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Border Reivers
The Border Reiver
Kindly contributed by Linda Bruce Caron


The Border Reiver was a unique figure but he was not a separate minority group. It cannot be said that Reivers came from the lower classes because they came from all walks of life. Some did live in outlaw bands but most were just members of the community. Not only were they farmers, laborers, or even peers of the realm, but they were also rustlers and blackmailers. The Reivers were excellent fighting men who could handle their weapons with skill.

Families on either side of the Border had a lot in common regardless of whether they were Scots or English. They both had to survive in this hostile environment. This made the Border people a very tough people and a very insular people. Law and order in the form of the central government was a far distance from their homes and they had no way to resolve disputes but by their own means. Those means were swift. A call to the clan would lead to swift reprisals to those who had offended. Fighting between clans and families was called Feides [feuds]. Even if there was no special feud among clans, they stole from each other, especially when supplies were short. A legend of the Borders is when the women of the household felt that supplies were running low, they would take to the table a covered plate and place it before the men. When the top was taken off it would have nothing on the plate but a pair of spurs. The message was received - either mount up and go reiving or go hungry. Religion did not prove a deterrent to fighting among families. Even the priests carried weapons. Bishop Leslie, a historian, wrote in 1572 that "their [Borderers] devotion to their rosaries was never greater than before setting out on a raid, and on the Scottish Border it was the custom of christening to leave unblest the child’s master hand in order that unhallowed blows could be struck upon the enemy." [The Border Reivers - Durham]. Leslie counted the Borderers among his flock. When a visitor to Liddesdale found no churches, demanded: "Are there no Christians here?, he received the reply, "Na, we's a' Elliots and Armstrangs."

Robbery and murder were every day occurrences. Raiding became an important part of the social system - a way of life. The frontier became a troubled place after Alexander III fell from his horse on his way to see his new queen. England was emerging as a nation and Scotland became increasingly important to it. Even though Scotland was attached to England physically, Scotland had its own culture and laws. Treaties and truces that were agreed to between the two countries did not stop a way of life and did not quiet the frontier. No householder could go to sleep secure, no cattle could be left unguarded. The hill land was dominated by the sword. The Borderer's philosophy which is often quoted is:

The freebooter ventures both life and limb
Good wife, and bairn, and every other thing;
He must do so, or else must starve and die,
For all his livelihood comes of the enemie.

The enemy, of course, could be anyone outside a person's family or kinship. Because of the songs and poetry that has come down through the centuries, we think of the borders as being a romantic period. However, it was a cruel time. This was not just about England versus Scotland. Scot robbed Scot, English robbed English. There were feuds between families on the same side of the border and across the border. Families intermarried so much that it was hard to tell sides. Border blood was thick and clan loyalties endured beyond the union of the crowns and was not replaced by the feudal system. The bond between English and Scottish was created by geography, common social conditions, a shared spirit of lawless independence and intermarriage. Elliots, Armstrongs and Johnstons could be found among English and Scots on either side of the border. Although marriage across the border could incur the death penalty, it was commonplace. This provided a dual nationality. A Reiver could slip across the border to safety with his family or his wife's family. A Border official, Thomas Musgrave said, 'They are people that will be Scottishe when they will and English at their pleasure.'

In 1286 the Hammer of the Scots, Edward I, led a series of brutal excursions into Scotland, plunging both countries into 300 years of warfare. His intention was to demoralize and subjugate the Scots and he put whole communities to the sword. Crops were burned, castles and hovels alike were burned and whole populations slaughtered. Of course, the Scots retaliated in like manner.

The War of Independence was brutal to the border lands. Besides the armies constantly marching across their lands, the country had an unusual amount of rainfall. So much so that crops rotted and sheep and cattle died. When Edward II marched into Scotland in 1315 he could not feed his army and his expedition was abandoned. As stated above, Scots robbed Scots and English and English robbed English and Scots. However, there were times when Scots and English collaborated. The English on their side of the border were just as hungry and poor. At times they conspired with the Scots and led them into the English countryside for a share of the spoils. When the War of Independence ended, progress in the Marshes had been destroyed because of the parched earth philosophy of both armies.

A description of 16th century border life given by Leslie, Bishop of Ross was they "assume to themselves the greatest habits of license. For as, in time of war, they are readily reduced to extreme poverty by the almost daily inroads of the enemy, so, on the restoration of peace, they entirely neglect to cultivate their lands, though fertile, from the fear of the fruits of their labour being immediately destroyed by a new war. Whence it happens that they seek their subsistence by robberies or rather by plundering and rapine, for they are particularly adverse to the shedding of blood; nor do they much concern themselves whether it be from Scots or English that they rob and plunder." The Bishop of Ross is the main authority for the myth that the Borderers were reluctant to kill, except in feud. This was not true. There was, however, a code of honor which was respected. Sir Robert Carey, the warden of English east and middle marches, wrote to Cecil (Queen Elizabeth's Secretary of State) of Scottish gentlemen who "will rather lose their lives and livings, then go back from their word, and break the custom of the border." These are general statements and do not agree with the fact that there were many broken pledges. Breaking a promise was one thing, but deliberate betrayal was another.

Leslie on border morality: "They have a persuasion that all property is common by the law of nature; and is therefore liable to be appropriated by them in their necessity."

There was a seasonal pattern to the reiving. In the autumn to the spring when the nights were long was the season for raiding. The summers were for husbandry, although raiding still occurred but not as much. Crops of oats, rye and barley were tilled in the spring and summer but mostly the people raised cattle and sheep. The rural Borderer was mobile, leaving his winter dwelling about April to move to the "hielands" where he lived in his sheiling for 4 or 5 months while the cattle were pastured. He learned through generations of warfare and raiding to "live on the hoof." Dwellings were makeshift and could be put up in hours. Clay and stones and sometimes turf sods with roof of thatch or turf were used.

The Borderers were great fighting men and were recruited into the armies. Most wore their country's colors, a red cross for England, a blue for Scotland. In the 1500s the rate of pay for a foot soldier was 3 pence per day, a cavalryman 8 pence, a petty captain 2 shillings and a captain 4 shillings. To supplement their pay, they kept their eyes open for the "spoil." The role of the Borderer in warfare was basically the same as in their everyday life; they scouted for the army, ambushed the enemy's patrols, rustled his livestock, stole his supplies and provisions, plundered his towns and villages and when victorious hunted down the remaining men on the other side.

In 1544 a large English force commanded by Earl of Hertford invaded the east coast of Scotland sacking Leith and Dunbar, putting man, woman and child to fire and the sword. They captured Edinburgh and ravaged the countryside so that there was nothing left standing 7 miles in any direction from Edinburgh. There was no cattle and no grain. This was Henry VIII's corps d'elite. Henry recruited English border horse for the French campaign. Men from Tynedale and Redesdale were hand-picked. They served in the Netherlands, France, and Ireland. In Ireland the enemy was an elusive one and the Irish were fighting on their home ground in bogs and woods which were to their advantage. Neither side showed any mercy and the Irish wars were looked at as a form of punishment. Many Borderers never returned home, as may have been the intention.

Lest we think the Borderers were glorified Robin Hoods, one needs to look at the records kept of cattle stolen, houses ransacked and people killed. A different picture other than the romantic one of the Border Reiver emerges. Often he was cruel and mean-spirited and preferred the quick take from small farmers, widows. He came in force, ‘destroyed wantonly, beat up and even killed if he was resisted, and literally stripped his victims of everything they had.’

Reivers were ‘aggressive, ruthless, violent people.’ When engaged in family feuds they were quick to kill. The Borderer held that reiving was legitimate but that murder was a crime and so were less likely to kill during a raid, that is, unless the occasion arose. They were reluctant to provoke a feud but when one occurred, they were as ready to kill as to do anything.


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