September 17, 2010

Northumbrian history - 250 years of Border reiving. Any lessons learned?

By Dr Clive Dalton

A North Tyne laddie
Born and reared in Bellingham in the Upper North Tyne valley, 11 miles from the Scottish Border on the English side, the Anglo-Scottish Border wars were part of our rearing. We knew that our valley and the next door Rede valley were major highways for the reivers from both sides of the Border.

The Border was very real to us, because beyond the Carter Bar or Deadwater and Saughtree railway stations, the folk were very different, for one thing they had a very unintelligible tongue. We didn't of course - we spoke perfect English!

Evidence of the Border wars was all around us bairns. There was our local St Cuthbert’s church in the village with its stone vaulted roof to prevent burning by the raiding Scots; the ‘bastles’ (fortified Peel towers) and towers all over the area and on local farms such at ‘The Hole Farm’ between Bellingham and Woodburn.

Dally Castle is another classic example of a fortification built on a mound along the side of the Chirdon burn, with a clear view of anything coming down the Chirdon valley from the Border.
See map below.

Dally Castle at Greystead is a good example of the fortified buildings from the past.
Click on the image for a larger view.

Boring history
So we were aware of 'trouble' in our past history but it was ancient history – and more than a bit boring to put it mildly. It was about as relevant to us as Hadrian, his wall, and all those boring Roman remains!

History was boring to us kids because it was always taught by old boring folk, and it was all about Kings and Queens and dates of battles!

For me it was fatal to go to Andrew Murray’s watchmaker’s shop and mention local history or the Border raids – as you’d never get away. Sadly, I was a frequent visitor to his shop to see if my Dad’s watch repair was ready, as he needed it for work when a guard on the railway. It never was, and no wonder, the time Andrew wasted blathering – to anyone who called.

The romance of war
We remembered bits of the Border reiver stories because they were grossly romanticised, and as children (fortunately), we could never appreciate the horror of war – even the one that raged in Europe in our early school days 1939-45.

We only saw pictures of war in the newspapers and 'Picture Post', and met returned soldiers (the lucky ones) as the war didn’t reach the North Tyne thank goodness. We were never really bombed and the Sunday parades of the Home Guard were no great inspiration!

The politics of war
As kids we knew nothing of the politics of war, or realise that politics were involved. We knew about Neville Chamberlain coming back from Germany with a bit of paper carrying ‘Mr Hitler’s' guarantee that he wouldn’t attack us, and that Winston Churchill who thankfully didn’t believe him, and put a stop to the German’s daft plans. In our kids’ games, to help Winston, I killed millions of imaginary Germans.

When it ended, the politics of how things were rebuilt were beyond us – and as growing youths we had other things to be concerned about. We were back to our safe island – looking ahead and not looking back, and certainly not worrying if anything had been learned from all the mayhem, death and suffering caused by war.

The Blair memoirs - ' A Journey'
What renewed my interest in the Border Wars was reading about Tony Blair’s memoirs – not actually reading them!

Did Mr Blair noted for his brilliant legal mind, not realise what would happen if he took Britain to war? Churchill had little time and little choice as we were going to be invaded.

Mr Blair had a choice, and he also had plenty of time to calculate the consequences. He clearly failed to understand British history, so there was little chance of him understanding Middle East history? Sadly all those who have died as a result of his decision cannot point this out to him.

Learning from history
I didn’t expect President George W. Bush to know much about British history, or to realise that the names of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Billy Graham - all were family names of Border reivers!

If he had studied Border history, he would have recognised them as modern day 'terrorists' and 'insurgents'. MacDonald-Fraser in his great opening to his book (see later) notes that standing beside Nixon at his Presidential inauguration was indeed a Johnson and a Graham- both along with Nixon showing true Borderer features! And he should also have remembered that it was an Armstrong who was first to walk on the moon!

I did however expect Tony Blair to have studied some British history at school, and I certainly expected him to know something about the history of the Northern England, part of which he was presumably proud to represent in parliament for his term as an MP.

If Bush and Blair had read anything about the Border Wars, they would have realised one very simple political fact - that starting a war, for whatever reason is easy; it’s finishing it which is the hard part.

They would also have learned that wars don’t just last for 6 months or a year - even with modern weaponry that can kill and maim thousands in seconds. Wars can and did go on for hundreds of years, even when leaders and bureaucrats have declared an end, truce or cease-fire. This doesn't always bring hostilities to a close.

Tribal conflict
Conflict can still go on for years, centuries and generations, simply because the issues are caused by humans who are basically ‘tribal’, and tribes are formed because of differences - in family, kinship, religion, region, boundaries, historical background, language and probably much more. Thankfully both the English and Scots had the same coloured skin, or else that would have been another reason to feud.

Frustrated monarchs trying to stop the fighting while sitting in London and Edinburgh in the 1600s must have soon realised what Bush and Blair took so long to realise – that ‘tribes will fight each other because tribes will fight each other’, and trying to get them to listen supposedly to ‘reason’, is not part of the scene to be relied on, and never will be.

Anyway, what's reason to one side is rarely reason to the others involved. So it's got to be obvious to anyone that 'democracy' has no place in a tribal structure. It could not be sold to the Borderers for 250 years and it seems to be having little attraction in the Middle East.

Nothing has changed
The staggering thing is that nothing has changed in the last 500 years, or more – and it won’t change till evolution has changed the human race into a less aggressive animal, if the species survives long enough.

It’s unbelievable that Bush and Blair didn’t have the mental capacity (or their advisers didn't) to predict what could go wrong. Presumably they thought little could go wrong – but worse still, Bush and Blair are on record that they are happy to live with the consequences, having convinced themselves that with God’s guidance, they did the right thing, and would make the same decision again.

The hundreds of thousands of innocent people who died, and the millions more who will suffer long-term consequences for generations to come as a result of their decisions may have a different opinion.

It would have been a different scene today if they had led their armies into war as past monarchs and reivers did. This should be a requirement of all world leaders in future who contemplate going to war.

The best book
The Steel Bonnets – the story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers
By George MacDonald Fraser
Collins Harvill. ISBN 0-00-272746-3
First published 1986 and reprinted five times.

Picture shows a 1989 cover and a 1971 cover

While working at the Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station from 1968-79, our farmer neighbours were Johnstones, and when we met 'over the fence', I always used to pull their legs about their family history (which they knew little about), and warn them that I knew where to come if I had any missing sheep!

One of the family - Richard Johnstone had a great interest in family history and on a trip back to UK in 1991; he bought me a copy of the Steel Bonnets in a bookshop in Glencoe – surely an appropriate place to buy a book on family feuding. I hadn’t seen the book and was blown away by the author’s scholarship and the amount of work that he had clearly put into it. My ignorance of my own local history was quite embarrassing.

The book should be 'required reading' for everyone with a Border family name, anyone interested in war, and especially anyone who ever has to make a decision about starting a war!

Border family names from the book
  • Anderson
  • Armstrong, Armstrange
  • Beattie, Baty, Batisoun
  • Bell
  • Bromfield
  • Burn
  • Carlisle
  • Carnaby
  • Carruthers
  • Charlton
  • Collingwood
  • Craw
  • Crosier, Crozier
  • Curwen
  • Dacre
  • Davison
  • Dixon
  • Dodd
  • Douglas
  • Dunne
  • Elliot, Elliott
  • Fenwick
  • Forster, Foster, Forrester
  • Gilchrist
  • Glendinning
  • Graham, Graeme
  • Gray
  • Hall
  • Harden
  • Hedley
  • Henderson
  • Heron
  • Hetherington, Hetherton, Atherton
  • Hodgson
  • Hume, Home
  • Hunter
  • Irvine, Irving, Urwen
  • Jardine
  • Johnstone, Johnston, Johnstoun
  • Kerr, Ker, Carr, Carre
  • Laidlaw
  • Little
  • Lowther
  • Maxwell
  • Medford
  • Milburn
  • Moffat
  • Musgrave
  • Nixon
  • Noble
  • Ogle
  • Oliver
  • Potts
  • Pringle
  • Read, Reed
  • Ridley
  • Robson
  • Routledge
  • Rutherford
  • Salkeld
  • Scott
  • Selby
  • Shaftoe
  • Stamper
  • Stokoe
  • Storey, Storie, Storye
  • Stapleton
  • Tailor
  • Thomson, Thompson
  • Trotter
  • Turnbull, Trumble
  • Turner
  • Wilkinson
  • Witherington, Woodrington
  • Yarrow
  • Young

Fascinating/shocking/amazing points from the book
I keep re-reading the book, and still struggle to get my head around the detailed intrigue that went on. I’m staggered by the outstanding grip the author had on the big picture, while at the same time, seeing where all the smaller events fitted in. You need to read a chapter and then rest up till your brain processes that information before moving on.

When reading these points - consider the today's world, history repeating itself, and world leaders clearly not learning from past events.
  • The total length of the conflict – it went on for over 250 years!
  • What started it? It just seemed to start from a bit of thieving here with some killing thrown in, feeding off disagreements between tribes. Then the tit-for-tat response set it off like a peat fire - which would flare up again on the slightest breeze. 'Victory' of one side over the other was never possible.
  • What ended it? The heavy ruthless hand and boot of James VI (and I) when the crowns were merged. He realised negotiations would never work in a tribal system after 250 years. The banishment of the Grahams was a classical example of his approach - but some got back despite his efforts.
  • The six 'Marches' - three on each side of the Border. This was a great theoretical solution to controlling conflict, but it struggled to work because the Wardens didn't have enough firepower or political clout, AND they were themselves involved in reiving! No wonder they only lasted in the job for such short times e.g. a year.
  • What did it all cost? Nobody must have ever worked it out. The Iraq war is predicted to cost $US 3 trillion by the end (so called). In modern money, the Border Wars could have been a similar monstrous figure of somebody's money.
  • How many people were killed or died as a result. No estimates seem to have been worked out of guessed at.
  • Not all of the conflict was ‘official’ where England v Scotland had a full on war between their Kings and Queens. These major wars were almost 'side shows' to the main event which was the reiving. Both the English and Scottish governments 'deplored' the reiving.
  • ‘Reiving’ – which included, robbery, arsen, rape, pillage, murder, hostage taking, hanging, drowning and much more – just kept on going, as clearly it had become a way of life and most likely a ‘business’ yielding good profits. If drugs had been involved the wars may have gone on longer with more money to pay the bills!
  • The number of men who could be mustered for reiving at very short notice was amazing – not just hundreds, but thousands would take off across the Border in both directions to do battle. The Borders were a ready source of fighting men in the 'official' wars.
  • The distances traveled in each direction on these raids was amazing – and in the short time taken, and often in the dark. The Scots would ride and sack Durham for example. There would be no transport to give tired foot soldiers a lift home or helicopters to lift out seriously wounded.
  • One raid of Armstongs and Elliotts was made up of 1000 horsemen from Liddlesdale, Annandale and Ewesdale to attack Tynedale where they stole 1000 head of stock. The droving of them over strange country (to the animals) must have been a massive job.
  • How did they provision these larger groups of reivers? Their oatmeal would not weigh much or their arrows, but swords and lances would be heavy as would ammunition in the later years of the wars. They must have been tough little ponies.
  • In the larger wars beer was critical but presumably this would be carted with horse transport.
  • How on earth did they treat the horrific wounds inflicted by the weapons of the day – and how would they stop infection which must have been rampant from the conditions they fought in? They maybe didn’t and died quick of gangrene.
  • How did they bury all the dead? When the light faded over Flodden - Scotland's biggest military disaster, the bodies of 10,000 of her best fighting men had to be buried. Imagine that job without mechanical diggers?
  • In the 250 years of war from the 1380s to 1603 when the crowns were merged, many generations of children would have been born and brought up in the environment of war. What chance would there be of breaking the mould of conflict and hate?
  • The countryside must have been a near desert, as with all the regular burning of houses and crops, there was little that could have been grown to feed people. There would be plenty meat –stolen from those who stole from them.
  • How did a family manage when the breadwinner was killed - no social welfare or widow's pensions in those days?
  • When their house was burned down, how did manage till it was rebuilt? Much of the reiving was done in autumn when stock were fat, and in winter when the weather would be grim.
  • How did these devastated families build up their livestock numbers again - as not just a few but hundreds and thousands were taken in major raids.
  • How did they know (and remember) who was whom in their battles where sides changed so often? And within these feuding families, intermarriage caused even more complications.
  • The economics of capital punishment. When large numbers of 'the guilty' had to have their lives terminated, it was more cost effective to drown them than hang them. In July 1562 a batch of 22 were drowned in the Teviot.
  • The contributioin of the horse. It's easy to forget the role of this humble animal. In 1603 Robert Carey rode non-stop from London to Edinburgh to report Elizabeth's death to King James - 400 miles in 60 hours, changing horses at points on the way. Leaving London early morning, he was in Doncaster by night! Obviously no motorway holdups!
  • When Walter Scott of Harden with Buccleuch's and Armstrong broke Will Armstrong of Kinmont (Kinmont Willie) out of Carlisle castle with 500 horsemen, they carried 'gavlocks, crows of iron, hand picks, axes and scaling ladders with them on their horses. What an amazing physical feat.
  • Useless curses. Modern religious leaders should maybe heed how ineffective curses of their fellow men are, when you read "The Archbishop of Glasgow's 'Monition of Cursing' against Border reivers'. It seems to have had no effect whatsoever - the reiving just kept on going.
Small extract from the Archbishop's curse
I curse thair heid and all the haris of thair heid; I curse thair face, thair ene; thair mouth, thair neise, thair toung, thair teith, thair crag, thair schulderis, thair breist, thair hert, thair stomok, thair bak, their wame, thair armes, thair leggis, thair handis, thair feit, and everilk part of thair body, frae the top of thair heid to the soill of thair feit, befoir and behind, within and without.

You would have thought that bit alone from the long text would have brought some action! The reivers probably used this as motivation for bigger and better reiving!

Other good books

The Illustrated Border Ballads
By John Marsden with photographs by Nic Barlow
MacMillan 1990, ISBN 0-333-49982-4

The book covers the history of the events which lead to the ballads, has an excellent glossary and index.

Ballad titles
  • The Battle of Otterburn
  • The Death of Percy Reed
  • They Raid of Reidswire
  • The Rookhope ryde
  • The Sang of Outlaw Murray
  • The Dowie Dens of Yarrow
  • The Lads of Wamphray
  • Hughie the Graeme
  • Johnie Armstrong
  • Little Jock Elliot
  • Jock o' The Side
  • Hobbie Noble
  • Dick o' the Cow
  • The Fray of Suport
  • Jamie Telfer in the Fair Dodhead
  • Kinmont Willie
The Battle of Otterburn, August 1388
One of the early battles of the Border conflict where the Scottish Douglas clan, after a massive raid into England were pursued by the English Percy clan and caught at Otterburn. Earl Douglas was slain and the main Percy (Harry Hotspur) was taken prisoner by the Scots. Historians say the Scots won the day - not knowing their leader had been killed. They took his body to Melrose Abbey where is lies beneath the monk's choir.

The Daltons at the Battle of Otterburn monument in 1967 - 580 years after the battle!

Ye Ancient Ballad of Chevy Chase.
The Lammastide Edition
This was published by the Northumbriana magazine in 1988 as a facsimile copy of the 1890 original work, believed to be by Major Robert Thompson of Walworth Hall. It's signed R.T. and not his full name.

It was published to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the celebrated battle.

The New Zealand Johnstones
'A Waikato Settler's Legacy. The story of Captain John Campbell Johnstone and his pioneering descendants'
Published by the Johnstone Family History Group, 2007.
ISBN 978-0-473-12742-8
Contact: Nuki Snodgrass. Email:

This is a classical story of how a young man - John Campbell Johnstone born in 1817 in Southern Scotland, and after service in the British army in India eventually arrived in Auckland in November 1853. He had visited the colony twice before during his army furloughs. Apart from forming friendships with two local businessmen, he clearly saw the potential for farming and he saw his military service as a lever to be allowed to be able to buy land.

He married Emilia Speedy (1838-1911). John died in 1882.

The book tells a wonderful story of hard work, determination, disappointment and much more. In 1975 the Johnstone family gathering at the Waikato race course in Hamilton was made up of over 300 family members.

Further reading
Keith Durham (2011). Border Reiver 1513-1603.
Oxford & Long Island. Osprey publications.
ISBN 978-184-908-193-1

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