Windham Life and Times – June 18, 2015

Canobie, Canonbie, Cannobie

A Border Reiver with Steel Bonnet

A Border Reiver with Steel Bonnet

Part 4: What’s a Reiver

What’s a reiver? You might know that “The Reivers” is a novel written by William Faulkner. The Border Reivers were gangs of horsemen who lived in or around the “Debatable Land” on the disputed border between England and Scotland. They were basically land pirates, who raided within a days ride of their homes, from around 1300 to 1600. They also held family ties and honor in high esteem. Reivers stole cattle, sheep and horses, and were even known to hire themselves out as mercenaries. They also blackmailed landowners.

“The word blackmail has no connection at all with the postal system. In the 16th and part of the 17th centuries, the area along the border between England and Scotland was not usually protected by the officials on either side. Landholders were beset not only by outlaws but also by their own chieftains, who told them that in return for payment they would not be raided. In Scotland mail means “payment, rent, tax,” and at that time payment or rent was by custom referred to as “silver” or “white” when paid in coins. Because the robbers usually required payment in cattle or grain rather than money, their payment came to be called ‘black” mail.’ ”

“The Bands of Reivers were organized according to families and clans – rivalry and feuding between border families gave rise to raiding. Various rules and rights were observed by the clans and allowed by the ruling classes, including the ‘Hot Trod’ custom which basically said taking revenge was permitted as long as you were quick (within six days) and loud and obvious about it. Leaving it longer meant seeking official sanction for any action.”

McDonald says, “From the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, outlaws and ‘border lords’ reigned supreme on the contentious frontier between England and Scotland. Feud and terror, raid and reprisal, were the ordinary stuff of life—and a way of survival. Power was held by the notorious border reivers; clan-loyal raiders, freebooters, plunderers, and rustlers who robbed, murdered, and wreaked havoc. These ‘steel bonnets’ (named for their helmets), both fierce and fanciful, were the last opponents of the rule of law before the Acts of Union of 1701.
The fact of the matter is that the clans along the borders were more than just outlaws. Fierce wars were fought over this border territory and because of this there was rivalry between the kings of Scotland and England for the loyalty of the people who lived here. Since there was no official, functioning government or oversight, there developed a system of justice and rules based on loyalty to the family name.

You also have to see the reivers in their historical context. The monarchy in both England and Scotland were held and taken by force of arms. Its always interesting to me that government theft, terror and violence is sanctioned as legitimate by historians but individual force is not. Why do the national governments get a pass for the horrid crimes they commit? Henry the VIII was the ruler of England during much of this period. (1491-1547) He used political violence and war as governmental policy. His subjects who did not agree with his religious beliefs, (which put all religious authority into his hands rather than to the independence of the church) both Catholic and Protestant, were killed, often by being burned alive on the stake. He cut off the head of his wife so he could marry another, and political enemies were often beheaded, drawn and quartered or murdered. Throughout England, Henry the VIII basically stole all the wealth of the Catholic church and appropriated it to the monarchy. As you will remember, the priory at Canonbie was raised to the ground and all of it wealth robbed by the monarchy. So you have to be careful being too judgmental in the 15th and 16th century, especially of people who asserted their own rights and freedom, and who put the support and defense of their families above all else. After all, it was a time of might makes right, and where men fought for honor.

Leonard Morrison, an able advocate of the border Scots and the Windham families says, “In the belt of country in the southern part of Scotland, near the border of England, and now embraced by the counties of Dumfries and Roxburgh, once dwelt some of the most renowned of the Scottish Lowland clans, among whom were the clans Johnston, Elliot, Douglass, Maxwell, Chisholm, and Armstrong.”

“Of the clan Armstrong this article will speak. It was one of the most noted, most numerous, and most powerful of the Lowland clans. This section of country the Armstrongs occupied, being near the English border, was called the ‘Debatable Land,’ and though in Scotland, it was subject to the claims of England, and was often overrun by armies of each kingdom, and sometimes stripped and despoiled by both. By very necessities of their condition, and the troubled circumstances in which they were placed by the lawlessness of the age, they were forced to resort to expedients not justifiable in a more enlightened era. Like the neighboring clans, they followed:

“The simple Plan,
That they should take, who had the power,
And they should keep, who can.”

Two great books are in print about the Reivers. The Reivers by Alistair Moffat and The Steel Bonnets by George Fraser.

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