Border Reivers

From the first Scottish War of Independence in the 13th century, through to the Union of the Crowns in the early 17th, the land either side of the Scottish-English border was the battlefield, the devastated no-man’s land of warfare between the two kingdoms. And yet, the borders were by no means “no man’s”. They were the historic home of a host of ancient families, sore-affected by the endless feuding between Scotland and England. For centuries, Borderers were indiscriminately robbed and killed by the warring armies, their crops were burned, their livestock stolen, their houses raised. Possession of the border regions could (and did) change hands frequently, and so in a time when fealty to one’s country meant little, loyalty in the Borders became reserved solely for one’s own family, or clan. From the 13th-17th centuries, the security of a Border family’s livelihood was virtually non-existent, for even in peacetime tensions remained high, and the desire to build a permanent means of subsistence redundant, given war might erupt again at any moment. Thus, borderers either side of the dividing line turned, as people are historically want to do in times of such duress, to a less lawful means of survival – and the Border Reivers were born.

Reive, a noun meaning ‘raid’, comes from Middle English Scots, and is connected to the verb ‘reave’, meaning ‘plunder or rob’. Whilst there was more to reiving life than just the act of robbery, ‘reiver’ remains a fitting description, for robbery was their chosen occupation. Essentially, Border reivers (known in later years as ‘freebooters’ or ‘mosstroopers’) were cattle (or ‘kye’) rustlers, who rode the border regions in search of livestock to steal and families to steal from. There existed inter-family alliances, of course, but being on the same side of the border to another reiving family did not preclude you from attack by them. In fact, reivers tended to pillage those about them rather indiscriminately. Picture bands of outlaws roaming the American wild west for stagecoaches to hold-up and haciendas to rob, and you’ve painted an image not at all dissimilar to the ‘debatable’ borderlands, rode across by cavalcades of reivers.

Being a reiver, it was imperative that you knew the land of your lowland country in excruciating detail. Often crossing the border on raids under cover of darkness, reivers (riding on sturdy nags and ponies) had to navigate the rough moorland, steep hillsides, and winding riverways of border country with little more than moonlight to guide them. Sometimes raids would be conducted by bands of half a dozen men, other times as full-scale campaigns of up to three-thousand riders (as may have been the case on Robert the Bruce’s ‘Great Raid of 1322’, resulting in a Scottish victory at the Battle of Old Byland). On their rides, reivers initially wore shepherd’s plaid, later replaced by sturdier brigandines or jacks of plate (sleeveless doublets into which small steel plates were sewn). Famously, reivers wore metal helmets such as burgonets and morions, earning themselves the nickname “Steel Bonnets”. (One can imagine the eery glint of moonlight, glancing off of the steel helmets of raiders, approaching your farmstead.) They were armed with light lances and small shields, and sometimes also with longbows, or light crossbows, known as ‘latches’; in later history some reivers carried one or more pistols. Invariably, they also bore swords and dirks.

At times supported, even encouraged by the Scottish and English crowns, the various reiving families of the Borders found themselves more often than not outwith royal favour. Thus, it fell to them, and only them, to protect their lands. During wartime, dwellings could be destroyed so frequently, so completely, that many borderers were forced at times to live in turf huts, since at least these could be rebuilt quickly in the wake of a passing army or the destruction of a battle. However, during peacetime, with the little extra stability it afforded, most reiving families could construct sturdier homes, which would then double as defensive positions. The bastle house is a typical example. A stout, two-storeyed building, it was impervious to fire, being constructed solely of stone and slate with walls up to three-feet-thick. The family of the house would sleep on the second floor, normally reached only via a ladder, which would be pulled into the dwelling at night, or in times of danger. Livestock and stores were kept on the ground floor. Typically, the time and effort required by attackers to take a bastle house was not worthwhile, making the structure a crucially important asset to any family. Better known still are the pele-towers, whose walls often housed one or more bastles. Pele-towers were typically three-storeyed fortified keeps, with one entrance, arrowslits, and occasionally parapet walks, ideal for use as watchtowers, armouries, barracks, and defensive positions. First and foremost, though, they were the homes of the heads of reiving families. For example, the famous Turnbull clan – natives of the Rule Water and Minto areas – had pele-towers at Bedrule (Bedrule Castle) and Minto Crags (Fatlips atop, and Barnhills below). Said towers would have housed the heads of each branch of the Turnbull family, with relatives and retainers housed either in bastle houses or other constructions, within or without the pele’s walls.

During the reiving years, life along the border was tumultuous, to say the least, yet there was some attempt made to maintain a semblance of law and order. On either side of the border, land was divided into three ‘Marches’; on the Scottish side, the West, Middle, and East Marches roughly corresponded to the modern-day council areas of Dumfries & Galloway, the Scottish Borders, and Berwickshire, respectively. Each March had a Warden appointed, whose job it was to keep the peace, settle disputes, and impose March law. Truce Days became a common feature of border life: special days of supposed neutrality, during which the Wardens of both the English and Scottish Marches would meet, often on or near the border, in an attempt to settle disputes between the families under their protection. Unfortunately, Ward Law was often ineffective, or at least ineffectually imposed. The Scottish Wardens were often elected from local families, and so could be particularly biased in favour of their relatives and allies, whereas English Wardens were often southerners, who had little understanding of their Ward, and little luck achieving the fealty of its inhabitants. Even on Truce Days, peace could not always be kept, and fights could break out (one infamous occasion occurred at the site of Russell’s Cairn, atop Windy Gyle).

With the Union of the Crowns in 1603, James VI and I sought to bring an end to the lawlessness of the Borders (even temporarily removing from the land the ‘border’ name), and to the reiving practices of Border families. Thus, by the mid-17th century reiving was effectively ended. Hundreds of years of catastrophic warfare had, however, gradually eroded borderers’ trust in their king(s) and country(ies), cementing instead a fierce loyalty to local community and to family, a characteristic of the native borderer which remains true to this day. The many prominent family or clan names of notable Border reivers can still be found in abundance in the Borders, and their ancient traditions are still celebrated (for example, Hawick hosts an annual Reivers Festival in March). The many skills of the reivers – their remarkable knowledge of the land, a striking aptitude for horseback riding – are also kept alive, through the many annual ‘common riding’ festivals taking place throughout Border towns.

Notable Border Reiver family/clan names include: Armstrong, Carruthers, Douglas, Elliot, Johnstone, Kerr, Moffat, Pringle, Scott, and Turnbull, among countless others.