"O Scotia! my dear, my native soil!
For whom my warmest wish to heaven is sent;
Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil
Be blest with health, and peace, and sweet content"
Robbie Burns

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


In November I will be teaching a class online for writers on the Anglo/Scottish Borders and have ancestors from the Borders. I have always been impressed with the resilience of the Border families who have existed for centuries in a land where scorched earth wasn’t a policy but a way of life. As Scottish and English armies rolled through the borders near Berwick on Tweed or Carlisle they either took the resources of the Borderers or they burned or destroyed it leaving the riding families with few choices other than lifting cattle and goods from each other and from across the Border.

The lawlessness of the three Marches (East, Middle, West) on each side of the Borders was beyond the control of the governments of Edinburgh or London in large part because the early history. The area was part of kingdom of Northumberland and often fought over between the monarchy of Scotland and the royal family in Northumberland with neither keeping the interest of the people in mind. The allegiance of the people was to their family or surname first and foremost, then to fellow borderers and last. If ever, to the respective country they happen to be part of at that moment. The border itself was officially determined in 1250 when an equal number of knights from both sides of the border met to not only define the borderline politically but to create a set of laws that applied to the borderers. However there was a section between the West and Middle Marches where the line couldn’t be determined… the debatable land. This was a land that encouraged the habitation of the broken men of other families who formed their own family such as Sandy’s Barins as well as the Grahams and the Armstrong where even the Border Laws didn’t’ apply.

What I enjoy reading about is the number of characters that seemed to be a personification of the Border Reivers who were cattle thieves and confidence men and yet had a honor code among thieves that was comparable to that of the feuding clans of the Highlands. A classic example is the story/ballad of Kinmont Willie Armstrong. Armstrong was a raider who had built a reputation of using his 300 family members to terrorize large tracks of the Border Marches rather just a particular family. He had especially angered the families on the English side and they were just waiting to catch him for his misdeeds. On truce day March 17 1596 when all participants from both sides of the Border are allowed a safe conduct for 24 hours, Armstrong was returning to his home at Morton Rigg just north of Carlisle when a English troops arrested him against the custom of the Truce and took him as their prisoner to the castle at Carlisle.

The Keeper of Liddesdale, Walter Scott of Buccleugh was so outraged by this breach of Border Law that he went to neighboring families and together they planned how they were going to break Armstrong out of the castle. Even though Armstrong was a problem to Scott and probably revied a number of the families the breach of the Truce was drove them. On Sunday April 13 th he and 80 men entered the castle and under the nose of Sir Thomas Scropes were able to steal Armstrong from his imprisonment. Of course they had to bribe a guard of the garrison who probably sympathized with the cause of a fellow Border. Though Scropes never caught Buccleugh and Armstrong as they went back over the border he people of Annan and Dumfries in Scotland suffered when Scrope and his English troops burned both in retaliation. But the story doesn’t end there.

Though Queen Elizabeth was angry with Scrope and his English troops who broke the Truce, she was extremely angered beyond belief that he allowed the Scots to breach the Castle at Carlisle. She contacted King James VI in Scotland demanding he turn over Buccleugh. James was more than willing to do that because he was on tender hooks hoping to be named her heir before she died. However, the Scottish nobles supported Buccleugh and James couldn’t go against his nobles. So he demanded that Buccleugh present himself to the Scottish courts in a way to pacify Elizabeth but she would have none of that. And the debate went on for months with letters flying back and forth from Edinburgh to London until finally Buccleugh with a safe passage in hand, though why he would trust the English at this point is hard to believe but then as a Border Lord he was sure to think he was invincible. When he finally met Queen Elizabeth he wowed her with his bravado which she loved and all was forgiven, though Elizabeth never admitted that the whole event was a result of an over zealous English warden. The problem stemming from the fact Elizabeth sent southern Lords to warden the English Marches and these men had no connection to the actual people in the Borders where on the Scottish side the Wardens were chosen from the prominent families who had their family armies to police not only their land but that of their borders.

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