The border region separating England and Scotland is marked by the undulating terrain of the Cheviots, which dominates the geography. The surrounding landscape is diverse, but often equally austere in appearance, including salt marshes, meandering rivers such as the Tyne, and rocky formations, as well as the flat expanses of Solway Moss. In normal circumstances, the harsh conditions of this land would cultivate a tough and resilient population. However, from the 13th to the early 17th century, the politics of the two countries sharpened this toughness to a dangerous degree. This era became known as the time of the Border Reiver, a term specific to this area.
To put it simply, Border Reivers were thieves, but this definition does not do justice to their activities or the people themselves. Border reivers mainly stole livestock, but they also took money, goods, and occasionally people who could be ransomed. By the 16th century, reiving had been refined to an art form, practised by all classes from penniless farmers and outlawed fugitives to lords and Wardens. Although many border reivers had other occupations, such as farming or soldiering, the poor economic conditions caused by constant conflict often left them unable to support themselves. The practice of dividing farmland among the sons of a farmer made plots too small to provide for a family, exacerbating the conditions. As a result, many were born into a world where reiving was the only hope of survival. For others, the turmoil presented opportunities to gain power and influence through professional cattle rustling or skilled guerilla warfare, where ambushes, tracking, theft, and raids were second nature.
Reiving, a form of theft and raiding, was predominantly a seasonal activity in the Borders between England and Scotland, occurring from autumn to spring. The period from Michaelmas (September 29) to Martinmas (November 11) was particularly dangerous, as the weather was dry and the livestock were strong enough for the drive. By February, the cost of oats became too high and the nights too short for significant raids.
Reivers were not only skilled thieves, but also expert light horsemen, often wearing plate armour or a “jak of plate,” a sleeveless garment made of quilted cloth, twill, or linen with overlapping iron plates stitched inside. They also wore a range of steel helmets and carried various weapons, including swords, lances, knives, bows, and crossbows.
Border Country Turmoil
The history of Border turmoil between England and Scotland contributed to the development of this way of life. Disputes and outbreaks of violence had existed since the Roman era when Hadrian’s Wall marked the Border between the Britons and Picts. The problem that led to the rise of the Border reivers can be traced back to Edward I’s attempt to conquer Scotland in 1296, although the decline in the Border’s stability had already begun 38 years earlier. By the time the two countries sent representatives to meet and agree upon international Border laws, some 300 years of sporadic warfare had already taken place, leaving the Borders deeply scarred and the people suffering severely. The constant raids that became a way of life for many also changed their outlook, and by the 16th century, the Borderers of both England and Scotland had realized that their respective governments could no longer provide justice or protection.
This realization was not due to any memory of the events of 1296 but was a result of the conflicts of the 16th century, including Henry VIII’s war with Scotland in 1542 and the battle of Pinkie in 1547. The Rising of the North in 1570, led by two Earls but joined by many Borderers, provided another opportunity for reprisals from the English government against the English Borderers for treason. By this time, the Borderers felt surrounded by enemies on all sides, and their allegiance was no longer primarily placed in the state but instead in their border clans and families. The concept of “Nation” had become secondary.
The growth of strong family ties and clan loyalty led to the emergence of notorious riding surnames in the Border regions, such as Elliot, Maxwell, Armstrong, and Graham, who were frequently involved in raiding. These surnames were not limited to one side of the Border, as they readily raided both sides. This lack of national feeling was directly related to the wars and policies of the opposing countries, which encouraged people to raid the opposite kingdom during times of peace. However, the emergence of these strong family or clan ties also brought about serious problems for peacekeeping, as the names would not only join together for raids but also fight each other, resulting in a bewildering number of feuds. These feuds often spread through association, creating a complicated network of conflicting clans or riding names that were not restricted by nationality. Even the Wardens, whose job it was to keep the peace, became deeply involved in these border clans and their feuds.
In the past, the Borders were overseen by Sheriffs and regulated under the Laws of the Marches, an agreement between England and Scotland in 1248. However, with the hostilities between both countries, an office with military powers was needed to defend the Border. In 1296, Edward I commissioned captains and keepers for the peace and split the Border into Marches. Initially, a temporary post, by 1309 the position of the Warden of the March became permanent with one person in charge of each country.
Until 1381, there were only two Marches, but the introduction of the Middle March led to a total of six Marches. Each Warden would select his own keepers to act as the keepers of the respective Marches, and by the sixteenth century, a Warden would be supported by Deputies, Keepers, Captains, Land Sergeants, and Troopers. The Wardens of England were usually gentlemen from the southern counties, while on the Scottish side, it was typically given to someone from the great family names within the area due to the Scottish government’s lack of authority. However, this led to the disadvantage of being deeply embroiled in Border country politics, such as feuds and alliances. Despite this, the post was vital to the Scottish government, especially during times of domestic upheaval, and was given as an inducement to a strong family, such as the Humes or Johnstones, to obtain their loyalty.
The Border reivers emerged due to ongoing turmoil in the Borders of England and Scotland, which included frequent raiding and murder. The history of the Border Reivers is a complex geographical, and social history that was romanticised somewhat by Sir Walter Scott. That said, it is one of the most fascinating aspects of British history whose fingerprints can still be found in the landscape, literature, and song.
From 1313 to 1716 reivers attacked the border with England and Scotland. The group included a Scottish and British population and invaded the borders without considering their nationality or the ethnic group they were targeting.
The decline of the Border Reivers can be traced back to the union of England and Scotland in 1603, when King James VI of Scotland became James I of England. The new monarch sought to bring order to the region and put an end to the lawlessness that had plagued the Border area for centuries.
King James I implemented a number of measures to achieve this goal, including the appointment of new Wardens and the establishment of a permanent military presence in the area. He also introduced harsh penalties for raiding and other criminal activities.
Over time, these efforts proved successful in reducing the incidence of violence and disorder in the Borders but they also had the effect of undermining the traditional way of life of the Border Reivers, as many of their traditional activities were outlawed.
As a result, many Border Reivers were forced to seek new livelihoods, and their influence gradually waned. The two main families the Armstrongs and Grahams were forced to live overseas in Ulster, Northern Ireland and in Maryland, USA.
The Border Reivers spoke a dialect of English known as Border or Border Scots. It was influenced by both Scottish Gaelic and Old English, and was distinct from the standard English spoken in London and the south of England.
If you have any other Border Surnames, you are likely descended from Border Raider!
Some of the Reiving Families would be not known as clans – but graynes or riding names. On both sides of the border these names are recorded as being Border Raiders.
The Border Reivers were made up of a number of clans, families, and surnames. Here are some of the most well-known:
The Marches were to the Scottish Border region between England and Scotland where there were an ongoing conflict and territorial disputes. The term ‘march’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘mearc’ meaning boundary or border. In total there were six marches, three in each country, there was the West March, the Middle March, and the East March. Each region had its own Warden appointed by the English or Scottish monarch, who was responsible for maintaining law and order along the border. The Wardens had the authority to raise armies, arrest criminals, and settle disputes, but their efforts were often undermined by the lawless and violent nature of the region. The Marches ceased to exist as distinctive administrative regions after the union of England and Scotland in 1707.