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Carlisle and the Border Reivers

by Julia Hickey

Reiver StatueWelcome to the 16th century and the frontier between England and Scotland. This is a lawless land; rustling, murder and lynching are everyday occurrences. This is a place where a man's safety depends upon his prowess in arms and the power of his extended family -- not to mention the thickness and height of his walls! For this is the lawless realm that introduced the words 'bereave' and 'blackmail' to the English language. In these harsh times the feuding inhabitants -- Grahams, Armstrongs, Nixons, Maxwells and Musgraves -- owe allegiance to no one but themselves. A traveller falling into the clutches of an armed gang pleaded with them for mercy. "Are ye no Christians?" he begged.

The response came, "No, we're Elliotts."

Today Cumbrians will give you a warm and friendly welcome, but the landscapes, often stark but always stunning, resonate with the history of a turbulent past.

Where better to begin than the administrative centre of the Western Marches? Visit the Carlisle tourist information office in the market place. It is situated in the predominantly 18th-century Old Town Hall, but the oldest parts of the building survive from Queen Elizabeth's reign. Maps, books and leaflets containing everything from opening times to walks and cycle rides and the history of the region can be found here. Pause to admire the market cross from where Bonnie Prince Charlie declared himself to be king of England before visiting Tullie House, now Carlisle's award-winning museum.

Here, a permanent exhibition, including a dramatic film show that runs for approximately ten minutes, sets the scene for the brutal but compelling history of the reivers who roamed the borders between England and Scotland for more than 300 years. Reiving was not only the passtime of outlaws and bullies; respectable men reived their Scottish neighbours' sheep and cattle. Theft and countertheft were so engrained in the border way of life that rules for Truce Days and regulations for pursuing reivers were devised to ensure some sort of established authority and code of conduct. If a man's cattle were stolen a crown officer could call for a "hot trod:" a sod of burning peat was hoisted on a spear and the wronged party could travel unhindered into the neighbouring country in search of his belongings. In theory, law-abiding people were supposed to provide assistance to men riding in pursuit of stolen goods, but in practice this was often not the case.

This systematic lawlessness and violence grew from the border wars that raged between England and Scotland during the medieval period, when the borderers suffered the consequences of invasion and counter-invasion. Carlisle Castle itself changed hands between the English and the Scots on several occasions during this period. By the time of Henry VIII, border warfare was sporadic and Carlisle was firmly under English control. Still, the danger of invasion, looting and pillaging remained constant -- though more seasonal than during the years of open warfare -- because for the borderers it had become a way of life.

Living with the constant threat of violence bred a very aggressive race of people. If they weren't fighting the Scots they were arguing amongst themselves. They were very proud and took offence easily, so that before many centuries had passed whole families were at feud with one another over some ancient vendetta. It is even said that borderers traditionally excluded the sword hand of any male child to be christened so that in time of raiding and blood feud he would be all the stronger in his fighting for not having to worry too much about damnation!

The principal reivers gained a reputation for villainy because they didn't abide by the rules and robbed from both the Scots and the English side of the border. Many of their deeds were handed down in legend and song before being immortalised by Sir Walter Scott. Find out at Tullie House if you're descended from border bandits; inspect steel bonnets, short swords and double headed axes; hear the sad tale of Isabel Routledge left widowed by a reiver raid. The coffee and cake served in the cafeteria are pretty good too.

Carlisle Castle

Then take a short journey through the millennium subway that links Tullie House with the imposing red sandstone castle. The black granite pavement is inscribed with a roll-call of riding or raiding surnames and at the entrance stands the "Bishop's" stone -- a huge speckled boulder testifying to one man's anger at the reivers' misdeeds. By 1524 the church was determined to act to stop the reivers' ungodly ways. Cardinal Wolsey described the marches as an "evil country," but the Bishop of Glasgow was rather more specific. The stone carries part of the extensive curse that he had read from pulpits in neighbouring Tynedale when he excommunicated every single reiver in the land. Unfortunately for law abiding citizens (and there don't seem to have been many) it doesn't seem to have had a great deal of impact on the broken men in the Debateable Lands (patches of disputed territory that acted as a buffer zone between England and Scotland) or the career criminals who lived in the region. The Debateable Lands were ideal for men who might have reason to fear the law. In addition to being isolated and often mountainous, neither kingdom would recognise the authority of the other in these disputed regions. This allowed the "broken men" who lived there to play one warden off against another with little fear of retribution.

Reiver statueBroken men were reivers who had been formally outlawed by either the Scottish or English authorities. For example, if someone -- let's call him Jack -- was involved in a murder, the chief of Jack's family might be asked to stand bail for him. If the head of the family refused, then Jack would be "put to the horn." This meant that he was declared an outlaw in the nearest convenient market square and in theory if he was caught he could be hung. By refusing to stand bail for Jack, the clan chief had denied that Jack belonged to his family. In practice, of course, no one took a great deal of notice of their broken status. One family of Armstrongs was notable because they were all broken men!

As you come up out of the subway, the castle awaits. It has stood guard over Carlisle for more than 300 years. Henry VIII, recognizing the role of gunnery in warfare, added the half-moon battery inside the outer courtyard. During the 16th century it was occupied by the Warden of the Western Marches. It also played host to Mary Queen of Scots and in 1596 to a rather less illustrious Scotsman -- Kinmont Willie Armstrong, a notorious headsman of an equally notorious border family.

Armstrong was arrested on a truce day when all the inhabitants of the region could meet for markets, games and justice. He was taken to Carlisle Castle by English officers of the crown where the warden, Lord Scrope, threw him into prison. This was contrary to border law. The Laird of Buccleuch, the Keeper of Liddesdale -- a Scottish officer -- roused his forces and together with Willie's family rode for Carlisle. They crossed the River Eden with scaling ladders, intending to go over the top of the castle walls. This plan went awry when the ladders collapsed. Undeterred, the resourceful Scots kicked open the postern gate, discovered Armstrong -- bound by chains that rattled loudly -- and escaped back over the storm swollen river waters. The story continues:

We scarce had won the staneshaw-bank,
When a' the Carlisle bells were rung,
And a thousand men, in horse and foot,
Cam wi' the keen Lord Scrope along

Scrope and his thousand men didn't recapture Willie Armstrong. The crows at Harraby gallows were deprived of their meal. No doubt Scrope, who had to explain the escape to Elizabeth, wished that he had incarcerated Armstrong in the dark dungeons beneath the keep where the only moisture to be had was from the notorious "licking stone." The dungeons are open to the public and retain a damp cold feel -- not the kind of place you'd want to be on your own in the middle of the night.

Follow Armstrong and Buccleuch north, out of Carlisle towards junction 44 of the M6. Scotland Road boasts a 10-foot-tall reiver clad in steel bonnet and leather jack, gazing out towards the hills. Follow the A689 to Brampton and continue to Lanercost. You are at the very edge of the Debateable Lands, where neither England nor Scotland ruled.

Lanercost Priory, now a ruin, was abandoned in 1535 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The priory is small but beautiful. An informative audio-tour takes visitors around the walls, undercofts and rooms. The tour can be paused and visitors can take time to explore on their own or sit on a bench enjoying the sun and the sound of birdsong. This is a place that feels a million miles from the 21st century. But in the 16th century it wasn't so much a backwater as a frontline. So it isn't surprising that the site should contain two pele towers.

There are more than 100 pele towers and bastle houses in Cumbria. A pele tower is a stoutly built tower, rather like a medieval keep -- and indeed many of them date from the 13th century when wars between England and Scotland raged. The wealthy lived in pele towers; other borderers equipped themselves with bastle houses. A bastle house is a basic tower with a store room at the bottom. This could be used for livestock or it could be packed with peat, which was then set alight, deterring reivers who were thus denied easy access to the first and second floors of the house. Bastle houses were used as refuges rather than permanent living quarters. When beacon lights filled the skies, families would gather their valuables and lock themselves in these buildings and hope that the reivers would bypass their homes and livestock. Pele towers and bastle houses are unique to the British Isles.

Pele Tower

The rest of the population, living in huts with thatched roofs, could either find shelter with a rich relation or rely on the thickness of their church walls for sanctuary. The fortified church at Great Salkeld in the Eden Valley is an excellent example, with walls six feet thick, a sturdy tower and a large room beneath the ground floor where frightened woman and children could hide until the danger passed.

Following the Union of England with Scotland, James I (James VI in Scotland) ordered that these fortified buildings be demolished in an attempt to pacify the region. The majority of surviving towers became part of the fabric of working farms, like the one at Askerton on the way to Bewcastle. Others were converted into more comfortable stately homes. Two examples can be found near Penrith: Hutton-in-the-Forest and Dalemain. Both are open to the public. The pele tower at Dalemain lies at the heart of the existing building. The cafeteria is situated in the medieval hall. It is also home to a fine collection of doll's houses and a delightful house for mice built into one of the wooden stairs. Take a walk along the footpath from Dalemain to Dacre for a glimpse of yet another tower. Dacre isn't open to the public and the path can be muddy at times but the church is worth a visit and the pub serves hearty meals.

If you want to visit an unaltered pele tower, there are several fine examples beyond the Western Marches. The best example in England is called Aydon Castle, near Hexham. Built in the 13th century, it still retains its barmkin -- an enclosed courtyard for livestock. Two others, Smailholm and Hermitage -- home of infamous border baron Bothwell -- are in Scotland.

Follow the winding lanes deep into the hills beyond Lanercost for a visit to Bewcastle. This isolated village is home to a Roman fort, a castle and the Bewcastle Cross. It was also the home of Hobbie (short for Halbert) Noble, who features in one of Scott's border ballads: "his misdeeds they were sae great, they banished him to Liddesdale."

Today, there is no sign of Hobbie, but a quick inspection of the churchyard reveals many reiving names: Armstrong, Storey, Bell and of course Noble. The East Cumbria Country Side Project offers two walks from Bewcastle. The leaflet is called "Bastles in the West March." It can be purchased from Carlisle Tourist Information Office.

Head back towards Hadrian's Wall and Hexham. On the way there you might want to stop at Housesteads, the most complete Roman fort in Britain. Nearby are the remains of a bastle and farmhouse owned by generations of Armstrongs who also claimed Housesteads as theirs. The last Armstrong to own the fort -- which made an ideal centre for his horse stealing operation -- was hung at the beginning of the 18th century. His brothers fled to America, no doubt to avoid a similar end.

Hexham Old GaolHexham, "the capital of Tynedale," is in the English Middle March. This little town is built around the impressive Saxon abbey. It also contains the first purpose-built prison in England. Built in 1330 to contain convicted reivers, it is now the home of the Border History Museum. Having reopened in 2005 after extensive renovations, it is well worth a visit. An audio-visual tour leads visitors through the gaol, which depicts tragic and terrible tales. Experience a reiver raid; listen to the tragedy of the English lassie who loved a bonnie Scot's lad; and relive the tale of the scabby sheep. A newly installed glass lift carries visitors down to the dungeons for a glimpse of the convicted reivers' quarters, and if there's time (and a volunteer available), you can browse through some of the ballads and stories stored in the Hexham Moothall Border Library collection now rehoused in the old goal.

In addition to discovering the border reivers by car and by foot it is also possible to take to two wheels. Follow all or part of the 175-mile Reivers Cycle Route. Whichever mode of transport you choose, you'll be fascinated by the life and times of the likes of Kinmont Willie, Bold Buccleuch, Jock o'the Side, Dick o'the Cow, Johnie Armstrong and Belted Will.

Related Articles:

Lancaster, by Elizabeth Ashworth

More Information:


These resources are invaluable if your appetite for border history has been whetted.

Durham, Keith. (1995). The Border Reivers. (Osprey Publishing.) A good introduction to the reivers and some dramatic colour plates including one depicting the rescue of Kinmont Willie from Carlisle Castle.

MacDonald Fraser, George. (1971). The Steel Bonnets. (HarperCollins.) This is the definitive book offering a detailed history of the reivers and their unsavoury habits

Moss, Tom: Deadlock and Deliverance. The capture and rescue of Kinmont Willie Armstrong, the most notorious Scottish Reiver of the 16th century, was the last great event in the reivers' history. It would prove to be the last time the Reivers, adhering to a society which put allegiance to the clan first and foremost, would clash with both Scottish and English authority and monarchy on a scale which would shake both nations. http://www.reivershistory.co.uk

Ordnance Survey: In Search of the Border Reivers. A useful map for pinpointing reiver haunts in Cumbria, Northumbria and Scotland. It also provides a timeline and a list of reiver family names.

Reed, James (ed). (1991). Border Ballads -- A Selection. (Carcanet Press.) In addition to a selection of the most dramatic ballads from a variety of sources, Reed provides a short history of the period and commentary to accompany the ballads.


The Scottish Border Reivers - by Tom Moss
More than 40 articles on the subject of the borders, border reivers, and Scottish border law.

The Border Reivers Trail in Cumbria

The Border Reivers

Carlisle Castle

Carlisle Castle (English Heritage)

Lanercost Priory

Tullie House Museum

Lanercost Priory home page

Bailey Hideaways

BBC: Cumbria: The Border Reivers

Julia Hickey is passionate about England's heritage and particularly of Cumbria, where her husband comes from. In between dragging her family around the country to a variety of historic monuments, she works part-time as a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. She spends the rest of her week writing. In her spare time, she enjoys walking, dabbling in family history, cross-stitch, tapestry and photography.
Article and photos © 2006 Julia Hickey
Pele tower photo courtesy of Visitcumbria.com


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