A fine lot of folk... that is unless of course you happen to be English.
The term reive is an old English word meaning to rob. Reivers were, in essence, mercenary soldiers that raided the border lands that separated Scotland from England.
In truth there were reivers on both side of the border. From the late thirteenth century up until the end of the sixteenth, these groups raided across the border to gather the things needed to survive, or just wanted to have; sheep, cattle, horses, grain and other food stuffs, money, women and/or other prisoners that were then ransomed back. “You got something that I want. I’m coming to take it” might have been an unspoken motto amongst the reivers of the era. These raids inevitably invited retaliation from the offended personages.
The raiding was not limited to going across the border though; the whole of the border region was fair game to the reivers, regardless of nationality. It was just more fun to raid the English. The high point of these groups was in the final century of their existence while the Stewarts ruled Scotland and the Tudors were in charge of the rest of the world (just ask them, they’ll tell you).
The late middle ages were a time of conflict and war between the Scots and the English. The Scots wanted their freedom and the English wanted, well, everything. The result was a decimated border land. The people living in this region often had their crops destroyed by marching and fighting armies, their cattle taken to feed the troops, their women raped by marauding soldiers, houses burned, etcetera. In a time when governments didn’t have any social programs to help the innocent victims of the wars, these folks were left with little choice but to raid neighboring lands in order to simply survive. Reiving became a common way of life along the border, a way of life that was hard to stop.
Even in peace time the raids went on. Tension remained high between the two countries so the local inhabitants could never be certain of any lasting cessation of battling armies trampling through the lands. Again there was no real alternative but to steel what was necessary for survival. During that time of feudal systems of government, families were bound to the land by law and could not just pack up and leave. Another contributing factor involved in the reiving way of life was the inheritance laws of the time. Basically these laws said that if a landed man died his property was divided between all of his sons. Mere women did not inherit. Many times this dissection of farmland left each son without enough land to feed his family let alone raise enough crops to sell. On top of that is the fact that much of the border country was mountainous and unsuited for farming. The moors of course were very good for grazing livestock but in this case livestock could be simply taken and driven back to the raider’s home.
The Scottish and English governments, too, played a part in the spread and continuation of reiving. These governments had an attitude that vacillated between simple toleration to outright encouragement of the practice depending on the current relationship between the two. The inhabitants of the region by default served as the first line of defense against invading forces from the other side. In peace time or when the reiving became too much of a burden on the government the punishment for these raids was both harsh and indiscriminate.
Most of the reiving took place within a day’s ride from the Scottish Border, but not all. English reivers traveled as far north as Edinburgh and the Scots as far south as Yorkshire. Reiving was at its worst during the early winter months when the nights were long, the cattle were fat from summer grazing and what crops there were had been harvested and stored away making for easy pilferage. The folks inhabiting these borders lands took to building fortified compounds, Peel Towers and Battle House, in an attempt to thwart the readers, or at least make them work for their spoils. Smailholm Tower is one of the remaining examples of a Peel tower (or watchtower). Bastle Houses, said to be from the French word bastille, were plain looking farm house with elaborate security measures. These houses had thick stone walls (about 1 meter) with stables located on the lower floor and living quarters on the upper levels. The upper levels were accessible only by ladders which were pulled up from the inside at night. The windows were small and high on the walls. The main difference between these houses and other fortresses was the simple fact that they were built to house families rather than warriors.
Today we have a lovely tradition known as riding the borders. In the thirteenth century things were different. The rides were actually extended raids along the Borders. The Reivers rode their sturdy ponies looking for outlying farms to attack. The ponies were known and prized for their ability to pick their way though the “boggy moss lands.” The best of these ponies was the Galloway pony and unfortunately an extinct Scottish breed. As the weaponry and armor became heavier, the need for larger mounts relegated the noble pony to the background.
Originally the Reivers wore their everyday attire, but again as things progressed and weaponry became stronger, more accurate and deadly, clothing by necessity evolved as well.
From a shepherd’s plaid the raiders turned to brigandines, basically a leather or heavy fabric vest into which small steel plates were sewn. Metal helmets like the burgonet were added, too, giving rise to the nickname steel bonnets. For weapons the Reivers carried along with their sword and dirk lances and shields, sometimes longbows or light crossbows. As time went by they were known to carry pistols as well. It was not a happy friendly ride along the borders.
The Turnbulls raided along the border of the Middle March. They/we were known as a rather rowdy bunch that caused a great deal of trouble for both the English and Scottish crowns.
The folks known as Border Reivers were in effect soldiers, and as such were considered to be one of the finest light cavalry of the time. Queen Elizabeth I met a border reiver once and after their conversation declared that “with ten thousand such men, James VI of Scotland could shake any throne in Europe.” The reiver were mercenaries and were forced to serve both the Scottish and English crowns in the low countries of Europe and in Ireland as well. They were an important part of the battles of both Flodden Field and Solway Moss.
With the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 things changed along the border between Scotland and England. By that time things had become so intense that the English government was considering rebuilding Hadrian’s Wall for protection against the Reivers. Immediately following the death of the long reigning monarch things became especially violent along the border. Ill Week as it became known as resulted from the belief that the laws of a kingdom were suspended between the death of one ruler and the proclamation of the next.
Since Elizabeth left no offspring to inherit the throne it fell to the James VI, son of Queen Mary Stewart of Scotland, (whom Elizabeth had beheaded). He became James I of England. James moved swiftly and hard against the reivers. He abolished border law and even renamed the border region the “Middle Shires.”
In an attempt to unify the two nations, King James decided to end the reiving once and for all. He wanted to shut it down and pacify the border region. Some say his methods were brutal, but something had to be done. The border clans were continuously raiding the lands and even were feuding amongst themselves. Captains were installed by the English Crown in an effort to bring justice to the area. The term “Jeddart Justice” came into existence, this basically meant “hang now, hang anyone, hang often.” Ask questions later. Reivers, indeed whole families, were gathered and hanged in local towns like Hawick, Jedburgh and Carlisle. Others were banished and exiled to Ireland. The Turnbulls were among these folks; this is where my branch of the clan, the Trimbles, emerged. Some of these Trimbles eventually came to America and established their families here.
A Commission was also established whose first order of business was to cause the demolition of the strongholds along the border. Thankfully for us today, this order was not carried out completely or consistently. While many towers were raised to the ground other were left intact. Fatlips Castle is among these.
Laws were passed as well that would lead to change along the border. One such law decreed that the “obnoxious inhabitants and districts must put away all armour and weapons”, they were not allowed to keep horse worth more than fifty shillings sterling or thirty pound Scots. All old border laws were then replaced by much harsher laws. One of these was the death penalty for stealing of any goods or cattle of a set value. This law applied to both Scots and English.
The border country was soon pacified due mainly to “Jeddart Justice” in a single month, September 1606, for example, in Jedburgh, 140 of the most notorious reivers were hanged virtually without trial. If you then consider the multiple towns along the border and multiply that number it becomes easily understood why thing quieted down. All was not peaceful though and the raids and hanging continued for several more years.
The Reivers have since been romanticized by people like Sir Walter Scott, a supposed ancestor of mine. We tend to think of the reivers and their time as a struggle for freedom, which in many ways it was, at least in the beginning. Without being there to witness the struggle for survival it is impossible to know to any degree of certainty whether the actions of the reivers was moral and/or justified. It is however our heritage and I for one am proud to be the descendant of such brave souls as these.
“The Reivers were born with the death of a Scottish King and died with the death of an English one. But from 1300 to 1603 they ran lawless, wild and riot and shook loose the border” Unknown