The Border Reivers

Do you have any of the following surnames in your tree?
Armstrong, Beattie, Bell, Burn, Charlton, Collingwood, Croser, Dacre, Dodd, Elliott, Fenwick, Forster, Gillespie, Graham, Hall, Hetherington, Hume, Irvine, Johnstone, Kerr, Laidlaw, Little, Lowther, Maxwell, Milburn, Musgrave, Nixon, Pringle, Ridley, Robson, Rutherford, Routledge, Scott, Storey, Tait, Trotter, Turnbull, Waugh.

If you own any of them you should read ‘The Steel Bonnets’ to get an idea of life in the early days!

These are families from the southernmost counties of Scotland, the border counties, the Lowlands. From 1200 onwards the people who lived here, people known as the Border Reivers, continuously fought each other. The English raided the Scots, the Scottish raided the English. Robbery, blackmail, arson, murder, kidnap and extortion were a constant part of the social system. No man who lived between the Pennines in the south and the Scottish uplands could go to sleep secure; no cattle could be left unguarded; no women unprotected.  The narrow hill land between England and Scotland was dominated by lance and sword, the steel bonnets and mail shirts told their own stories.

The Reivers also feuded between themselves, Scot pillaged Scot, Englishmen robbed Englishmen, Scots helped English raiders to harry the north line, Englishmen aided and abetted Scottish inroads.

For over 400 years the Borderers had borne the brunt of the battle for supremacy between the English and Scots. It was the dividing line between these two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and formidable nations in human history. It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I that some sort of peace settled over this area.[1] For people to keep body and soul together over the generations they had to cope with hardships, they had to endure, they had to learn the art of survival.

From 1780 a number of legal distilleries were founded and quickly became the heart of the economic life in the Lowlands. Their production waste was used to feed cattle, and the distilleries were rapidly considered as essential to local agriculture. But a tax in 1794 put an end to their prosperity, the Lowland Licence Act, required the Lowland distilleries to cease trading for one year, with catastrophic consequences on the local economy.[2]

What effect did this tax have on the families? This was a time when many people migrated to America and subsequently Australia. They were prepared to look for pastures new. Was your family one of those migrants? Or did they struggle on for another generation or so and become an Assisted Immigrant? From 1831–1860 over 18,000 people came to Australia every year under Assisted Immigration schemes. [3]

[1] George MacDonald Fraser, The Steel Bonnets, the story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers, Barrie and Jenkins, 1971, (Paperback by Pan 1974) and Gillespie Family History by John Gillespie


[3] Price, Charles (1987). “Chapter 1: Immigration and Ethnic Origin”. In Wray Vamplew (ed.). Australians: Historical Statistics. Broadway, New South Wales, Australia: Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates. pp. pages 2–22.