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Border Reivers
Feuds or Deadly Feids
Kindly contributed by Linda Bruce Caron

When a man was killed his whole family became involved in a feud with the family who had done the killing. Reprisals were not just against the killer's immediate family but against anyone with the same surname. These feuds could last for generations. Some of the feuds, such as between the Maxells and the Johnstones, could amount to pitched battles while others were settled in single combat. Families could be engaged in several feuds with several other families and a chart showing these feuds as in 'The Steel Bonnets' draws arrows going every which way. The authorities were reluctant to get involved in feuds because it was their thinking that they could stand back and watch troublesome families kill each other and rid the authorities of problems with these families. One of the reasons the Borders was in such chaos was that many were afraid to kill raiders and invoke a vendetta. Their thinking was that it was better to lose a few cattle than to incur the wrath of a powerful reiving family and be involved in a feud. Mostly feuds were English against English and Scot against Scot. Some feuds did cross the border but it was feared that any such might lead to a full scale war between the two countries.

Some feuds could be settled by permission of the authorities. Carleton and Musgrave were to be allowed to fight after a generation of feuding between the families. In the Collingwood - Burn feud, each was to be allowed six to a side for a fight to the finish. King James intervened to stop the fight. It was just as well, since Collingwood was on his way to the fight with 1200 followers. Regardless, the stopping of the fight seems to be because they had not received permission from the respective Wardens before the fight.

The feud between families could last many years. The Herons and the Kerrs were still at feud 60 years after the murder of Kerr at a truce day (as told above) The Maxwells and Irvines carried on a feud for 30 years. The principals in the feud had been long dead but the families continued their animosity.

The feud between the Maxwells and Johnstones was one of the bitterest feuds, with both families vying for dominance in the Scottish Western Border. During a battle called Dryfe Sands near Lockerbie the Maxwells and Johnstones clashed. It seemed an unfair battle because Maxwell had 2000 men and Johnstone only 400. However, the Johnstones knew they were fighting for their existence and cut the disordered Maxwell forces to pieces. The downward back-handed sword thrust by a horseman to the head of an enemy on foot is known as the Lockerbie lick.

The magnitude of feuding and the complicated way the feuding was interwoven among border families can be shown by this small list. The Bells, Carlislies and Irvines were on one side and the Grahams on the other; a year later the Bell-Graham feud was still going on, the Grahams were also feuding with the Maxwells and had joined the Irvines to fight the Musgraves; the Armstrongs joined in against the Musgraves and at the same time were feuding against the Robsons and Taylors; the Elliots were at feud with the Fenwicks and the Forsters with Jedforest; the Turbulls were at feud with the Debatable Land Armstrongs but not the Armstrongs of Liddesdale. They in turn were at feud with the Elliots of Ewesdale but not with the Liddesdale Elliots. The Scott family had feuds among the branches of the same family. It seems that an outsider could not keep track without a score card. It is a wonder that the families could keep track.


Meal for food was levied from Lowlanders in exchange for a promise not to steal livestock or harvests. Rob Roy MacGregor became somewhat of Scotland's Robin Hood. A group was formed to prevent Highlanders stealing from Lowlanders. The 'Highland Constables' was formed, of which Rob Roy was a member. Wages were paid to the constables by the Lowland farmers. When they were not losing cattle, some of the Lowlanders stopped paying. Rob Roy pointed out that the reason they were not losing anything was because they were paying and if they didn't pay, usually in black meal, they might regret it. This in all likelihood is the origin of the term "blackmail." As likely the word ‘bereaved’ was coined in this time of history on the Border.

Without the protection of the law, the ordinary people had no recourse but to pay the blackmail. Blackmail in reality meant black rent or a double rent. Rent was paid to the landowner and rent was paid to the blackmailer. Since it was paid in kind, in oats, barley or meal, it was called black meal. For payment of the black meal, the payer was supposed to be left alone and was to be protected against other reivers and if thefts occurred, his protector was supposed to retrieve his goods. Sometimes goods changed hands so much that one would think the thieves were in cahoots - which many were. If a person was too poor to pay the double rent, he could expect to have his cattle and goods stolen. A Scottish Act of 1567 made paying blackmail punishable by death. What choice would that be - pay and die or don’t pay and die. This Act was modified later to fines and imprisonment. The blackmailer was to be punished at the Warden’s discretion. It wasn’t until 1601 that blackmail was made a capital offense in England.

During raids prisoners were taken and were traded or bargained for or ransomed. Some important officials might be taken prisoner many times and ransomed. Kidnapping was a little different. This occurred not during battle but as a means to getting something that the kidnapper wanted. Jock Graham of the Peartree was a trader of stolen goods, a reiver and a horse thief. He was caught and was awaiting trial in Carlisle when his brother, Wattie, and a couple of friends broke Jock out with an ambush party to cover their retreat. They stayed out the way of the law for a couple of years but then Wattie’s penchant for good horses led to his capture and he was tried and was to be hanged. It was Jock’s turn to rescue his brother. He kidnapped a six year old child, the son of the sheriff. Jock threatened to do the same to the child as was done to his brother. Whether he would have, no one knows, because Wattie was released.

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