Border Reivers were raiders along the Anglo-Scottish border (Border country), for nearly three hundred years from the late 13th century to the end of the 16th century, although their heyday was perhaps in the last hundred years of their existence.
BackgroundEngland and Scotland were frequently at war during the late Middle Ages. During these wars, the livelihood of the people on the borders was devastated by the contending armies. Even when the countries were not at war, tension remained high, and royal authority in one or other Kingdom was often weak.
The uncertainty of existence meant that communities or peoples kindred to each other would seek security through their own strength and cunning, and improve their livelihoods at their nominal enemies' expense. Loyalty to a feeble or distant monarch and reliance on the effectiveness of the law usually made people a target for depredations rather than conferring any security.
Another factor which promoted a predatory mode of living was that much of the border region is mountainous or open moorland, unsuitable for arable farming but good for grazing. Livestock was easily rustled and driven back to raiders' territory by mounted reivers who knew the country well. (The raiders also often removed "insight", easily portable household goods or valuables).
The attitudes of the English and Scottish governments towards the Border clans alternated between indulgence, as these fierce families served as the first line of defence against invasion from the other side of the Border, and draconian and indiscriminate punishment when the Borderers' lawlessness became intolerable to the authorities.
The popular story handed down within Reiver families is that from earliest times, Reivers would visit the homesteads prior to wars or invasions and remove the cattle and items of value to a place of safety. Lords and Wardens unable to guarantee their masters' supply lines would claim wrongdoing by ruffians and broken men. It is easy to conjecture that this attitude of defiance to authority would grow into outright lawlessness.
NatureThe reivers were both English and Scottish and raided both sides of the border impartially, so long as the people they hit had no powerful protectors and no connection to their own kin. Their activities, although usually within a day's ride of the Border, extended both north and south of their main haunts. English raiders were reported to have hit the outskirts of Edinburgh, and Scottish raids were known as far south as Yorkshire. The main raiding season ran through the winter months, when the nights were longest and the cattle and horses fat from having spent the summer grazing.
The inhabitants had to live in a state of constant alert, and for self-protection, they built fortified tower houses, such as the bastle houses and Peel towers which are characteristic of this area and period. Smailholm is one of many surviving Peel towers.
When raiding, or riding, as it was termed, the Reivers rode light on hardy nags or ponies renowned for the ability to pick their way over the boggy moss lands. The original dress of a shepherd's plaid was later replaced by light armour such as Brigandines or jacks of plaite (a type of sleeveless doublet into which small plates of steel were stitched), and a metal helmet such as a burgonet or morion; hence their nickname of the steel bonnets. They were armed with a lance and small shield, and sometimes also with a longbow, or a light crossbow known as a "latch", or later on in their history with one or more pistols. They invariably also carried a sword and dirk.
Borders horseAs soldiers, the Border Reivers were considered among the finest light cavalry in all of Europe. After meeting one Reiver (the Bold Buccleugh), Queen Elizabeth I is quoted as having said that "with ten thousand such men, James (VI) could shake any throne in Europe." Many Reivers served as mercenaries, or were forced to serve in English and Scots armies in the Low Countries and in Ireland; such service was often handed down as a penalty in lieu of that of death upon their families.
Reivers fighting as levied soldiers played important parts at the battles of Flodden Field and Solway Moss. When fighting as part of larger English or Scottish armies, borderers were difficult to control. They frequently plundered for their own benefit instead of obeying orders, and there were always questions about how loyal they were. At battles such as Ancrum Moor in Scotland in 1545, borderers changed sides in mid-battle, to curry favour with the likely victors.
Many Borderers had relatives on each side of the line, despite laws forbidding international marriage, and could claim to be of either nationality, describing themselves as English if forced, Scottish at will and a Reiver by grace of blood. At the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, an observer noticed that the Scottish and English borderers were talking to each other in the midst of battle, and on being spotted put on a show of fighting.
Law and orderDuring periods of nominal peace, a special body of customary law, known as Border Law, grew up to deal with the situation. Under Border Law, a person who had been raided had the right to mount a counter-raid within six days, even across the border, to recover his goods. This Hot Trod had to proceed with "hew and cry, hound and horne", making a racket and openly announcing their purpose to distinguish themselves from unlawful raiders proceeding covertly. Any person meeting this counter-raid was required to ride along and offer such help as he could, on pain of being considered complicit with the raiders. The Cold Trod mounted after six days required official sanction.
Both Borders were divided into "Marches", each under a "March Warden". The respective kingdoms' March Wardens would meet at appointed times along the border itself to settle claims against people on their side of the border by people from the other kingdom. These occasions, known as "Days of Truce," were much like fairs, with entertainment and much socializing. For many Reivers it was an opportunity to meet (lawfully) with relatives or friends normally separated by the border.
March Wardens (and the lesser officers such as "Keepers" of fortified places) were rarely effective at maintaining the law. The Scottish Wardens were usually borderers themselves, and were complicit in riding. They almost invariably showed favour to their own kindred, which caused jealousy and even hatred among other Scottish border families. Many English officers were from southern counties in England and could not often command the loyalty or respect of their locally-recruited subordinates or the local population. Some local officers such as Sir John Forster, who was Warden of the Middle March for almost 35 years, became quite as well known for venality as some of his most notorious Scottish counterparts.
By the death of Elizabeth I of England, things had come to such a pitch along the Border that the English government considered re-fortifying and rebuilding Hadrian's Wall. Upon his accession to the English throne, James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England) moved hard against the reivers, abolishing Border Law and the very term "Borders" in favor of "Middle Shires," and dealing out stern justice to many known Reivers.
Border 'Names' and Clan statusBorder society was structured into "Riding Surnames" and the "Graynes" thereof. This can be equated to the system of the Highland Clans and their septs. e.g. Clan Donald and Clan MacDonald of Sleat, can be compared with the Scotts of Buccleuch and the Scotts of Harden and elsewhere. Both Border Graynes and Highland septs however, had the essential feature of patriarchal leadership by the chief of the name, and had territories in which a majority of their kindred lived. Border families did practice some customs similar to those of the Gaels, such as tutorship when an heir who was a minor succeeded to the chiefship, and giving bonds of manrent. Although feudalism existed, tribal loyalty was much more important and this is what distinguished the Borderers from other lowland Scots.
Relationships between the Border families varied from uneasy alliance to open "deadly feud". It took little to start a feud; a chance quarrel or misuse of office was sufficient. Feuds might continue for years until patched up in the face of invasion from the other kingdoms, or when the outbreak of other feuds caused alliances to shift. The border was easily destabilised if Graynes from opposite sides of the border were at feud. Feuds also provided ready excuse for particularly murderous raids or pursuits.
In 1587 the Parliament of Scotland passed a statute: “For the quieting and keping in obiedince of the disorderit subjectis inhabitantis of the borders hielands and Ilis.” Attached to the statute was a Roll of surnames from both the Borders and Highlands. The Borders portion listed the 17 Graynes with a Chief and their associated Marches: MIDDLE MARCH: Elliot, Armstrong, Nixon, Crosier WEST MARCH: Scott, Bates, Little, Thomson, Glendenning, Irving, Bell, Carruthers, Graham, Johnstone, Jardine, Moffett and Latimer.
Of the Border Graynes listed on this roll, Elliot, Armstrong, Scott, Little, Irving, Bell, Graham, Johnstone, Jardine and Moffett are registered with the Court of Lord Lyon in Edinburgh as Scottish Clans.
AftermathLong after they were gone, the reivers were romanticized by writers such as Sir Walter Scott (Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border), although he got some things wrong; the term Moss-trooper more correctly refers to one of the robbers that existed after the real Reivers had been put down. Nevertheless, Scott was a native of the borders, writing down histories which had been passed on in folk tradition or ballad. The stories of legendary border reivers like Kinmont Willie Armstrong were often retold in folk-song as Border ballads. There are also local legends, such as the "Dish of Spurs" which would be served to a border chieftain of the Charltons to remind him that the larder was empty and it was time to acquire some more plunder.
Scottish author Nigel Tranter revisited many of these themes in his historical and contemporary novels.
Hawick in Scotland holds an annual Reivers' festival as do the Schomberg Society in Kilkeel, Northern Ireland (the two often co-operate). The summer festival in the Borders town of Duns is headed by the "Reiver" and "Reiver's Lass", a young man and young woman elected from the inhabitants of the town and surrounding area. The Ulster-Scots Agency's first two leaflets from the ‘Scots Legacy’ series feature the story of the historic Ulster tartan and the origins of the kilt and the Border Reivers.
Many Borderers (particularly those banished by James I of England) took part in the plantation of Ulster becoming the people known as Ulster-Scots (Scots-Irish in America). Reiver descendants can be found throughout Ulster with names such as Elliot, Armstrong, Beattie, Bell, Hume and Heron, Rutledge, and Turnbulls amongst others.
Author George MacDonald Fraser wryly observed or imagined several border traits and names among controversial people in modern American history; Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, among others. It is also noted that a descendent of the Borderers, Neil Armstrong, was one of the first people to land on the moon in 1969, accompanied by Buzz Aldrin. In 1970, Mr. Armstrong visited the town of Langholm, home of his ancestors
- Durham, Keith; McBride, Angus. The Border Reivers: The story of the Anglo-Scottish borderlands, 1995, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1-85532-417-2
- MacDonald Fraser, George The Steel Bonnets, 1971. HarperCollins ISBN 0-00-272746-3
- Carey, Robert The Stirring World of Robert Carey, Robert Carey's Memoirs 1577-1625. RippingYarns.com ISBN 1-904466-29-X
- Janni Howker. "Martin Farrell", 1997, Red Fox, ISBN-10: 0099181614 & ISBN-13: 978-0099181613
- Turnbull, Rob. "The Border Reivers: A stain on the image of Tudor England", Medieval History Magazine, Issue 4, December 2003
- Great Britain III Acts of the Parliamant of Scotland pp.466-7 (1587)
reiver in Italian: Border Reivers