrounded by a stone wall known as a barmkin, inside which cattle and other livestock were kept overnight.
During periods of nominal peace, a special body of customary law, known as Border Law, grew up to deal with the situation. Under Border Law, a person who had been raided had the right to mount a counter-raid within six days, even across the border, to recover his goods. This Hot Trod had to proceed with “hound and horne, hew and cry”, making a racket and carrying a piece of burning turf on a spear point to openly announce their purpose, to distinguish themselves from unlawful raiders proceeding covertly. They might use a sleuth hound (also known as a “slew dogge”) to follow raiders’ tracks. These dogs were valuable, and part of the established forces (on the English side of the border, at least). Any person meeting this counter-raid was required to ride along and offer such help as he could, on pain of being considered complicit with the raiders. The Cold Trod mounted after six days required official sanction. Officers such as the Deputy Warden of the English West March had the specific duty of “following the trod”.
Both sides of the border were divided into Marches, each under a March Warden. The March Wardens’ various duties included the maintenance of patrols, watches and garrisons to deter raiding from the other kingdom. On occasions March Wardens could make Warden Roades to recover loot, and to make a point to raiders and officials.
The March Wardens also had the duty of maintaining such justice and equity as was possible. The respective kingdoms’ March Wardens would meet at appointed times along the border itself to settle claims against people on their side of the border by people from the other kingdom. These occasions, known as “Days of Truce”, were much like fairs, with entertainment and much socialising. For Reivers it was an opportunity to meet (lawfully) with relatives or friends normally separated by the border. It was not unknown for violence to break out even at such truce days.
March Wardens (and the lesser officers such as Keepers of fortified places) were rarely effective at maintaining the law. The Scottish Wardens were usually borderers themselves, and were complicit in raiding. They almost invariably showed favour to their own kindred, which caused jealousy and even hatred among other Scottish border families. Many English officers were from southern counties in England and often could not command the loyalty or respect of their locally-recruited subordinates or the local population. Local officers such as Sir John Forster, who was Warden of the Middle March for almost 35 years, became quite as well known for venality as his most notorious Scottish counterparts.
To be continued
© Pretani Associates 2014