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Scottish Borders History
Border Reivers & The Battle of Sollomoss
by James Bell

Historical Background:

The Anglo-Scottish frontier had been in constant dispute since Edward Ist had launched a series of brutal and devastating invasions over the Border in pursuance of his ambition to annexe Scotland. His armies burnt and destroyed whole communities of people, animals and crops throughout the Borderland in his attempt to subjugate Scotland. lnevitably the Scots retaliated and invading armies from both sides were met with "scorched-earth" policies. Over the ensuing years, these terrible wars of attrition continued, with both Governments encouraging their Borderers to constantly harass and raid across the frontier. Robert the Bruce, after Bannockburn in 1314, allowed his victorious armies to systematically ravage the Northern Marches of England, thus the Borderland was turned into a political and economic wasteland, that prevailed for over 300 years. As the buffer zone between two of the most belligerent neighbours in history, the Borderland was a battleground, populated by a unique breed of people: the Border Reivers.

By the beginning of the 16th Century, Borderers were caught up in a continuing cycle of feuding, violence and destruction; realising that both Governments had neither the will nor the power to protect them they naturally turned to their families for protection. Perversely, both Governments contributed to this through their policies of installing a bulwark against the other side, encouraging settlement of their Border regions by offering land and low rents in exchange for military service. This eventually lead to overpopulation, which was aggravated by Border inheritance laws called "Gavel kind', whereby a man's lands were evenly divided amongst his sons on his demise. This resulted in many families having too little land to support themselves and their only option was to form allegiances [a] with each other to gain strength and protection. Over the ensuing three and a half centuries the "Great Reiding" families evolved a clannish type of existence, meeting each outrage against their members with violent reprisals. Those not fortunate enough to belong to one of these powerful Border families were subject to extortion and blackmail [b]. Such folk invariably turned to theft and reiving as a means of support and became the mercenaries or "broken men" of the Borderland, selling their reiving skills to the highest bidder. This of course, suited both national Governments, as the families raided over and around the Borders, causing the constant turmoil which provided the buffer zone both Governments needed and had so actively encouraged.

Because the frontier was such a unique place, both Kingdoms agreed that it should be governed under itís own laws; in November 1248 six English and six Scottish Knights met to "correct, according to ancient and approved custom of the March, such matters as required to be redressed". This conference resulted in a written code of thirteen articles agreed the following year, which allowed for fugitives to be captured and returned to their own countries and also for accused persons to be summonsed to appear before a special Border court to answer for their crimes; this last became the origin of the "Day of Truce". These Thirteen Articles were added to and developed over ensuing years and became the "Legis Marchiarum" [c] or Border laws under which the Marches operated until 1603, when James VI/Ist repealed them and abolished the Marches.

The Border Reivers thus evolved from 300 years of raiding and feuding (often referred to as the Three Hundred Years War), into a race of expert light horsemen, skilled in raiding, scouting ambush and skirmishing. They were cursed in both countries as "evell disposed personnes, Inclined to wildness and disorder", but occasionally hailed as "fine soldiers, able with horse and harness, nimble, wile and always in readiness for any service". Though despised in peace time, it was these very characteristics that made the Reiver so eagerly recruited by their respective national governments in time of war. The English army by 1540 could call on 2,500 such men and this division was called the "Border Horse" [d]. It was said that the "most remarkable of the mounted men in Henry VIll's army were the Northem Horsemen who, havlng been called into existence by the eternal forays of the Scottish Border were light cavalry, probably the very best in Europe".

There does not seem to have been a standard uniform, but they were expected to have a "steill cap, jak of plate, botes, spurres, sword, dagger, horsemans staffe, and case of pistolles" and of course a horse [e]. Recruited as light horsemen or "prickers", the role of the Border Horse was simply an extension of their usual daily activities on the Borders. They scouted, ambushed enemy patrols, rustled livestock, stole supplies and provisions and plundered towns and villages. In 1544 a large English force supported by a naval fleet, under the command of the Earl of Hertford, invaded the east coast of Scotland, sacking Leith and Dunbar and capturing Edinburgh. While the main English army was burning the city, they were joined by "400 light horsemen from the Borders, by the King's Majesty's Appointment; who after their coming did such exploits in riding and devastating the country that within seven miles of every side of Edinburgh, they left neither pele, house nor village standing unburnt, nor stacks of corn, besides great numbers of cattle which they brought in daily to the army and met with such good stuff which the inhabitants of Edinburgh had for the safety of the same conveyed ouf of the town".

Observance of religion does not seem to have played a large part in the life of a Reiver, although attendance at Sunday evensong was certainly required at Arthuret [b]. Legend has it that the Reivers also prayed hard enough before a raid to ensure itís success [f]. Quite often Church services were interrupted by Reiver families bringing their weapons and feuds into the service. The clergyís attempts to subdue the Borders by threatening hell and damnation went unnoticed; the most famous attempt by the Archbishop Gavin Dunbar of Glasgow in his "Monition of Cursing" stretched to 1500 of the most descriptive words of cursing of all time; it was read from every pulpit in the Borders to little effect, except that some of the more cynical of the Reivers held their own communion service in defiance of the interdict where one Hector Charlton "resaved the parsonís dewties and served them all of wyne"

The Border Horse also served in lreland during the O'Neill and Tyrone rebellions. The Irish, fighting on their home ground, generally confined themselves to "skirmishing in passes, bogs, woods and all places to their advantage". The Border Horse were in their element here, especially as they were better mounted than the Irish, "having deep war saddles with stirrups and using pistolles as well as staffes and swords many having jak of plate and such-like defensive arms, and being bold and strong for encounters and long marches and of greater stature than the lrish must needs have great advantage over them". In 1540, it was said that a hundred English Northern spears on horseback combined with a like number of longbow men and hack butters would be a much more effective force than 1,000 of the regular army stationed in Ireland.

Their exploits are legendary, but their greatest moment was undoubtedly Sollome Moss, where 800 of the "Deíils Dozen"[g] Reivers defeated a full Scottish invading army of up to 18,000 men, cavalry and artillery, with the loss of 7 dead and 1 wounded. In the process they captured the whole Scottish military leadership, hundreds of prisoners, the whole Scottish artillery and almost all their standards, sending the routed army fleeing back to Scotland after taking even their boots off them "bicause they shuld the more spedely flye homewerts" without the encumbrance of their clothing!


a. They were honourable..... even today a borderer will not break his given word lightly, written contracts and legalese still take second place to the old "spit and shake". In the original Thirteen Articles there was provision for "Bauchling" which was the accusation of breaking a given-word or bond; a glove representing the false hand was displayed at the end of a lance and the name of the accused called out. Such a disgrace was either removed by the accused challenging and fighting his accusers to the death or his own family executing him to wipe out the stain. It is interesting that the offence of perjury also covered by the Thirteen Articles, was only punished by imprisonment for a year and a day, so breaking the given-word on the Borders was significantly worse than lying to the court! Bauchling is believed to be the origination of the word "Botch" (botched job, etc) and gives itís name to Botchergate in Carlisle where such felons were accused by their names being displayed on the Southern gate of the city (nicknamed the Bauchling Gate or now Botchergate)

b. Blakmeale or Black mail was invented by Hutcheon Graham of Arthuret a notorious Reiver, who collected it each week after Sunday Evensong service in the porch of Arthuret Church; it was originally a payment of grain ("Meale"), paid at night ("Blak") to insure against the animals being stolen again and another more expensive form to actually employ the Reiver blackmailer to retreive stolen goods......not much different to our modern insurers really! However it still actually prevails today as a border custom at the livestock auctions in the payment of "Luck" money from the seller to the buyer of his animals. Nowadays it is a customary "thanks" for buying, but it's origins are in the blackmail payment being passed on to the new owner so that he could afford protection after paying for the animals as a guarantee/insurance against them being reived back again.

c. There is a review of the original "Legis Marchiarum" in the Bishop of Carlisleís records, which was written by Richard Bell, Warden Clerk to both Lord Scropes. Richardís version is the only extant record of "Legis Marchiarum" and as he was the last West March Wardenís Clerk, retiring with the second Lord Scrope after the Union of the Crowns, it gives a clear picture of how the law had been reviewed and developed from the original Thirteen Articles.

d. The fore-runner to the Kings Royal Border Regiment (The Corbies). The Corbies were and in their recently combined form are still based at Carlisle Castle (The Corbies Nest), which is one of the oldest working Castles in Britain, perhaps the oldest if the Roman occupation of Luguvallum (Carlisle) and their Fort (on the present Castle site) is included. The Border Regiment is thus the modern equivalent of the Reivers irregular light horse and the "Corbies" exploits in recent wars certainly confirm their ancestry.

e. The Reiverís horse was also the result of warring evolution; when the Romans arrived they brought with them Frisian horses from Europe, which then evolved over the next millenium into a shaggy, but sturdy pony called variously a "hobbler", "bog trotter" and "nagg". Today the pony is known as a "galloway" or "fell". They were reliable, ate almost anything, did not require much attention, had incredible stamina and were very sure-footed, a pre-requisite for the boggy marshes of the Solway and the moorlands of Tynedale and Teviotdale. Border Reivers were born into into the saddle and with a plentiful supply of these fell-ponies became expert well mounted horsemen.

f. Legend has it that Reiver children were baptised with their fighting hand covered, so that it was unchristened to allow it to be used in unholy fashion conducting feuds against his enemies.

g. The "Deíils Dozen" is a nickname given to the thirteen most powerful and active West March Reiding families. These thirteen families were responsible for more Reiving activity than the rest of the Border Families put together; they instigated the greatest raids, were involved in the most legendary exploits and consisted of most of the more infamous and legendary Reivers across the three centuries of the Reiver period.

Debateable land Reivers:- Armstrong, Bell, Elliot, Graham.
English WM Reivers:- Carleton, Dacre, Musgrave, Nixon, Storey.
Scottish WM Reivers:- Johnstone, Kerr, Maxwell, Scott.

The Debateable Land:

Although the western Anglo-Scottish Border was agreed in Edward II's reign with David II of Scotland in 1330, to run along the course of the Esk and Liddle from Gretna to Kershopefoot (the rest of the Border being more or less accepted) to delineate between the English and Scottish West Marches, in practice this region was controlled by Wardens who usually held the land in their own right. In Scotland the Maxwells, Johnstones and Scotts securely held the Scottish West March to Gretna and Langholm and in England the region was controlled by the Warden from Carlisle. The Esk basin at Arthuret was a marshy bogland called Sollomoss which was difficult to police and with the Scottish jurisdiction having difficulty policing their side from Gretna to Canonbie, the powerful families who lived there became uncontrolled.

The Debateable Land [a] arose because the Graemes, Armstrongs, Elliots and Bells were too powerful and the Wardens left them alone. These four families raided equally in both England and Scotland, claiming alliegance to neither country; it actually suited both Governments to have such a "buffer" zone, so the district became a sort of no-mans land, where neither country could or would enforce their jurisdiction. Eventually the lawlessness of all such no-go area's prevailed and both Wardens demanded that the Debateable Land be eradicated. So in 1552 a commission under the French ambassador was appointed to finalise the Border line. Typically he simply divided the Debateable land into two halves cut by a man-made ditch called the Scots Dyke, giving the western half to England and the eastern half to Scotland.....intriguing that England received the main western road into Scotland, while Scotland received little else but moorland. In point of fact nothing much changed, except that a Dyke was constructed, but the four families were unimpressed and continued their raiding activities just as equitably and lawlessly as they had in the past.


a. An amusing anecdote about how the debateable land came to belong to neither side is told around the local hostelries when the natives are in their "cups". Apparently at some time around the early 16th century, the English West March Warden and the Scottish West March Warden grew tired of being unable to enforce their jurisdictions, because no-one knew exactly where the border lay. They then met and agreed that two Scottish nobles from Edinburgh along with two English nobles from London would mark out an agreed border line. These four just worthies met up at Annie-Janes pub the evening before the day appointed for this purpose and as nobles do consumed vast quantities of the local brew as a pre-requisite for their hard task. In the morning, the Englishmen were up early and being impatient to be about their task, left without the two Scotsmen, to mark out the border from Kershopefoot to Gretna. They established that their route would take them down the Liddle and Esk Rivers to Longtown and then to Gretna.

Meanwhile the two Scotsmen arriving at breakfast late, asked about the route the Englishmen have taken, to be told by the locals to follow the River Liddle to the Esk and then to Langtoon, which they would recognise by itís bridge (actually not built until 1746) across the Esk. Setting off the two Scotsmen travel down the Liddle to the Esk and meeting a shepherd ask him the way to the Lang place with the bridge. They are duly directed up the Esk to Langholm. So the nett result is two borders: one from Kershope to Longtown to Gretna; and the other from Kershope to Langholm to Gretna. The resulting 12 mile long by 5 mile wide strip between the two became the Debateable Land.

The Battle of Sollomoss

The Causes of the Battle of Sollomoss.

The roots of Sollomoss laid as much in Henry VIII's belief that he could flout with impunity the the authority of the Universal Church, public opinion of Christendom and the personal interests of the Holy Roman Emperor, as in James V's delusion that he could reinstate Catholicism in England. Self restraint had never been Henry's virtue and encouraged by the wealth gained from his dissolution of the lesser monasteries in 1536, the crushing of the "Pilgrimage of Grace" in 1536, which confirmed his religious authority and the birth of his male heir in 1537, Henry prepared the country for Protestantism after his death.

When Francis I, King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor,Charles V signed a 10 year treaty, ending the Habsburg-Valois war, Henry, now a widower, feared that they would join forces to enact the Papal Bull of 1530 deposing him. The first portent of trouble occurred in 1539 when a fleet of 60 ships from the Low Countries passed through the English Channel to Spain. In response Henry mobilised almost 150 ships and enacted the Navigation Act in 1540. He also began spending vast sums (an average of 29% of his ordinary revenue) on his navy and coastal defences. Henry also decided to ally himself with another European power to neutralise the threat from the 10 year treaty and found himself in a short-lived marriage to Ann of Cleves. While the marrriage negotiations were taking place, a Catholic reaction had begun in England, which lead to the Act of Six Articles and the arrest and execution of Cromwell, who had done so much to enrich and empower Henry. However by 1542, the crisis with Europe passed as the Habsburg-Valois war had broken out again between France and Charles V; Henry could turn his attention to developing his navy. While the navy had always cruised in the English channel, it was quite an achievement to sail further than the North Channel and in fact the only ship to have penetrated further north in this era was the Mary Willoughby in 1533 which had been sent to the Northern Isles and captured by the Scots who used her successfully for the next 15 years. So in 1541, Henry sent her successor the Mary Walsingham under William Woodhouse, but unfortunately the New Renaissance technology of sail and heavy gun again proved little match for the Highland galleys and she too was captured. Henry's well known arrogance was unable to brook this second sleight to his naval power and the seeds were sown for further retaliation.

On the Scottish side, James V had come to the throne as a boy as a direct result of his father being killed by the English at Flodden in 1513. His first years of office were under a Regent and Council, who held him as a minor under the tutelage of Angus and Douglas, which amounted to little more than imprisonment. His Guardians had ensured that his education was minimal, attempting to ensure that when he reached his majority he would still be dependant on them. After several attempts to escape the Guardians he at last succeeded in the summer of 1528 arriving disguised in Stirling. The Country rose in his support and after a brief campaign Douglas was defeated and Angus escaped to England. In 1530 James having set up his own Council in Edinburgh, was annoyed that the disorganised state of the Borders represented a weakness in the governance of his kingdom and avowed his intention to reduce them to order, no doubt remembering that Douglas originated in the Borders. Before this could be achieved he had to remove those powerful Border lords whose influence might thwart his plans, so he commanded the imprisonment of the Earl of Bothwell, Lord Home, Lord Maxwell, Scott of Buccleuch, Ker of Ferniehirst, and other powerful Border chiefs and proceeded into Eskdale and Teviotdale with a force of 8,000 men to do justice on the Reivers. Cockburn of Henderson and Scott of Tushielaw, two notorious offenders were said to be hanged before the gates of their own castles (actually they were removed to Edinburgh and executed at the Tollgate), but the fate of Johnie Armstrong, of Gilnockie, near Langholm, produced a much deeper impression, although not unmingled with some commiseration, on the Reivers.

Johnie was undisputed "King of the Borders" and it was said that "....from the Scottis bordour to Newcastell of England, thair was not ane of quhatsoevir estate bot payed to this John Armestrange ane tribut [blakmeale] to be frae of his cumber ....and albeit that he was ane lous leivand man, .....he was als guid ane chieftane as evir was upon the borderis...." James invited Johnie to hunt with him at Carlenrig, but Johnie and his men turned up to the meet so splendidly dressed and equipped that the young King took offence. At first Johnie tried to talk his way out of trouble, offering half his "blakmeale" takings, but when he realised the futility of trying to bribe James, he then famously insulted the King, by saying proudly: "I am but a fool to seek grace at a graceless face!"; Johnie and his men were promptly "....all hangit apoun growand trees....". It is recorded that all Johnieís estates were awarded to the imprisoned Lord Maxwell after this incident, rather suggesting that the whole thing had been a plot from the start, with Maxwell apparently shown to have nothing to do with it.

James V may have believed that his authority was well stamped on the Borders by this raid into the Reivers heartland, but he underestimated Johnieís place in the scheme of the Borders: Johnie may have been one of the worst brigands to ride "....a heilk moon...." , but he was an Armstrong which was one the largest and most powerful families on the Borders. Reivers could feud amongst themselves, even to the death, but they had a habit of allying together against outsiders. Maxwell was never forgiven by the Armstrongs and James had broken his "given" word to a Reiver. "Revenge is a meal best eaten cold" and the Reivers certainly waited for it to be well-cooked by the time their opportunity came around some 12 years later at Sollomoss.

Jamesí experiences under the Regency left him a less than enamoured of his nobility and he found increasing support from his a price; the Church recognised that there was a undercurrent of religious dissatisfaction in England and with the support of France and Rome provided a safe haven for disaffected English Catholics. With the constant niggling doubt about an English male heir until 1537 and the Papal Bull effectively declaring "open season" on the English throne for those strong enough, all lead to a groundswell of opinion in Scotland that Henry was weak enough to be dislodged with the help of the English Catholics, supported by by the Catholic realms of Europe. Capturing Henry's "New Renaissance" ships only added to James's confidence about the success of an invasion.

The final spur to James was given when Henry executed yet another wife in February 1542, this one being the neice of Norfolk, who was instrumental in the Act of Six Articles and Cromwell's execution. Norfolk was also commander of the Kinges Majesties Armie of the North; if James V needed an opportunity, invading against an unprepared enemy whose army was lead by a disaffected commander, this was it. There is no doubt that James, although driven by wanting revenge for Flodden and the death of his father, was however too quick to listen to the fervour of his followers who were looking the opportunity to start and then support a Catholic rebellion in England.

Hertford, Lisle and the Bishop of Durham discovered after the battle: " an other espiall that the Cardinall of Scotlande with therle of Murray, greate lieutenante to the King as they call him of Scotlande, lyinge at Haddington, were pourposid in case the Scottes had not had thover throwe in the West Marches, with thre bisshops and diverse other with theym, to have remevid from thens unto Lowder, and the next night after to have com to Cawdstreme, and from thens to have entred in to this realme and to have commen unto oon of the churches of our Borders, where with the Bisshop of Roomes auctorite, to have enterdictid this reaulme...". So the Scottish nobles were not wrong, James's purpose was to get his bishops onto English soil and carry out an excommunication in situ for the Pope and thus attract the English Catholic faction to help overthrow Henry, bringing a war with England.

Thus the ambitions of both Henry and James were brought to Arthuret in 1542 by their arrogant, avaricious and vindictive natures; so by August 1542, both English and Scottish Borderers were being incited by their respective Governments to wreak as much havoc as possible on the opposite side as a forerunner to the now inevitable war. In reprisal for a particularly effective Scottish Reivers raid, Robert Bowes, the English Deputy East March Warden raided and devastated Teviotdale and the surrounding area; whilst returning with the plunder and livestock, the English were ambushed by the Earl of Huntly at Haddon Rig. The English force included Reivers from Tynedale and Redesdale, who realising the overwhelming odds, deserted Bowes and vanished into the hills with the plunder. The remaining English were badly defeated and fled after Bowes was captured. As reported in Lisle's Letter to the Privy Council: "...Astowching the kinges graces subjectes taken prisoners in Skotland upon Sanct Boartilmewe daye, Syr Robert Bowes and Syr Roger Lasselles ar kept at Sanct Andrewes...." Henry VIII was furious and decided to settle the matter once and for all by force.

In October 1542, 20,000 English Northern Levies were despatched under the command of Lord Norfolk to destroy Kelso, Roxburgh and Teviotdale; after a week of destruction, the English returned to Berwick on Tweed because the English victualling logistics were quite unable to support further operations, arguably Norfolk's deteriorating relationship with Henry was a major contributing factor to this lack of support. James V had already raised one army of around 30,000 men at Fala Moor, but on hearing that the English had retired to Berwick his nobles, who had little faith in James anyway, gave the excuse that James was fighting the war in the interests of religion not Scotland and disbanded. James did not give up and managed to assemble another army of about 18,000 men with the help of the Church and his Lord High Admiral Maxwell who would take any excuse to attack his rival Warden in Carlisle. Cleverly announcing that this army would commence activities in the Eastern Marches, Maxwell and James promptly marched towards Cumberland, gaining the strategic advantage. Under the veteran Lord Maxwell, the Scottish army descended on the wide open western Borders. James, under strict instructions from his wife who was heavily pregnant, remained in Lochmaben Castle, while Lord Maxwell continued over to Langholm Castle with the main forces.

Unfortunately for Scotland, her King James V and Catholicism, Sir Thomas Wharton was Deputy Warden of the English West March. Wharton was an incredibly brave commander, as he knew the odds against him and he could have justified remaining safely in Carlisle Castle in view of Hertford's reticence to support him militarily. Wharton planned his strategy very carefully and then executed it to perfection, using his small force of Reivers to defeat and rout a Scottish force reported to be at least ten times greater in size, with virtually no losses.

Historical Significance:

The Battle of Sollomoss has been variously described as a large raid, the last serious invasion of England by a foreign power and a simple retaliation by the Scots for the Bowes raid. Conventional historical wisdom claims that this battle had few if any, long term implications for national politics of both sides, but this view overlooks the importance of the setback to Catholicism in both countries. James V, in conjunction with the Scottish Church, was effectively trying to reinstate Catholicism in England and there is little doubt that had his Bishops succeeded in delivering the Papal interdict from an English pulpit, mainland Europe would have siezed the opportunity to support him. Wharton decisively closed this door at Sollome Moss. James V died within a month and Scotland was yet again under a Regency of nobles, whose purpose was to consolidate their weakened Kingdom and not impose Catholicism.

If Wharton had not neutralised the Bellís at Middlebie and James not executed Johnie Armstrong, and Maxwell had not been so intent on his Graeme feud, then Jamesís army would have arrived at Arthuret, backed up by a Reiver force equal to the task set by Wharton. As at Flodden the unwritten law of the Borders would have ensured a small Reiver skirmish, followed by a stand-off. Whartonís "meite purpos" would not have convinced Maxwell that there was a large English army ready for the Scots and James would have successfully delivered the excommunication so desperately needed for English Catholics to overthrow Henry.

The Aftermath of Sollome Moss:

As a result of Sollome Moss the English Catholics remained unsupported and excluding a few small rebellious events, they diminished in political authority over the ensuing century. Sollome Moss was not an important military battle, except insofar as it finally convinced the Scots that their attempts to invade England should cease, but it was a crucially important cultural battle for the adverse effect it had on Catholicism and the resultant consolidation of English Protestantism, which directly lead to the Civil War, centralisation of Government authority and military power and the consequent rise to global power of the United Kingdom.

It is also true that James VI of Scotland arrived on the English throne in 1603 with a definite dislike of Borderers, having had both his father and grandfather die as a result of battles that they had lost against the Reivers, and ordered them to be imprisoned, hanged or deported during his Border pacification of 1603 to 1612. But Reivers were survivors and many resurfaced in a different guise, inventing telephones (Bell), walking on the moon (Armstrong), becoming famous preachers (Graham), presidents (Nixon, Johnstone), Prime Ministers (Hume), footballers (Charlton), writers (Scott), scientists (Rutherford) and amongst the countless other famous Border Reiver names, even coffee makers (Maxwell).

Sollome Moss may be regarded by conventional history as merely a footnote, but it may have indirectly caused some of the greatest changes seen by mankind. James Bellís family motto sums it up quite aptly: "Quod Adsumus, Meliore Est" - Because we are here, it is better!

For further information check out James's Web Site here



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