Britain's frontier people
The enduring legacy of the Border Reivers
It is well known that many of the fathers of the European project came from bilingual, territorially ambiguous parts of the six founding nations, among them the Alsatian Robert Schuman and Tyrolean Alcide De Gasperi.
Border regions tend to be different, something I thought about during the summer before Brexit when we underwent a mammoth trip across five of those six countries (we never got around to Luxembourg, for which apologies). The journey from Alsace to Baden-Württemberg, or Liguria to Provence, brings home how nationality is often a matter of gradations and unnatural boundaries imposed on the whims of bureaucrats in distant capitals – often more alien than supposed foreigners across the border.
But once you leave that tunnel, things are different; there is no ambiguity between Calais and Dover, only ocean. You’re either in England or France. The same is not true of England’s northern frontier, Britain’s great zone of ambiguity, and in particular the area between Carlisle and Langholm which has historically been known as the ‘Debatable Land’ – the subject of Graham Robb’s book.
Robb, an Anglo-Scot who mostly writes about France, moved back to this part of Britain in the 2010s, and describes it with his characteristic style of history, personal narrative and social commentary.
The border people are a unique subset of the English nation, being the last to undergo the pacification of government. Until the Union of Crowns in 1603, the region’s unusual position outside the orbit of either London and Edinburgh helped create a culture that was clannish and marked by violent feuds and cattle rustling.
Among the notorious Borderer clans were the Scotts, Burns and Irvines north of the border, and Fenwicks, Millburns, Charltons and Musgraves on the English side, while some could be found on both, among them the Halls, Nixons and Grahams. Many of these clans were outlaws and some were lawmen; others were both or either, depending on circumstances.
This proto-Wild West produced many characters, and among the famous border reivers of legend were men such as Archie Fire-the-Braes, Buggerback, Davy the Lady, Jok Pott the Bastard, Wynkyng Will, Nebless [noseless] Clem, Fingerless Well and Dog Dyntle [penis] Elliot.
‘Debatable Land’ most likely comes from batten, common land where livestock could be pastured, and it was this pastoral economy which shaped their psychology: the importance of honour, and a reputation for violence and revenge, as a deterrent against predators.
Violence was so common on the border that there sprung a tradition whereby truces were arranged in return for ‘blackmail’, a tribute to border chiefs, from the Middle English male, tribute; only in the nineteenth century did this come to mean any sort of extortion.
Another of the Borderers’ contributions to our language is ‘bereaved’, which is how you felt after the reivers had raided your land (it usually meant to have lost property rather than a loved one). Other local terms were less successful in spreading, such as ‘scumfishing’, which meant ‘surrounding a pele tower with a smouldering heap of damp straw and smoking out its inhabitants’, as Robb put it.
Border folk relied heavily on the protection of their clan, and so ‘for a reiver, the greatest disgrace was not excommunication but ostracism: if a man failed to keep his word, one of his gloves or a picture of his face was stuck on the end of a spear or a sword and paraded around at public meetings. This “bauchling” was considered a punishment worse than death.’
Both the kings of England and Scotland regarded them as a nuisance. In 1525, the Archbishop of Glasgow excommunicated the reivers en masse; Parliamentary decrees issued by authorities in England and Scotland between 1537 and 1551 stated that ‘all Englishmen and Scottishmen are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, slay, murder and destroy, all and every such person and persons, their bodies, property, goods and livestock … without any redress to be made for same’.
In the 1580s the border area remained ‘verie ticklie and dangerous’. One adviser even urged Elizabeth I to build another Roman wall because he believed the ‘Romaynes’ had built theirs to defend themselves ‘from the dayly and daungereous incurtyons of the valyaunte barbarous Scottyshe nation’.
In an attempt to maintain some semblance of control, cross-border marriages were punishable by death. In 1587 a young Scotsman, whose English wife had given birth two months before, was arrested by a Scottish warden who handed him over to English authorities knowing they would be put to death. The two lovers were hanged side by side at the marketplace at Haltwhistle in Northumberland.
Some reiver families might be identified as English and some Scottish, but these labels might mean little to them, even when commissioned to fight each other. Robb recalls that during one 16th-century battle between England and Scotland: ‘The carnage would be well under way – the soldiers having orders to kill and to take no prisoners – when some Scottish and English warriors, standing less than a spear’s length from each other, were seen to be engaged in polite conversation. When they noticed the furious eye of a commanding officer, they began to prance about like novices in a fencing school, striking, as it were, only “by assent and appointment”. Some of those faux combatants eventually left the battlefield with half a dozen prisoners who seemed quite undismayed by their capture. This was all the more incredible since these men who seemed to be treading the planks of a stage rather than a blood-soaked mire were beyond suspicion of cowardice. These were the English and Scottish borderers whose reputation for martial skill and bravery was second to none.’
This contrasts with the viciousness of clan fighting. The Johnstons would decorate houses with the flayed skin of the Maxwells, while both the Rutherfords and Halls were outlawed, so that anyone bearing those surnames could be hunted down. There were battles between the Armstrongs and Ridleys which on one occasion led to three dead, thirty prisoners taken and ‘many sore hurt, especially John Whytfeild, whose bowels came out, but are sowed up agayne, and is thought shall hardly escape, but as yet lyveth’.
It would be nice to romanticise the reivers, but this is certainly easier at 400 year’s distance. Take Walter Scott, Laird of Buccleuch, chief of the Scott clan who served as Warden of the Middle March, and for whom ‘Along with hunting and horse racing, murder was his favourite sport’.
In 1597, the 32-year-old Buccleuch rode into Tynedale and ‘sparing neither age nor sex, he cruelly murdered and slew thirty-five of her Majesty’s subject, of which number some he cut in part with his own hand, some he burnt with fire, some he drowned in rivers, and wilfully and for destruction sake burnt and spoiled’.
Not that it did his clan any harm – his descendent is the current duke and a large private landowner.
Even some women took part in the violence, like ‘fair maiden Lilliard’ who fought at Battle of Ancrum Moor in 1545, a ballad recalling:
Little was her stature, but muckle was her fame.
Upon the English loons she laid monie thumps,
An’ when her legs were cuttit off, she fought upon her stumps.
Much of this reiver lore also appears in Dan Jackson’s wonderful Northumbrians, with such characters as ‘Ill-drowned Geordie’, ‘Archie Fire-the-Braes’, ‘Oit-with-the sword’, ‘Crack-spear’ and ‘Cleave-the-crune’.
Jackson traces much of the border cultural tradition down to the present day, including a fondness for hard-drinking and fighting. He notes how the name Armstrong came from an armour-bearer to a Scottish king who had lifted his lord onto a horse using one arm, and whose descendent William became one of the great arms manufacturers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Meanwhile many of the reiver surnames, among them Charlton, Milburn, Robson and Henderson, would become familiar to football fans as the north-east began to produce large numbers of England internationals.
Border pacification intensified under King James VI and I, first ruler of both England and Scotland, who took a hardline approach to the clans. The troublesome Grahams were expelled to the north of Ireland, and this emigration would become a more general policy as the king reasoned that he might kill two birds with one stone, pacifying the north of Ireland and removing troublesome elements from Britain – what could go wrong?
Large numbers of Borderers – perhaps as many as 250,000 – then made a second, far more globally-influential exodus across the Atlantic Ocean. Here they would play a leading role in the founding of the United States, these ‘Scots-Irish’ settlers being the most ardently pro-independence group during the American Revolution, reluctant as ever to take orders from London.