Who Were The Reivers?To ‘reive’ is to rob or plunder. In Scotland, the Reivers are mainly associated with the Borders and the lawless 16th century. This was a violent and fearful time when homes were burned, cattle stolen and men killed with little chance of any redress - apart from a counter raid with retribution visited on the likely perpetrators.
There was probably very little romantic about the reality of those days, but the Border ballads, the pen of Sir Walter Scott and some rose tinted memories have given the reivers an enduring romantic gloss. By the light of the harvest moon they would ride familiar tracks over the hills to lift cattle, and so put food in the mouths of their bairns. Coming back with their booty they were alert for pursuit and would sometimes lay an ambush for the pursuers, just in case. There were feuds within the Border families, feuds with English names but also some co-operation between valleys and across the Border: good intelligence from a possible target was worth a cow or two. These were hard men who lived by their wits and by the sword.
As in the Highlands the first loyalty in the Borders was to kith and kin; the monarch was remote and mostly powerless. In both the Scottish and English Borderlands reivers lived in pele towers three or four stories tall, one room per floor. Cattle would be stored for protection in the vaulted basement, and on the roof was an iron fire basket for the ‘bale fire’ – lit to warn neighbours of impending attack. When they rode out on their sure-footed hill ponies, the elements of surprise, boldness, cunning and speed, were key. Armour was too cumbersome and heavy, besides most of the men riding were poor and their equipment had often been stolen. They normally wore two or three layers of quilted cloth with small iron plates overlapping each other stitched between the layers of cloth
In an attempt to put an end to reiving the two governments appointed ‘Wardens of the Marches’. Their role was to meet their counterparts on regular occasions to hear from complainants and award punishment if appropriate. But the Scots wardens were normally the big landowners, not averse to a bit of reiving themselves and the English wardens were mostly interested in impressing their monarch with their brutal control: the system did not work well, however it was agreed between all that a ‘hot trod’ pursuit and the subsequent affray to retrieve stolen beasts was lawful. But it would in any case take more than this to stamp out the reiving culture; in many cases they had to reive to avoid starvation (If there was no food in the larder a pair of spurs would appear on a man’s plate: “Get out there!”). There was little point in planting crops if the likelihood was that they would be flattened by the rain or if the weather was kind, burned by the English.
No one in the Middle Ages would have predicted that the Borders would be reduced to a charred wilderness, populated by lawless gangs. The kingdom of Northumbria (in one form or another) stretched up the east coast from the Humber to Edinburgh from the 7th to the 9th centuries; it produced figures that we still know today – St Cuthbert, the venerable Bede– and saw the establishment of Lindisfarne monastery. In the Middle Ages, the Borders was quite affluent: large quantities of wool from the Tweed and Tyne basins were exported through Berwick. And monasteries were established by David I of Scotland at Melrose, Dryburgh, Kelso and Jedburgh bringing new agricultural techniques as well as a spiritual element to the area.
But it all went wrong with the Scottish Wars of Independence. The Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 brought only temporary respite. For the next two and a half centuries, punishment raids were mounted by English kings and there were a few major incursions by the Scots. But always it was the Borders that suffered. For about three centuries men living within fifty miles of the Border could rarely go to sleep without fear of attack. And of course in 1513 came the Battle of Flodden when King James IV and most of his nobles were slain. After that even folk in Edinburgh didn’t feel safe.
As Alistair Moffat put it in his book ‘The Reivers’, “As Border Society gradually descended into organised criminality, it became progressively poorer. And its governing dynamic turned from production to larceny.”
King James VI considered the lawlessness on the Border a disgrace to both countries and when in 1603 he became James I of England, he finally had the power to clamp down hard. Many were exiled, many were hanged; some survived and were ennobled. The Borders slowly returned to its former rural routines.
But it’s thanks to the Reivers that great stories echo round this beautiful landscape, stories populated by larger than life characters. We have authentic traditions, stretching back to the riding days. The songs have survived. And some of the wonderful old pele towers are still standing… you just need a little imagination. It’s a unique culture, little known outside the Borders, and we look forward to exploring it with you.