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The Border Reivers were cattle and sheep thieves, murderers, extortionists and blackmailers. They had little regard for the laws of the realms they lived in; indeed followed an older course where they obeyed only the law and custom of their own families and clans. Allegiance to the clan or surname (family) was paramount, the watchword of the Reivers. Thus they fiercely clashed with any authority set in place to control them and caused centuries of death, strife, violent confrontation and mayhem. Such is the common perception nowadays of the people who lived in the country on each side of the English Scottish Border Line before the Union of the Crowns in 1603. There is even a prevalent view that they took to their way of life like 'ducks to water', espoused it with a lust at one with the violence of their nature and character; that they embraced it with relish and gusto. Nothing could be further from the truth yet history has confined the Reivers, their lives and times, to a small, embarrassing chapter that is to be briefly mentioned and then passed over and dismissed. The relentless and violent contest, the never-ending feud and blood-feud as the clans and surnames (families) squared up to each other, their complete disdain of monarchy and authority is often viewed as an unsavoury episode in the history of the British. Where and when did these people, these Border Reivers, live? The Border Line between England and Scotland runs today for some 120 miles, from the Solway and Gretna in the west in a north-easterly direction via the rivers of Esk and Liddel, across the vast expanse of the Cheviot Hills to the east via the river Tweed which joins the North Sea at Berwick. This line has existed since 1237 when agreement was reached between the Scottish king Alexander ll and his English counterpart Henry lll. The agreement of 1237 was a formal recognition of the Border Line that had been determined, de facto, long before in the 11th century. Even on agreement its lines of demarcation were hotly contested by the people who lived to the north and south of its divide. So much so that by 1248 and 1249 its lines were re-emphasised by a consortium of both Scottish and English knights who argued and disagreed before the English, unilaterally, determined its course. In parts it would take until the middle of the nineteenth century before it was finally agreed. This Border Line divided the counties of what is now southern Scotland from the northernmost counties of England. To the north, and thus Scotland, now the Scottish Border counties, Dumfries and Galloway, Roxburgh, Selkirkshire and Berwickshire lay close to the Line whilst to the south of it Cumbria and Northumberland, both English, cling to the divide. It is often related that the onset of the Scottish Wars of Independence from England in 1296 was the point which cradled the birth of the Reivers. True, the relative peace which had existed between the two countries for decades came to an end with the deaths of Alexander lll and his grand-daughter Margaret. The rebellion of John Balliol, the Scottish king set in place by Edward l of England was to kick-start 250 years of war between Scotland and England with the Border people caught in the centre of the confrontation. 1296 was certainly a momentous year in Scottish history. The Scottish Wars of Independence began with John Balliol's alliance with France and his devastating forays into northern England. Edward l retaliated with his Sack of Berwick on Easter Day 1296 and his dominant progress throughout Scotland following the Battle of Dunbar. Yet this animosity was but one more phase in the relentless conflict that had existed for centuries between the two countries. The rush for dominance of one country over the other goes much further back in time, to a time when the people who would become the Borderers and subsequently Reivers, had suffered every hardship and deprivation that hostile armies could throw at them. Both countries, in a previous age, almost three hundred years before 1296, had attained some nationality under one ruler, and as rival powers, disputed the line of the frontier which then existed between the nations. The new kingdom of Scotland laid claim to Northumberland and Durham, English territory, whilst at the same time dictating that, as part of the kingdom of Strathclyde, the territory to the west as far south as the river Eden (modern day Carlisle, Cumbria, England) was Scottish. Before his death at Alnwick (Northumberland) in 1093, Malcolm lll of Scotland, known as Malcolm Canmore, crossed the Border into England and devastated the country on five occasions. This is but one example of the confrontation and strife that existed for centuries. In the time of William the Conqueror (1066-1087) even veiled references of cannibalism are reported in the wastelands of the Border country which he had devastated to subdue the Northumbrian earls. Before, going back as far as the year 603 and the Battle of Degsastan, before unity of either country existed, the surge for domination and power became a relentless and inexorable challenge to kings and kingdoms. And who sat defenceless in all this anarchy? The people who would become the Border people! The people of the Border Lands; the people who are virtually dismissed by history; seen as worthy of little consideration! Their lives were ruled by death and loss for centuries, their livelihoods winkled out of the devastation of a war-torn environment. Is it a wonder that they began to fight back and swear allegiance to only those who they knew and trusted: allegiance to the clan, the family, the only haven in a devastated land, waste-land, a veritable desert? If survival meant being at odds with the closest neighbours as well as other clans and families on the same or opposite side of the Scottish English Border Line then so be it. The quest for survival surpassed consideration for other people even if they were living through the same hell. And lust and gusto for the way of life! Certainly not! By the fifteenth century the animosity between the clans and families had reached such a pitch that, bereft of any meaningful or consistent control through monarchy or local authority, there was no turning back. Feud, in the words of James Vl of Scotland was the 'canker' of the Borders. Generations of families and clans were at each others throats because of confrontations that were often lost in time. All had been initiated through want and starvation caused by an endless war between two kingdoms whose race for dominance was about land, territory and controlling power. The basic wants and needs of the people, their traditions and culture, were meaningless. Generation after generation of the Border people on both sides of the Border buckled beneath the onslaught of marauding armies whose only goals were subjugation and supremacy. From the Scottish Wars of Independence beginning in 1296, down to the Union of the two crowns of England and Scotland in 1603, might have been a time when the Border people were finally recognised for their lawless ways but it was much earlier that they became a race apart, victims of marauding, malicious armies who left them destitute. It is inexcusable to consider them only in the history that we know, that which is recorded. Is it little wonder that their approach to life was moulded by circumstance beyond their control; that they became a hard and obdurate people whose heirs were inured to any and every kind of suffering, who trusted only themselves for support? The Borderers became the Border Reivers for reasons that far surpass any text-book assessment of their lives. That they are consigned to history as murderers and thieves is an appraisal based on a purely cursory look at their lives and times.
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