The Middle Kingdoms 5: The Ulster Scots (Scotch Irish)

By the death of Elizabeth I of England, things had come to such a pitch along the Border that the English government considered re-fortifying and rebuilding Hadrian’s Wall, that artiicial entity which has divided Great Britain (Alba) for nearly two thousand years. When Elizabeth died, there was an especially violent outbreak of raiding known as “Ill Week”, resulting from the convenient belief that the laws of a kingdom were suspended between the death of a sovereign and the proclamation of the successor Upon his accession to the English throne, James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England) moved hard against the reivers, abolishing Border Law and the very term “Borders” in favour of “Middle Shires,” and dealing out stern “justice” to Reivers.

Hermitage Castle, the strength of Liddesdale. An important stronghold for the Scottish Marches. Its holder, the Keeper of Liddesdale, usually had equal status to the Scottish Wardens of the Marches.

The border families can be referred to as clans, as the Scots themselves appear to have used both terms interchangeably until the 19th century. In an Act of the Scottish Parliament of 1597 there is the description of the “Chiftanis and chieffis of all clannis… duelland in the hielands or bordouris” – thus using the word clan and chief to describe both Highland and Lowland families. The act goes on to list the various Border clans. Later, Sir George MacKenzie of Rosehaugh, the Lord Advocate (Attorney General) writing in 1680 said “By the term ‘chief’ we call the representative of the family from the word chef or head and in the Irish (Gaelic) with us the chief of the family is called the head of the clan”. Thus, the words chief or head, and clan or family, are interchangeable. It is therefore possible to talk of the MacDonald family or the Maxwell clan. The idea that Highlanders should be listed as clans while the Lowlanders are listed as families originated as a 19th-century convention.

Other terms were also used to describe the Border families, such as the “Riding Surnames” and the “Graynes” thereof. This can be equated to the system of the Highland Clans and their septs. e.g. Clan Donald and Clan MacDonald of Sleat, can be compared with the Scotts of Buccleuch, from whom the present Earl of Ulster is descended, and the Scotts of Harden and elsewhere. Both Border Graynes and Highland septs however, had the essential feature of patriarchal leadership by the chief of the name, and had territories in which most of their kindred lived. Border families did practice customs similar to those of the Gaels, such as tutorship when an heir who was a minor succeeded to the chiefship, and giving bonds of manrent. Although feudalism existed, loyalty to kin was much more important and this is what distinguished the Borderers from other lowland Scots.

In 1587 the Parliament of Scotland passed a statute: “For the quieting and keping in obiedince of the disorderit subjectis inhabitantis of the borders hielands and Ilis.” Attached to the statute was a Roll of surnames from both the Borders and Highlands. The Borders portion listed 17 ‘clannis’ with a Chief and their associated Marches:

  • Middle March
    • Elliot, Armstrong, Nixon, Crosier
  • West March
    • Scott, Bates, Little, Thomson, Glendenning, Irvine, Bell, Carruthers, Graham, Johnstone, Jardine, Moffat and Latimer.

Of the Border Clans or Graynes listed on this roll, Elliott, Armstrong, Scott, Little, Irvine, Bell, Graham, Johnstone, Jardine and Moffat are registered with the Court of Lord Lyon in Edinburgh as Scottish Clans. Others such as Clan Blackadder were armigerous in the Middle Ages but later died out or lost their lands, and are unregistered.

The historic riding surnames, as recorded by George MacDonald Fraser in The Steel Bonnets (1989), are:

  • East March
    • Scotland: Hume, Trotter, Dixon, Bromfield, Craw, Cranston.
    • England: Forster, Selby, Gray, Dunn.
  • Middle March
    • Scotland: Burn, Kerr, Young, Pringle, Davison, Gilchrist, Tait of East Teviotdale. Scott, Oliver, Turnbull (Trimble), Rutherford of West Teviotdale. Armstrong,Crosier, Elliot, Nixon, Douglas, Laidlaw, Turner, Henderson of Liddesdale.
    • England: Anderson, Potts, Reed, Hall, Hedley of Redesdale. Charlton, Robson, Dodds, Milburn, Yarrow, Stapleton of Tynedale. Also Fenwick, Ogle, Heron, Witherington, Medford (later Mitford), Collingwood, Carnaby, Shaftoe, Ridley, Stokoe, Stamper, Wilkinson, Hunter, Thomson, Jamieson.
  • West March
    • Scotland: Bell, Irvine, Johnstone, Maxwell, Carlisle, Beattie, Little, Carruthers, Glendenning, Moffat.
    • England: Graham, Hetherington, Musgrave, Storey, Lowther, Curwen, Salkeld, Dacre, Harden, Hodgson , Routledge, Tailor, Noble.

Relationships between the Border clans varied from uneasy alliance to open “deadly feud”. It took little to start a feud; a chance quarrel or misuse of office was sufficient. Feuds might continue for years until patched up in the face of invasion from the other kingdoms, or when the outbreak of other feuds caused alliances to shift. The border was easily destabilised if Graynes from opposite sides of the border were at feud. Feuds also provided ready excuse for particularly murderous raids or pursuits.

Skills of horsemanship are kept alive in the Borders: fording the Tweed on Braw Lad’s Day, Galashiels 2011

Long after they were gone, the reivers were romanticised by writers such as Sir Walter Scott( Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border), although he made mistakes; the term Moss-trooper, which he used, refers to one of the robbers that existed after the real Reivers had been put down. Nevertheless, Scott was a native of the borders, writing down histories which had been passed on in folk tradition or ballad. The stories of legendary border reivers like Kinmount Willie Armstrong were often retold in folk-song as Border ballads. There are also local legends, such as the “Dish of Spurs” which would be served to a border chieftain of the Charltons to remind him that the larder was empty and it was time to acquire more plunder. Scottish author Nigel Tranter revisited these themes in his historical and contemporary novels.

The names of the Rever families are still very much apparent amongst the inhabitants of the Scottish Borders, Northumberland, Cumbria, Ulster and Appalachia today. Reiving families (particularly those large enough to carry significant influence) have left the local population passionate about their territory on both sides of the Border. Newspapers have described the local cross-border rugby fixtures as ‘annual re-runs of the bloody “Battle of Otterburn”. Despite this there has been much cross-border migration since the Pacification of the Borders, and families that were once Scots now identify themselves as English and vice versa.

Hawick in Scotland holds an annual Reivers’ festival as do the Schomberg Society in Kilkeel, Northern Ireland (the two often co-operate). The summer festival in the Borders town of Duns is headed by the “Reiver” and “Reiver’s Lass”, a young man and young woman elected from the inhabitants of the town and surrounding area. The Ulster-Scots Agency’s first two leaflets from the ‘Scots Legacy’ series feature the story of the historic Ulster tartan and the origins of the kilt and the Border Reivers.

Borderers (particularly those banished by James VI  of Scotland and I of England took part in the Seventeenth Century Settlement of Ulster becoming the people known as Ulster-Scots (Scotch-Irish in America). Reiver descendants can be found throughout Ulster with names such as Elliot, Armstrong, Beattie, Bell, Hume and Heron, Rutledge, and Turnbull (Trimble) amongst others.The Grahams were so detested by James that their very name was forbidden, so they cleverly reversed it and were known by the old Gaelic family name of Maharg.

Border surnames can also be found throughout the major areas of Scotch-Irish settlement in the United States, and particularly in the Appalachian region. The historian David Hackett Fischer (1989) has shown in detail how Border culture became rooted in parts of the United States. Author George MacDonald Fraser wryly observed or imagined Border traits and names among famous people in modern American history; Presidents Lyndon B. Johnston and Richard Nixon, among others. It is also noted that, in 1969, a descendant of the Borderers, Neil Armstrong, was the first person to set foot on the moon. In the following year, Mr. Armstrong visited the town of Langholm, home of his ancestors.

The artist Gordon Young created a public art work in Carlisle: Cursing Stone and Reiver Pavement, a nod to Gavin Dunbar, the Archbishop of Glasgow’s 1525 Monition of Cursing. Names of Reiver families, last of the Old British of the Middle Kingdoms, are set into the paving of a walkway which connects Tullie House Museum to Carlisle Castle under a main road, and part of the bishop’s curse is displayed on a 14-ton granite boulder. The time has come for us to lift that curse and proclaim our birthright to the Middle Kingdoms of our ancestors.


© Pretani Associates 2014 



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