Saturday, August 20, 2011

Border Reivers--An armed society is a polite society

This little history lesson is a repost from my blog inspired by one our anonymous commenter's remarks that:

"A life lived without honor is worth less than a life not lived at all. A criminal who threatens my life is worth less than anything they might want."

That pretty much summed up this time in British History. I should also add the "enforced migration" to the Northern Irish Plantation and North America. Those who came through Ulster were called "Scots-Irish". That attitude may have been passed on to our anonymous poster:
Yes, Robert Heinlein's quote from Beyond This Horizon where duels may easily occur when someone feels that they have been wronged or insulted is attributed as a custom that keeps order and politeness. The pro-gun crowd has latched onto this cliche from Science fiction rather than looking at a time and place where the citizens were armed, and things were far from polite, the Border between England and Scotland during the 14th through 17th Centuries.

Reiver comes from "reive" is an early English word for "to rob", from the Northumbrian and Scots Inglis verb reifen from the Old English rēafian, and thus related to the archaic Standard English verb reave ("to plunder", "to rob")---they were robbers. This is a society that is probably far closer to what the "gunloons" want than the Western Frontier of the US.

England and Scotland were frequently at war during the late Middle Ages and Tudor period prior to the joining of the Kingdoms under the Stuarts beginning with James VI of Scotland (I of England) . During these wars, the livelihood of the people on the borders was devastated by the contending armies. Even when the countries were not at war, tension remained high, and royal authority in either kingdom was often weak. The authorities in the area could be just as corrupt as the citizenry. The fact that the area was pretty much a lawless zone usually made people a target for depredations rather than conferring any security. They looked to their extended families for security and a "code of law".

There were other factors which promoted a predatory mode of living. Among them was the survival in the Borders of the inheritance system of gavelkind, by which estates were divided equally between all sons on a man's death, so that many people owned insufficient land to maintain themselves. 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 "insight," easily portable household goods or valuables, and took prisoners for ransom.

The reivers were both English and Scottish and raided both sides of the border impartially, so long as the people they raided had no powerful protectors and no connection to their own kin. Their activities, although usually within a day's ride of the Border, extended both north and south of their main haunts. English raiders were reported to have hit the outskirts of Edinburgh, and Scottish raids were known as far south as Yorkshire. The main raiding season ran through the early winter months, when the nights were longest and the cattle and horses fat from having spent the summer grazing. The inhabitants had to live in a state of constant alert, and for self-protection, they built fortified tower houses. They also built fortified barns known as bastle houses> These buildings are a common characteristic of this area and period.

During periods of nominal peace, a special body of customary law, known as Border Law, grew up to deal with the situation. Under Border Law, a person who had been raided had the right to mount a counter-raid within six days, even across the border, to recover his goods. This Hot Trod had to proceed with "hound and horne, hew and cry", making a racket and carrying a piece of burning turf on a spear point to openly announce their purpose, to distinguish themselves from unlawful raiders proceeding covertly. They might use a sleuth hound (also known as a "slew dogge") to follow raiders' tracks. These dogs were valuable, and part of the established forces (on the English side of the border, at least). Any person meeting this counter-raid was required to ride along and offer such help as he could, on pain of being considered complicit with the raiders. The Cold Trod mounted after six days required official sanction. Officers such as the Deputy Warden of the English West March had the specific duty of "following the trod".

Far from being a polite society, the Borders were a lawless and violent society where brawling was commonplace. The border region has produced some of the best soldiers. The reivers were considered among the finest light cavalry in all of Europe. After meeting one Reiver (the Bold Buccleugh), Queen Elizabeth I is quoted as having said that "with ten thousand such men, James (VI) could shake any throne in Europe." Reivers served as mercenaries, or were forced to serve in English and Scots armies in the Low Countries and in Ireland.

I should add that it's perfectly safe these days and a super place to visit for tourism!


George MacDonald Fraser: The Steel Bonnets: Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers
Alistair Moffat: The Reivers: The Story of the Border Reivers
Robert Borland: Border Raids and Reivers
Philip Nixon: Exploring Border Reivers History
Keith Durham and Angus McBride: The Border Reivers (Osprey Men-at-arms Series)
Keith Durham and Gerry Embleton: Border Reiver 1513-1603 (Osprey Warrior Series)
Keith Durham and Graham Turner: Strongholds of the Border Reivers: Fortifications of the Anglo-Scottish Border 1296-1603 (Osprey Fortress Series)

ITV series The Reivers And The Making Of The Borders



  1. Reivers were violent. It was no accident that in the Joss Whedon sci-fi series firefly, and subsequent movie Serenity, the most violent, cannabilistic, self-mutilating crazies were called a variant of the name, Reavers.

    Whedon is linguistically and historically a very literate guy.

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