The Border Reivers

As I mentioned them in previous posts but didn’t go on to explain, here’s some background to the Border Reivers, particularly for those from further afield. They are an integral part of border history and contemporary cultural identity.

Map of Reiver Family Names

Map locating Reiver Family Names

From the late thirteenth century to the beginning of the seven­teenth England and Scotland were almost constantly in a state of active enmity and Northumberland, Cumberland and the Scottish border counties were the lands across which the battles raged. Neither Scots nor English Law meant anything to the bor­derers and for self preservation the inhabitants allied themselves to the leaders of local graynes or clans. These graynes comprised the border names – Charlton, Robson, Hall Armstrong, Kerr etc who throughout the sixteenth century were all-powerful and were termed the Border Reivers.

The feuds and fighting which went on are sometimes misrepresented as England versus Scotland; it was also family vs family. There were shifting alliances which were often cross border- a raid on farms where several hundred ‘beasts’ were taken and driven back to England could not have been successful if the families in the Scottish Borders had not been in on the act.

The characters of the Reivers and their activities have acquired a romantic patina over the ages often attributed to the writing of Sir Walter Scott but in truth they were thoroughly ruthless. It is not surprising that their legacy to the English language is the words bereaved and blackmail. Sir Walter and later others collected the folk songs of that time preserving the lives, legends and landscapes of these people. The Border Ballads provide narrative sweep, a dark humour and lyrical poetry to tell the tales of a barbarous era.

Border Ballad illustration by Tom Scott

Border Ballad illustration by Tom Scott

Border Ballad illustration for The Twa Corbies by C.O. Murray

Border Ballad illustration for The Twa Corbies by C.O. Murray


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