Here is the kind of winter morning I love most. Ringed by clear azure skies the patchwork fields surrounding my home sparkle like crystal carpets as dawn gilds the hedges with bronze fire. And not a breath of wind stirs the stillness. There is a sense that nature is holding its breath, preparing for spring and yet not wanting to wake. But the far horizon has begun to melt already. Mist rises, sloughing winter behind a sentinel guard of skeletal oaks.
This landscape has barely altered through time but had I been here five hundred years ago there might have seemed better reason to praise the clear, frosty weather. Living less than twenty miles from the border (with Scotland) meant we’d be in fear of reivers. But reivers liked to pursue their prey under a cloak of darkness and/or dribbling rain.
What is a reiver? Rather a unique figure – he came from every social class and might live anywhere in the region called The Borders. For many generations reiving families formed a state within a state between the two countries of England and Scotland, organizing the region to suit their own rules and boundaries; fighting men who used tracking, ambush, raid and theft as second nature. The Borders were ‘badlands’ where freebooters, rustlers and raiders held sway. This was ‘their’ country and they understood every inch of ground, be it river, marsh or hillside, by day and most particularly by night. The geography of the region was perpetually used to their advantage, as many a traveller complained. Barbarous, crafty, vengeful, crooked, quarrelsome, tough, perverse, active, deceitful – contemporary descriptions vary little when explaining border people. They made excellent soldiers if disciplined but that raw material was hard, wild, and ill to tame.
Having grown up in the south of England I knew nothing of reivers until we moved to Cumbria. It’s a parcel of history many historians prefer to ignore (or forget), better known to those who inhabit Britain’s former colonies. Why? Well one of the ‘solutions’ to the inherent problem of reiving was to ‘transport’ whole families (or clans) to populate those colonies. Thus the Grahams arrived in New Holland, with legal charges pending if they should ever return. Being a cagey lot some merely reversed the letters of their surname – Cumbria still contains many a native called Maharg. But the advent of a ‘united’ kingdom meant reiving families were no longer able to slip across the border to evade justice, after 1603 the border no longer existed!
For generation after generation, simmering over five hundred years, no outsider would dare travel unarmed and alone through the rolling countryside which stretches from the Scottish Southern Uplands to the Pennines. In these ‘middle shires’, where mainland Britain narrows between the shallow waters of the Solway Firth and the wild North Sea, where Rome threw up a boundary wall to separate the defeated from the free, few households slept soundly during the winter months. English or Scots, rich or poor, all lived in fear of reivers. This state of affairs gave rise to ‘protection’ being bought from tribal leaders who lived in formidable towers such as Hermitage, a building so grim it was recently described as ‘sod-off’ built in stone. Here was ‘no-man’s land’, where national laws had little jurisdiction. And the control centre of infamy resided in a district called the Debateable Land. Here you find the first use of words like ‘black-mail’ and ‘feud’, and the constant threat of raids, or the retaliatory march of a ‘hot trod’ stamped their hardy souls with a mistrust of all outsiders.
Just north of Carlisle the M6 motorway crosses the powerful river Esk at a place called Metalbridge. The green and pastoral landscape denies the myth that once upon a time this was actually the most dangerous place in all Christendom. Think Khyber Pass, Barbary Coast or Soho on a Saturday night. Across this moss-filled valley, where winter riding was mired in clay, lies the southern boundary of the ‘Debateable Land’. This hostile region stretched north and east for a dozen or so miles, almost up to Langholm and the mouth of Liddesdale, but was never more than four miles wide and twelve miles long. So lawless were its inhabitants neither Scotland nor England wanted responsibility for policing its crimes but pertly used it as a ‘buffer’ zone.
Touching the western limit is Gretna (a cross-border village created after the two kingdoms were joined), where the lesser river Sark marks the official border. Back in Elizabeth I’s reign a Scottish bishop venturing through the region on his way to Glasgow enquired whether the locals were Protestant or Catholic. He received the terse reply, ‘Na, we’se for Armstrongs or Elliots here’.
Tradition and politics created a mongrel system for regulating the Border. The region was loosely divided into Marches and each March had a Warden nominated by national government – so, for example, there was a Scottish Warden of the West March and an English Warden of the West March. More often than not the Warden came from a major reiving family, inclined to protect his own interests, but the system worked, even during times of war, and so it persisted. But, by the middle of the sixteenth century, even the Wardens agreed the kind of people who called the Debateable Land home were so inclined to rob, burn, plunder and kill that someone had to take charge. After much deliberation (the final decision being laid upon a passing French ambassador) they decided to build a bank and ditch to mark the reach of each nation’s responsibilities. It’s still there, just to the south of Canonbie, and called the Scots’ Dike.
Recently there has been revived interest in ‘reiving’ families, encouraged no doubt by family historians eager to trace their roots. My mother, seeing her maiden name of Tait listed in our local museum, was keen to purchase a beautifully illustrated history of the family, until she read of their exploits. Taits were infamous on the North March, as were Rutherfords (grannie’s surname), for all the wrong reasons. The Privy Council of Scotland drew up an official ‘black list’ of reiver surnames: Armstrongs, Batesons/Beatties, Bells, Burns, Charltons, Crosiers, Dodds, Elliots, Forsters, Glendinnings, Hendersons, Hetheringtons, Irvines, Johnstones, Kerrs, Littles, Lowthers, Maxwells, Musgraves, Nixons, Pringles, Robsons, Routledges, Rutherfords, Scotts, Storeys, Taits, Trotters and Thomsons. Thieves and vagabonds ‘of great clans who encourage obstinacy’.
The Reivers, by Alistair Moffat
The Steel Bonnets, by George Macdonald Fraser