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Ferniehirst Castle
Chapter V - The Border Way of Life

Ferniehirst was built as the home of men and women whose life is difficult for us to imagine. Nothing like it has existed in Western Europe, except on the Christian-Muslim frontier in Spain, since the eleventh century or earlier, though one might consider the North- West Frontier of India, from about 1848 to 1947, as an approximate modern parallel — especially the "non-administered areas" around the Khyber and Landi Khotal.

Up to 1300 or thereabouts, the Borders were in fact not much more troubled than any other part of Scotland, and less so than some. Many nobles and knights held land in both countries, owing homage to the King of Scots and the King of England simultaneously, and would have been hard put to it to define their real nationality, until the choice was forced on them by the Wars of Independence.

Thereafter the situation changed dramatically. By the Treaty of Edinburgh/Northampton (1328). Bruce unwisely traded Northumberland, a valuable buffer zone, for English recognition of his kingship and of Scotland’s independence, a recognition not worth the parchment on which it was written. He died within a few months, and England promptly disregarded the Treaty, supporting the rival house of Balliol against his young son David II. The English claim to sovereignty or at least suzerainty over Scotland was never completely abandoned, and in order to protect the rest of the country, the Scottish kings had to allow their southern lords and lairds far greater autonomy than kings normally liked to concede to their vassals, and in particular the right to maintain quite substantial private armies. The English kings were obliged to allow similar freedom to great Northern houses such as the Dacres and Percies. but this was a less serious matter for them, unless these magnates coalesced with other noblemen in the Midlands and the South, as sometimes happened, since the Border itself was only fifty miles from Edinburgh and well over 300 from London.

These private armies typically consisted of two elements: a few dozen or sometimes a few hundred men actually maintained by their Chief. sleeping in his dormitory and eating in his hall, and a much larger number, sometimes running into thousands, whom he could call out because they were his tenants, his kinsmen, or the tenants and servants of his own tenants and kinsmen, or because they were linked with him through a "bond of man-rent", that is basically a mutual protection agreement, which might but need not involve a transfer of land.

Two English spies, Robert Constable and Francis Haugh, have given interesting descriptions of the way of life at Ferniehirst about 1570. Constable found, in addition to the Kerrs, "many guests of divers factions, some outlaws of England, some of Scotland, some neighbours thereabout" drinking ale and playing at cards for "plack" and "hardheads", and discussing the possibility of rescuing Mary Queen of Scots from her English captivity, as well as the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland if the Regent handed them over to Elizabeth. Haugh actually met Westmorland, and missed seeing Lady Northumberland (after she had been rescued from the Liddesdale outlaws) by a few hours. It seems the Regent in fact did try to search Ferniehirst, in order to capture the Earls and hand them over to the English Queen, but his men felt this was a dishonourable enterprise, and all deserted him, or "slid from him" as Haugh puts it. Ferniehirst and Westmorland both trusted him and Westmorland actually asked him to take a message to Lady Westmorland asking her to send "one of her best jewels as a token to My Lady Cane of Farnhyrst, and the fairest Gelding she could get, to the Laird". Haugh evidently felt a bad conscience about his mission, for he wrote to William Cecil (Elizabeth’s chief minister, to whom he made his report) "Sir, although this is a traitorous kind of service that I have waded in, to trap those who trust in me, as Judas did Christ, yet if it benefit the state, I am willing to continue."

The more men a Chief or "hedesman" (whether a lord, a knight, or untitled) actually kept or could call out, the more clout he carried and also the longer he was likely to live — and some of the Kerrs in particular were relatively long-lived by the standards of those times. Hence there was an obvious incentive to maintain more men than the land could economically support, especially with farming methods rather more primitive than they are today. All these men had to be fed, along with their wives and children — and again the Kerrs had a surprisingly low infant mortality by medieval standards as well as quite large families. The result, as Godfrey Watson puts it in "The Border Reivers" was that they played a constant game of musical chairs with one another’s sheep, cows and horses; and if they did not possess a castle or "peel tower", Borderers generally lived in expendable shacks, replaced within a matter of hours after a raid by neighbours or Englishmen. If such a raid seemed imminent, they did not attempt to defend their homes, but took refuge within the nearest castle or tower, or dispersed into the extensive woods with as many of their livestock as they could, and replenished their losses afterwards by carrying out a raid of their own. The English side being less heavily wooded, the Northumbrians were more vulnerable to raids, but it so happens that Scottish Borderers spent as much time raiding one another, and pursuing feuds that could last for generations, as in lifting English cattle. But livestock lost during a raid were sometimes recaptured almost at once, in a "hot trod", since raiders on their way home were stowed down by the sheep and cows they were driving ahead of them, while their pursuers could go as fast as their horses would take them over the rugged terrain. If they were overtaken, they might be cut down where they stood or slept, drowned in the nearest available burn, or taken as prisoners for hanging or exchange at the next opportunity.

Life was held relatively cheap — violent deaths were after all necessary to keep the population in rough balance with local resources (whether legitimate or stolen), and killing a man was a less serious offence than breaking one’s word. On the other hand, Borderers generally refrained from killing women, except by accident in the course of burning a shack.

Such approximate order as existed was maintained by the Scottish kings on their own side and by the Wardens of the Marches on both sides: the English kings seldom ventured beyond York except in actual war, and not often even then, since they feared their own magnates (with good reason) at least as much as they feared the Scots. On each side there was a Warden of the Marches, responsible for the whole frontier, and Wardens of the East, Middle and West Marches, each responsible for one sector, but possibly also holding down the top job (Home did so frequently, Ferniehirst occasionally). The Wardens were usually great landowners on the Scottish side (Home in the East, Ker of Cessford or Kerr of Ferniehirst in the Centre and Maxwell in the West), because their job was crucial to Scotland’s defence, this country having little depth as compared with England, and it was imperative that they should have a substantial force under their immediate and personal command. On the English side they were non-local knights (except for Sir John Forster) as the King felt he could more easily control them and more safely trust them then he could rely on his own Northern Lords.

The Wardens responsible on either side for each sector, or "March", met, traditionally on the Border itself or very close to it, at more or less regular intervals. On those days, the chronic state of undeclared war was officially suspended and Scots and English took the opportunity to drink, socialise and trade while their leaders resolved disputes about stolen property, exchanged captured criminals, or hanged them on the spot.

The game of musical chairs was brought to an abrupt end by the Union of Crowns in 1603. Defence against England, now ruled by the King of Scots who had migrated there, could no longer justify the presence of a large number of armed and generally lawless men, or at least the King no longer saw a need to be defended against himself, and a ruthless pruning operation was therefore carried out in the first decade of the century. Hundreds of reivers were executed, some being fried afterwards to establish that they were in fact guilty — this being the procedure known as Jethart Justice. Hundreds more were sent as colonists to Ulster or as soldiers to English-held towns in the Netherlands, or to assist James’ daughter and her husband in Bohemia.

The Kerrs had generally taken the side of (Scottish) authority, at least in principle, during the three centuries of chronic war; hence we did not suffer much in the pacification process, but the leaders of the family switched their talents from raiding, feuding and rough justice to administration, regular soldiering and even to literature and scholarship, something for which the Borders had not been noted since the days of Duns Scotus and Thomas the Rhymer of Earlston, For these purposes, Newbattle Abbey, an hour’s ride from Edinburgh, was better suited than Ferniehirst, which therefore ceased to be their principal seat.

Rerniehirst receives the English Spies


1 .The King of Scots was himself an earl in England, and did homage to the King of England for his English lands. The English king often chose to interpret this homage for Scotland itself, and the Wars of Independence were fought over this issue. Balliol received the Scottish Crown by the arbitration award of Norham (1292) and did homage for Scotland to Edward I, thinking the duties involved would be fairly nominal Edward however asserted his authority to the full, and beyond, and BalIioI then withdrew his allegiance, whereupon Edward invaded Scotland, sacked Berwick and massacred its population and asserted direct rule. The state of chronic warfare on the Border dates from this massacre: it began to die down after the Raid of Redeswire (1575) and was finally extinguished after the Scottish foray into Cumbria known as "Ill Week" (April 1603) during the brief "interregnum" while James VI was moving down to London to assume his throne as James I.

2.Known as the Treaty of Northampton in English history. It was in fad negotiated in Edinburgh, where Robert I signed it, while Edward III affixed his seal to it in Northampton.

3.Neither country had a "capital" in the modern sense until at least half-way through the period we are considering. Both kings moved about within a "heartland" which contained much or most of the country’s wealth as well as its administrative services, such as they were, and each governed his kingdom from wherever he happened to be at the time, calling Parliament when and where it suited him. James IV’s last Parliament actually met on English soil, a few days before Flodden.

However, this heartland and the Border area overlapped in Scotland, whereas in England they were a clear 150 miles apart (the distance from Leicester to Durham). Hence the King of Scots was under more constant threat both from his own lords and from the national enemy than the King of England. If we accept that James V, still a young man, died from intense depression following the military disaster of Solway Moss, no Sovereign of Scots died a natural death in his own country after Robert III (1401), James VI having moved to the greater safety of England, from which he could rule Scotland "by the stroke of a pen".

But it should be noted that several Kings of England also died violent deaths during the same period (1300-1500 approx.) Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI, Edward V and Richard III the first four being murdered while the last fell at Bosworth.

4.This was not such an irrational system as it seems to us today. Most of the condemned men had committed crimes of some kind, even if they were not the ones "proved" against them; they were hanged on their whole record rather than for any one offence, and their surviving victims were less afraid to give evidence against them once they were safely dead than while they lived and could take revenge.

5.James’ daughter, Elizabeth, married Frederick, the Elector Palatine, who was one of the princes entitled to vote in the election of the "Holy Roman" (German) Emperor. Frederick was himself elected King of Bohemia, the western part of present-day Czechoslovakia, but was expelled from it, and from his own lands around Heidelberg, by the Emperor’s armies. This was the start of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), which inflicted greater damage on Germany than either of the World Wars inflicted on any country — not so much through the actual fighting, but because the armies on both sides ate everything in sight, including the seed-corn, and thus starved out the population of the areas through which they passed. Their daughter Sophia married the Elector of Hanover; she was the mother of George I and the ancestor of the present Royal Family, there being no proven legitimate descendants of James VI & I in the male line, after the death of Henry Cardinal York (Bonnie Prince Charlie’s brother). From time to time various theories have been floated about secret marriages by Charles II or by Bonnie Prince Charlie, and claims have been asserted — though not vigorously pursued — on that basis; but nobody has come up with any firm evidence to substantiate them.

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