No history of the Scottish Borders, let alone the Border Reivers, would be complete without a detailed account of one of the most ancient, and most powerful families of the Border region, the Scotts. Turbulent, cunning, courageous, and filled with the spirit of reiving, branches of the Scott family at Harden and Buccleuch contributed incalculably to many of the most important episodes of Borders history.
The historian George Fraser Black notes, in his The Surnames of Scotland (1946), that the earliest certain record of the Scott name was that of Uchtred ‘Filius Scott’, in a charter dated to c.1120. Four generations later, Sir Richard Scott married the heiress of Murthockstone, and in doing so acquired her estates. He was appointed as the ranger of Ettrick Forest, bringing to him the additional lands of Rankilburn. The new laird then built his residence at Buccleuch, and his estates became generally known by this name, thus founding the Buccleuch branch of the Scotts clan which would become so central to the history of Hawick and Roxburghshire.
By the late-15th century, the Scotts had become arguably the most powerful of all of the Border clans, and could reputedly summon over one-thousand spears to the field when necessary. They had constructed, or would go on to take ownership of the formidable strongholds of Branxholme Castle, Drumlanrig Castle, Dryhope Tower, Goldielands Tower, Harden House, Hermitage Castle, Kirkhope Tower, and Smailholm Tower. Essentially, a wide spread of the most defensible outposts in the Borders were built or came into the possession of the Scotts. From their bases as Branxholme, Dryhope, and Harden, the Buccleuch, Dryhope, and Harden Scotts rode forth on moonlit reiving expeditions, the scourge of English border marches and those unfortunates among the neighbouring clans, who earned the enmity of the Scott Clan. At Harden House, a deep ravine below is nicknamed ‘the Beeftub’ (similar to ‘the Devil’s Beef Tub’ of Annandale) for its use as a hiding place for stolen cattle. So, too, did branches of the clan ride with the Scottish forces during the Wars of Independence, being allied closely with Robert the Bruce, and taking part most notably in the Battles of Halidon Hill, Durham, and Otterburn (1333, 1346, and 1388 respectively).
During the height of the reiving-era, in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Scotts held several feuds with other notable Border families. Most famously, their feud with the Kerrs spanned several decades, from Sir Walter Scott’s (‘Wicked Wat’, 1st of Branxholme, 3rd of Buccleuch) decision to ride against them at the Battle of Melrose in 1526, to his assassination in broad daylight on Edinburgh High Street, at the hands of the Kerrs, on 4th October 1552. The feud came to an end when Sir Thomas Kerr of Ferniehirst married Janet Scott, who was the sister of the 10th Laird of Buccleuch. In 1565, another deadly feud arose between the Scotts and their neighbours the Elliots. Walter Scott, 4th Baron of Buccleuch executed four Elliots for the minor crime of cattle rustling. In response, three hundred Elliots rode to avenge the fate of their kinsmen, and battled fiercely. Though losses on both sides were heavy, the fight culminated in an agreement of peace between the two families.
There are many notable Scotts (a great number of whom are, confusingly, called Walter), none more recognisable than Sir Walter Scott the poet and novelist (also editor of the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border), descendant of the Scotts of Harden, whose life is memorialised in Edinburgh by the monolithic Scott Monument. Another of renown was Walter Scott, ‘Auld Wat’ of Harden, notorious Border reiver, and subject of Ian W. Landles’ and Alan G. Brydon’s 2007 hit musical A Reiver’s Moon. Sir Walter Scott, ‘Wicked Wat’, 1st of Branxholme, 3rd of Buccleuch, was also a reiver, who briefly served as Warden of the Scottish Middle March from 1550-52. An “inveterate English hater”, he was knighted at the Battle of Flodden, was active during the War of Rough Wooing, and led six hundred lances to defeat at the Battle of Melrose in 1596, from which arose the Kerr feud which would lead to his death. ‘Wicked Wat’s’ grandson, Sir Walter Scott, the ‘Bold Buccleuch’, 1st Lord Scott of Buccleuch, was, following family tradition, a reiver, and famously led the raid on Carlisle Castle to rescue Kinmont Willie Armstrong from imprisonment. He surrendered himself to the English authorities, in order to calm the rising tensions between the two nations, and upon meeting Queen Elizabeth I made some remark (reputedly “What is it that a man dare not do?” in response to the Queen asking how he dared undertake his Carlisle escapade) to which the Queen responded: “With ten thousand such men, our brother in Scotland might shake the firmest throne of Europe.”
The Scott Clan’s heraldic symbol is a stag trippant, and their motto is Amo (‘I love’).
‘March, march, Ettrick and Teviotdale,
Why the deil dinna ye march forward in order!
March, march, Eskdale and Liddesdale,
All the Blue Bonnets are bound for the Border.
Many a banner spread,
Flutters above your head,
Many a crest that is famous in story.
Mount and make ready then,
Sons of the mountain glen,
Fight for the Queen and our old Scottish glory.
Come from the hills where your hirsels are grazing,
Come from the glen of the buck and the roe
Come to the crag where the beacon is blazing,
Come with the buckler, the lance, and the bow.
Trumpets are sounding,
War-steeds are bounding,
Stand to your arms, then, and march in good order
England shall many a day
Tell of the bloody fray,
When the Blue Bonnets came over the Border.’
- Border Ballad by Sir Walter Scott