sheep at the Borders of ScotlandI hope you didn’t get the impression from yesterday’s post and all those pictures of rolling, manicured hills that the Border Scots are a tame, gentle lot just because they aren’t Highlanders. Don’t let the picturesque landscape and its neat stone walls mislead you. As I found out today, this area had hundreds of years of bloody cross border and cross clan warfare in conflicts so confusing, after an hour of Internet research, I’m still unsure as to who was on which side.

What is becoming clear is that the interconnected, cross-border families known as the Reivers or Borderers always seemed to come out on top. The Reivers were extended clans who had families on both sides of the English-Scottish border and made their living largely with livestock raids. They developed a horseback style so fast and effective that they made themselves one of the best light cavalries of their day. Both England and Scotland recruited them for various battles in their ongoing wars over the borders.

Both English and Scottish commanders came to regret that decision. The Reivers had what might be called a fluid sense of nationality. They signed up with whatever army was paying the best or offered the best chance of plunder. And they happily switched sides mid-battle if it looked like they’d backed the wrong side. It got even more complicated if both armies had engaged Borderers. One contemporary source at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547 reported seeing English and Scottish Borderers chatting cordially during the engagement. Only when the Reivers saw they were being watched did they put on a not very convincing show of fighting.

Imagine miles of empty windswept moors and hills and only this tower as protection from the Reivers.

view from Smailholm Tower, Scotland

From the tower, you could see for miles. But for villagers between the 12th and 16th centuries, that must have frequently included rampaging bands of Reivers.

But fighting in registered armies was only a sideline. For years, the Reivers made their living grabbing cattle and sheep wherever they could — even when it was from their neighbors. In response, many landowning families built peel towers. These fortified towers allowed them to watch for Reiver riders, then, at the first sign of a raid, gather up livestock, family, vassals and valuables and barricade the doors.

Kelso Scotland

The relative safety and comfort of Abbey towns like Kelso were not the norm in the Borders in Medieval times.

Our gracious hosts, George and Helen, took us to one of the best preserved, Smailholm Tower. As we trudged over the blustery marshy ground and especially as we climbed through the small rooms, we got a visceral sense of how frightening it would be to be at the mercy of raiders, to such an extent that it seemed preferable to barricade yourself along with a village of people and herds of cows and sheep into an enclosed stone space. Of course, Sir Walter Scott, of whom I am increasingly becoming NOT a fan, over-romanticized the whole thing. His family owned Smailholm Tower and the adjacent farm — where he was sent as a sickly boy to recover his health. Gazing up at that Tower made me really understand how frightening and brutal life in the Borders could be in the Middle Ages. It only caused Sir Walter Scott to churn out endless novels of turgid prose romanticizing the Reivers as heroes.

Apparently Scott has a lot to answer for. Reivers festivals are held throughout The Borders where horseback raids are recreated. George and Helen’s daughter told us that it’s such a big holiday that all businesses close for two full days. Helen said it’s just a long drunk that somehow ends up on horseback (never a good combination).

We chuckled over that as I continued my online research only to find that our gracious host, George is actually descended from one of the most notorious Reiver clans. This tidbit from the Reiver Trail website will give you a clue:

In reiving times the Elliot clan dominated this area. Called the ‘thieves of Liddesdale’ they ruled from their strongholds of Larriston, Redheugh and Stobs. A visitor to the borderlands was seeking shelter. ‘Are there no Christians to be found?’ he asked. ‘No,’ came the reply, ‘we are only Elliots and Armstrongs!’ By the mid-16th century, the Elliots were feuding with most of their neighbours and were engaged in a small war with the Scott family. It was a dangerous time. There was ‘daily slaughter, stealing on all hands and justice nowhere’.

Well, at least they were fighting Sir Walter Scott’s ancesters. I’ll give them that.

But should I be concerned that our gracious host — who also happens to be a board member of Andy’s company — is descended from notorious brigands? Especially since he’s taking Andy fly fishing tomorrow on an isolated area of the River Tweed? It could be dangerous.

Then I remembered that the Reivers had a very fluid sense of affiliation. Maybe George would see Andy as his English clan member. They could form a powerful alliance.

That would be great for the business. As long as they don’t start rustling sheep.

River Tweed, near Kelso Scotland

Here's the River Tweed where Andy and George will be fly fishing. Should I be worried that there are sheep nearby?

Note: Find today’s pictures here.