Who were the Reivers

full armorial working shhet with chiefs arms and supporters.jpgCarruthers: Who were the Border Reivers

PictureReiver Statue, Carlisle

The Reivers, Graynes (Border Clans) or Riding Surnames as they were called, of which Carruthers was one, were the product of the constant wars between England and Scotland that would often reduce the Border area to a wasteland. Farming became an impossible task, while cattle stealing became the more attractive option. Leslie, Bishop of Ross, gave an account of 16th Century Reiver life, describing it in his writing as;  “For as, in times of war, they are readily reduced to extreme poverty by the almost daily inroads of the enemy, so, on the restoration of peace, they entirely neglect to cultivate their lands…(and)…seek their subsistence by robberies…”

The ‘Reiver’ lived from the 14th to the late 17th century along the East, Middle and Western Marches of the Anglo Scottish border. They were classed at the time, as the finest light infantry in Europe and after the borders were cleared, many acted as mercenaries in European conflicts. They were aided by their chosen mounts called hobblers just 13 hands but they, like their riders, were stout-hearted and resilient. Descended from a breed brought over by the Romans, they were often unshod, being better able to negotiate the difficult terrain they frequented and were renowned for the stamina and surefootedness.

As families, the Reivers lived in a constant state of alert and as such built fortified ‘Pele” towers for their defence when they could. This was as much as for their shelter as for their defence. They were usually three floors, which could also house their animals if necessary. Legend has it, although no evidence to support it, that Reiver children were baptised with their fighting hand covered, so that it remained unchristened in order to allow it to be used in unholy fashion conducting feuds against his enemies, it is a rather  romantic thought.

PictureRievers Jacket

Reiver’s attire was not that of his highland neighbours but included, a steel bonnet with a quilted jacket of stout leather sewn with plates of metal or horn stitched in to protect his body called brigandines or jacks of plaite and spurs. On his head a bonnet, with a skull helmet underneath or if they could afford it a metal helmet such as a burgonet or morion. Although they carried a variety of weapons including a sword, dagger, axe and occasionally a bow, his preferred weapon was the ‘lang spear’ or Border lance.

They did not wear kilts, but trews (trousers) or doublet and hose and riding boots, which sensibly would have been more amenable to their function as ‘Riding Surnames’ and as some of the finest light cavalrymen of the day.

Not simply of the lower classes, they included those who worked on the land, craftsmen and even the landed gentry.  He was, as previously stated a highly skilled horseman and renowned guerrilla soldier over some tough terrain and was practised in the fine arts of robbery, murder, arson, kidnapping and extortion. In those days, there was no social stigma attached to reiving, it was simply an accepted way of life. Romanticism aside, they were fearsome and honourable warriors and as George MacDonald Fraser described them in his history of the Reivers, ‘The Steel Bonnets’, “…it is easy to treat the Reiver as a hero figure because at times, he was indeed heroic” while Bishop Leslie wrote “having once pledged their faith, even to an enemy, they are very strict in observing it, insomuch that they think nothing can be more heinous than violated fidelity.” It is therefore true that there was a code of honour that was central to the law of the Borders and although feudalism existed, loyalty to kin was much more important and this is what easily distinguished the Borderers from other lowland Scots.

PictureReivers at Gilnockie Tower from a 19th-century print

Reiving was not confined to cross boundary targets. Indeed the borderers had a much closer allegiance to their family than to their country, whether England or Scotland. A raid may have included a few dozen riders to a few thousand, but they were made in the name of their family or clan rather than their nationality. They raided as far south as Yorkshire and Lancashire and as far north as Lothian. It was however not unknown for Scots to reive other Scots, Scots to reive the English and any combination of the same. At the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, an observer by the name of Willaim Patten, noticed that the Scottish and English Borderers were talking to each other in the midst of battle, and on being spotted put on a show of fighting while the battles of Otterburn (1388), Flodden Field (1513) and Solway Moss (1542) are all linked with the Reiver families who fought there as levied soldiers.

Family over Nation” was an important concept and one we need to accept when dealing with the  culture and lives of the Riding Surnames of the Scottish Borders.

Clan Carruthers Society WP footnote grey 3