Geordie Dictionary | Dialect Origins | 'Mackems' and Jamies (Sunderland)

North East Surnames | Border Reivers: Robsons, Armstrongs, Charltons...

North East Place-Name origins: (A-D) | (E-J) | (K-O) | (P-S) | (T-Y)

The Border Reivers

Lawless Clans

Border history may well have been dominated by the political struggle between England and Scotland, but it would be wrong to assume that the story of the Borderland was always a saga of Englishman against Scot and vice versa. In Tudor and Elizabethan times the Anglo-Scottish Border counties, including Northumberland, were the home to the notorious Border Reivers, the lawless clans of the border valleys, where a lifestyle of raiding and marauding was the only way to survive. The life of the Border Reiver was not necessarily ruled by his allegiance to the English or Scottish Crowns, but more likely by his allegiance to a family surname.

Feuds were often fought and raids were made, not in the name of England or Scotland, but in the names of Armstrong, Robson, Charlton, Elliott or Dodd, or in the names of other Border surnames, that are still common in the region today. Indeed it was a common occurrence for English families to side with Scottish families in border feuds, especially as some of the reiver surnames, like Armstrong, Hall and Graham were to be found on both sides of the border.

Murderous Robsons

There is a well known tradition that the Robsons of North Tynedale once made a foray into the Scottish valley of Liddesdale and stole a large flock of sheep belonging to the Graham family, which they brought back into Northumberland. Later it was discovered that the Graham sheep were infected with scab, which spread like wild fire through the Robson's flock. The Robsons were so angry that they returned to Liddesdale in another raid, where they caught seven members of the Graham family and hung them until they were dead. They left a note to the effect that;

'The neist time gentlemen cam to tak their schepe They are no te' be scabbit!

Such tales as this were typical of the border country many centuries ago, though it is not always easy to separate the fact from the fiction, since these stories were often constructed by people who may not have even visited the borderlands.

Border Reivers and their way of life, were certainly feared by outsiders in days gone by and the Border Country had a certain element of mystique and danger about it. Even in the nearby walled town of Newcastle upon Tyne, there were rules forbidding the apprenticeship of North Tynedale and Redesdale men to certain Newcastle trades, for fear that there might be trouble.

Fears may well have been justified for one Newcastle man writing of the Tynedale and Redesdale folk in 1649 records that;

"They come down from their dales into the low countries and carry away horses and cattle so cunningly that it will be hard for any to get them or their cattle except that they be acquainted with some master thief, who for safety money may help them to their stolen goods, or deceive them."

Raiders beyond control

The Union of the Crowns in 1603 largely brought about an end to Border Reiving activity, though mosstroopers and horse thieves were still active in the borders throughout the seventeenth century. It did not help that thieving activities were sometimes supported by the very men who were supposed to be keeping the Border Reivers under control. Indeed in 1701 a horse thief confessed that;

"The county keeper of Tynedale provided that they did not plunder
his territory would connive at their stealing what they pleased in
Scotland and in the adjacent Bishopric of Durham and would
prosecute no one save those who stole from his own district"

As stability, Law and order were brought to the Border region following the accession of James I to the throne in 1603, the activities of the Border Reivers gradually came to an end. Many of the reiver's descendants became keelmen on Tyneside, or Northumberland and Durham pitmen. Some emigrated to Australia and America and of course the first man on the moon was an Armstrong, descended from the Border Reivers of that name.


 The Border Reivers, or at least those on the north side of the border are sometimes considered to be just another group of otlying Highland Scottish clans and that those on the south side are simply clans who have spilled over into England. In reality the Border Reivers formed a distinct group with few links to the Scottish Highland tribes to the far north.

The surnames of the Border Reivers on both sides of the border certainly seem more English or Anglo-Saxon in style. Unlike most of the famous clans of the Scottish Highlands, they all lack that Celtic element 'mac', (the Gaelic word meaning 'son of'), which occurs in names like McDonald and McDougal.

It therefore seems probable that the Border Reivers on both sides of the border were largely and at least in lingusitic terms Anglo-Saxon by origin with a bit of Norse and Celtic thrown in. This has a simple explanation; the boundaries of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, stretched far to the north of the modern Scottish border, towards Edinburgh and the Lothians and its people spoke the Anglo-Saxon language known as Northumbrian.

The Border Ballads

The Border Reivers way of life does bear remarkable similarities with both the early Celtic inhabitants of Britain and the Anglo-Saxon and Norse warriors who later settled here from their homelands in northern Germany and Denmark in the 6th century A.D.

Perhaps the most striking similarity was the Border Reiver's capacity, despite his violent nature, to produce the famous border ballads which, like the old Anglo-Saxon warrior poems, tended to glorify a life of war, raiding and revenge. Sometimes however, the ballads could be of a rather sad and pitiful nature, like the `Border Widow's Lament', a tune best sung to the accompaniment of the Northumbrian Pipes;

My love he built me a bonny bower,
And clad it all wi' lilly flower
A brawer bower why ye ne'er did see
Than my true love he built for me.
There came a man by middle day
He spied his sport and went away
And browt the kin that very night,
Who broke my bower and slew my knight.
He slew my knight te me sae dear,
He slew my Knight and stole his yield,
My servants all for life did flee,
And left me in extremity.
I sewed his sheet marking my name
I washed the corpse my self alane,
I watched his body night and day,
Nae living creature came that way.
I took his body on my back,
And whiles I pray and whiles I sat
I digged a grave and I laid him in,
And covered him with grass sae green.
But think nae ye my heart was sair,
When I laid the clay on his yellow hair
Oh think nae ye my heart was wae,
When I turned about and went away
No living man I'll love again
Since that my lovely knight was slain

George M Trevelyan the great British historian, (a Northumbrian) superbly summed up the nature of the Border Reivers and their ballads when he wrote;

"They were cruel,coarse savages, slaying each other like the beasts
of the forest; and yet they were also poets who could express in
the grand style the inexorable fate of the individual man and
woman, the infinite pity for all cruel things which they none the
less inflicted upon one another. It was not one ballad- maker alone
but the whole cut throat population who felt this magnanimous
sorrow, and the consoling charms of the highest poetry."

Many of the Border Ballads still survive today, due to the avid collecting of the famous Border poet, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), himself the descendant of a famous border clan.


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