Ask An Armstrong, A Beattie Or A Graham If Their Family Tree Includes A Bereaved Reiver

Words like “retrieve” and “bereaved” come up often in conversations today, but did you know that they originate from a ruthless group of Scottish clans who raided, stole, kidnapped, murdered and pillaged?

The BordersTerrible conflicts between England and Scotland began in the late 13th century and lasted for 300 years. Powerful clans emerged, developing alliances, demanding loyalty, and earning a reputation for being notoriously lawless. Their family names — like Graham, Armstrong and Beattie — are still common today.

Frequent wars, invasions and raids took place on the border between the two countries, turning a picturesque landscape into a dangerous frontier. These clans became so criminal that they came to be known as the Border Reivers, derived from the Scottish verb, “reive,” meaning “raid,” “rob” or “plunder.” “Reive” then became associated with loss, which is how it morphed into “bereaved.”

Border robbers needed horses to raid properly.  Sitting atop a hobbler, a small, agile horse trained to navigate the rugged terrain, riders wore a steel bonnet helmet, a jack — a quilted leather coat sewn with metal or horn plates for added protection — leather breeches and boots, and carried a lance and other weapons.  

A modern-day interpretation of a Border rider greets visitors at the Tullie Museum in Carlisle, but instead of riding a hobbler, he sits astride a bicycle.  Pay a coin and he'll start to move.

A modern-day interpretation of a Border rider greets visitors at the Tullie Museum in Carlisle.  Pay a coin and he’ll start to move.

The reivers were such a national disgrace that the Archbishop of Glasgow directed a “Great Curse” against them that was read from every pulpit in the Scottish borderlands, expressing the hope that they would be “swallowed down to hell.” Some reivers were hung from this capon tree in Jedburgh, Scotland, a massive oak tree whose name derives from a corruption of the name of the Capuchin monks who would find shelter under its branches on their way to Jedburgh Abbey.

The Capon Tree, painted by Arthur Perigal in 1876, Jedburgh Castle Jail and Museum

The Capon Tree, painted by Arthur Perigal in 1876, Jedburgh Castle Jail and Museum

If an innocent resident of the Borderlands found himself victim to one of these raids, he could demand justice, wait and plan for the time when he could raid the robbers yourself and get his revenge illegally, or he could legally pursue them in a “hot trod.” A trod gave him the right to recover his property by force within six days; it was a “hot trod” if it followed immediately, or a “cold trod” if not.

Fear ran rampant, and those who lived in these borderlands developed ways to protect themselves and their livestock in surviving this turmoil. Wealthy families built sturdy refuges with walls up to 10 feet thick.

Some were pele towers, like this one built in Chathill, Northumberland between 1392 and 1399. Preston Pele Tower has seven-foot-thick walls. A guard room and prison was on the ground floor, a bedroom and living room are on the first floor, and the second floor contains the mechanism for the clock that was installed in 1864.

Preston Pele Tower

Others were bastles, fortified farmhouses that were built with about 400 tons of sandstone blocks. The Tarset Bastle Trail winds its way through the Tarset Valley of Northumberland and passes Black Middens and the Gatehouse North Bastle, two of the area’s best-known bastles.

Gatehouse North Bastle

Gatehouse North Bastle

To construct bastles like these, larger stones were placed at the bottom of the structure, and smaller stones were placed near the top. The floors of most bastles were made from soil and paving stones. Virtually all bastles had one door at the gable end and small, narrow windows at the first-floor level. Livestock were kept on the ground floor, so that the heat from their bodies would rise and warm the family’s living quarters on the first floor, like central heating. The main door was at the top of a flight of external stairs. A “quench hole” on the first floor allowed buckets of water to be poured on any attacking reivers, and a trap door opened from above, for added protection. Rush lights were placed in indentations made in the walls on the first floor, since they were easily extinguished in drafts.

Black Middens Bastle

Black Middens Bastle

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I, became King James I of England, and wanted to bring peace to his kingdom. Reivers were executed, their lands were confiscated, and the reiving stopped. To signify the union of Scotland and England, both countries’ flags were officially combined in 1606. Both countries stayed independent until the Treaty of the Union in 1707 which created one Parliament of Great Britain. In 1801, the saltire of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was combined with the cross of St. George, the patron saint of England, and the saltire of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. That’s how the Union Flag, or Union Jack, became the national flag of the United Kingdom.

For more on the Border Reivers, see The Reivers: The Story of the Border Reivers, by Alistair Moffat, and The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers, by George MacDonald Fraser.

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