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Border Reivers
The End of the Reivers
Kindly contributed by Linda Bruce Caron


Many Reivers ended their lives in the same way. They were tried and hanged on the gallows at Carlisle or Newcastle. Actually, they may not have been tried as we know it, but instead were condemned. Geordie Burn, the night before he was hanged gave his confession and said that he had 'lived long enough to do so many villainies as he had done … that he had lain with above forty men's wives, what in England, what in Scotland; and that he had killed seven Englishmen with his own hand, cruelly murdering them; that he had spent his whole time in whoring, drinking, stealing and taking deep revenge for slight offences.' Needless to say, he was hanged by morning light.

When James VI became king he was determined to have a United Kingdom. He issued a proclamation against all rebels and disorderly persons. No supplies were to be given to them, their wives or children and the rebels were to be prosecuted with fire and sword. James required all who were guilty of the "foul and insolent outrages lately committed in the Borders" to submit themselves to his mercy under penalty of being excluded from it forever. He decreed the Border Marches would cease to exist and the office of warden would be abolished. The name Borders was prohibited and the area was to be called Middle Shires instead. He ordered all places of strength to be demolished except, of course, the houses of noblemen and barons and ordered all the inhabitants to become farmers. After the union of the crowns, James VI outlawed the MacGregors. They were outlawed in 1590 for 173 years. The clan took to the hills and made their living by raiding cattle and harvests of meal and running protection rackets. Alistar MacGregor in 1603 clashed with Alexander Colquhoun and James had the MacGregors hunted down like animals. However, they continued to raid.

War and hardship and constant devastation of towns, farms and the people shaped these people so that by the 16th century there was complete gang warfare. The situation had been made worse by the ineffectiveness of the two governments. Their interference on the one hand and neglect on the other allowed the borders to become unmanageable. Both governments even encouraged the lawlessness for political reasons. After having partially created the situation, the governments found that they could not control it. Apparently this didn’t seem to concern them overly since it was the Borderers who were suffering, not the governments. With the Warden system breaking down and the Borderers not able to exact justice from either side, they, of course, resorted to justice of their own. Terrorism reigned. People were afraid to complain of thefts for fear of awful reprisals or for fear of starting feuds. Government officials often protected the worst of the marauders in return for their own protection.

The defeat of the Scottish at Solway Moss was a disaster. It was a terrible rout. On their way back into Scotland, the army found itself beset by Scottish raiders waiting to take plunder and prisoners. The news of Solway Moss was a fatal blow to King James V. He was ill and terribly dejected. He withdrew from the Border country and wandered from one royal residence to another. A few days after the defeat, he received news that he had fathered a child, a daughter, who was very weak and not likely to live. This daughter was later to become Mary, Queen of Scots. He died shortly after that. He was no sooner dead than the Scotts and Kerrs were raiding the royal flocks and once again Scotland would have a child monarch.

Scotland was now in great peril. If Henry VIII had invaded Scotland at the end of the Solway Moss debacle, he would have stood a good chance of taking the country. However, he decided that the best way was to betroth his son, Edward, to the newborn Mary. Scotland and England then would come under one rule. This might have come to fruition but the Scots would not let the little Queen be raised in England and they rejected Henry’s treaty. That was it for Henry. He decided that he would have to obtain Scotland in another manner, the ‘old-fashioned’ way by resorting to all out war. Thus began the rough wooing. It has been suggested that Henry’s behavior - his arrogance and cruelty which appeared in middle age - could have been due to cerebral syphilis. He had also received a head injury jousting which left him unconscious for a time. He may have never recovered from that head wound. Henry VIII kept the Borders in a 'state of ferment' so that he could pursue his military ambitions in Europe. Henry and James got along reasonably well during the first years of his reign. He wanted to marry Marie of France but she chose to marry James V which did nothing to promote their friendship. Therefore, James was allied with France during the time of peace with England and felt that he could also be a friend to England. When England joined the Holy League against France in 1511, James continued his friendship with France. Henry's rough wooing backfired on him because the more he burned and scorched the earth, the more stubborn and resistant the Scottish people became.

After Henry's death, the country was in the hands of Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford who was now advanced to the title of Duke of Somerset. Edward VI was king but he was a child, ill with tuberculosis. Somerset felt that the French influence had to be broken. Being English, he knew only one way to do this, and it was with force and fire. He invaded in 1547. The fiery cross was lit and an army of 30,000 was gathered. The armies met at Pinkie on what is known as Black Saturday. The Scots were in good position but abandoned it. Although they broke the English horse they were decimated by Somerset's gunners and cannon. The Scottish army was driven from the field. The Scottish suffered a great loss of dead and prisoners taken. Somerset was now an occupying power of the lowlands. England now had a strong grip on southern Scotland. Somerset proposed peace. His terms seem to have been generous ones, 'union with Scottish independence assured, English claims north of the Border to be renounced and the countries to be ruled by the children of Edward and Mary.' Looking at it today we might say that that was unacceptable but looking at it through the eyes and the plight of the people, it might have been a different matter. People who had survived the terrible times of the 1540s, whose countryside was ruined, who could not plant a crop and hope to reap it, who could not expect to see their children grow to an old age, it might have seemed a good peace. Regardless, Scotland rejected Somerset's offer.

With French assistance (when Mary was sent to France) Scotland was roused to another drive. The fighting that took place across the Border country in 1548 was the worst the Marches had seen. The Scots were pitiless, probably paying back old grievances. It has been said that they even bought English prisoners from the French so they could slaughter them. Whether this is true or not, I do not know. Hatred deepened on both sides. Renewed war with France drained the English coffers and energy, taking it from the northern Border. And finally the war came to an end. England withdrew from Scotland with assurances that she would never attack Scotland again. A lesson the people of the Borders knew already - that might was right.

By Elizabeth's rein lawlessness and raiding on the border had increased so that in desperation it was suggested that the Roman wall be rebuilt. Castles were to be set a mile apart to deter raiding by the Scots. It would also provide a means to invade Scotland at will. This was never done but shows the conditions on the border even when the two countries were at peace. When Elizabeth died the border erupted in violence once again - a complete reign of terror. Grahams, Armstrongs and Elliots launched massive raids into Cumbria stealing cattle and sheep.

When Mary returned to Scotland, she tried to deal with the Borders. Her half brother, James Stewart, led an expedition to the Middle March and hanged 30 or so reivers. Their homes, or strong places, were destroyed the local leaders were instructed to keep order and peace. This seemed like a good start. The Wardens were instructed to settle disputes in an impartial manner. For awhile things were good on the Borders as neither Queen, Mary or Elizabeth, wanted to do anything to offend the other. However, the peace did not last. The Elliot-Scott feud broke out and once again murder and mayhem were the action of the day. The Elliots, being outnumbered, asked for help from England. In return for her protection they offered Elizabeth the castle of Hermitage. The English government for once was wise enough to refuse this offer feeling that their interference would once again 'shake loose the border.' However, the Elliots were being provisioned by the English Wardens and were offered sanctuary when necessary. This was at the time that Mary married Darnley to the consternation of her nobles and that of Elizabeth. The majority of the border families were in favor of her actions and this helped put down her half-brother's rebellion.

Turmoil like this only led to inevitable raids. Liddesdale riders and broken men took advantage to raid in the English East March. Liddesdale was a haven for fugitives and an outpost against authority and law. The East March Warden protested, but since he had been acting on secret instructions from Elizabeth to keep matters on the Borders at a pitch, what could he expect? Therefore, in a few short months, chaos reigned again. Mary's supporters continued to raid in England hoping to provoke war. But the rebellions were put down and this was basically the last time that the Borders would see the armies of great size. The raids continued for the next 30 years but with less influence from England and Scotland.

Border history entered its final phase in the 1590s.

Jeddert Justice.

Henry’s policy was to raid and destroy Scotland while at the same time he was negotiating with James. At one time a scheme was put forth to kidnap King James while he was visiting the Borders but the plan was rejected by Henry. Scottish raiders were stepping up their forays into England.

In 1530 James VI decided to take a harsher hand in dealing with the Borders. Hume, Maxwell, Johnstone, Buccleuch, Bothwell, and other minor chiefs were sent to prison in a disciplinary ‘clean sweep’ for failure to keep order, for committing outrages themselves and for protecting certain of the reivers.

When James VI became James I of England he wanted to make the two countries one. In the first few weeks after Elizabeth's death, the border shook loose once again, with raiding, looting, and burning. This was known as Ill Week. James sent a strong force to the borders to deal with the havoc so that his entry into England would not be marred. The riders were chased back to their strongholds, some of which were destroyed. He renamed the Borders to the Middle Shires. To accomplish his goal, he disbanded the warden system and the March laws.

James set up a commission of ten men, 5 from each side of the border to administer his policies for pacification of the borders. They were given unlimited powers. The Border laws were abolished and it was proclaimed that "if any Englishman steal in Scotland or any Scotsman steal in England any goods or cattle which amount to 12 pence, he shall be punished by death." The most blatant offenders were rounded up and served with what was known as Jeddert Justice - which was immediate execution without trial. Sir George Home was one of the men appointed and he was ruthless, hanging 140 of the most powerful thieves in all the borders. Reivers had endured such purges in the past but this time the border headmen joined in the proceedings against their own kinsmen. Buccleuch himself hanged and drowned in drowning holes his companions and sent many to the Belgium wars. Naturally the reiving families bitterly resented the Commission. With disregard to the orders issued, the Armstrongs and Elliots mounted a raid on Redesdale. Because of this they were singled out for exile to Ireland where they were forced to scrape out a living on the moors and bogs. 150 Grahams were pressed into military service in the low countries. Tynedale and Redesdale families were conscripted for service in Ireland and 120 sent to fight in the Bohemian Wars. They were told that the death penalty awaited any who tried to return to their homes. None of these measures were totally effective. Some did return home.

The riding families were now to be judged by the same laws as the rest of the nation. The Border families were not pleased with this and felt they could continue to fight, retreat and fight again. However, the central government was now combined into one and the reivers could not play England against Scotland. During the first year of his reign, many executions took place. The list reads as 32 Elliots, Armstrongs, Johnstones and Batys. Many more were banished and 140 outlawed. Buccleuch himself took 2000 Scots to fight the Spanish. Those left on the Borders faced being driven from their homes since the gentry, believing that it would now be safe to reside in the Borders, wanted the land which was now of value.

Although kinships were broken, owning a horse or weapons forbidden, traditions of reiving and feuding were still alive. Eventually, however, this began to dwindle for there were fewer places for the reiver to hide or to seek sanctuary. The common people were desperate for peace and were averse to giving sanctuary. By the 1640s what was left of the reivers was a hard core of lawless people operating in gangs who terrorized the countryside.

Although the Reiver's conduct may seem deplorable and most of it probably was, his spirit nevertheless remains undaunted and we look back in the mists of time and remember the reiver as a brave, forceful, fighting man, somewhat romantic in the passage of time, and always ready to ride in the moonlight.

Linda Bruce Caron
Copyright 1999


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