Friday, January 6, 2012

The Border Reivers

by Regina Jeffers
The political struggle that has dominated much of England/Scotland's history was often a result of the border wars. In Elizabethan times the Anglo-Scottish border counties, especially Northumberland, were the home of lawless clans who spent their lives raiding and marauding. The Border Reivers were not necessarily men of lower class. In fact, many were members of the Realm. They were excellent fighters and knew how to survive in a desolate land.

From BBC Home, we find that "Reiv - means to steal. The Reiver period is roughly categorised as 1450 - 1610. The movement came to its height in the late 1500's and ended around 1610. The Reiver history is a mixture of fact and folklore. The English crown destroyed almost all of the documentation relating to Reiver life and so the Reiver's story has passed down through oral history and folk traditions, rather than formal documentation. As a result, it is hard to untangle the mythological from the material when describing the Reiver movement."

Following the Cheviot Hills, a bleak line of ridges and valleys that forms the border between England and Scotland, was the land upon which much blood was shed. Hadrian's Wall, built by the Romans from Solway Firth to Berwick, never successfully kept either nation apart. The Chevoits sport peat bogs, broad rivers, hidden valley, salt marshes, and wooded areas. Raiding was an important way of life for those who lived on the borders. Neither treaties nor truces could prevent the continual struggle to survive in this desolate area. The purveyor of the strongest sword ruled the land.

The Borders were not the romantic lands often portrayed in many current novels. It was a cruel, brutal land. The times were peppered with feuds between families. Clan loyalties were stronger than allegiance to either crown. Intermarriages brought about new alliances, but what really tied the area together was the geography, the belief in independence, and the society in which this people lived. English fought Scots, but they also fought Englishmen. The same held true for the Scotsmen. This created a dual nationality among men who lived along the Cheviot Hills. Not spoken of openly, it would not be unusual for the English to share "the spoils" with their Scottish brothers, or vice versa.

Autumn brought an increase in activity for the reivers. These families were often nomads, of sorts. The houses were of the type that they could be moved at a moment's notice. We must remember that these people were violent, aggressive, and often ruthless, but they had a "sense of honor." They consider reiving a way of life, but murder was looked down upon (even during a raid) unless there was no other option. A reiver's object was to make a quick strike, plunder his enemy's land, and return with his loot in tact - all this without loss of life, if possible.

Using a series of beacons as warning signals, the retreat was the most risky part of a reiver's foray. If he managed to avoid the local watches, the warden's troopers, the paid militia, the broad rivers and mossy bogs, he might fall victim to the Hot Trod, the legal pursuit of the reivers, who were loaded down from their loot and by driving stolen cattle and sheep to their own keeps. During the Hot Trod, all male neighbors, between the ages of 16 and 60 of the victim, were required by law to join in the pursuit of the attackers. The posse also had the legal right to recruit others along the way. If a person refused to aid in the pursuit, he could be considered a traitor and put to death.

David Simpson of The Roots of the Region website ( ) says, "George M Trevelyan the great British historian, (a Northumbrian) superbly summed up the nature of the Border Reivers and their ballads when he wrote;

'They were cruel,coarse savages, slaying each other like the beasts of the forest; and yet they were also poets who could express in the grand style the inexorable fate of the individual man and woman, the infinite pity for all cruel things which they none the less inflicted upon one another. It was not one ballad- maker alone but the whole cut throat population who felt this magnanimous sorrow, and the consoling charms of the highest poetry.' Many of the Border Ballads still survive today, due to the avid collecting of the famous Border poet, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), himself the descendant of a famous border clan."

Border Clans included the Armstrongs, Bells, Cecils, Croziers, Dodds, Douglases, Elliotts, Fenwicks, Forsters, Grahams, Homes, Howards, Irvines, Johnstones, Kerrs, Maxwells, Nixons, Robsons, Scotts, Storeys, and Taits.

A superb source that summarizes and explains many of the key issues of the Border Wars is The Border Reivers

The remnants of the reiver huts that were used as part of the "escape routes" became part of my upcoming novel, The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy, which is due for release in March 2012. In researching these border wars for this novel, I have become quite enthralled with the story lines.


  1. Thanks for another fascinating read! Will send the link to this blogspot to a friend who now lives in Scotland again, and who is very interested in Scottish History.
    Looking forward to your book about Georgiana Darcy (lovely frontcover btw) and hope you'll share more of your research stories here!


  2. That is fascinating information. I always heard the area was rough, but I did not realize that the raiders actually had names and codes.

    Thanks for the share! Looking forward to your book release.

  3. *flexes shoulders* Those are my ancestors you're talking about there, you know. And a fine occupation for a man reiving was too...

    Dorothy Dunnett is the best author I know of for offering a window onto the Borders way of thinking in her Lymond Chronicles--with much of the series set in and around Linlithgow. There was always a fair old amount of reiving going on both ways...Yes, it could be brutal, yes it had been politicised by the Scots and English kings, but there was also a bit of 'game' about it too--a kind of 'Won't it be funny when auld _____ comes out and sees he's got no sheep."

    You can still see the Roman checkpoint at Hadrian's Wall. Which I confess made me laugh when I first saw it. I can't see a pack of Scotsmen and a load of sheep stopping for any Roman soldier at that wee barrier...

  4. Fans of Firefly, the beloved (albeit short-lived) old-west in space sci-fi cult classic starring Castle's, Nathan Fillion, will remember the terror the crew felt when faced with the savage Reivers. Regina Jeffers has presented us with a short look at the actual group those sci-fi Reivers were based upon. Thanks for sharing.

  5. My favorite reiver is Jock o' the Park--John Elliot of the Park whom James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, unwisely pursued into bog area and received a terrible wound in the head from Jock's sword. The scar on Bothwell's head was still said to be visible on the top of his (alleged) mummified head when the remains were on display in Denmark.

    1. Good evening Angelyn,
      Nice response.
      If your favourite Reiver is Jock of the Park would you have a look at an article I have written on my blog about him and Bothwell?
      You can view it at:
      There are loads of other articles about the Border Reivers on the blog:

      Tom Moss

  6. Thanks for a fascinating view of life on the border. I'm confused about the houses. The ones shown do not look so movable!

  7. My husband's clan - Lamont - suffered much during this time, but nearly became wiped out by the Campbells during the Civil War.

    Hardian had it right for building the wall. :)

  8. Fascinating!!! Thanks so much for the info!

  9. I have used Northumberland in several of my story lines. I am becoming more versed in the tales of the Border Reivers.

  10. Reiving isn't an exclusively British pastime though--it was common throughout Europe, probably throughout the world (I think of the classic American novel, The Reivers, by William Faulkner)...and was a problem Napoleon faced in his efforts to 'police' France from 1798-1815, whereas it had pretty much died out here in the UK by then.

    Wherever you have a society which hovers on destitution, for whatever reason, you're going to have more and more people drawn into the life of banditry of one form or another. It's for survival and it's important to bear that in mind.

    Also, most of these societies are steeped in custom based on vengeance or blood payments of one sort or another. And the Scots clans certainly have that element in their heritage.

    Then, within that outlaw life, there is a classic form of outlaw leadership which involves usually a pair of brothers or relations at the top, with one or two non-relations forming a quartet of power. And this is true of reiving gangs or bandit gangs, many of which would have been something like 100-strong, from Scotland and Ireland across France and Italy to Hungary.


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