Border reivers were raiders along the Anglo-Scottish border from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century. Their ranks consisted of both Scottish and English families, and they raided the entire Border country without regard to their victims’ nationality. Their heyday was perhaps in the last hundred years of their existence, during the time of the Stewart Kings in Scotland and the Tudor dynasty in England.
Scotland and England were frequently at war during the late Middle Ages. During these wars, the livelihood of the people on the Borders was devastated by the contending armies. Even when the countries were not at war, tension remained high, and royal authority in either kingdom was often weak. The uncertainty of existence meant that communities or people kindred to each other would seek security through their own strength and cunning, and improve their livelihoods at their nominal enemies’ expense. Loyalty to a feeble or distant monarch and reliance on the effectiveness of the law usually made people a target for depredations rather than conferring any security.
There were other factors which promoted a predatory mode of living. Among them was the survival in the Borders of the inheritance system of gavelkind, by which estates were divided equally between all sons on a man’s death, so that many people owned insufficient land to maintain themselves. Also, much of the border region is mountainous or open moorland, unsuitable for arable farming but good for grazing. Livestock was easily rustled and driven back to raiders’ territory by mounted reivers who knew the country well. The raiders also often removed easily portable household goods or valuables, and took prisoners for ransom.
The attitudes of the English and Scottish governments towards the border families alternated from indulgence and even encouragement, as these fierce families served as the first line of defence against invasion across the border, to draconian and indiscriminate punishment when their lawlessness became intolerable to the authorities.
“Reive” is an early English word for “to rob”, from the Northumbrian and Scots verb reifen from the old English rēafian, and thus related to the archaic standard English verb reave (“to plunder”, “to rob”), and to the modern English word “ruffian”.
The reivers were both English and Scottish and raided both sides of the border impartially, so long as the people they raided had no powerful protectors and no connection to their own kin. Their activities, although usually within a day’s ride of the border, extended both north and south of their main haunts. English raiders were reported to have hit the outskirts of Edinburgh, and Scottish raids were known as far south as Yorkshire. The largest of these was The Great Raid of 1322, during the Scottish Wars of Independence, where it reached as far south as Chorley. The main raiding season ran through the early winter months, when the nights were longest and the cattle and horses fat from having spent the summer grazing. The numbers involved in a raid might range from a few dozen to organized campaigns involving up to three thousand riders.
When raiding, or riding, as it was termed, the reivers rode light on hardy nags or ponies renowned for the ability to pick their way over the boggy moss lands (see: Galloway pony, Hobelar). The original dress of a shepherd’s plaid was later replaced by light armor such as brigandines or jacks of plaite (a type of sleeveless doublet into which small plates of steel were stitched), and metal helmets such as burgonets or morions; hence their nickname of the “steel bonnets”. They were armed with lances and small shields, and sometimes also with longbows, or light crossbows, known as “latches”, or later on in their history with one or more pistols. They invariably also carried swords and dirks.
As soldiers, the Border reivers were considered among the finest light cavalry in all of Europe. After meeting one reiver (the Bold Buccleugh), Queen Elizabeth I is quoted as having said that “with ten thousand such men, James VI could shake any throne in Europe.” Reivers served as mercenaries, or were forced to serve in English and Scots armies in the Low Countries and in Ireland. Such service was often handed down as a penalty in lieu of that of death upon their families.
Reivers fighting as levied soldiers played important parts at the battles of Flodden and Solway Moss. When fighting as part of larger English or Scottish armies, Borderers were difficult to control as many had relatives on both sides of the border, despite laws forbidding international marriage. They could claim to be of either nationality, describing themselves as Scottish or English as needed. They were badly-behaved in camp, frequently plundered for their own benefit instead of obeying orders, and there were always questions about how loyal they were. At battles such as Ancrum Moor in Scotland in 1545, Borderers changed sides in mid-battle, to curry favor with the likely victors, and at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, an observer (William 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.
The inhabitants of the Borders had to live in a state of constant alert, and for self-protection, they built fortified tower houses.
In the very worst periods of warfare, people were unable to construct more than crude turf cabins, the destruction of which would be little loss. When times allowed however, they built houses designed as much for defense as shelter. The bastle house was a stout two-storied building. The lower floor was used to keep the most valuable livestock and horses. The upper story housed the people, and often could be reached only by an external ladder which was pulled up at night or if danger threatened. The stone walls were up to 3 feet (0.91 m) thick, and the roof was of slate or stone tiles. Only narrow arrow slits provided light and ventilation. Such dwellings could not be set on fire, and while they could be captured, for example by smoking out the defenders with fires of damp straw or using scaling ladders to reach the roof, they were usually not worth the time and effort.
Peel towers (also spelled pele towers) were usually three-storeyed buildings, constructed specifically for defensive purposes by the authorities, or for prestigious individuals such as the heads of clans. Smailholm Tower is one of many surviving peel towers. Like bastle houses, they were very strongly constructed for defence. If necessary, they could be temporarily abandoned and stuffed full of smouldering turf to prevent an enemy (such as a government army) destroying them with gunpowder.
Peel towers and bastle houses were often surrounded by a stone wall known as a barmkin, inside which cattle and other livestock were kept overnight.