THE REIVERS

Scotland and England were frequently at war during the late Middle Ages. During these wars, the livelihood of the people on the Borders was devastated by the contending armies. Even when the countries were not formally at war, tension remained high, and royal authority in either or both kingdoms was often weak, particularly in remote locations. The difficulty and uncertainties of basic human survival meant that communities and/or people kindred to each other would seek security through group strength and cunning. They would attempt to improve their livelihoods at their nominal enemies' expense, enemies who were frequently also just trying to survive. Loyalty to a feeble or distant monarch and reliance on the effectiveness of the law usually made people a target for depredations rather than conferring any security.

There were other factors which promoted a predatory mode of living in the Borders. A system of inheritance called gavelkind meant that estates, and particularly land, were divided equally between all sons on a man's death; although this was considered more fair than primogeniture, it also meant that many people owned insufficient land to survive.[1] Also, much of the border region is mountainous or open moorland, unsuitable for arable farming but good for grazing. Livestock was easily rustled and driven back to raiders' territory by mounted reivers who knew the country well. The raiders also often removed easily portable household goods or valuables, and took prisoners for ransom.

The attitudes of the English and Scottish governments towards the border families alternated from indulgence and even encouragement, as these fierce families served as the first line of defence against invasion across the border, to draconian and indiscriminate punishment when their lawlessness became intolerable to the authorities.

Reive, a noun meaning raid, comes from the Middle English (Scots) reifen. The verb reave meaning "plunder, rob", a closely related word, comes from the Middle English reven. There also exists a Northumbrian and Scots verb reifen. All three derive from Old English rēafian which means "to rob, plunder, pillage"

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.

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 by James 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.

By the early 1620’s peace had arrived in the Borders, possibly for the first time ever.

At their worst the Reivers were bandits and cutthroats. At best they were kings messengers and keepers of the peace. They were men of their time living a legend which lasted 300 years. Some of the most notorious of the reiver families were legitimatised as the strongest and the most cunning attracting royal patronage, outliving their time by stealth of purpose.  The strongest and those quickest to change sides and loyalties made fortunes and grew into the new aristocracy. Kerr and Beccleuth did better than well out of the chaos of the pacification of the mid shires.

 

In 1583, recorded in the CALENDAR OF BORDER PAPERS, are the “Names on the Marches”. Separated into Scotland and England and into the Gentlemen and the Surnames the list is the definitive and prime list of the new Border Reivers.

 

Into the Scottish East March the Trotters were as “Gentlemen”. The early days of heavy duty was replaced by an involvement in  legal trade. The Trotters were canny businessmen and traders, leading a new breed of gentry.