THE BORDER REIVERS
By Ben Johnson
The story of the Reivers dates from the 14th century and continued through into the late 17th century. It concerns the border between the two sovereign countries of England and Scotland. In those days, this Border displayed all of the characteristics of a frontier, lacking law and order. Cattle rustling, feuding, murder, arson and pillaging were all common occurrences.
It was a time when people owed their tribal or clan loyalty to their blood relatives or families. And it was common for these families to straddle the Border.
The Reivers were the product of the constant English-Scottish wars that would often reduce the Border area to a wasteland. The continuing threat of renewed conflict offered little incentive to arable farming. Why bother planting crops if they may be burned before they could be harvested?
The reiving (raiding or plundering) of livestock was however a totally different matter, and so it became the principal business of the Border families.
The Reiver came from every social class from labourer to peer of the realm. He was a skilled horseman and fine guerrilla soldier, practised in the fine arts of arson, kidnapping and extortion. There was no social stigma attached to reiving, it was simply an accepted way of life.
It is said that the wife of one famous Border Reiver demonstrated that her larder was empty by serving her husband his spurs on a plate instead of his dinner. The message was clear either mount up and go reiving, or go hungry.
Reiving was simply a way of earning a living. Scottish Reivers were just as likely to raid other Scots as to raid across the English Border. Scots and English would even join forces to raid on either side of the Border. The victims of reiving could be anyone from outside the immediate family.
Raids were planned like military operations and could involve gangs of armed men and last for days. More modest raids might involve no more than a short moonlit ride, a quick plunder from a small farm followed by a dash home for breakfast.
The Reiver rode a small sturdy pony known as a hobbler, which was noted for its ability to cover great distances over difficult ground at high speed. On his head the Reiver would typically wear a steel bonnet and a quilted jacket of stout leather sewn with plates of metal or horn to protect his body. Although the Reiver carried a variety of weapons including sword, dagger and axe, his preferred weapon was the ‘lang spear’ or Border lance.
The central governments of both England and Scotland attempted in vain to establish law and order across the Border, however a borderer would owe allegiance to England or Scotland only when it suited him or his family.
When England and Scotland were at war, it could become very much a Border affair with Reivers providing large numbers of cavalry. The battles of Otterburn(1388), Flodden Field (1513) and Solway Moss (1542) are all linked with the Reivers.
With the exception of the Scottish Highlands, the Borders were the last part of Britain to be brought under the rule of law.
It was only following the Union between England and Scotland in 1603 that a concerted effort was made byJames I (VI of Scotland) to rid the Border of Reivers. However, between the death of Elizabeth I and the crowning of James I in March, several Scottish families launched massive raids into Cumbria, claiming to believe that when a monarch died the laws of the land were automatically suspended until the new king was proclaimed!
James I, who now ruled over a new kingdom called Great Britain, was furious with his Scottish subjects for relieving his new English subjects in Cumbria of some 1,280 cattle and 3,840 sheep and goats. James issued a proclamation against ‘all rebels and disorderly persons’.
James decreed that the Borders should be renamed ‘the Middle Shires’ and in 1605 he established a commission to bring law and order to the region. In the first year of the commission’s existence it executed 79 individuals and in the years which followed, scores more were hanged.
Other Reivers were encouraged to leave and serve as mercenaries in the armies of continental Europe. The Armstrongs and the Grahams were singled out for special treatment and were banished to Fermanagh in Ireland. Some continued as outlaws and became known as ‘Mosstroopers’.
By the early 1620’s peace had arrived in the Borders, possibly for the first time ever.
Some view the Border Reivers as loveable rogues, while others have compared them to the Mafia. Whatever your opinion their legacy remains in the fortified dwellings called pele towers, their ballads and their words now common in the English language such as “bereave” and “blackmail”: greenmail was the proper rent you paid, blackmail was “protection money”!
Border Riever Family Names….Click on a name for further information