The Border Reivers

The Border Reivers were a formidable force in the history of Britain, particularly during the tumultuous period from the late 13th century to the early 17th century. These raiders, hailing from both Scottish and English descent, operated along the Anglo-Scottish border, a region marked by constant strife and conflict. Their activities were not limited by national loyalties; they raided across the border country indiscriminately, driven by survival in a land where royal authority was often weak and distant. The Reivers’ way of life was shaped by the harsh and unforgiving landscape they inhabited, with much of the borderlands being mountainous or open moorland, better suited for grazing than arable farming. This made livestock an ideal target for rustling, and the Reivers became adept at driving animals and evading capture in the rugged terrain they knew so well.

Their society was structured around strong family ties and a system of partible inheritance, which often meant that land was divided among all sons, leading to insufficient landholdings to support families. This, coupled with the constant threat of war and the need for communal security, pushed many towards a predatory lifestyle. The Reivers were skilled horsemen and fighters, known for their ability to conduct swift and devastating raids. They would steal cattle, sheep, and horses, as well as household goods, and even take prisoners for ransom. The Reivers’ horn, a symbol of their presence, would often herald the start of a raid, striking fear into the hearts of those who heard it.

The English and Scottish governments had a complex relationship with the Border Reivers. At times, they were seen as a necessary defence against invasions, serving as the first line of resistance due to their fierce reputation and knowledge of the borderlands. However, when their lawlessness became too disruptive, the authorities would attempt to suppress them with varying degrees of success. The term ‘reive’ itself, meaning raid, comes from the Middle English (Scots) ‘reifen’, and is closely related to the word ‘reave’, which means to plunder or rob.

The legacy of the Border Reivers is a testament to the turbulent history of the Anglo-Scottish border. Their impact on the culture and history of the region is still felt today, with their stories and exploits becoming the stuff of legend. The Reivers influenced the development of certain aspects of border law and customs, and their descendants can still be found in the borderlands, a reminder of a time when survival often depended based on one’s horse and the sharpness of one’s sword.

The Border Reivers may have included displaced Brigantes

Given the geographical proximity and the tumultuous nature of the period, it is plausible that some displaced Brigantes could have been absorbed into the Border Reiver society, especially considering the fluidity of cultural and tribal identities during those centuries.

The Border Reivers were known for their raiding lifestyle along the Anglo-Scottish border, a region not far from the historical lands of the Brigantes. The Reivers’ society was one of survival, often beyond the reach of royal authority, and it is conceivable that displaced individuals or groups seeking refuge or new opportunities could have joined their ranks. The Reivers were a melting pot of various backgrounds, and the inclusion of displaced Brigantes would have been a practical addition to their numbers, given the Brigantes’ familiarity with the land and potential for martial prowess.

Moreover, the displacement of the Brigantes tribe, as a result of the Roman conquest and subsequent societal shifts, likely led to migrations and the scattering of its people. Such upheavals often result in the blending of populations, especially in border regions where political control is fluid and the need for communal defence against external threats can transcend ancestral enmities. The Border Reivers’ own practices of partible inheritance, which often led to insufficient landholdings, could have made them more open to accepting new members who could contribute to their raiding activities.

Famous leaders

Among the most celebrated Reivers were Kinmont Willie Armstrong, Wat Scott of Harden, and Geordie Burn. These individuals were renowned for their leadership during raids and their ability to evade the law, becoming legendary figures in the folklore of the borderlands.

Kinmont Willie Armstrong, perhaps the most infamous of the Reivers, was known for his audacious escape from Carlisle Castle in 1596, which was orchestrated by the Scottish Warden of the Marches, Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch. This daring rescue only added to his fame and the notoriety of the Reivers. Wat Scott of Harden, another prominent figure, was famed for his raids and the capture of cattle and goods, which were often the mainstay of the Reivers’ economy. Geordie Burn is less well-documented but is remembered through ballads and tales that speak to the enduring legacy of these borderland raiders.

Johnny Armstrong of Gilnockie is another name that resonates with the history of the Reivers. He was both feared and revered, admired for his intelligence and strategic prowess. His reputation was such that he was considered a threat to the peace between England and Scotland, leading to his execution by the order of King James V of Scotland, which further cemented his legendary status.

The Reivers’ leaders were not just raiders; they were also skilled horsemen and guerrilla fighters, adept in the arts of survival in a lawless land. Their exploits were a response to the political and social conditions of the time, where feuding and reiving were part of the fabric of life in the borderlands. The Reivers operated in a society where family and clan loyalty was paramount, and their leaders were often the patriarchs or prominent members of these families.

Famous raids

One of the most famous raids was the Raid of Reidswire, which occurred at Carter Bar in 1575. This event was not a typical reiving activity, but rather a violent confrontation during a day of truce, meant for settling disputes. The meeting escalated into a full-scale battle when English warden Sir John Forster arrested a member of the Scottish party, leading to a clash that resulted in the death of the English Keeper of Tynedale and the capture of Forster himself.

The Gilnockie Tower raid is another example of the Reivers’ exploits. The tower, located in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, was a stronghold of the Armstrong clan and became a symbol of the Reivers’ resistance against both English and Scottish authorities. Raids from this tower would have involved cattle rustling, kidnapping for ransom, and the theft of goods, reflecting the Reivers’ way of life on the borderlands.

Another raid was the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, where the Scottish Reiver and nobleman, James Douglas, led a raid deep into English territory, which culminated in a battle against English forces led by Henry Percy, known as Hotspur. Although not a typical Reiver raid for plunder, it demonstrated the martial prowess and daring of the border clans. The nighttime battle resulted in a Scottish victory, but Douglas was killed, becoming a legendary figure in Scottish history.

Another notable raid was the Battle of Holmedon Hill, also known as Homildon Hill, in 1402. This was another large-scale conflict initiated by a raiding party led by the Scottish Earl of Douglas against English forces. The battle was a decisive English victory, with many Scottish nobles captured, showcasing the constant back-and-forth of raids and counter-raids that characterized the border conflicts.

In the 16th century, the Armstrong’s conducted a raid known as the ‘Day of Truce’, where, under the guise of a truce day meant for peaceful negotiation, they attacked and plundered the English. This event highlighted the treacherous nature of border politics and the Reivers’ willingness to exploit any opportunity for gain.

The 1597 raid on Falkland Palace by the notorious Reiver, Walter Scott of Buccleuch, also stands out. Scott and his men infiltrated the palace, intending to kidnap King James VI of Scotland. Although the raid ultimately failed, it was audacious enough to send shockwaves through the Scottish nobility and demonstrated the reach and ambition of the Reivers.

The ‘Ill Week’, a series of raids in 1587, saw widespread Reiver activity as families took advantage of the Scottish crown’s preoccupation with internal politics. This period of lawlessness saw raids for cattle, goods, and even the burning of homes, reflecting the chaotic nature of life on the border.

 The 1603 raid on Berwick-upon-Tweed by the Hume’s and the Carr’s, just after the Union of the Crowns, was a bold statement against the new order. The raiders managed to seize control of the town briefly before being repelled, marking one of the last major Reiver raids before the pacification of the borders.

Lastly, in 1611, what is sometimes referred to as the last Border raid took place when the Elliot’s and Armstrong’s of Liddesdale launched an attack on Tynedale, against the Robson’s. This raid marked the end of an era, as the unification of the crowns under James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England) and subsequent efforts to pacify the borderlands reduced the occurrence of such raids.

These raids, among many others, were characterized by their boldness and the Reivers’ in-depth knowledge of the terrain, allowing them to evade capture and punishment.

Relocation following the Union of the Crowns

Following the Union of the Crowns, there was a concerted effort to bring law and order to the Anglo-Scottish border. This effort included dealing with the Border Reivers, whose raiding lifestyle was no longer tolerable in the more politically unified landscape. As part of this pacification process, some of the most troublesome Reivers were relocated to Ireland, particularly to Ulster, where the Plantation of Ulster was underway.

The Plantation of Ulster was an organized colonization effort that began in 1609, aiming to settle the region with loyal Protestant settlers from Great Britain. The land for this plantation was confiscated from native Gaelic chiefs following the Nine Years’ War and the Flight of the Earls in 1607. The settlers, primarily from southern Scotland and northern England, brought with them their own culture, which was distinct from that of the native Irish.

The relocation of the Border Reivers to Ireland was part of King James’s broader strategy to control and ‘civilize’ Ulster. The Reivers were seen as hardy and experienced settlers who could contribute to the security and development of the plantation. However, their presence in Ireland, given their history of lawlessness, also contributed to a sectarian split within the region. The Reivers, accustomed to a life of raiding and feuding, found themselves in a new environment but often continued their old ways, leading to nearly 400 years of conflict and bloodshed that has left a lasting scar in Northern Ireland.

The impact of the Border Reivers on Ireland was significant. They were part of the wave of settlers who established fortified settlements to keep out the local Catholic Irish. Their skills as horsemen and fighters were put to use in this new frontier, but their integration into Irish society was not without its challenges. The cultural and religious differences between the Reivers and the native Irish, coupled with the Reivers’ reputation for violence and raiding, exacerbated tensions in the region.

The legacy of the Border Reivers in Ireland is complex. On one hand, they contributed to the development and defence of the Ulster Plantation. On the other hand, their relocation is associated with the long history of strife in Northern Ireland. The story of the Reivers in Ireland is a reminder of how historical events and policies can have long-lasting and unintended consequences, shaping the social and political landscape for generations to come. The Border Reivers, once feared and respected on the Anglo-Scottish border, became part of the tapestry of Irish history, their legacy intertwined with the story of Ulster and its people. Their relocation to Ireland is a chapter in the broader narrative of the British Isles, reflecting the complexities of governance, colonization, and cultural integration in a time of change and turmoil.

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    The Border Reivers were a formidable force in the history of Britain, particularly during the tumultuous period from the late 13th century to the early 17th century. These raiders, hailing from both Scottish and English descent, operated along the Anglo-Scottish border, a region marked by constant strife and conflict.

    [See the full post at: The Border Reivers]

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