An introduction to the Border Reivers

Feb 19th, 2008 | By | Category: Featured Sections, Reiver Information

The geography of the Borders between England and Scotland is dominated by the bleak rolling hills of the Cheviots. The immediate surrounding area is varied though often no less bleak in its appearance. Consisting of salt marshes, flowing rivers, such as the Tyne, and rocky outcrops, to the flat planes of Solway Moss. It is a land that under normal circumstances would produce a hard resilient people. From the thirteenth through to the early seventeenth century, this geography may have hardened the people, but the politics of the two countries honed this toughness to a fine edge. By the late sixteenth century this edge had in every sense become dangerously sharp. History has christened this the country of the Border Reiver,1 a term peculiar to the area. A reiver, putting it simply, was a thief, though this does little justice to the people nor their exploits. The prey of the reiver consisted mainly of livestock, though it could also include money, goods, and even people who would be held to ransom. By the sixteenth century, reiving, learnt through constant practical lessons, had been perfected to a fine art, by penniless farmer, fugitive outlaw, through to lords and even Wardens,2 reiving was a truly classless occupation. The people who participated in reiving did have other trades, such as farming, or working as a soldier, but because of the poor economic conditions, caused by the constant fighting, they were often unable to support themselves. The practice of splitting the farmland between the sons of a farmer resulted in the land becoming too small to provide enough for the family to live off, which also contributed to the conditions. As a result of the constant desolation, many were born into a land where reiving presented their only hope of survival. This world also presented many others the opportunity to gain power and influence, through professional cattle rustling, and as skilled fighting men. They were especially gifted as guerilla fighters where ambush, tracking, theft and raid were second nature.3

Modern Recreation by catfink

Reiving was to an extent, a seasonal occurrence, lasting from autumn to spring, of which the worst time was from Michalaelmas (September 29) to Martinmas (November 11). The ground was dry and the cattle and horses were strong enough for the drive, and by February oats were too expensive and the nights to short for significant raids.4 The reiver was not just an accomplished thief, but also an excellent light horseman and would be armed with plate armour, mail, or more common to the Borders a “jak of plaite”. This was usually sleeveless and constructed of quilted cloth, twill or linen and had small overlapping iron plates stitched inside. Their heads were protected by a range of steel helmets and they would be armed with a sword, a lance (8 – 12 foot long), various knives, bows and crossbows,5 most of which can be seen in illustration 2.

Particular conditions had created this way of life, one of which was the history of Border turbulence between England and Scotland. Disputes and outbreaks of violence had been a feature ever since the Border between the two Kingdoms had existed, even in the Roman era when the Border was marked, for a time, by Hadrian’s Wall (built in AD122-126/8) violence existed between the Britons and Picts.

The problem that was to lead to the Border reivers can roughly be dated back to Edward I’s attempt to conquer Scotland in 1296. Though it should be noted that this marked a dramatic decline within the state of the Border, some 38 years earlier sufficient disintegration had already taken place for the two countries to send representatives to meet and agree upon international Border laws. This saw the beginning of some 300 years of sporadic warfare, often resulting in a war of attrition, the bloody and cruel fighting was to leave the Borders deeply scarred, and the people suffered severely. An example of the dangers the Borderers faced was after Bannockburn in 1314 when he Scots after years of repression, and victorious under Robert the Bruce, turned and systematically savaged the Northern Marches of England. These same Marches now became a buffer zone, absorbing successive raids and attacks, and by the sixteenth century, the area had become an impoverished wasteland. The constant raids that were to become a way of life for many also changed their outlook. The Borderers of both England and Scotland by the 16th century realised that their respective government could no longer provide justice nor protection. This is not to say the Borderers even remembered the events of 1296, but with the conflicts of the 16th century there was no need to. In 1542 Henry VIII went to war with Scotland creating great destruction, and in 1547 there was the battle of Pinkie, an English victory, and further retaliation by Scotland. In 1570 there was the Rising of the North, and although this was under the leadership of two Earls, many Borderers joined with them. This meant there was again the opportunity for mass reprisals from the English government against the English Borderers for treason. By now the Borderers must have felt that they were surrounded by enemies on all sides. This meant that their allegiance was not always placed primarily in the state, and it resulted in the growth of ties to clan and family. Thoughts of ‘Nation’ had now become secondary.

It was this allegiance to clan and family, that saw the growth of the great riding surnames of the Border regions. Within the Borders ‘to ride’ became synonymous with ‘to raid’, so the great riding families were those most involved in raiding. Examples of such Surnames6 are Elliot, Maxwell, Armstrong and Graham,7 just a few of the notorious names of the Borders who would often meet for raids, or could be found joining with one another to increase their numbers. As nation had become secondary one surname was not confined to only one side of the Border, for example the Grahams were found principally within the English West March, but could also be found in the opposite Scottish March. Readily willing to raid either side of the Border, they were not alone in their split loyalty. The emergence of the surnames and the weak sense of nationality was directly related to the wars and policies of the governments of the opposing countries. As early as the 13th century, the people living there were encouraged to raid the opposite kingdom during times of peace. With the many atrocities that occurred on the Borders during warfare little encouragement was needed. Though with the loss of national feeling the Borderers were often content in aiding in foray’s from the opposite realm.

The emergence of these strong family ties brought about serious problems for peace keeping. The ‘names’ would not just join together for raids, but could also be found fighting each other. This saw the emergence of a bewildering number of feuds which would often prove very bloody affairs, where matters were made worse when different surnames joined together creating alliances, as they so often did for raiding. Each name in the alliance would bring with it their own feud and through association alone the feuds could spread creating a complicated lattice work of conflicting names, as can be clearly seen Table 1. It was not unknown for the Warden and others whose job it was to keep the peace, to become deeply involved within these feuds. Table 1 gives some idea of the number of feuds that existed, and as can be seen by the colour key, feuds were not restricted by each names nationality, for example the Scotts are feuding with both the English Charltons, and the Scottish Elliots.

The Wardens of the Borders who have been mentioned were established soon after Edward I began the war with Scotland, and before this time the law and defence of the Border was oversaw by the Sheriffs. They were working under what was known as the Laws of the Marches which was an agreement reached in 12488 between the governments of both England and Scotland in an attempt to regulate the Borders. By 1296 the hostilities between England and Scotland had meant that there was a need for an office with military powers to be placed in defence of the Border. Edward I issued a commission to appoint captains and keepers for the peace, and to split the Border into Marches. At first this post was temporary and only instigated when the need arose, but by 1309 the position had become permanent, with one person in charge of each country, and became known as the Warden of the March.

Up until 1381 there were two Marches, the East March and the West March, where one Warden would take control of both Marches. This practice continued after 1381 even with the introduction of the Middle March. Eventually each of the six Marches, three on the English side and three on the Scottish side, had a Warden. These Marches can be seen on the map which shows the Border of each March and a smaller region known as the Debatable Land, where many of the worst of the outlaws could be found.9 Each of these Wardens would choose some of their own men to act as keepers of the respective Marches. By the sixteenth century the Warden, upon entering office, would be backed by Deputies, Keepers, Captains, Land Sergeants and Troopers. During the late sixteenth century the Wardens of England tended to be given to gentlemen from the southern counties. This was an attempt to avoid appointing any who had connections with the feuding factions, though with relatively little pay, many still fell foul to temptation, and became deeply involved within the corruption that was rife within the area. On the Scottish side the post was usually given to one of the great family names resident to the area itself. This was due to the lack of authority the Scottish government had within their Marches, and because there were advantages to be had. The great surnames knew the area and people well, and the Scottish government probably followed the rule of setting a thief to catch a thief. The disadvantage was that they were deeply embroiled within Border politics, for example within feuds and various alliances. Due to this the great riding surnames often held little respect for central authority. The post, however, was often vital to the Scottish government especially during times of domestic upheaval, and was given as inducement to a strong family, for example the Humes or the Johnstones, to obtain their loyalty.

This, then, is briefly how the Border reivers came into existence. By the time of Robert Carey, the focus of this work, the Borders of England and Scotland were in considerable turmoil. Constant raiding and murder were everyday affairs throughout the Marches. The Middle March, at the time Carey was appointed Warden in 1598, had long since been in a bad state of affairs, and had suffered for reasons other than the problems outlined above, under two successive Wardens, Sir John Forster and Lord Eure.

Forster was appointed in 1560 and held the Wardenship for almost 35 years, till 1595, with only a brief break in 1587 when Henry, 1st Baron Hunsdon held the post for less than a year. Forster was deeply entrenched within Border affairs, including a number of long running feuds, not the least of which was with the Elliots.

By September 1595 Carey can be found writing a letter questioning Forsters ability to control the Middle March. Carey said that “the Scots already claim and enjoy 3 or 4 “meilse” of English ground”,10 and most damagingly he directly lays the blame on Forster when he wrote an unsigned report11 on the state of the Middle March in September 1595,

‘I am sorry that I must be forst to lay the falt where it is’ This cuntrey had gret neede of suche a warden as is able to take paynes, and will see wronges redrest, which Sir John Forster by no mænes is able to dooe for his age is within 6 of a hundrid yærs ould, his memory faylles him, he is not able to stur out of his chamber’12

He ends by saying that if the Queen does not wish to end Forsters Wardenship in view of past service, it may be wise to appoint a gentleman of worth with his own horse to help.

Ralph, 3rd Lord Eure, was appointed to replace Forster on September 6th 1595, but he was never happy in the post and was not suited to this type of work. The first problem that Lord Eure encountered was in connection with the last Warden, Sir John Forster. Eure immediately found that even if Forsters Wardenship had ended, there was still ‘no gentlemen of worth in Northumberland not near of kin or allied to Sir John Forster.’13 This is evidence that Lord Eure was not only up against the Border Reivers, but also the men and officers appointed to help him. Lord Eure also came across the problem of the inability of the opposite Wardens to co-operate with each other where he states that

‘Sir Robert Kerr is apparently inclined to do justice. Buccleuch,14 however, though he appointed one or two meetings, still practises some treason or other.15

Lord Eure would also suffer from another attack, through allegations concerning the misappropriation of pay for some 80 horsemen sent for his service. Although Lord Eure was eventually cleared of these charges, he still resigned from office in January 1598. When Carey came into his Wardenship he found that crime was widespread and the reivers in full flow.

  1. Reiver, meaning robber, raider, marauder, plunderer. The term is now obsolete, but lingers on in words like bereave. []
  2. The Wardens were placed by the government of each realm and it was their responsibility to enforce the laws and keep the peace. More is said on the Wardens later in this introduction. []
  3. G.M. Fraser, (1986), The Steel Bonnets, p5. []
  4. G.M. Fraser, (1986), p93. []
  5. For a more detailed look at border arms and armour look at ‘The Border Reivers’ by Keith Durham and Angus McBride, (1995). []
  6. It should be noted that not all people of one surname were related. The surname simply came from the place where they were associated with, for example Jock from Charlton, became Jock Charlton. []
  7. The modern spelling of these names has been used here and will be adhered to, unless quoted, to avoid confusion. The reason for this being the remarkable number of ways in which the names were written, an extreme example of which is the name Elliot, boasting over 70 variations. []
  8. G.M. Fraser, (1986), p149. []
  9. For more information on the Debatable Land and another problem area, Liddesdale, see Appendix A. []
  10. J. Bain, ed., (1896), Calendar of Border Papers, Vol. II, p57. []
  11. This has been recognised as Carey’s letter from the hand writing. []
  12. J. Bain, ed., (1896), CBP, Vol. II, P57. []
  13. J. Bain, ed., (1896), CBP, Vol. II, p99.
  14. Lord, Buccleuch, Keeper of Liddesdale, as the keeper of Liddesdale Buccleuch held powers equal to those of the Wardens. []
  15. J. Bain, ed., (1896), CBP, Vol. II, p130. []
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  1. I found this introduction most helpful. I hope to do some of my own research on the subject since visiting the borders in recent years has re-kindled my interst in my own family’s links to the region, in particular to Torthorwald castle near Dumfries which is sadly falling into an increasing state of ruination.

  2. I am most interested in the lives of the borderers themselves, especially there clothing, there various vassalages, the smaller fighting families etc. I am at this moment attempting to research arms and and armour that would have been borne by the the borderers, perhaps specifically as a minor laird with moderate wealth- the type that would have been present at Flodden Field. Any info either from yourselves or recommended by yourselves would be very appreciated. Thank you very much.


  3. Can anyone confirm that Curry (McMhuirich) is a border reiver name?

  4. Realy interested in finding if my family were reivers. They all came from the west ridings of Yorkshire in the 1700’s

  5. I am interested in finding out how the Hetherington’s fitted in as well. I am not sure from what I have learned so far if they were reivers or not.

  6. I am interested in any records of the Tait family who understand were Reivers, I have trace my family back to 1768 but can get no further so am interested in any history of the the Taits as Reviers

  7. George MacDonald Frasers’ “The Steel Bonnets” referred to so much in this website mentions Hetheringtons several times. On page 61 he mentions although not active raiders they were frequently mentioned in connection with blackmail. both receiving and paying and were also deeply involved in the plot to murder the Bishop of Carlisle in 1569. Have not had the chance to look at the other mentions of the name.

  8. I am a long standing fan of GM Fraser’s Flashman series and have nevr read The Steel Bonnet. Our family came from Fivemiletown, Ireland to Canada in 1810. We have never been able to make the connection from Ireland back to the Border region.. An interesting challenge.

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