Showing posts with label reivers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reivers. Show all posts

Friday, May 18, 2012

Scottish? English? Who cared? Only family mattered

"Reive" is an early English word for "to rob", from the Northumbrian and Scots verb reifen from the Old English rēafian, and thus related to the archaic Standard English verb reave ("to plunder", "to rob"), and to the modern English word "ruffian" The reivers gave the words "blackmail" and "bereaved" to the English language. The idea of the Border Reiver has been romanticised over time making it sound like most people were involved in swashbuckling activities but it was bloody and it was frequently barbaric.

The Border Reivers

John Leslie, the Bishop of Ross, wrote of the Border Reivers:
"In time of war they were readily reduced to extreme poverty by the almost daily inroads of the enemy, so, on the restoration of peace, they entirely neglect to cultivate their lands, though fertile, from the fear of the fruits of their labour being immediately destroyed by a new war.whence it happens they seek their substances by robberies or plunder and rapine (for they are particularly averse to the shedding of blood) nor do they much concern themselves whether it be from Scots or English that they rob...They have a persuasion that all property is common by law of nature and is therefore liable to be appropriated by them in their necessity."

The Border reivers were raiders along the border from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century. Their ranks consisted of both Scottish and English families, and they raided the entire border country without regard to nationality. There are 77 predominant family surnames who can claim to have been Reivers. Their heyday was perhaps in the last hundred years of their existence, during the time of the Stuart Kings in Scotland and the Tudor Dynasty in England. The border families can be referred to as clans, as the Scots themselves appear to have used both terms interchangeably using the word clan and chief to describe both Highland and Lowland families until the 19th century. The idea that Highlanders should be listed as clans while the Lowlanders are listed as families originated as a 19th century convention. Border families  practiced customs similar to those of the Gaels and although feudalism existed, loyalty to kin was much more important and this is what distinguished the Borderers from other Lowland Scots. Relationships between the Border clans varied from uneasy alliance to open deadly feud. There has been much cross-border migration families that were once Scots now identify themselves as English and vice versa.

During the wars between Scotland and England, the lives and  livelihood of the people on the borders would be devastated by the contending armies. Crops were destroyed, homesteads burnt and the people murdered or dispersed. Those living in places known as Liddesdale, Redesdale and Tynedale were the most affected as, for reasons of geography, the invaders regularly used these routes. Families on either side of the Border had a lot in common regardless of whether they were Scots or English. They both had to survive in this hostile environment. It is no coincidence that these people, having their crops regularly destroyed and their livestock stolen, looked for other means of sustaining themselves and their families. They took to reiving.

"The freebooter ventures both life and limb
Good wife, and bairn, and every other thing;
He must do so, or else must starve and die,
For all his livelihood comes of the enemie"

Even when the countries were not at war, tension remained high. Royal authority in either kingdom was often weak and there was little loyalty to a feeble or distant monarch. The uncertainty of existence meant that communities or people kindred to each other would seek security through their own strength and  and improve their existence  at the expense of their rivals. The  English and Scottish governments tolerated  or even indulged these fierce families as they served  the first line of defence against invasion from the other side of the border so the two nations found it expedient to have a standing army of Borderers and they were encouraged to suitably arm themselves and, in return, they received free land or land at a very low rental. But there was also often draconian and indiscriminate punishment when their lawlessness challenged the authorities.
A special body of customary law, known as Border Law, grew up. 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 "hound and horne, hew and cry",making a racket and carrying a piece of burning turf on a spear point to openly announce 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 Hot Trod puts one in mind of the posses of the old American west. The Cold Trod mounted after six days required official sanction.

The reivers, nick-named the "steel bonnets", were both English and Scottish and raided both sides of the border impartially, so long as the people they raided had no powerful protectors and no connection to their own kin. When fighting as part of larger English or Scottish armies, Borderers were difficult to control as many had relatives on both sides of the border, despite laws forbidding international marriage by punishment of death. They could claim to be of either nationality, describing themselves as Scottish if forced, English at will and a Reiver by grace of blood. They were badly-behaved in camp, 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, and at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, an observer (William Patten) 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. Indeed the Borderers had a much closer allegiance to their family than to their country. Raids were made, not in the name of Scotland or England, but in the name of their family or clan. A Border official, Thomas Musgrave said, "They are people that will be Scottishe when they will and English at their pleasure."

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 early winter months, Lammas  to Candlemas . The harvest had been gathered and and the cattle and horses fat from having spent the summer grazing and in their prime. Long hours of darkness provided ample cover, and at this time the courts were in recess giving the raiders a good chance of escaping detection and retribution until the courts reconvened three months later. The numbers involved in a raid might range from a few dozen, to organised campaigns involving up to three thousand riders

The End
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 favour of "Middle Shires," and dealing out stern justice to reivers. He embarked on the so-called "Pacification of the Borders", purging the Border reivers. James  was determined to have a United Kingdom. He proclaimed that "if any Englishman steal in Scotland or any Scotsman steal in England any goods or cattle which amount to 12 pence, he shall be punished by death." The most blatant offenders were rounded up and served with what was known as "Jeddert Justice" - which was immediate execution without trial. Wanted men were hunted down and executed. All Borderers were forbidden to carry weapons and they could only own horses of a value up to 50 schillings, fortified tower houses destroyed. Reiving families were dispossessed of their lands the people scattered or deported many families rounded up and banished to Ireland where they partly made up those who became known as the Ulster-Scots.

Some clans who had been active reivers hastily abandoned their reiver connections and sought and found favour with the king and joined in the subjugation of the old reiving families, often with great enthusiasm. Many were rewarded with gifts of land, and they prospered, acquiring the lands of their former friends and allies. Their descendants are now securely entrenched with their titles and vast holdings.

"..good triumphs and the villain bites the dust. If anyone believes that, the story of the Border Reivers should convince him otherwise. Its moral is clear: there is little justice to be had. The good man survives, if he is lucky, but the villain becomes the first Lord Roxburgh."
George Macdonald Fraser from his book The Steel Bonnets.

When a visitor to Liddesdale found no churches, asked "Are there no Christians here?", he received the reply, "Naw, we's a' Elliots and Armstrangs."

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. The Herons and the Kerrs were still at feud 60 years after the murder of Kerr at a truce day. 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. Some of the feuds could amount to pitched battles while others were settled in single combat. Families could be engaged in several feuds with several other families. 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.

 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 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.

The Debatable Land
The Debatable Lands lay between Scotland and England, extending from the Solway Firth near Carlisle to Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway, the largest population centre being Canonbie, under which country's sovereignty it was disputed. Some twelve miles long and three to four miles wide,the boundaries were marked by the rivers Liddel and Esk in the east and the River Sark in the west. For over three hundred years they were effectively controlled by local clans, such as the Armstrongs, who successfully resisted any attempt by the Scottish or English governments to impose their authority and who could alone put 3,000 men in the field. They launched frequent raids on farms and settlements outside the Debatable Lands and the profits enabling them to become major landowners. In 1530, King James V broke the strength of the Armstrongs by hanging Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie and thirty-one others. In 1551 the Crown officers of England and Wales, in an attempt to clear out the trouble makers, declared that "All Englishmen and Scottishmen, after this proclamation made, are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, slay, murder and destroy all and every such persons, their bodies, buildings, goods and cattle as do remain or shall inhabit upon any part of the said Debatable Land without any redress to be made for the same."

Common Riding

Common Ridings are annual events celebrated in Scottish Border towns. There about a dozen border towns who share the tradition. They can be traced back to the 13th and 14th centuries when the border lands were in constant upheaval during the long wars with England and because of the tribal custom of reiving and cattle thieving,  that was commonplace amongst the major Borders families. In such lawless times, townspeople would ride their boundaries, or 'marches', to protect their common lands and prevent encroachment by neighbouring landlords. This land was not enclosed, the boundary being marked by a number of cairns. The annual Riding of the Marches has continued to this day and continues the tradition of those who rode around their town’s boundaries throughout the centuries checking for encroachments by neighbouring landowners. The Selkirk Common Riding is the largest mounted cavalcade in Europe with between 400 and 600 riders taking part in the Riding of the Marches and Selkirk is unique in that it still owns its own land and has no need to ask permisssion to hold the annual ride. Langholm's Great Day comes from the settlement of a legal dispute in the 18th century, which ensured Langholm people certain common rights (e.g. the digging of peat) within set boundaries. Every year, those boundaries must be re-marked to maintain the rights.