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Border Reivers
The Land
Kindly contributed by Linda Bruce Caron


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 day.

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 45,000.

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.


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