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Border Reivers
Border Names
Kindly contributed by Linda Bruce Caron

to [http://www. Electric]

Added here for informational and educational purposes only with all rights belonging to the contributor


This image was borrowed from the website Electric Scotland .com and all rights belong to them.

The Reivers came from families who "rode with the moonlight" with their "lang spears" and their "steill bonnets." There are 77 predominant family names who can claim to have been Reivers.

Border Clans included the Armstrongs, Johnstones, Scotts, Elliotts, Fenwicks, Bells, Nixons, Maxwells, Kerrs, Dodds, Taits, Howards, Cecils, Douglases, Homes, Croziers, Forsters, Grahams, Irvines, Robsons and Storeys. These names are still common place across the Border country.

Instead of reinventing the wheel here, I am going to list in part what Fraser wrote about some of the great riding families.

Armstrongs: (or Armstrang). The Armstrongs held sway in the English West March and the Scottish East March. The Armstrongs were the most feared riding clan on the frontier. By 1528 they could put 3000 men into the saddle. Some of the famous Armstrong reiving names are Johnnie Armstrong, Kinmont Willie Armstrong, Sim the Laird, Ill Will Armstrong and Sandie his son, Dick of Dryhope, Jock of the Side.

Bell: English and Scottish. A great surname of the West March (Scottish), particularly hostile to the Grahams.

Burn or Bourne. Scottish, East Teviotdale. A most predatory and vicious family of the Middle March whose raids and murders reached a peak in the 1590s when they were under the protection of Robert Kerr. They were the worst of the East Teviotdale Reivers and are supposed to have killed 17 Collingwoods in revenge for the death of one of their own men. Notable name: Geordie Burn - his confession is detailed elsewhere.

Charlton (Carleton). This was an English family although the name appears in southwestern Scotland. The Charltons were one of the hardiest and most intractable families on the English side and were alternately allied to and at feud with the Scottish in the west. They were engaged in a bitter vendetta with the Scotts of Buccleuch

Croser (Crosar, Crozier). Mostly Scottish. A small but hard-riding family often associated with Nixons and Elliots and often allied with England. Some notable names: Ill Wild Will Croser, Nebless (Noseless) Clemmie, Martin’s Clemmie.

Elliot. The Elliots were Scottish. Less numerous than the Armstrongs with whom they were frequently allied but as predatory as any clan on the border. Occasionally under English protection, they received a subsidy from Queen Elizabeth during their feud with the Scotts. Notable names: Martin Elliot of Braidley, Little Jock of the Park, Robin of Redheuch, Archie Fire the Braes, William of Lariston, Martin’s Gibb.

Forster (Forrester, Foster). Mostly English. The Scottish Forsters intermarried with English. English Forsters were allied with the Humes. Notable names: Sir John Forster, Red Rowry, Rowry’s Will.

Graham. Mostly English but ready to be on either side. Originally Scottish. Next to the Armstrongs, the Grahams were probably the most troublesome family on the frontier. Their dual allegiances caused confusion. At one time the most numerous family on the West Border, with 500 riders in 13 towers in 1552, they were savagely persecuted in the reign of James VI and I. Notable names: Richie of Brackenhill, Jock of the Peartree, Will’s Jock and many more

Hall. English and Scottish. At one time the most powerful in Redesdale they were hated and feared on both sides. In 1598 in an incident the Scottish Halls and the Rutherfords were allegedly singled out by English officers as two surnames to whom no quarter should be given.

Hume (Home). Scottish. A great name in Scottish and Border history, the Humes achieved one extraordinary distinction as the only frontier family who would claim continuous domination in their own March. They usually held the Scottish East Wardenship, and although frequently in trouble with the Crown they never lost their eminence and influence.

Irvine. Scottish. Contributed much to the general disorder despite their small numbers. Notable name: Willie Kang

Johnstone (Johnston, Johnstoun). Scottish but possibly of English origin. Powerful reivers and also frequent Wardens. Their feud with the Maxwells was the longest and bloodiest in Border history.

Kerr (Ker, Carr, Carre). Scottish. The Kerrs were (with the Scotts) the leading tribe of the Scottish Middle March and frequently were Wardens of such. No family was more active in reiving.

Maxwell. Scottish. The strongest family in the Scottish West March until the Johnstones reduced their power in the 16th century. Maxwells were often wardens.

Scott. Scottish. One of the most powerful families in the whole Border, both as reivers and as officers. Notable names: Walter Scott of Buccleuch, his grandson known variously as the Bold Buccleuch, God’s Curse, etc.), Walter Scott (Auld Wat) of Haren.

I left out some Fraser listed such as Fenwick Hetherington, Musgrave, Robson, Nixon, Storey and he lists others, both English and Scottish in the Marches. I will list them here in the event that any of you have those names and are interested.

East March:

Scotland: Trotter, Dixon, Bromfield, Craw, Cranston
England: Selby, Gray, Dunne

Middle March:

Scotland: Young, Pringle, Davison, Gilchrist, Tait, Oliver, Turnbull (Trumble), Rutherford, Douglas, Laidlaw, Turner, Henderson

England: Ogle, Heron, Witherington (Woodrington), Medford, Collingwood, Carnaby, Shaftoe, Ridley, Anderson, Potts, Read, Hedley, Dodd, Milburn, Yarrow, Stapleton, Stokoe, Stamper, Wilkinson, Hunter, Thomson, Jamieson

West March:

Scotland: Carlisle, Beattie (Baty, Batisoun), Little Carruthers, Glendenning, Moffat.
England: Lowther, Curwen, Salkeld, Dacre, Harden, Hodgson, Routledge, Tailor, Noble.

Four great Border Abbeys - Melrose, Dryburgh, Kelso and Jedburgh - can still be seen today in ruin. They were attacked by various armies, including Edward I (the Hammer of the Scots) and Henry VIII during the rough wooing. The Reformers finished destroying these abbeys in 1560 when the monks were expelled.

There were two basic types of fortified dwellings along the border, the tower house which was the home of the border lord and the bastle which was lived in by the less wealthy or by prosperous farmers. The vast majority of these dwellings are found within 20 miles of the Border.

The English Acts of Parliament of 1555 and 1584 said that all fortresses, castles and towers within that distance of the Border were to be put in good shape and all open ground was to be enclosed by hedges and ditches in order to deter the riders.

The Scots built towers of earth which were not easy to burn and which could be rebuilt quickly in the event they were destroyed. These towers were enclosed by a perimeter of wooden states or 'pales.' Eventually the pales gave way to oak trees bound together and covered with earth. The earth covering discouraged burning.

A Border tower house was built of stone and mortar and enclosed by a stone wall called a barmekin. The term pale or pele is still used when referring to border towers. The barmekin was used to keep the cattle and sheep and was about 15 feet high and 3 feet thick. There were other buildings built inside the stone wall. Some of these buildings were for housing retainers. Towers were usually comprised of a basement and two floors for living. The roof was steeply pitched and tiled with stone. The whole thing was enclosed by a parapet. This provided some protection while the defenders hurled anything they could, stones, hot oil, at the attackers. There were few windows in these structures. The emphasis of the buildings was on security and not on adornment. The cattle and the horses were locked in the basement.

The first floor had a fireplace and a few low benches. The floor was strewn with moor grass, heather and herbs. The second floor was used for sleeping or storage and led to the roof. The upper floors were reached by a spiral staircase and it turned upwards in a clockwise right-handed direction which gave freedom of movement to a right-handed defender's sword and could be used against an attacker trying to climb up. The Kerrs built their staircases in a left-handed spiral. Left-handed people in Scotland are still called Kerr-handed. The stairs also had a trip step built in which was one step that was a little steeper than the rest. An attacker would not be aware of the difference in height as he fought his way up the stairs and made it likely that he would trip. The staircases at the top of each floor could be blocked by furniture or stones which were placed at the ready on each floor.

If the tower had to be abandoned it would be emptied of valuable sand stuffed with peat which was set on fire and caused a thick, dense, smoldering smoke. The shell would remain intact for when the owners were able to return after the invaders had left.

These towers could be taken by bombardment but the terrain did not lend itself to large and cumbersome artillery. One way to take the tower was called scumfishing. This was hacking through the outer doors and heaping wet straw into the doorway and against the walls. It was then set on fire and the defenders could be smoked out. Sometimes the attackers would use scaling ladders and get to the top of the tower and uncover the roof. Then the men could jump together into the top room . However, this was very risky. Mostly, stealth and surprise were used to win the battle.

The bastell house was a strong two story building with walls over 4 fee thick. The roof was steeply pitched and covered with stone slabs. Again, the basement was a shelter for livestock and had a strong door which was bolted form the inside. A trapdoor in the ceiling was the means to reaching the upper level living space. The upper floor usually had two or three rooms but again very few windows. The upper floor could be reached from the outside by a ladder which was then pulled up after the climber. Ladders ended at heavily bolted doors. Steps have been built in place of the ladders in renovated bastell houses for tourists.

The Border Reiver was a unique figure but he was not a separate minority group. It cannot be said that Reivers came from the lower classes because they came from all walks of life. Some did live in outlaw bands but most were just members of the community. Not only were they farmers, laborers, or even peers of the realm, but they were also rustlers and blackmailers. The Reivers were excellent fighting men who could handle their weapons with skill.

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. This made the Border people a very tough people and a very insular people. Law and order in the form of the central government was a far distance from their homes and they had no way to resolve disputes but by their own means. Those means were swift. A call to the clan would lead to swift reprisals to those who had offended. Fighting between clans and families was called Feides [feuds]. Even if there was no special feud among clans, they stole from each other, especially when supplies were short. A legend of the Borders is when the women of the household felt that supplies were running low, they would take to the table a covered plate and place it before the men. When the top was taken off it would have nothing on the plate but a pair of spurs. The message was received - either mount up and go reiving or go hungry. Religion did not prove a deterrent to fighting among families. Even the priests carried weapons. Bishop Leslie, a historian, wrote in 1572 that "their [Borderers] devotion to their rosaries was never greater than before setting out on a raid, and on the Scottish Border it was the custom of christening to leave unblest the child’s master hand in order that unhallowed blows could be struck upon the enemy." [The Border Reivers - Durham]. Leslie counted the Borderers among his flock. When a visitor to Liddesdale found no churches, demanded: "Are there no Christians here?, he received the reply, "Na, we's a' Elliots and Armstrangs."

Robbery and murder were every day occurrences. Raiding became an important part of the social system - a way of life. The frontier became a troubled place after Alexander III fell from his horse on his way to see his new queen. England was emerging as a nation and Scotland became increasingly important to it. Even though Scotland was attached to England physically, Scotland had its own culture and laws. Treaties and truces that were agreed to between the two countries did not stop a way of life and did not quiet the frontier. No householder could go to sleep secure, no cattle could be left unguarded. The hill land was dominated by the sword. The Borderer's philosophy which is often quoted is:

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.

The enemy, of course, could be anyone outside a person's family or kinship. Because of the songs and poetry that has come down through the centuries, we think of the borders as being a romantic period. However, it was a cruel time. This was not just about England versus Scotland. Scot robbed Scot, English robbed English. There were feuds between families on the same side of the border and across the border. Families intermarried so much that it was hard to tell sides. Border blood was thick and clan loyalties endured beyond the union of the crowns and was not replaced by the feudal system. The bond between English and Scottish was created by geography, common social conditions, a shared spirit of lawless independence and intermarriage. Elliots, Armstrongs and Johnstons could be found among English and Scots on either side of the border. Although marriage across the border could incur the death penalty, it was commonplace. This provided a dual nationality. A Reiver could slip across the border to safety with his family or his wife's family. A Border official, Thomas Musgrave said, 'They are people that will be Scottishe when they will and English at their pleasure.'

In 1286 the Hammer of the Scots, Edward I, led a series of brutal excursions into Scotland, plunging both countries into 300 years of warfare. His intention was to demoralize and subjugate the Scots and he put whole communities to the sword. Crops were burned, castles and hovels alike were burned and whole populations slaughtered. Of course, the Scots retaliated in like manner.

The War of Independence was brutal to the border lands. Besides the armies constantly marching across their lands, the country had an unusual amount of rainfall. So much so that crops rotted and sheep and cattle died. When Edward II marched into Scotland in 1315 he could not feed his army and his expedition was abandoned. As stated above, Scots robbed Scots and English and English robbed English and Scots. However, there were times when Scots and English collaborated. The English on their side of the border were just as hungry and poor. At times they conspired with the Scots and led them into the English countryside for a share of the spoils. When the War of Independence ended, progress in the Marshes had been destroyed because of the parched earth philosophy of both armies.

A description of 16th century border life given by Leslie, Bishop of Ross was they "assume to themselves the greatest habits of license. For as, in time of war, they are 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 that they seek their subsistence by robberies or rather by plundering and rapine, for they are particularly adverse to the shedding of blood; nor do they much concern themselves whether it be from Scots or English that they rob and plunder." The Bishop of Ross is the main authority for the myth that the Borderers were reluctant to kill, except in feud. This was not true. There was, however, a code of honor which was respected. Sir Robert Carey, the warden of English east and middle marches, wrote to Cecil (Queen Elizabeth's Secretary of State) of Scottish gentlemen who "will rather lose their lives and livings, then go back from their word, and break the custom of the border." These are general statements and do not agree with the fact that there were many broken pledges. Breaking a promise was one thing, but deliberate betrayal was another.

Leslie on border morality: "They have a persuasion that all property is common by the law of nature; and is therefore liable to be appropriated by them in their necessity."

There was a seasonal pattern to the reiving. In the autumn to the spring when the nights were long was the season for raiding. The summers were for husbandry, although raiding still occurred but not as much. Crops of oats, rye and barley were tilled in the spring and summer but mostly the people raised cattle and sheep. The rural Borderer was mobile, leaving his winter dwelling about April to move to the "hielands" where he lived in his sheiling for 4 or 5 months while the cattle were pastured. He learned through generations of warfare and raiding to "live on the hoof." Dwellings were makeshift and could be put up in hours. Clay and stones and sometimes turf sods with roof of thatch or turf were used.

The Borderers were great fighting men and were recruited into the armies. Most wore their country's colors, a red cross for England, a blue for Scotland. In the 1500s the rate of pay for a foot soldier was 3 pence per day, a cavalryman 8 pence, a petty captain 2 shillings and a captain 4 shillings. To supplement their pay, they kept their eyes open for the "spoil." The role of the Borderer in warfare was basically the same as in their everyday life; they scouted for the army, ambushed the enemy's patrols, rustled his livestock, stole his supplies and provisions, plundered his towns and villages and when victorious hunted down the remaining men on the other side.

In 1544 a large English force commanded by Earl of Hertford invaded the east coast of Scotland sacking Leith and Dunbar, putting man, woman and child to fire and the sword. They captured Edinburgh and ravaged the countryside so that there was nothing left standing 7 miles in any direction from Edinburgh. There was no cattle and no grain. This was Henry VIII's corps d'elite. Henry recruited English border horse for the French campaign. Men from Tynedale and Redesdale were hand-picked. They served in the Netherlands, France, and Ireland. In Ireland the enemy was an elusive one and the Irish were fighting on their home ground in bogs and woods which were to their advantage. Neither side showed any mercy and the Irish wars were looked at as a form of punishment. Many Borderers never returned home, as may have been the intention.

Lest we think the Borderers were glorified Robin Hoods, one needs to look at the records kept of cattle stolen, houses ransacked and people killed. A different picture other than the romantic one of the Border Reiver emerges. Often he was cruel and mean-spirited and preferred the quick take from small farmers, widows. He came in force, ‘destroyed wantonly, beat up and even killed if he was resisted, and literally stripped his victims of everything they had.’

Reivers were ‘aggressive, ruthless, violent people.’ When engaged in family feuds they were quick to kill. The Borderer held that reiving was legitimate but that murder was a crime and so were less likely to kill during a raid, that is, unless the occasion arose. They were reluctant to provoke a feud but when one occurred, they were as ready to kill as to do anything

The size of the raid determined how many men would ride. Some of the raids would consist of a large group of men and could last for days. Smaller raids might be a quick moonlight ride, a quick plunder and disappear back to their homes. The larger raids were called 'outragious forradging.' Whether the raid was a full scale invasion for political reasons or a raid against a single farmhouse the principle was the same. A raider plotted his time, route and objective and was ready to fight or trick his way out. It is noted that the Scots were particularly good at talking their way out of danger when outnumbered. The Reiver conducted drills to be prepared for any circumstances. The Reiver’s objective was always to plunder, with destruction if necessary, and to get home with his loot intact and his skin too.

Walter Scott of Buccleuch was a Scottish laird who was especially ruthless in his raids. He was a titled landowner, brave but arrogant, treacherous and a murderer without conscience. He is immortalized as the Bold Buccleuch in border ballads and rescued Kinmont Willie Armstrong from Carlisle Castle. He was raised on the Border so had grown up with the way of life of a Borderer. An example of one of his raids shows that he had 120 horsemen with him when he raided the home of Wille Rowtledge. He took 40 kye (cow) and oxen, 20 horse and mares and also laid an ambush to slay the soldiers and any others who might follow him. They were pursued and cruelly slew a Mr. Rowden, several others, including soldiers, and maimed many others. They drove off 12 more horses and mares. This incident was perfectly executed and combined all the elements which were essential to a successful raid; a carefully chosen target; trusted companions who were well armed and in sufficient numbers, surprise and the sense to anticipate pursuit and a plan to deal with it. He was eventually killed by the Kerrs in the Kerr-Scott feud. His contribution to posterity was Sir Walter Scott, the writer.

Constant incidents kept the border up in arms. In 1508 the "Warden of the Middle Marches, Sir Robert Kerr, was investigating grievances under the terms of the truce between England and Scotland when he was murdered by three Englishmen. These men were Heron, Lilburn and Starhead. Heron came from one of the most turbulent border families. Lilburn was caught, but the others escaped. In 1513 the Warden of the Marches, Hume, raided Northumberland with a force of 6,000 men. On the way home with their plunder, they were confronted by English forces and the ensuing battle did not prove well for the Scots. This was called the Ill Raid and it prompted James IV to step up his strategy to teach the English a lesson. This Ill Raid led to Flodden where James himself was killed.

Although a way of life, reiving was a risky business. There were many obstacles to be surmounted. The towns were secure and well defended, local watches were formed, and the cattle and livestock was brought in at night.

Roads and passes which were known to be escape routes for the reivers were patrolled by wardens' troopers. The native countrymen were actually better at handling spears on horseback than the paid militia and were better prikers (scouts) in a chase because they knew where the mosses and bogs were and how to get around in the countryside. Sometimes the troopers would chain bridges against the Reivers who would then be forced to ford rivers which were also guarded day and night.

Both sides of the border had a network of beacons which gave warning of approaching raiders. Beacons were situated on towers and hillsides. Warnings were given by fire on the tops of castle towers. One beacon signaled raiders approaching, two warned they were approaching fast and four that they rode in great strength.

The Reivers were the most vulnerable when returning home from a foray. They were laden with booty and driving large numbers of cattle and sheep. This seriously slowed them down. They were reluctant to return the way they had come and although there were over 40 passes into the English Middle March, they chose to go 'over the top.'


Hot Trod was the hot pursuit of Reivers and was allowed under the Border laws. It allowed for the ones who had been 'spoyled' to mount a pursuit within six days of the raid and to cross the border, if necessary, to follow the raiders with hound and horn for the recovery of their goods. It was the duty of all neighbors between the ages of 16 and 60 to join the Trod. A piece of burning turf was held aloft on a spear point to let others know what was happening. The posse in pursuit had the right to recruit help from the first town it came to and the first person encountered was to bear witness that a lawful hot trod was being carried out. When told to join the hot trod, if a person refused, he would be considered to be a traitor and to be in cahoots with the enemy. That person who refused would also be forced to become a fugitive. The Hot Trod puts one in mind of the posses of the old American west. Even if a trod was successful, the pursuers could not relax. They knew that there would be reprisals and then reprisals upon reprisals.

Clothing, Types of Weaponry, and Armour
A Reiver's choice of weapons, clothing and horses allowed him to move with speed. The elements of surprise, boldness, cunning and speed, were necessary for a successful raid. Great importance was placed on a Reiver's mount. They chose horses for agility and stamina. The horses used were called hobblers and were shaggy little ponies, but very sure footed and did not have to be shod. In Scotland this pony was called a galloway and in Northumberland a nagg or a bog trotter. These ponies did not need much care. Grooming was not something that they enjoyed.

Armor was really too cumbersome to wear. Besides most of the men riding were poor men and their equipment had either been handed down or stolen. Any armor worn would be back and breast plates. They preferred a jack or jak of plaite. This was sleeveless and sometimes worn over a shirt of mail and was two or three layers of quilted cloth with small iron plates overlapping each other stitched between the layers of cloth. During the Battle of Pinkie in 1547 the men were clad all alike. Since there was no way to identify the rich from the poor, many were killed instead of being captured for ransom.

Chains were drawn 4 or 5 times around the thighs of the horses which helped deflect spear thrusts. A scarf was wrapped around and around the neck for protection against getting one's throat cut. There was no leg armor but thigh-high thick leather riding boots worn with spurs. Sometimes small shields called bucklers were carried. In the early 1500s helmets were worn for protection of the upper part of the face and neck. In the 16th century, these were replaced with light, open helmets called burgonets -- the steill bonnets. These provided protection without a loss of vision. They were peaked on top with protective cheek plates and a flared rim to protect the neck. They were padded inside with leather.

Border Laws required that all men must appear at Muster Days with all arms and armor. The Borderer probably did not show the government on these days all the weapons he had. The lance or the lang spear was the most common weapon and was about 8 to 12 feet in length. Basket hilted broad swords were predominately used among the less wealthy at the end of the 16th century. The nobility wore rapiers and parrying daggers. Dirks, which were long narrow daggers, were carried by everyone, including the clergy.

Longbows and arrows were used even as late as 1580. The Scots also used the bow but not as effectively as the English and preferred a small light crossbow known as the latch.

Scots on foot carried 16 foot pikes. A Jeddart Staff was a 4 foot blade of steel and was slim, providing a long cutting edge with a spike at the bottom for piercing.

Pistols were carried by the Border men but with some trepidation since these weapons were tedious to load and reload and if not in good condition could result in losing a good hand. Also they were not particularly accurate unless at a very close range.

Bishop Leslie writes: 'They sally out of their own Borders in the night in troops, through unfrequented byways and many intricate windings. All the daytime they refresh themselves and their horses in lurking places they have pitched upon before, till they arrive in the dark at those places they have a design upon. As soon as they have seized upon the booty, they in like manner, return home in the night through blind ways, fetching many a compass. The more skillful any captain is to pass through those wild deserts, crooked turnings, and deep precipices, in the thickest mists and darkness, his reputation is the greater and he is looked upon as a man of excellent head.'


Whoever won, the border people bore the brunt for almost 300 years - the late 13th century to the middle of the 16th century.

Reiver battles is a subject all to itself. I will just bring you stories of certain of the border men or clans whose escapades have continued to the present day in song and story.

Johnnie Armstrong

When James V became king, one of his objectives was to restore order in his kingdom and to pacify the borders. He commanded an army of 12,000 men. He ordered all earls, lords, barons, freeholders and gentlemen to meet at Edinburgh with a month's supplies, and then to proceed to Teviotdale and Annandale. The nobles were to bring their dogs with them. After hunting for a few days, the King offered safe conduct to Johnnie Armstrong for an audience. John Armstrong was the laird of Kilnockie and was felt by all Scots to be as good a chieftain as there was within the borders, either in Scotland or England. Johnnie Armstrong may have been a loose-living man and although he never molested a Scotsman, he was of such a force that from the Scots border to Newcastle of England there were not many estates who did not pay tribute to him. When Johnnie came into the king's presence there was no trial but a hanging of Johnnie and his men in the trees of Carlanrig churchyard. There is a legend that persists to this day that the trees withered and died and that the same happened to any trees which were planted since. Johnnie and his men would have fought when they realized what was to happen to them but chances are that they were seized and restrained before they could do so. He is said to have shouted to the King. "I have asked grace at a graceless face." His execution weakened James' authority in the borders and was a grave mistake on the King's part.

Dickie Dryhope (an Armstrong)

Hecky Noble was a widow of only a few days when Dickie Dryhope again raided her town driving off 200 head of cattle, destroying nine houses and burning alive Hecky’s son John and daughter-in-law, who was pregnant. A few days earlier he had murdered a miller, burned the mill and twelve houses and reived 100 cattle. Two month earlier he had stolen a woman’s few cattle (18 in number) and rifled her house. This was not uncommon riding. This type of reiving, the raiding of small towns and homes, happened along the Marches almost every day.

Elliot of Larriston

Accustomed to warfare since the days of Edward I, the Borderers had fine tuned their survival techniques over the centuries. Only the hardiest and most alert remained alive. They had acquired an almost sixth sense when it came to foreseeing danger. The early warning system of fires on the hill tops and mounted messengers were effective in time of trouble allowing the Borderer to either scatter to the hills or seek safety in the nearest castle or peel tower. There is a wonderful line in the ballad "Lock the Door, Larriston" saying "The Armstrongs are flying, the widows are crying" This ballad epitomizes and captures the spirit of the border raids.

From "The Lyric Gems of Scotland"

Lock the door, Larriston, Lion of Liddesdale
Lock the door, Larriston, Lowther comes on
The Armstrongs are flying,
The Widows are crying,
The Castleton's burning and Oliver's gone.
Lock the door, Larriston; high in the weather gleam
See how the Saxon plumes bob in the sky -
Yeoman and carbineer,
Billman and halberdier,
Fierce is the foray and far is the cry.

Bewcastle brandishes high his proud scimitar,
Ridley is riding his fleet-foot grey;
Hedley and Howard there,
Wandale and Windermere,
Lock the door, Larriston, hold them at bay.
Why dost thou smile, noble Elliot of Larriston?
Why does the joy-candle gleam in thine eye?
Thou bold border-ranger
Beware of the danger.
Thy foes are relentless, determined, and nigh.

Jock Elliott raised up his His hand grasped the sword with a nervous embrace;
his steel bonnet and lookitOh, welcome, brave foemen,
On earth there are no men
More gallant to meet in the fray or the chase.
Little know you of the hearts I have hidden here;
Little know you of our moss trooper's might;
Linhope and Sorbie true,
Tundhope and Milburn too,
Gentle in manner, but lions in fight
teel bonnet and lookit,

His hand grasped the sword with a nervous embrace;
Oh, welcome, brave foemen,
On earth there are no men
More gallant to meet in the fray or the chase.
Little know you of the hearts I have hidden here;
Little know you of our moss trooper's might;
Linhope and Sorbie true,
Tundhope and Milburn too,
Gentle in manner, but lions in figh

I have Mangerton, Ogilvie, Raeburn, and Metherble,
Old Sim, of Whitram and all his array.
Come all Northumberland,
Teesdale and Cumberland,
Here at the Breeker Tower end shall the fray.
Scowled the broad sun o'er the links of green Liddesdale,
Red as the beacon-light tipped he the wold;
Many a bold martial eye
Mirror'd that morning sky
Never more oped on his orbit of gold.

Shrill was the bugle's note, dreadful the warrior shout,
Lances and halberts in splinters were torn;
Helmet and haubert then
Brav'd the claymore in vain,
Buckler and armlet in shivers were shorn.
See how they wane, the proud files of the Windermere,
Howard ah! Woe to the hopes of the day;
Hear the wild welkin rend,
While the Scots shouts ascend,
Elliot of Larriston! Elliot for aye!


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. Some of the feuds, such as between the Maxells and the Johnstones, could amount to pitched battles while others were settled in single combat. Families could be engaged in several feuds with several other families and a chart showing these feuds as in 'The Steel Bonnets' draws arrows going every which way. 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.

Some feuds could be settled by permission of the authorities. Carleton and Musgrave were to be allowed to fight after a generation of feuding between the families. In the Collingwood - Burn feud, each was to be allowed six to a side for a fight to the finish. King James intervened to stop the fight. It was just as well, since Collingwood was on his way to the fight with 1200 followers. Regardless, the stopping of the fight seems to be because they had not received permission from the respective Wardens before the fight.

The feud between families could last many years. The Herons and the Kerrs were still at feud 60 years after the murder of Kerr at a truce day (as told above) 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.

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 downward back-handed sword thrust by a horseman to the head of an enemy on foot is known as the Lockerbie lick.

Many Reivers ended their lives in the same way. They were tried and hanged on the gallows at Carlisle or Newcastle. Actually, they may not have been tried as we know it, but instead were condemned. Geordie Burn, the night before he was hanged gave his confession and said that he had 'lived long enough to do so many villainies as he had done … that he had lain with above forty men's wives, what in England, what in Scotland; and that he had killed seven Englishmen with his own hand, cruelly murdering them; that he had spent his whole time in whoring, drinking, stealing and taking deep revenge for slight offences.' Needless to say, he was hanged by morning light.

When James VI became king he was determined to have a United Kingdom. He issued a proclamation against all rebels and disorderly persons. No supplies were to be given to them, their wives or children and the rebels were to be prosecuted with fire and sword. James required all who were guilty of the "foul and insolent outrages lately committed in the Borders" to submit themselves to his mercy under penalty of being excluded from it forever. He decreed the Border Marches would cease to exist and the office of warden would be abolished. The name Borders was prohibited and the area was to be called Middle Shires instead. He ordered all places of strength to be demolished except, of course, the houses of noblemen and barons and ordered all the inhabitants to become farmers. After the union of the crowns, James VI outlawed the MacGregors. They were outlawed in 1590 for 173 years. The clan took to the hills and made their living by raiding cattle and harvests of meal and running protection rackets. Alistar MacGregor in 1603 clashed with Alexander Colquhoun and James had the MacGregors hunted down like animals. However, they continued to raid.

War and hardship and constant devastation of towns, farms and the people shaped these people so that by the 16th century there was complete gang warfare. The situation had been made worse by the ineffectiveness of the two governments. Their interference on the one hand and neglect on the other allowed the borders to become unmanageable. Both governments even encouraged the lawlessness for political reasons. After having partially created the situation, the governments found that they could not control it. Apparently this didn’t seem to concern them overly since it was the Borderers who were suffering, not the governments. With the Warden system breaking down and the Borderers not able to exact justice from either side, they, of course, resorted to justice of their own. Terrorism reigned. People were afraid to complain of thefts for fear of awful reprisals or for fear of starting feuds. Government officials often protected the worst of the marauders in return for their own protection.

The defeat of the Scottish at Solway Moss was a disaster. It was a terrible rout. On their way back into Scotland, the army found itself beset by Scottish raiders waiting to take plunder and prisoners. The news of Solway Moss was a fatal blow to King James V. He was ill and terribly dejected. He withdrew from the Border country and wandered from one royal residence to another. A few days after the defeat, he received news that he had fathered a child, a daughter, who was very weak and not likely to live. This daughter was later to become Mary, Queen of Scots. He died shortly after that. He was no sooner dead than the Scotts and Kerrs were raiding the royal flocks and once again Scotland would have a child monarch.

Scotland was now in great peril. If Henry VIII had invaded Scotland at the end of the Solway Moss debacle, he would have stood a good chance of taking the country. However, he decided that the best way was to betroth his son, Edward, to the newborn Mary. Scotland and England then would come under one rule. This might have come to fruition but the Scots would not let the little Queen be raised in England and they rejected Henry’s treaty. That was it for Henry. He decided that he would have to obtain Scotland in another manner, the ‘old-fashioned’ way by resorting to all out war. Thus began the rough wooing. It has been suggested that Henry’s behavior - his arrogance and cruelty which appeared in middle age - could have been due to cerebral syphilis. He had also received a head injury jousting which left him unconscious for a time. He may have never recovered from that head wound. Henry VIII kept the Borders in a 'state of ferment' so that he could pursue his military ambitions in Europe. Henry and James got along reasonably well during the first years of his reign. He wanted to marry Marie of France but she chose to marry James V which did nothing to promote their friendship. Therefore, James was allied with France during the time of peace with England and felt that he could also be a friend to England. When England joined the Holy League against France in 1511, James continued his friendship with France. Henry's rough wooing backfired on him because the more he burned and scorched the earth, the more stubborn and resistant the Scottish people became.

After Henry's death, the country was in the hands of Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford who was now advanced to the title of Duke of Somerset. Edward VI was king but he was a child, ill with tuberculosis. Somerset felt that the French influence had to be broken. Being English, he knew only one way to do this, and it was with force and fire. He invaded in 1547. The fiery cross was lit and an army of 30,000 was gathered. The armies met at Pinkie on what is known as Black Saturday. The Scots were in good position but abandoned it. Although they broke the English horse they were decimated by Somerset's gunners and cannon. The Scottish army was driven from the field. The Scottish suffered a great loss of dead and prisoners taken. Somerset was now an occupying power of the lowlands. England now had a strong grip on southern Scotland. Somerset proposed peace. His terms seem to have been generous ones, 'union with Scottish independence assured, English claims north of the Border to be renounced and the countries to be ruled by the children of Edward and Mary.' Looking at it today we might say that that was unacceptable but looking at it through the eyes and the plight of the people, it might have been a different matter. People who had survived the terrible times of the 1540s, whose countryside was ruined, who could not plant a crop and hope to reap it, who could not expect to see their children grow to an old age, it might have seemed a good peace. Regardless, Scotland rejected Somerset's offer.

With French assistance (when Mary was sent to France) Scotland was roused to another drive. The fighting that took place across the Border country in 1548 was the worst the Marches had seen. The Scots were pitiless, probably paying back old grievances. It has been said that they even bought English prisoners from the French so they could slaughter them. Whether this is true or not, I do not know. Hatred deepened on both sides. Renewed war with France drained the English coffers and energy, taking it from the northern Border. And finally the war came to an end. England withdrew from Scotland with assurances that she would never attack Scotland again. A lesson the people of the Borders knew already - that might was right.

By Elizabeth's rein lawlessness and raiding on the border had increased so that in desperation it was suggested that the Roman wall be rebuilt. Castles were to be set a mile apart to deter raiding by the Scots. It would also provide a means to invade Scotland at will. This was never done but shows the conditions on the border even when the two countries were at peace. When Elizabeth died the border erupted in violence once again - a complete reign of terror. Grahams, Armstrongs and Elliots launched massive raids into Cumbria stealing cattle and sheep.

When Mary returned to Scotland, she tried to deal with the Borders. Her half brother, James Stewart, led an expedition to the Middle March and hanged 30 or so reivers. Their homes, or strong places, were destroyed the local leaders were instructed to keep order and peace. This seemed like a good start. The Wardens were instructed to settle disputes in an impartial manner. For awhile things were good on the Borders as neither Queen, Mary or Elizabeth, wanted to do anything to offend the other. However, the peace did not last. The Elliot-Scott feud broke out and once again murder and mayhem were the action of the day. The Elliots, being outnumbered, asked for help from England. In return for her protection they offered Elizabeth the castle of Hermitage. The English government for once was wise enough to refuse this offer feeling that their interference would once again 'shake loose the border.' However, the Elliots were being provisioned by the English Wardens and were offered sanctuary when necessary. This was at the time that Mary married Darnley to the consternation of her nobles and that of Elizabeth. The majority of the border families were in favor of her actions and this helped put down her half-brother's rebellion

The name of Tait is only shown the two times in this article. It has been abstracted in the interest of space.