The land itself follows the Cheviot
Hills, which is the main barrier between England and Scotland made up of treeless areas,
valleys, gullies which are bleak, lonely with an eternal breeze and ridge after ridge of
rough grass. Hadrian's wall was built by the Romans close to this natural neck from the
Solway Firth to Berwick. The Wall never kept the Scots in nor the English out (or vice
versa) because they were always climbing over it or ignoring it. It is a beautiful land,
although bleak and difficult to access and is made up of salt marshes, peat bogs, broad
rivers. There are also green wooded valleys and deserted beaches. The Cheviots were an
obstacle for the invading armies. The Borderers, however, were familiar with the hills and
twisting passes. They knew where to hide in the wastes and where to hide their stolen
cattle. This frontier was of great military importance and served as a buffer zone between
the two warring nations. Even during times of relative peace between the two countries,
the people of the Borders continued to battle each other. Constant warring created a
certain type of society in the early 16th century. The people were shaped by their ordeals
and a hard people were bred.
Both sides of the border are divided into
three Marches so there were six in all. Each was governed by a warden. The warden's duty
was to defend the frontier against invasion from the opposite side during wartime and to
maintain law and order in peace time. As we will see, this did not always happen. The
Wardens often were as lawless as the Reivers. On the English side, men were appointed as
wardens from the southern counties of England so there would be no obligation on their
part to side with one or the other of the feuding families. By the 15th and 16th centuries
the cost of wars were draining the English coffers. The salary of a Warden was not enough
to keep him and his family and, therefore, many times the Warden had to supplement his
income as best he could. On the Scottish side of the border, the office of Warden usually
fell to the "heidmen" (headmen) of the powerful border families. It was felt
that the lairds could exercise some restraint over their own kin. As could be expected,
justice by these Scottish wardens was often meted out with partiality towards their own
blood. Scottish wardens had the advantage of knowing the families, knowing the terrain but
on the other hand they were already involved in local feuds and alliances.
Supposedly the Wardens were in situ to
protect and to govern. This sounds very above-board, but in reality, part of their duties
was to harass and spy on the other side. Local interests of the Borders were not
considered as much as the interests of the nations in relation to each other.
The Marches were divided in 1249 - to be
administered by a Warden. When the authorities had the time they pursued the Reivers who
were hanged or fined or evicted. However, no sooner than the fines were levied or the
eviction carried out then the hooves began to pound again.
The Laws of the Marches were an attempt by
both governments to regulate and govern the region. Bordering two of these Marches was the
Debatable Land, called so because it was frequently debatable as to which side owned it.
It is only about 12 miles long and 3-5 miles wide. The people were used to pasturing their
sheep and cattle on it. Violent disputes arose when anyone attempted to erect any kind of
building on this land. Neither country acknowledged responsibility for the inhabitants and
so it was a lawless country. It became a haven for the lawless elements in the Western
Marches, the fugitives, murderers and broken men. The Grahams early in the 16th century
settled on both sides of the river Esk in the Debatable Land. It was agreed by the
authorities that anyone should be free to rob and kill within the Debatable Land. It was
felt that the land should be permanently laid waste but this never happened. In 1552 the
French Ambassador was called on to help decided how this land would be divided. Both
sides, England and Scotland, had their own ideas of a fair division. Finally the French
Ambassador reached an agreement. The new frontier was marked by a trench and a bank dug on
a straight east-west line' and it was called the Scots Dike. This name remains to this
The Middle March seemed to get the brunt of
everything. Criminal traffic was enormous. This was hot trod country. Hot trod is the
lawful pursuit of the Reivers. When the laws were broken, the Warden was expected to
gather his men and give chase. He was also required to pass on any military intelligence
about the opposite side of the border to his central government.
Liddesdale was the home of the most predatory
clans. It had a warden of its own, known as the Keeper. From Liddesdale were mounted
devastating raids into the English Middle March. Berwick seems to have been basically the
capital of the Borders. It was England's strongest fortress town on the eastern seaboard
and an important seaport. Edward I, to eliminate rebellion in the area, attacked it
swiftly on land and at sea. He put not only the garrison to the sword, but also the entire
population. Rather than eliminating resistance, it caused resentment to fester and
resistance to hold fast. Hermitage in Liddesdale was an impressive structure which at one
time was owned by the Douglas and then the Bothwells. Mary, Queen of Scots, came to
Heritage when Bothwell was wounded by the Elliots. She fell into a bog, caught cold and
almost died while running to the side of the wounded Bothwell.
Carlisle, second to Berwick in political
importance, was strongly fortified. It was the largest community in the marches and was a
city that was under constant attack in the 16th century. Bishops at the time were fighting
men and they even women helped defend the walls. Raiders gave it a wide berth.
Both governments in order to establish some
sort of bulwark against the other encouraged families to settle in the Border lands. They
offered low rent and land in exchange for military service. Thus, the land became crowded.
This occurred during the 16th century, not at the beginning of the troubles. This
overpopulation was further aggravated by a system of inheritance known as
"gavelkind." This divided the land of a deceased man among his children in equal
measures. If the family was large, the inherited portion of a father’s land would be
barely enough to feed a family. Also, there was a lack of legitimate jobs in the area
giving rise to more illegitimate means of surviving in a harsh environment. The estimate
of population in 1559 for the English borders was 117,000 and Scotland was placed at
There were truce days called along the
border. Truce days were when the wardens of both sides met to redress grievances. The
English usually crossed into Scotland. It was tradition for them to do so as a Scottish
Warden had been murdered at a truce day on English ground so the Scots 'swore they would
never after come on English ground for justice.' This provided an opportunity for
villagers on both sides of the border to take part in trading and to attend the markets.
Not surprisingly, these market days usually degenerated into drunken, bloody brawls.