by Charlie Bell
Is your name (or that of an ancestor) Armstrong, Bell, Burn, Charlton, Crozier, Dacre, Dodd, or Douglas?
How about Elliot, Fenwick, Forster, Graham, Hall, Harden, Irvine, Johnstone, Kerr, Maxwell, Milburn,
Noble, Reed, Robson, or Scott? Or maybe Carruthers, Moffat, Young, Davison, Oliver, or Turner? Or any
of the varied spellings of these names? If so, you are very likely descended from one of the infamous
Scottish Border Reiver families who "shook loose" the border between Scotland and England (referred to
as "The Border" for the rest of this discussion) until the early years of the 17th century.
For centuries these border families fought, feuded, raided, and ravaged across, and parallel to, The Border.
The region endured turmoil as Bells and Grahams, Armstrongs and Johnstones, Kerrs and Scotts formed
ever-shifting alliances or declared implacable feuds with each other along and across The Border. In all
things, their loyalty was to family above all else.
Life on The Border was rough and dangerous. As England invaded Scotland again and again, homes were burned,
crops laid waste, livestock stolen or slaughtered, meager household possessions were seized, and more often
than not many of the local people were "put to the sword." When English politics were not the force behind
an invasion, the Reivers on the English side of The Border were raiding for revenge or simply for loot.
Needless to say, the Scottish Borderers gave as good as they got back to the English.
During all of this feuding, plundering, fighting, and general mayhem, the local law was often hopelessly
outnumbered on both sides of The Border. Equally likely, those who were sworn to uphold the law by the powers
that be in London or Edinburgh were joining in the raiding. Expeditions to bring a semblance of order were
occasionally dispatched from Edinburgh or London. These punitive measures usually involved the marginally
effective method of hanging a number of the most notorious Border Reivers in a particular March.
The constant wars and violent raids let to an existence that was almost incomprehensible to many English of
that day. Invaders, whether English soldiers, reivers from the English side of the Border, or local Scottish
Border enemies, usually followed a scorched-earth policy. To minimize loss, Border families lived in crude
hovels constructed of a few stones, poles, and turf or thatched roofs, the destruction of which would be of
little consequence. It was claimed that a Scottish Borderer could reconstruct his destroyed home in a matter
of a day or so. As far as agriculture was concerned, row crops and grain storage were ignored almost completely.
Why grow and store crops that could be easily stolen or burned? Borderers concentrated on keeping many sorts of
"goods on the hoof", and most raids involved stealing the target's cattle, horses, sheep, and other livestock.
Counter raids offered some hope of replacing stolen livestock, which may in fact have been stolen previously by
the victim of that day.
The situation south of the border in England was similar but perhaps a bit better than on the Scottish side.
The English Borderers were as adept at reiving as their Scottish neighbors across the border. Border names in
England included Hetherton, Musgrave, Charleton, Forster, Robson, and Storey, as well as Gray, Dunne, Anderson,
Dodd, Heron, Hunter, and Jamieson.
Reiving was not the only reason for crossing the border. Despite discouragement by both governments, intermarriages
of Scots and English were common. Family names such as Armstrong, Bell, Elliott, and others were found in England
as well as Scotland during the reiving years. Many families with Reiver names can be found on both sides of the
The frequent pillaging of both sides of the Border region continued throughout recorded Scottish history until
the Union of the Crowns in 1603. It was at this time that James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne
as James I after Elizabeth I of England died. King James set out immediately to tame the Border region. His
methods were cruel and, no doubt in some cases unjust, but he now had the power on both sides of the border to
relentlessly bring about order. It took seven years of ruthless enforcement of harsh decrees before the borders
began to become a peaceable, stable place to live. By 1620 reiving became so hazardous that it virtually disappeared.
The attention of the King, and thus the government, was turned to new projects in Ireland. English monarchs had been
trying to subdue the Irish for many generations without notable success. The Plantation of Ulster was launched in an
attempt to impose a Protestant influence in the Irish province of Ulster. The Lowland Clearances, between 1760 and
1830, further dispersed the Border Reivers to the industrial cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and northern England.
The genetic composition of the Border people includes substantial elements of Celts from Ireland; Norse from
Scandinavia; Angles and Saxons from Continental Europe; Norman and French from Normandy, as well as some Pictish
blood from the Scottish Highlands and ancient Briton blood from Iron Age Britain. Although there seem to be several
physical types from this genetic "mix", certain Borderer personality traits have been noted by travelers to the area
over the centuries. Border people have been described as taciturn, harsh of voice, hardheaded, tough, unscrupulous,
quarrelsome, and vengeful. These characteristics were certainly the result of enduring for centuries in the path of
conquering armies and outlaw raiders from the south where a man would not scruple to raid across the border to feed
his family. Walter Scott of Satchels wrote in eloquent defense of the Border Reiver:
A politically imposed border notwithstanding, Border Reivers raided where they had to in order to survive. And
survive they did, though shaped by the conditions of their lives that were largely beyond their control. They have
endured along both sides of The Border and farther afield in Scotland and England. In many cases their descendants
have survived and prospered in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, indeed, worldwide.
- The free-booters venture 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 live-hood comes of his enemie;
- His substance, being and his house most tight,
- Yet may he chance to loss all in a night.
Note: This discussion relied heavily upon the books "The Steel Bonnets" by George MacDonald Fraser and "Border Reiver
1513-1603" by Keith Durham. For more information on the lowland clearances the book "The Lowland Clearances, Scotland's
Silent Revolution: 1760–1830", by Pete Aitchison, and Andrew Cassell.