The Border Reivers



 From the 14th to 16th centuries, the border regions of England and Scotland became a permanent battleground. The family clans of the border hills took advantage of the struggle between the two Kingdoms to live in a state of semi-lawlessness. They were rugged, tough people who enforced their own brutal code of conduct and became known as the Border raiders or 'Reivers'. Today their descendents can be found all over the world and include British Prime Ministers, American Presidents and the first man on the Moon. The history of the Border Reivers has many similarities to the American Wild West. It produced its share of outlaws and broken men, corrupt officials, greed, misery and fights for survival. Arson, murder and blood feud were commonplace in these troubled times. 

The stamp of the Reivers is still to be seen on the Border Lands - in it's architecture, culture and people. From the fortified tower houses and farms to family names that once struck fear into men's hearts - Armstrongs, Douglas, Grahams, Kerrs, Maxwells, Nixons, Robsons - the legacy of the Reivers remains. In these violent times, crops were destroyed, homesteads burnt and the people murdered or dispersed. Robbery and blackmail were everyday professions. If one member of a clan did harm to another, the issue would not simply be between the two individuals - the whole of both families would be drawn in, often with terrible consequences. 

An early 1500's woodcut from John Skelton's 'Ballade of the Scottyshe Kynge'

 No wonder this state of affairs was known as 'deadly feud.' Such were the conditions in the Borders with its almost constant bloodshed and anarchy, that it was inevitable that there would be conflict between friends and families. Probably, the most vicious and long lasting dispute was between the Maxwell and the Johnstones which caused widespread misery in Annandale and beyond and reached down through the generations.  

Raiding for cattle and sheep and whatever else which could be transported was the only way to survive and it became an established way of life, a profession, which was regarded with no discredit amongst the Borderers. The practice was widespread and was passed down from father to son. The Borderer quickly came to realise that due to the sudden and brutal nature of the conflict, that the government who claimed his allegiance could provide him with neither justice nor protection and that his only strength and safety lay with his family, or clan. Survival became the most crucial element in his uncertain life and riding with his clan, he too joined in the grim business of raiding or 'reiving' from equally desperate neighbours across the border. 



'Running a Foray' 1585 - L-R: Foot lowne, Border heidman's son, Border Reiver, Border 'heidman'.

Raids were made, not in the name of Scotland or England, but in the name of their family or clan to which their true allegiance lay. As one harassed Border  official put it, "They are people that will be Scottish when they will and English at their pleasure". Not only did the Scots raid the English and vice-versa, but they took to raiding each other, especially when some act - real or imagined, sparked off conflict between families. Inevitably as time wore on these 'forays' became supplemented by raids nearer home on his own countrymen.

The practice was not only limited to the poorest people, but also to the noblemen who condoned and even participated in the activities. The Reivers moved only at night, taking advantage of refuges provided by natural hollows and deep gullies. These people were guerrilla fighters whose intimate knowledge of the terrain allowed them to evade the authorities and spirit their ill-gotten plunder away.

A 'Steill Bonnet' of the Anglo-Scottish Borderland, dating from 1570.

They were superb horsemen well drilled in repelling light attacks, and when large-scale assaults took place, usually from England, the Borderers harried the invaders by lightening strikes. They then withdrew into the dangerous wastes they knew so well, being used to the harshness  of the conditions. 

While the monarchs of England and Scotland ruled the comparatively secure hearts of their kingdoms, the narrow hill land between was dominated by the lance and the sword. The two nations found it expedient to have a standing army of Borderers as a first line defence against invaders and they were encouraged to suitably arm themselves. They were given free land or at least at a very low rental. 


In an attempt to govern the border region more effectively, the English and Scottish governments reached an agreement in 1249 known as the 'Laws of the Marches'. By it's terms both sides of the border were divided into three areas, East, West and Middle Marches - each to be administered both judicially and militarily by a March Warden, the first being appointed in 1297. It was the Warden's duty to see that peace was maintained, to administer justice and to deal with 'bills' or complaints.  

The Scottish authorities were inclined to appoint their wardens from the gentry who lived locally, these were often the 'Heidman' of the powerful riding families, the idea being that the Border laird could exercise some restraint over their unruly kinfolk. Whereas the English wardens were usually conferred on gentlemen from the southern counties of England. Both methods had their disadvantages.  

The borderlands of England and Scotland were known as the 'Marches'.

The Scottish Wardens, being in familiar territory tended to favour their friends and there was, for them, greater opportunity to becoming involved in malpractices to further their positions. The English Wardens, on the other hand, had no or little knowledge of the ways of the Borderers and often blundered their way along, creating more problems than they solved.  

The wardens were backed up by Deputies, Keepers, Captains, Land Sergeants and Troopers and were expected to meet with their opposite numbers at monthly 'truce days', the intention being to administer the Border Laws, 'keep the wild people of the three Marches in order' and dispense justice accordingly. However, keeping the peace was a hopeless task. All their efforts met with little success and they were constantly striving with an insolvable situation.  

A Border Rider.

Simply by carrying out his duties amongst such lawless and vengeful people, a Warden could make many enemies and the office was no guarantee of personal safety. In 1537, Roger Fenwick. Keeper of Tynedale, was murdered in Bellingham by 'thee naughty persons' and at a Truce Day in 1585 Lord Russell was 'suddenly shot with a gonne and slain in the myddest of his owne men'.

When the perpetrators of these evil deeds were apprehended, prisoners proved to be unpopular with the authorities. They had to be fed and held in a secure place. There were few prisons, Hexham in Northumberland being the first place to have a purpose built jail. A system was devised whereby some prisoners were put on parole. They were instructed to stay in the vicinity and to make themselves available for the next court session. As can be imagined this arrangement was not a success. 

For serious crimes, and many not so serious, hanging was the common form of execution. But this, too, had problems for the authorities as rope was expensive at the time. Drowning cost nothing and it was common to execute offenders in a suitable deep pool in a nearby river. It was considered improper to hang women. They were invariably drowned but in exceptional circumstances they were burnt to death. In addition the witnesses were much more likely to come forward and give evidence if the knew that the accused was dead.  

Border Reiver - fighting sword at the ready.


The 'Calendar of Border Papers' lists hundreds of 'complaints' made to the March Wardens over many years by wronged parties seeking some recompense and justice. They give a flavour of the horrendous deeds of robbery and mayhem carried out by the Reivers and other assorted brigands.

Here are just a few examples: 

Tristram and Randal Dod of Sydwood upon the Laird of Pharnyhirst and 100 men, for burning and carrying off 100 kye and oxen, 200 sheep, 60 "gate", 2 horses and meares and taking Tristram and Randal into Scotland prisoners, 31 January 1587.

Sundry incursions and day forays done in the Middle March, since the last day of April 1587, by the opposite realm, chiefly in Cookesdale and Rydsdale, without redress, laying the said frontiers waste, and forcing the inhabitants to beg and leave their dwellings even more than in time of war. On 25th May, 8 men of West Tevedale took 4 horsse from 4 "carrage men" of Rothbury within 2 miles of Morpeth, and cut 2 fingers from one of them.

'Bills of Teviotdale fyled by the Commissioners at Barwick and not as yet delivered for' - George and William Wanles of Dortes, Anthony and John Hedlie of the Stobs - upon Robert Trumble of the Barnhill, James Trumble of Stonyleache, George Trumble of Bullerwell, Watt Trumble of Hoppesbourne, James Davison of Burnirig, and 200 men, for a day foray and taking 80 kye (cows) and oxen, 240 sheep, 10 horses and meares, burning 10 houses and taking 6 prisoners, 3rd June 1587.

"A speciall outrage" - One Sowerby near Caldbeck his house broken by 6 thieves and himself most cruelly used. First - "They sett upon his bare buttockes a hote iron, and there they burned him and rubbed him with a hot gridle about his bellie and sondry other partes of his body" to make him give up his money, which they took. - 1592. 

Another 1592 - The town of Newby near Carlisle entered by 80 Scottishe and English thieves, 100 cattle taken; 16 of the men of the town coming to the fray, taken prisoners to Scotland, held to  ransom, and one of them dead of his wounds. 

Orchardton Tower - built in the late 1500's. The unusual circular tower was a private residence of the Cairns family.

Feb 21 1592 - burgh Barony - Her Majesty' tenants there exhibited a supplication to the Bishop of Carlisle, to inform the Queen and council as convenientlie as might be, of 300 Scottish border thieves that came to the town of Glasson in the Barony, 100 of whom stayed on the water side, the rest assaulted the town "att light broken daie"; broke open the doors of 12 inhabiters good border men, well furnished with horse and gear, took all their insight and cattle, killed and carried off 24 horses and mares , took 21 men and 2 boys prisoners into Scotland - "the like whereof hath not bene hard of that ever any children were taken until this present tyme" - besides wounding 3 of the "most stout inhabiters" in peril of death, and many others sore hurt and maimed.

There follows a particularly gruesome episode which took place May 18th 1599. It is referred to by Henry Woodrington in a letter to Sir R. Carey - " in my last letter I wrote I knew of Mr Rydley's death: but this now is the truth as follows - Mr Rydley knowing the continual haunt and receipt the great thieves and arch murderers of Scotland, especially them of  Whythaugh, had with the Captain of Bewcastle, went about by some means to catch them in English ground, to avoid offence by entering Scotland: and hearing that there was a "football playing and after that a drynkyng hard at Bewcastle house" betwixt 6 of those Armstrongs and 6 Bewcastle, he assembled his friends and lay in wait for them. But the Scots having secret intelligence, suddenly came on them and have cut Mr Rydley and Mr Nychol Welton's throats, slain one Robson tenant of her Majesty's and taken 30 prisoners, mostly her tenants except Francis Whytfeild - and many sore hurt, especially John Whytfeild "whose bowells came out, but are sowed up agayne, and is thought shall hardly escape, but as yet lyveth". 


"A note of the gentleman and surnames in the Marches of England and Scotland"



England; gentlemen - Forsters, Selbies, Graies, Stroders, Swiners, Mustians. Surnames - Johnsons, Vardes, Ourdes, Wallisses, Stories, Armstronges, Dunnes, Flukes. Scotland;  gentlemen - Humes, Trotters, Bromfields, Dixons, Craws, Crinstons.


England; gentlemen - Ogeles, Fenickes, Hernes, Withringtons, Medfords, Shafters, Ridlies, Carnabies. Surnames - Ridesdale - Halls, Hedleys, Andersons, Potts, Reades, Dunnes, Milburnes. Tindale - Charletons, Dodds, Milbornes, Robsons, Yaroes, Stapletons. Scotland; gentlemen - East Tividale - Carrs, Yongs, Pringles, Burnes, Davisons, Gillcries, Tattes. Liddesdale - Rudderfords, Carrs, Dowglasses, Trombles, Scottes, Piles, Robsons, Halls, Olivers, Ladlers, Armestronges, Elwoods, Nixons, Crosers, Turners, Fosters.


England; gentlemen - Musgraves, Loders, Curwenes, Sawfelde. Surnames - Greames, Rutliches, Armestrongs, Fosters, Nixons, Tailors, Stories. Scotland; Maxwells, Johnsons, Urwins, Grames, Bells, Carlills, Battison, Litles, Carruders.


The lands that now form the county of Dumfries & Galloway in South West Scotland represented the Western section of the Marches. This comprised the Stewartries of Kirkcudbright and Annandale and the Sheriffdom of Dumfries. You need not travel far in this area before you encounter evidence of past warfare and bloodshed. Usually this takes the form of a fortified building, but not always - it may be a battlefield or a site of a skirmish. Once, there were many hundreds of towers in the Border regions, most have been destroyed. Used like many of the castles, as a source of stone by later builders, the towers were usually square and several storeys high. Below are examples of three such castles in the Galloway area which have survived these trouble times.


The great keep of Threave Castle, built in 1369 by Archibald the Grim.

Threave Castle stands on an island in the River Dee, 1 mile west of Castle Douglas in Kirkcudbrightshire. The tall forbidding tower was built by Archibald Douglas, Lord of Galloway and leader of the clan known as the 'Black Douglases'. 'The Grim' was so named by the English because of his 'terrible countenance' in battle and in 1384 Archibald finally ousted his enemy from their stronghold of Lochmaben Castle near Dumfries. This ended the English occupation of the Scottish West March and earned him the acclaim of his fellow borderers.

By the time of his death on Christmas Eve, 1400 Archibald was the most powerful noble in Southern Scotland. When King James II took steps to overthrow the Black Douglases half a century later, it was at Threave that the final act in the drama unfolded. James considered the family as a major threat and was determined to crush them. The island fortress withstood a two-month siege in the summer of 1455 before the garrison finally surrendered. James personally supervised the assault and took up residence in nearby Tongland Abbey. 

The castle had withstood a heavy artillery bombardment, probably due to the erection of a purpose built fortification by the eighth Earl in 1447. This artillery work, still standing remarkably intact, was one of the most significant and sophisticated achievements of it's time. In the end it was not the heavy guns, but persuasion of a more subtle nature, namely the offer of payments and grants of land to their leader Sir John Fraser and others that finally saw the garrison capitulate.

Threave - still a forbidding structure.

The Lordship of Galloway, along with the  castle, was immediately annexed to the Crown. A succession of custodians were put in charge, beginning with Sir Alexander Boyd of Drumcoll. James II made a return visit in 1460 en route to another siege at Roxburgh Castle where he was fatally wounded. His successor James III gave the castle to his Queen, Margaret of Denmark in 1473 and in 1502 James IV also stayed there. In 1526 Lord Maxwell was declared the custodian of Threave and the castle remained with the Maxwells until its abandonment in 1640. 

This followed a final siege when an army of Covenanters commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Hulme ousted the 100 strong garrison lead by Robert Maxwell, Earl of Nithsdale. The castle was partially dismantled and the island fortress was never again inhabited, although French prisoners of war were kept there in the early nineteenth century. In 1913 the owner, Edward Gordon, entrusted the property into the care of the state and the work of preservation began. The lands have since been bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland.


Caerlaverock Castle, built 1270 - one of the finest castles in Scotland.

Seat of the Maxwell family for over 400 years, Caerlaverock at the  mouth of the River Nith, is one of Scotland's most impressive medieval fortresses. Its triangular courtyard, unique in Scotland, is enclosed by a high curtain wall with round towers at each corner, protected by a double moat, it was also one of strongest. The first castle was built here in 1220, but was soon abandoned probably because of the instability of the marshy ground. Soon after, in 1270, the present castle was built by Sir Herbert de Maxwell slightly further back from the shore. Since then the coastline has receded.

For much  of this period, the Maxwell family were Wardens of the Scottish West March with the difficult task of maintaining law and order, keeping their own countrymen in check and defending their own part of the border against English raids. The Maxwells acquired more land and power in the West March and were not above reiving themselves. Long coveted as a strategic prize by English eyes, Caerlaverock Castle was their great stronghold, able to defy even large invading forces.

Caerlaverock's position close to the English border  guaranteed it a central role during the Wars of Independence, which began not long after the castle's completion. Following England's invasion in 1292 Sir Herbert Maxwell and his son John, had, like most of the Scots nobility, sworn fealty to King Edward I of England. It was not long before the Scots began to show signs of resistance to their new Overlord, and in 1300 King Edward along with a force of 87 knights and 3000 men laid siege to Caerlaverock. Siege engines brought from Carlisle, Roxburgh and Lochmaben soon forced the surrender of the 60 strong garrison, some of whom were then hung from the castle walls

On the east side of the Castle are the magnificent  'Nithsdale Apartments' - built 1634.

From the 13th until the 17th century there was much bloodshed, and Caerlaverock Castle was frequently attacked, ravaged and repaired. Amazingly, the Maxwell family managed to stay in possession despite the castle being twice described as 'levelled to the ground'. Eventually in 1640, after being besieged for three months and a week, it capitulated for the last time and was again partly dismantled. It wasn't long before the ivy clad ruin was attracting visitors, including the poet Robert Burns in 1776 who carved his initials in the wall of the gatehouse hall. The castle passed by inheritance into the possession of the Duke of Norfolk and it was the 16th Duke who placed it into state care in 1946.

Today Caerlaverock stands guard on solid rock at the edge of the salt marshes (known locally as merse) and sands, where at low tide miles of gleaming mudflats are exposed. In summer it is the habitat for thousands of migrating wildfowl and the sky is filled with the song of the Skylarks from which Caerlaverock, 'Castle of the Lark' gets it's name.


MacLellan's Castle, Kirkcudbright - a fortified Tower House built in 1582. 

The MacLellan family first came to prominence during the 15th Century after the main line of the family acquired the nearby property of Bombie. A long running feud with the powerful Earls of Douglas was to bring them more lands following King James II's defeat of Douglas at Threave Castle in 1455. The MacLellans used their new wealth to firmly establish themselves as the principal family in the Burgh of Kirkcudbright. In 1466 William MacLellan was appointed Provost of the Burgh, and in 1507, his son William was appointed Chamberlain of Galloway, a post which brought social advancement, more wealth, and a knighthood. 

Sir William was among the thousands who died with their King, James IV, at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. William was succeeded by his son, Thomas, who also met a violent death just 13 years later, though not so honourable as his father's. He was killed in a street fight with the lairds of Drumlanrig and Lochinvar, in Edinburgh. His son, also Thomas, died violently also, at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547. It was his successor, another Thomas, who built the castle.

MacLellan's Castle is not a castle in the traditional sense but stands in the centre of the town of Kirkcudbright (pronounced Kirkoobray) opposite a row of local shops. The Castle, like so many tower houses was built after the Reformation of the 1560's and reflects the self-esteem and growing wealth of the minor aristocracy. It's builder, Sir Thomas MacLellan was not a great landowner but an ambitious Provost of Kirkcudbright. Despite the forbidding appearance, the many windows and staircases point to a more peaceful lifestyle and probably the setting for much feasting in it's day.

Flodden Field, Northumberland - Here Scotland lost 12 earls, 14 Lords and 10,000 men as well as their King. Defeated by the English, lead by the Earl of Surrey - 9th September 1513.

 It was not built as a fortified castle - the gun ports are more a defence against potential robbers and riots rather than an invading army. But it was a house on a grand scale to impress the townspeople of its owner's importance and prestige. In 1587 Sir Thomas entertained King James VI in Kirkcudbright and the King presented him with a silver gun which is still in the local museum. 

  However none of Sir Thomas' descendants took much interest in his splendid castle. By 1701, the family fortune long gone, William MacLellan, Lord Kirkcudbright, had been reduced to working for living, as a glover. The castle was by this time owned by the MacLellans of Orchardton, who in 1742 stripped the building of its roof and interior fittings. Forty years later the empty shell was sold to Lord Selkirk but the building stood neglected until it was given into state care in in 1912 by Sir Charles Hope. It is now owned and administered by Historic Scotland.


In 1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England and he immediately set about unifying the two countries. James was determined to have a United Kingdom and one priority was to pacify the Border country and restore law and order. He wasted no time and in April of that year he issued a proclamation in Newcastle on his journey south to London for his accession to the throne. The Marches and the posts of Wardens were abolished. The term 'the Borders' was forbidden and the old frontier ceased to exist. James affirmed that the borders were now "the heart of the country" and that "no supply should be given to all rebels and disorderly persons, their wives or their bairnes (children) and that they be prosecuted with fire and sword". 

Under the rule of James' the domination of the Reivers was finally swept away.

Severe measures were now pursued to enforce the law and there was, after centuries of disorder a will to see that the law was enforced. Wanted men were hunted down and executed. They were now subject to 'Jeddart Justice' which was summary execution without trial. This was carried out with ruthless efficiency by the King's men, 140 of the "nimblest and most powerful thieves" being executed within weeks of James' proclamation. 

All Borderers were forbidden to carry weapons and they could only own horses of a value up to 50 shillings. Deprived of their basic reiving requirements all unlawful activities ceased. Reiving families were dispossessed of their lands. Their homes were destroyed and the people scattered or deported.

Some clans that had been active Reivers hastily abandoned their reiver connections and sought and found favour with the King and joined in the subjugation of the old reiving families, often with great enthusiasm. Many were rewarded with gifts of land, and they prospered, acquiring the lands of their former friends and allies.  Thus many proud and fearless families were broken up and scattered beyond their homeland.

King James I - 1566-1625.

 The Elliots, Armstrongs and Grahams were singled out for special attention. In the days between the death of Queen Elizabeth and the proclamation of James as King, they had taken full advantage, launching a massive raid into Cumbria where they stole nearly 5,000 sheep. This was known as 'Ill Week'. However they suffered gravely for it and this signalled the beginning of the end of the Reivers.

 The three clans paid dearly for their lawless behaviour, being exiled in Ireland were they were abandoned and forced to scrape out a meagre living amongst the moors and bogs of Roscommon and Connaught. It was stressed that the death penalty awaited any who attempted return. Only a few reiver families remained, adopting a peaceful way of life. The vast majority moved into England, Ireland, America and elsewhere, where their descendents live and prosper to this day.


The dour, grim fighting which took place almost constantly in the Scottish Borders for centuries is recalled in this song by the Borders poet James Hogg (also known as the "Ettrick Shepherd"). Many of the surnames which appear in this song were well known in the Borders. This includes our own name of 'Sorbie'.

James Hogg (1770–1835)

Lock the door, Lariston, lion of Liddisdale,
Lock the door, Lariston, Lowther come on,
    The Armstrongs are flying,
    The widows are crying,
The Castletown’s burning, and Oliver’s gone!
Lock the door, Lariston,—high on the weather-gleam,
See how the Saxon plumes bob on the sky,—
    Yeoman and carbinier,
    Bilman and halberdier;
Fierce is the foray, and far is the cry.
Bewcastle brandishes high his broad scimitar;
Ridley is riding his fleet-footed grey;
    Hidley and Howard there,
    Wandale and Windermere,—
Lock the door, Lariston; hold them at bay.
Why dost thou smile, noble Elliot of Lariston?
Why do the joy-candles gleam in thine eye?
    Thou bold Border ranger,
    Beware of thy danger;—
Thy foes are relentless, determined, and nigh.
Jock Elliot raised up his steel bonnet and lookit,
His hand grasped the sword with a nervous embrace;
    ‘Ah, welcome, brave foemen,
    On earth there are no men
More gallant to meet in the foray or chase!
‘Little know you of the hearts I have hidden here;
Little know you of our moss-troopers’ might—
    Lindhope and Sorbie true,
    Sundhope and Milburn too,
Gentle in manner, but lions in fight!
‘I’ve Mangerton, Ogilvie, Raeburn, and Netherbie,
Old Sim of Whitram, and all his array;
    Come, all Northumberland,
    Teesdale and Cumberland,
Here at the Breaken tower end shall the fray.’
Scowl’d the broad sun o’er the links of green Liddisdale,
Red as the beacon-light tipp’d he the wold;
    Many a bold martial eye,
    Mirror’d that morning sky,
Never more oped on his orbit of gold!
Shrill was the bugle’s note! dreadful the warriors’ shout!
Lances and halberds in splinters were borne;
    Helmet and hauberk then
    Braved the claymore in vain,
Buckler armlet in shivers were shorn.
See how they wane—the proud files of the Windermere!
Howard—ah! woe to thy hopes of the day!
    Hear the wide welkin rend,
    While the Scots’ shouts ascend, 

Elliot of Lariston, Elliot for aye!



'The Border Reivers' - Keith Durham and Angus McBride.

'In Search of the Border Reivers' - Scottish Borders Tourist Board.

'Go Reiving' - 'Dumfries and Galloway Council'

Thomas Sorbie of London - For obtaining excerpts from 'Calendar of Border Papers'

'The Borderers' - Pictured at Buittle Tower, Dalbeattie - 20th April 2003

Visit the Borderers website on:

Visit Tom Moss' website and read about his book 'Deadlock and Deliverance'


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