Tag Archives: Borders Reivers

Borders Country Day 13

'Glentress Forest 2'. Acrylic on 20x16" canvas

‘Glentress Forest 2’. Acrylic on 20×16″ canvas

'Forget-me-nots (Keslo) 2'. Acrylic on 20x16" canvas

In process -‘Forget-me-nots (Kelso) 2’

Today’s paintings – another painting of Glentress Forest and a work in process – forget-me-nots in the forests of Kelso

I’ve finished reading ‘The Steel Bonnets’ by George Fraser at last. The conclusion brought tears to my eyes at many points. The Borders Reivers, as mentioned elswehere in this blog on Borders Country, were lawless familes that lived on the Borders of Scotland and England, and who made their living through a combination of theft, cattle and sheep raiding, blackmail and general skullduggery!

They were at their height in the 16th century, but James 6th of Scotland (1st of England after Queen Elizabeth died) decided after the Union of crowns in 1603 to ‘pacify’ the Borders. In prinicpal it made sense that there should be no rivalry between the two countries, but as mentioned, the Borders Reivers were a law unto themselves, quite seperate from Scotland and England.

Their lifestyle (I can’t emphasise this enough) was brutal and at times cruel, but the callous and cold hearted methods that King James deployed in bringing the Reivers way of life to an end, make, as Fraser describes it an ugly story. The aim was to wipe clean the Borders of any Reivers activity, and in fact to wipe out entire families involved in it. The term’ Breaking the Border’ is more accurate.

The practice of encouraging confession to obtain pardon, then hanging guilty Borders Reivers families anyway, came to be known as ‘Jedart Justice’ – conviction and death without trial. Also, as mentioned before, some of the Borders families had amassed titles and wealth with which they offered to help King James’s cause.

Buccleauch for example (their descendents are now probably among the biggest landowners in Scotland) at first gave Borders families a fighting chance by sending them all off to America where they were enlisted in the war against Spain. Later though, on his return from the war, he was more active on behalf of King James:

Scott of Buccleauch, home from the wars, was briefly active in hunting down and destroying his former fellow Reivers on the governments behalf, hanging and drowning without trial, and burning towers and houses, for which like Cranston, he was granted full immunity.(George Fraser, The Steel Bonnets)

He wasn’t alone in taking a side against his own people, many of the more influential families did the same. The Kerrs for example (some Reivers Kerr descendents also own vast tracts of land and property in the Borders) would also have made deals and supported ‘Jedart Justice’.

I’m still interested in finding out more about my own Kerr descendents, and hope to drop into Hawick soon, which has an excellent centre for finding out more about your descendents. I’ve no idea what I’ll discover, but I suspect that my descendents were poorer Kerrs, who simply melted away, or were banished, as many families were, to other parts of Britain or America. Who knows what I’ll discover though.

Throughout ‘The Steel Bonnets’, Fraser (in complete contrast to the romantic history written by Sir Walter Scott) is impartial almost at times to a fault, carefully laying out a balanced history, based on records and evidence on all sides. At the book’s conclusion though, having just described the harrowing events during the ‘Breaking of the Border’ he ends with these words:

But there is very little to remind the visitor to these quiet fields, humdrum little towns and villages, lonely hills and lovely valleys, that there was once a fierce and bloody frontier. Strife and raid and burning and murder seem so out of place and remote, that it is hard to imagine that they were the daily business of the people of the Border. Only now and then, if your romantic imagination is sharp enough, there can come a little drift from the past-in the Cheviot wind, or under the vast stones of Carlisle Keep, or among the sad trees by Liddell Water, or most of all, perhaps in a little fellside village at night, when there is a hunter’s moon and a strong wind, and the black cloud shadows hurry across the tops, and beasts stamp in the dark, and an inn door down in the village opens and slams with a blink of light, and the rough Norse voices sound and laugh and die away.

But this is just sentimental imagination. The old Border is buried a long time ago, and there is hardly a trace now to mark where the steel Bonnets passed by. They would have no quarrel with that.

A Borders Reiver being brought to justice. (Artist unknown)

A Borders Reiver being brought to justice. (Artist unknown)


Borders Country Day 9

'Hawk. River Tweed'. Acrylic on 5x5" wood

‘Hawk. River Tweed’. Acrylic on 5×5″ wood

'Glentress'. Acrylic on 5x5" wood

‘A Rainy Day in Glentress’. Acrylic on 5×5″ wood

Today’s paintings – a hawk swooping down to the River Tweed, and mist through the trees in the Forest of Glentress.

I’m nearly at the end of George Fraser’s ‘The Steel Bonnets’ – a book about the history of the Borders Reivers. It’s been harrowing reading.

The first chapters cover the lifestyle of the Borders Reivers and the final chapters deal with the wars during Henry the VIII’s time when devasating wars wrecked the lives of people in the Borders and beyond.

Engraving, showing Borders Reivers raid on Gilnockie Tower

Engraving, showing Borders Reivers raid on Gilnockie Tower

Accounts of the Reiver families have been difficult reading in themselves, never mind the later descriptions of  war. The Reiver’s life was one of constant feuding, raiding and violent conflict, across both sides of the Border. This was partly due to previous wars which wrecked the landscape and therefore the livelihood of Borders familes, but also it simply became a way of life, and despite authorities on both sides of the border appointing Wardens to try to calm the conflicts, the chaotic lifestyle became entrenched. (The Wardens themselves often became Reivers!)

It was lucrative too, and for those who’d perfected their Reiver skills it led to the accumulation of vast wealth; some of the titled landowners, whose estates line the Borders today, are their descendants.

The status of each Borders family or clan was diverse though, and within for example the Kerr family there would be everything from titled land owners in huge castles with an army of thousands, to people living in broken down hovels.

For the battle hardened Borders Reivers, violence and war were normal, they were described as ‘scared of nothing’ and their outstanding skills in warfare were utilised by Kings on both sides. Also the feuds between Borders families were manipulated to form allegiances. Scottish fought on the English side, sometimes changing tactics mid-battle if that seemed a better plan.

P1230602While reading ‘Steel Bonnets’ it was thinking about ordinary Borders people that I found harowing. Fraser describes a widower with her children burned in their peel tower, the starvation of countless thousands of poor people because of the wrecked landscape. They’d plough fields during the night to avoid attack, but after ten years of war it must have been a bitter, miserable struggle. Also he describes, very briefly, the group of monks who held out bravely in Kelso Abbey during attack by Henry VIII’s army, but didn’t survive.

When I visited Kelso last weekend the ground was festooned with forget-me-nots, which seemed to me as symbolic as poppies; in rememberance of the ordinary people who never sought war and conflict.

'Forget-me-nots. Kelso'. Acrylic on 5x5" wood

‘Forget-me-nots. Kelso’. Acrylic on 5×5″ wood

Woven throughout the stories and Borders ballads though, references to hills, rivers and ‘forestes greene’ bring to my mind the image of a rich, medieval tapestry, and suggests the presence of faith and love of familiar landscape amidst war and fear. One Borders ballad titled Erlington made me smile, amidst all the grimness! The last line of this ballad inspires the title of my upcoming exhibition The green woods free