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border reivers

On The Trail Of The Border Reivers

Now the picture of tranquillity, the Borders were once a rough and
lawless place where livestock (and outsiders) could disappear in
the blink of an eye.

BY TERRY WILLIAMS

The map, spread out beside a mug of coffee on the campervan table, showed a rough lozenge of high ground south of my overnight stop in Hawick. On the west, Teviotdale, Ewedale, Eskdale and the A7 led to Langholm; in the east was the B6399 to Newcastleton in the Liddesdale valley. I was a long way from my usual Highland stamping ground, enticed into a diversion by a scrap of family history.

According to my maternal grandmother, a great-great -- possibly three times great -- Northumbrian grandfather was hanged for stealing sheep from the wrong side of the Cheviot Hills. I didn't know his name, but I was rather proud of my connection to this land of the Border Reivers. The attendant in Hawick's Tourist Information Centre had been less impressed.

"Ach, we've all got one of those," he'd said.

I should have realized that my claim was hardly exceptional in these airts. "Lifting" other people's livestock was a way of life between the 15th and 17th centuries. Ordinary, peace-loving folk lived in constant fear of seeing their livestock disappear over the horizon. Life for them consisted of short interludes of peace in 300 years of border warfare. The attendant taking payment for my map could well be descended from the men who captured my thieving relative. If old quarrels lingered, perhaps it would be wise to stay well hidden behind my father's Welsh surname.

Surnames were to the Borders what clans were to the Highlands. Borderers went into battle shouting out "Armstrong!" or "Elliot!" or any other of a wide swathe of local names. In the absence of identifying tartans, it helped you avoid death at the hands of those on your own side. Loyalty was always to family before nation. The reivers would steal as the opportunity arose, on either side of the border, from Carlisle on the Solway Firth to Berwick at the edge of the North Sea. Ambush and guerrilla warfare were second nature to them and their knowledge of the ground over which they drove their stolen animals was unmatched.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2017 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos © Terry Williams