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Who were The Border Reivers

‘The Border Reiver is a figure unique in British (perhaps in World) history, a professional cattle-thief who left to posterity a legacy of great poetry …
a merciless racketeer and plunderer who was also his country’s vanguard in time of war …
a murderous pursuer of feud who held little sacred except his pledged word … and who vanished four centuries ago, leaving behind him the word ‘blackmail’ and a blood-line which has included, among others, Presidents Nixon and Johnson, Sir Walter Scott, the footballers Bobby and Jack Charlton, Rutherford the physicist, Billy Graham, Robert Burns, Deborah Kerr, Thomas Carlyle, T S Eliot and the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong.’
George MacDonald Fraser

Explore Border Reiver People

The Border Lands, territorial patch of the Border Reiver, straddle the once disputed boundary and Debateable Land between “two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in history’, England and Scotland. The Anglo-Scottish Border Land is, therefore, a great place to discover history for yourself. And what a history! The region may well be peaceful today but for centuries it was one of the most inhospitable places on Earth – the mother of all no-go areas, a permanent theatre of war, a crucible of conflict. It was, quite simply, the most bloodily disputed border of all time as well as being the much terrorised province of one of history’s most opportunistic and all time successful brigands, the Border Reiver

Nowadays, of course, it is much changed and has become one of the more tranquil parts of Britain, a much sought after destination by the discerning traveller and casual visitor alike, but it has not always been thus!

Explore the documents that recorded what the Border Reivers did.

Could you be the first to transcribe these documents that have never been read in modern language?  The Pacification Documents record the troubles and the remedies in 1600s – never read fully before now.

Border Reivers from Britannia 1607 p691-2 National Library of Scotland

A warlike race of men, but they have a bad reputation on account of their raiding. For they occupy the sandy Solway Firth, through which they often went out to England to raid, and in which the inhabitants on both sides in a jolly spectacle and joyous labour hunt on horseback with spears, or fish if you prefer, the salmon with which it abounds.

Of the nature of the rustlers who live in these border valleys of the kingdoms, let John Leslie, himself a Scot and Bishop of Ross, speak: ‘At night they go out from their territory in bands, through pathless places and with many twists. During the day they refresh their horses and their own strength in pre-determined hiding places, until at last in darkness they reach the spot they wish. Having seized the booty, they similarly return by night to their own land by circuitous by-ways.

The more skilled a man can be at guiding them through these solitary, tortuous and precipitous places in the midst of gloom and darkness, in the greater honour is he held as outstanding in ability: and they possess such skill that very rarely do they allow their booty to be snatched from them, except that sometimes they are taken by their adversaries if they are led by scent-following dogs [in the vernacular Sleuth-hounds or Bloodhounds, which are often valued at 100 crowns and more] who follow always straight in their footsteps.

But if they are captured, they have such power of eloquence and enticements of sweetly flowing words, that they strongly move both judges and adversaries, however severe, if not to pity, at least to admiration and commiseration also.’

On the banks of the river from the region of England by harrowing, piling up and boiling the sand in water, they produce excellent salt. And what is pleasant both in use and labour, those who live at the boundary wait on the sandbanks of the Solway for the arrival of salmon, and when they have seen them coming up the river, they spur on their horses and enter the water, and with lances armed with iron points they easily spear and draw them out.

From National Library of Scotland: Britannia 1607. The text on the reverse of the map

Border Reiver territory straddles the once fiercely contested Borderline between England and Scotland. Border lands stretch from the Solway Firth to the North Sea. They comprise the Cheviot Hills, the Southern Uplands, the Northern Pennines and the Lake District as well as the North Cumbrian Coast to the west and the Merse and the Northumbrian Coast to the east. The region is scored by the valleys of Nithsdale, Annandale, Eskdale, Ewesdale, Liddesdale, Bewcastledale, Redesdale, Coquetdale and Allendale whilst the mighty Tweed, Eden and Tyne Valleys issue north, south and east respectively.

One of Britain’s great wildernesses, the region is criss-crossed with hundreds of miles of rail, roads, cycle routes, bridleways and footpaths. The lure of the hills, glimpses of its abundant wildlife, its Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, unspoilt countryside, the rugged grandeur and wild beauty of its two National Parks, uncluttered highways and even quieter byways together with the peaceful, unhurried pace of life make it an ideal place to visit for adventure and exploration as well as for more leisurely pursuits, even quieter pastimes or uninterrupted contemplation.

Explore the relationship between the maps of Pont Blaeu of Border Reiver sites in 1580 – 1614 and today’s maps.

Journey through the borders and note the sites of so much conflict and fear of the Border Reivers in

Cumberland / Cumbria

Dumfries and Galloway

Scottish Borders


200 miles separate York and Edinburgh. Visitors who head north by road or rail for the Highlands and Islands often do not realise what they are missing by not stopping to savour the delights of the Border Lands, for centuries the stamping ground of the Border Reivers but now the peaceful homelands of the Anglo-Scottish Borderers.

For over 350 years up to 1603, what are now the Scottish Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Northumberland and Cumbria rang to the clash of steel and the thunder of hooves. As George MacDonald Fraser explains in his book, The Steel Bonnets, “The great border tribes of both Scotland and England feuded continuously among themselves. Robbery and blackmail were everyday professions; raiding, arson, kidnapping, murder and extortion an accepted part of the social system.

While the monarchs of [both countries] ruled the comparatively secure hearts of their kingdoms, the narrow hill land between was dominated by the lance and the sword. The tribal leaders from their towers, the broken men and outlaws of the mosses, the ordinary peasants of the valleys, in their own phrase, ‘shook loose the Border’. They continued to shake it as long as it was political reality, practising systematic robbery and destruction on each other. History has christened them the Border Reivers.

In the story of Britain, [he] is a unique figure. He was not part of a separate minority group in his area; he came from every social class. He was an agricultural labourer, or a small-holder, or a gentleman farmer, or even a peer of the realm, a professional cattle rustler, a fighting man and a guerilla soldier of great resource to whom the arts of theft, raiding, tracking and ambush were second nature. He was also a gangster organised on highly professional lines, who had perfected the protection racket three centuries before Chicago was built. He gave ‘blackmail’ to the English language.”

Throughout the Reiving years, travel was a dangerous business. Strangers met with suspicion and downright hostility. The fearful traveller moved cautiously by day, always sought shelter by nightfall and rarely found a welcome.

So, what happened to the Reivers? Put simply, when England and Scotland became a united kingdom in 1603, there was no place for border bandits. How could outlaws escape across a border that practically did not exist? And James was ruthless. By 1610, almost every Reiver was either hanged or in exile.

Local officials saw the chance to confiscate valuable lands, and went at the task with enthusiasm. Any excuse was found to hunt and arrest suspected Reivers. “..doubtful cases, in which there might be room for clemency, were officially reported, but invariably the instruction came back to hang.”

Iron gates on towers were banned, expensive horses were forbidden, informers were recruited, and the whole system of local government was changed. A few villages tried to fight back, but were no match for the army. “…in the face of an authority whose policy was one of wholesale hanging there was no great amount of armed resistance.”
– George MacDonald Fraser – “The Steel Bonnets” p.364-5

A system that had lasted for three hundred years was over in seven.

The Pacification Documents record the troubles and the remedies in 1600s .  Could you be the first to transcribe these documents that have never been read in modern language?  There may be a transcription available if you subscribe to British History Online to see The Border Papers 1560 – 1603

When James VI and I arrived in London in 1603, he created a new bedchamber, which he filled with Scottish courtiers. This he positioned, antagonistically as it turned out, between himself and the more English privy chamber. These Scottish courtiers thus had the most intimate access to James, and were able to exercise great influence over the distribution of James’s favour.

Whilst their importance has been debated within an English context, their significance within James’s government in Scotland has not yet been addressed. These Scotsmen became the focus for patronage networks stretching from Whitehall, through the privy council in Edinburgh, to the Scottish regional elites, and helped James retain the co-operation of those elites.

Against the background of attempts to gain fuller union, James sought to demonstrate the benefits of regnal union by prosecuting a pacification of crime within the Scottish and English Borders, now rechristened the Middle Shires. Patronage networks from Whitehall to Roxburghshire secured the co-operation of the Scottish Borders elite, whilst acting as conduits for information and advice back to Whitehall. This article will suggest that these relationships were integral to Scottish governmental processes in James’s absence, providing a much-needed cohesive force within his fragile new multiple monarchy.

GROUNDWATER, A. (2010). FROM WHITEHALL TO JEDBURGH: PATRONAGE NETWORKS AND THE GOVERNMENT OF THE SCOTTISH BORDERS, 1603 TO 1625. The Historical Journal, 53(4), 871-893. doi:10.1017/S0018246X10000385  (subscription required)

The Pacification Documents record the troubles and the remedies in 1600s .  Could you be the first to transcribe these documents that have never been read in modern language?  There may be a transcription available if you subscribe to British History Online to see The Border Papers 1560 – 1603

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