Border Reivers

By Patricia Gillespie, Volunteer

The Borderland Setting

‘(Hadrian) was the first to build a wall, eighty miles long, to separate the Romans from the Barbarians’. (Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Vita Hadriani, 11 2).

When the Romans left Britannia in AD 410 the political entities of Scotland and England had not yet formed. The frontier between what became England and Scotland took shape between the 10th and 12th centuries. The Kingdom of Scotland was formed in AD 843, under Kenneth McAlpine, King of the Scots, when he added the kingdom of the Picts to his realm. During the 10th century the land came to be known as Scotland. England was formed when various Anglo Saxon kingdoms were united by Aethelstan in AD 927. To the east, this border appears to have been settled approximately where it is located today when Scotland conquered Lothian, part of the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria, during the tenth century. In the west, it was defined in 1092, when William Rufus annexed Carlisle from the Kingdom of the Scots, creating a new Anglo-Scottish border along the Solway Firth and River Esk.

This Border had been at peace for over a century, when on a March night in 1286 Scottish king, Alexander III, hastening home, broke his neck on falling from his horse.  With an uncertain line of succession, Edward I of England saw an opportunity to bring Scotland under English control. Thus began a series of incursions from the English crown that set off a chain of Anglo Scottish hostility and destruction. 

These included Scottish incursions into Cumberland and Northumberland in 1296; slaughter by Edward I of 7,000-8,000 Scots at Berwick ‘in tyrannous rage’; plunder and destruction under William Wallace in 1297; ‘murderous intent’ led by Robert the Bruce in 1311, whose large army invaded England via the Solway; and Scottish victory at Bannockburn under Bruce in 1314 against Edward II.  And so, it went on…The conflicts between 1296 and 1328 became known as the Wars of Independence.

These years of conflict, rampage and devastation were made worse in 1315 and 1316 by the failure of the harvests and consequent famine. In 1349, the borderlands on both sides were severely afflicted by the Black Death and subsequent outbreaks of plague.   All this, combined with a criss crossing trail of destruction, looting by soldiers, burning of farms, villages, and towns, left the population barely able to sustain themselves. Many of them joined forces to make a living outside the law, using thieving and thuggery:

“Many of the English who dwelt nigh the Marches, wearied out with their sufferings, and despairing of protection from their own king, abandoned their country, and confederating with the Scots, became companions and guides of their incursions into England, and sharers with them of the spoils of their unhappy countrymen.” Ridpath 1858    

So, who were the Border Reivers?

The distinctive society of the Border Reivers developed from the late 13th century to the late 17th century. They were kinship groups known as ‘Surnames’ or ‘clans’. Armstrongs, Elliots, Grahams, Johnstones, Nixons, Scotts, Bells, Forsters, Kerrs were among the famous names. These ‘Surnames’ arose in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, at the same time as the clans of the Scottish Highlands.

The Reivers were notorious for thieving cattle and goods, ambush, murder, kidnap, and blackmail, perpetuating long-running feuds, instilling fear and ruining livelihoods. Even neighbours ‘reived’ on neighbours. The terms ‘blackmail’ and ‘bereaved’ were popularised through the notoriety of the Border Reivers. Bereaved, or ‘bereft’ meant ‘robbed’. It was not applied to the loss of a person, until the mid 17th century.

Government officials, known as wardens, had policed the shires on either side of the border since the early fourteenth century.  Later, the shires were grouped into six Marches, East, West and Middle, one on each side of the border, each with a Warden. They had their own March laws, and Truce Days when grievances could be settled.

In the 1550s, Lord Wharton, Warden of the English West March, established a formidable guard system – a night and day watch on the English side of the border, from the Solway to Berwick, during October to mid March. Local gentlemen were responsible for arming and organising their people. There were watches over a broad area on hilltops, fords, valleys, and several on Hadrian’s Wall, and about 1,000 men were required keep the watches.  The only way that local landowners could provide the Wardens with enough armed men for defence was to encourage settlement of the least favourable land, known as the Wastes, such as the Bewcastle Waste, in return for a very small rent. The Wastes could not support large numbers, and many families lived on the verge of starvation, so stealing, or reiving, became a way of life for them. 

Until 1495, the Middle March was in the Lordship of Tynedale and independent of the rest of Northumberland. Between 1158 and 1296 the Lordship of Tynedale was held by the kings of Scotland. Bradley Hall, near Vindolanda, where Edward I stayed on his way to the Solway in 1306 was still referred to as ‘on the Scottish Marches’.

Parties of reivers, 12, 50 to many hundreds, and across all walks of life from peers to farm hands, would ride out, wearing steel bonnets, distinctive protective padded clothing and bearing swords. Some combined reiving with agriculture; some reived only when times were hard. A strong professional loyalty developed among them. Night time was the favoured time for reiving, although day forays were also popular. Some reivers preferred moonlit nights. “Ther’ll be moonlight again” is a phrase associated with the Scott family. Often raids began from a “tryst”, a pre-arranged meeting place where the last minute details of the raid were confirmed. One such “tryst” was a valley through the crags east of Housesteads Roman fort, called Busy Gap, where the reivers would prepare to cross the border into Scotland.

Clans such as the Armstrongs could muster up to 3,000 men, to launch frequent raids on farms and settlements.  The money that they accrued from these activities enabled them to become major landowners. The main reiving season was autumn to Spring when everyone was based in the valleys for the winter. In warmer months the upland areas, such as the Whin Sill, were places for grazing and seasonal settlement, characterised by groups of shielings. The peak time for raiding was from Michaelmas (29 September) to Martinmas (November 11), “then are the fells good and drie and cattle strong to dryve”.  Evidence from Border records show that reiving expeditions were more widespread than this.

Anyone who had been raided had the right to mount a counter-raid within six days, including crossing the border to recover the goods. This was known as a ‘hot trod’ and had to proceed with ‘hound and horn, hew and cry’, and the carriage of a piece of burning turf on a spear to openly announce their legitimate purpose. Protection money, or payment in kind, to a powerful neighbour who assumed the responsibility of organising a ‘hot trod’ whenever anything was stolen. Mail comes from the Old Norse ‘mal‘ meant ‘tribute’ or ‘rent’.  Black was the common collective noun for cows, bulls and oxen, which were usually black. Blackmail was paid for the protection and recovery of cattle and Grassmail was money paid to a landowner for grazing rights. According to Graham Robb, Blackmail was a boon to farmers of the Middle Ages, in much the same way as insurance was to their descendants. Blackmail later took on the meaning of a protection racket as a result of the actions of some of the more notorious reivers.

Defendable homes: Bastle and Pele towers

The Debatable Land was an area 10 miles by 4 miles between Scotland and England. The name means disputable ground and could derive from the Old English ‘battable’ (land suitable for fattening livestock). It was defined by the rivers Liddell and Esk in the east and the River Sark in the west.  For over three hundred years the area was controlled by reivers such as the Armstrongs.

To protect themselves and their livelihoods, the most wealthy took to building defensible homes called bastles and Pele towers (even higher status). Many are found in North Tynedale and Redesdale, and some were built within the forts of Hadrian’s Wall, using Roman stone for the task!

The thick stone walls were designed to withstand attack, and the buildings often had a square tower with an overhanging battlement, from which to throw hot water and stones on attackers. At the very top was a place to light a beacon, as a warning to others, or to summon help.  Living accommodation was upstairs in relative safety, and a ladder could be drawn up to prevent easy access. The cattle were lodged on the ground floor at night. After the troubles, a stone staircase was often built against the outside wall.  Some houses were made of strong timber construction, and the walls and roof were insulated with turf to make them more resistant to fire.

In the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall

In 1590, the bastle built by the Tweddle family within the remains of the Hadrian’s Wall fort of Birdoswald, was raided by one Peter Armstrong, and had its doors burned and cut up, with the theft of 40 cattle and oxen, 40 sheep and goods. One of several such incidents that would have been reported to Lord Scrope, Warden of the English West March.

In 1587 the Warden received a complaint from “the poor widow and inhabitants of the town of Temmen” lying within 2 miles of Carvoran on the moors to the west. She reported that the lairds of Mangerton and Whithaugh and their colleagues had murdered three of her men, and taken 11 others prisoner, as well as destroying houses and other property, and stealing 100 cattle and oxen.  

John Hodgson wrote in 1840: ‘All the wild country along each side of the Roman Wall from Walltown (near Magna Roman Fort) to Walwick (near Chesters Roman Fort) had been immemorially celebrated as the fastness of gangs of thieves’. 

William Camden, one of the first antiquarians to study the Roman sites in the north, visited Hadrian’s Wall in 1599, but was unable to survey the archaeology in the central sector, including Housesteads, ‘for fear of rank robbers thereabouts’.

At Houseteads a branch of the notorious Armstrong family built a bastle from Roman stone against the south gate of the fort. They came to Tynedale in 1663 fleeing their base in Liddesdale. They ran a ring of horse thieves between Perth in the north and the Midlands. The Armstrong family also had strongholds at Grandy’s Knowe and Causeway House on the Stanegate near Vindolanda. 

It wasn’t until 1603 with the Union of Crowns between England and Scotland that things started to change for ever. Under James 1 of England and VI of Scotland March laws were abolished and many villains and clan members, who recognised no rule but their own, were rounded up. Mass hangings took place at Carlisle, Jedburgh and Dumfries, and there were many deportations.

The Military Road, now known as the B6318, carved through the area in the mid 18th century, in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745, bringing some of the isolation of the Marches to an end. With better communications and opportunities to reach markets, farmers began to improve their land and some industry developed.  The downside was that long stretches of Hadrian’s Wall were destroyed to form hardcore for the road, despite protestations from antiquarians.

The law did catch up with the Armstrongs:  Nicholas Armstrong was hanged in 1704 and his brothers left the bankrupt farm at Housesteads and emigrated to America. Centuries later one of their clan ancestors landed on the moon!


Breeze David J and Dobson Brian (2000) Hadrian’s Wall Penguin Books

Hingley Richard (2015 Paperback) Hadrian’s Wall: A Life Oxford University Press

MacDonald Fraser, George (1995 paperback) The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers  HarperCollins Publishers

Moffat, Alistair (2021 Paperback reprinted) The Reivers, The story of the Border Reivers  Birlinn Limited

Northumberland National Park (1995) A Field Guide to the Hadrian’s Wall Area

Robb, Graham (2018 paperback) The Debatable Land: The Lost World Between Scotland and England Picador

Wilmot, Tony (2018)  Birdoswald Roman Fort  English Heritage

Birley, Robin (1998) The Fort at the Rock: Magna and Carvoran on Hadrian’s Wall   Roman Army Museum Publications

Crow, James (2004) Housesteads: A fort and garrison on Hadrian’s Wall Tempus Publishing Limited

Birley, Robin (2009) Vindolanda, A Roman Frontier Fort on Hadrian’s Wall Amberley Publishing Plc

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