Scottish? English? Who Cares?

In the run-up to the referendum in Scotland in September we begin a three-part series exposing the myths surrounding events in Scottish history.

‘Reive’ is an early English word for ‘to rob’, from the Northumbrian Scots verb reifen, related to the modern English word ‘ruffian’. The reivers also added the words ‘blackmail’ and ‘bereaved’ to the English language.

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. 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.

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 improve their existence at the expense of their rivals.

Bishop John Leslie 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.’ (our emphasis)

The Border reivers, nick-named the ‘steel bonnets’, raided 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. Border families practised customs similar to those of the Highland 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 being much cross-border migration, families that were once Scots now identify themselves as English and vice versa.

The reivers 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 or English at will. 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.’

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. Mostly feuds were English against English and Scot against Scot. These feuds could last for generations and 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.

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, and which country’s sovereignty it lay under was a matter of dispute. 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 enabled them to become major landowners.

In 1530, King James V broke the strength of the Armstrongs by hanging Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie and 31 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.’

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’.

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’ – summary execution. Some families abandoned their reiver connections and found favour with the king and joined in the subjugation of the old reiving families to be rewarded with the lands of their former friends and allies. All Borderers were forbidden to carry weapons and fortified tower houses destroyed. Reiving families were dispossessed of their lands, the people scattered or deported, and many families rounded up and banished to Ireland where they partly made up those who became known as the Ulster-Scots. And there lies another tragic tale of blood-soaked nationalism and unionism!


Next month: the myths surrounding the Battle of Bannockburn.

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