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the Border Reivers

This is a story of mean kings and brave men, of grieving women and orphaned children; of treachery and deceit, of family infighting, of loyalty and betrayal.

This was a time of bloodshed, of cruelty and brutality, of a fight for survival and of sudden death.

This is the story of the Border reivers............


The almost constant warring between England and Scotland changed the lives of the families living immediately north and south of the Border. Owing to their geographical position they were frequently harassed by passing armies who, at the very least, would require provisioning, often without payment,  but were usually hell bent on destroying everything before them and causing as much damage and misery as they could.

Crops were destroyed, homesteads burnt and the people murdered or dispersed.  

Those living in places known as Liddesdale, Redesdale and Tynedale were the most affected as, for reasons of geography, the invaders regularly used these routes.  It is no coincidence that these people, having their crops regularly destroyed and their livestock stolen, looked for other means of sustaining themselves and their families. 

They took to reiving.   


Reiving, raiding for cattle and sheep, and whatever else which could be transported,  was the only way to survive and it became an established way of life, a profession, which was regarded with no discredit amongst the Borderers.

The practice spread and was passed down through the generations.


Reiving was not confined to cross boundary targets. Indeed the borderers had a much closer allegiance to their family than to their country. Raids were made, not in the name of Scotland or England, but in the name of their family or clan.


Not only did the Scots raid the English and the English raid the Scots but they took to raiding each other, especially when some act, real or imagined, sparked off conflict between families which often resulted in feuds lasting for generations. 

Reiving was not limited to the poorest people, and many a nobleman condoned and even participated in the activities. Officials such as the Wardens of the Marches, who were there to uphold the law, were not above indulging in reiving if they had the opportunity.



Within Medieval times, from about the 13th century to the middle of the 17th century.


The Anglo-Scottish Borders, between two warring countries.


Those involved:
The Clans (Scottish) and families (English) living on both sides of the Border.


And the whole situation aggravated by inefficient government and corrupt officials.  

If you live between two hostile neighbours who are constantly at each others throats, you are not likely to have a quiet life.

Although reiving was carried on throughout the year, most activity occurred from Lammas (1st August) to Candlemas (2nd February).  The harvest had been gathered and the beasts, including the horses were well fed and in their prime. Long hours of darkness provided ample cover, and at this time the courts were in recess giving the raiders a good chance of escaping detection and retribution until the courts reconvened three months later.

The Border reivers extended their activities far into enemy territory, Scottish raiding parties penetrating far south as Yorkshire.  


Movement, especially on the return journey, was especially hazardous, the raiders being loaded with spoils and only moving at the pace of the slowest beasts they had appropriated. They moved only at night, taking advantage of refuges provided by natural hollows and deep gullies.


                                                                                 click to enlarge



'Watch weel"

People from all walks of life became drawn into reiving. Even the wardens, whose job it was to maintain law and order were tempted at times and became involved. 

Many laws were passed attempting to curb the activities of the Reivers but with varying success.

The two nations found it expedient to have a standing army of Borderers as a first line defence against invaders and the Borderers were encouraged to suitably arm themselves. 

They were given free land or land at a very low rental. They were useful in time of war.

Their intimate knowledge of their own terrain and their acquired skill and inborn courage provided a useful force as guerrilla fighters.  They were superb light horsemen useful in repelling light attacks, and when large-scale attacks took place, usually from England, the Borderers harried the invaders by lightning strikes and then withdrawing into the dangerous wastes they knew so well, having an intimate knowledge of the terrain and used to the harshness of the conditions.

'Best riding by moonlight'

The history of the Border Reivers has many similarities to that of  the American Wild West. It produced its share of outlaws and broken men, corrupt officials, greed, misery and struggle for survival. Arson, murder, raiding were commonplace. 

These times produced its great characters such as Kinmont Willie, Wat of Harden, Little Jock Elliot, and many others; it produced some humour,  embellished stories, and a lot of fiction. 

There was glamour and a lot of squalor. 
It produced deceit, treachery but also great acts of loyalty and courage. It produced the protection racket and extortion. 

Notwithstanding, it produced a fine, independent people with strong qualities of resilience and resolution. 

It produced the Borderers, with their many descendants scattered throughout the world still displaying those notable characteristics acquired through those eventful  and bloody years.

The end of the Border Reivers

In 1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England. 

James immediately set about unifying the two countries.

The Marches and the posts of wardens were abolished. The term 'the Borders' was forbidden. The region was to be known as the Middle Shires.

Strong measures were pursued to enforce the law and there was, after centuries of disorder, a will to see that the law was enforced. Wanted men were hunted down and executed. All Borderers were forbidden to carry weapons and they could only own horses of a value up to 50 schillings.

Deprived of their basic reiving requirements reiving activities gradually died away.

Reiving families were dispossessed of their lands. Their homes were destroyed and the people scattered or deported.

Some clans who had been active reivers hastily abandoned their reiver connections and sought and found favour with the king and joined in the subjugation of the old reiving families, often with great enthusiasm. Many were rewarded with gifts of land, and they prospered, acquiring the lands of their former friends and allies.  Their descendants are now securely entrenched with their titles and vast holdings.

Thus many proud and fearless families were broken up and scattered beyond their homeland. They were the Grahams, the Armstrongs, the Elliots, the Routledges, Nixons and many others.

Only a few remained, adopting a peaceful way of life. Others moved into England, Ireland America, and elsewhere, where their descendents live and prosper to this day.

John Lesley, the Bishop of Ross, wrote of the Border Reivers:

In time of war they were readily reduced to extreme poverty by the almost daily inroads of the enemy whence it happens they seek their substances by robberies or plunder and rapine (for they are particularly averse to the shedding of blood) nor do they much concern themselves whether it be from Scots or English that they rob. They have a persuasion that all property is common by law of nature.

The reiving families were not religious people but it was said that they never said their prayers more fervently than before a raid.

God send our men weel back again

Many paid the ultimate price, their families waiting in vain for their return.


In the early days of reiving, activities were limited to cattle rustling and the occasional appropriation of goods. As it increased so one  injury, probably accidental, led to another until murder became the norm.

The stories of the Border Reivers were handed down from generation to generation and were recorded in ballad and song.

The reivers gave the words blackmail and bereaved to the English language.


Reiving was reported as far north as Biggar in Scotland and Richmond in Yorkshire.


Their ponies were just 13 hands but they, like their riders, were stout-hearted and resilient. They were often unshod, being better able to negotiate the difficult terrain they frequented.   

The riders wore a padded leather jacket, a jack, some with added metal plate and a metal helmet, 
the steel bonnet, many with a peak.  They carried a pike, a sword, and later, pistols.

The Border Reivers Boardgame The reiving families had a tradition that when a male child was christened his right arm was excluded from the proceedings so that, in later life, he was free to strike blows without conscience.
..good triumphs and the villain bites the dust. If anyone believes that, the story of the Border Reivers should convince him otherwise. Its moral is clear: there is little justice to be had. The good man survives, if he is lucky, but the villain becomes the first Lord Roxburgh.

George Macdonald Fraser, The Steel Bonnets.



O who will up an' ride wi' me:
Come a ye reivers bold!
Then let us off to Cumberland
To herry byre an' fold.
We winna leave a horn or hoof
On a' the English side,
Then come, my bonny reivers,
Come, let us mount an' ride. 

The moon that shines o'er Carter Fell,
She'll light us on our way,
We'll ride doun by the Liddel,
An' we'll drive an English prey.
The English wives 'll greet an' mane,
It's lang they'll rue the day,
When we rade doun by Copsiehowm
An' drove their kye away. 

We'll cross the sands o' Solway,
An' we'll race the foaming tide,
Then come, my bonny reivers,
Gin ye wi' me wad ride.
We'll chase the lowing cattle,
I' the moonlight saft an' pale,
E'er the cock craws i' the mornin'
We'll be hame t Liddesdale. 

Th'll maybe be a tuilzie,
Gin we meet the English loons,
An' horses rinnin' riderless,
An' sair an' bluidy wouns.
 An' dole an' mickle sorrow,
Wi' mony a Southren maid,
When we ride o'er the Border
An' gang for a bit raid.

Then come, my lads, get out your nags,
An' see ye hae your spears,
Then let us off to Cumberland
To drive the English steers
We wanna leave a horn or hoof
On a' the English side
Then come, my bonny reivers,
Come, let us mount and ride.
                    JOCK O' THE SYDE

From The Border Magazine

greet  -   cry; Copsiehowm - Copshawholm (Newcastleton); gin - if; mickle - much