Cumbrian Border history


By the time Henry VIII died in 1547 the absurdity of wars at national level was becoming so clear that the rulers on each side set out to clear away the obstacles to a continuing peace. The Treaty of Edinburgh in July 1560 was the result, prescribing the withdrawal of all English troops from Scotland, and the return to France of the French troops who had fought on Scotland's side.

However, the private cross-border raiding which had been a feature (and often the cause) of past official wars continued without pause. The so-called Border Reivers (or Riding Clans or Surnames), alliances of families on either side and sometimes both sides of the Border plundered each other in circumstances of indescribable violence and brutality. Words such as 'blackmail' and 'rustling' which have since become common in English usage entered the language for the first time in the Border of the 1500's. Deadly feuds between families persisted in unabated savagery for decades.

This criminality was often condoned by the authorities on either side of the Border. It was at its height throughout the 1500s until it gradually slackened after the Union of the Crowns in 1603. It spawned the mawkish romanticism of some of the Border Ballads and some of the novels and poems of Sir Walter Scott. Murderous deeds became national myths, to obscure the abysmal misery in which the common people on both sides of the Border lived out their lives under the daily threat of robbery, fire and death.

Even after the Union of the Crowns this banditry declined only slowly. James I of England and VI of Scotland pursued some of the worst of the offending families, such as the Grahams and Armstrongs who were then and still are the principal families straddling the Border line in Cumbria. But to little immediate avail. The romanticised 'Moss Troopers' who infested the Borders continued their rapacity well into the seventeenth century and beyond. It was not until the middle of that century that prosperous Cumbrians converted their 'bastle houses' - thick walled and stone roofed homes for both men and beasts defensible against the raiders - into comfortable mansions: and even the common people began in the late 1600s to build cottages of stone instead of wood and heather thatch (easily rebuilt after burning).

For the history of the Borders and the Border Reivers after the end of the 'official' wars a visit to Tullie House Museum in Carlisle is well worth while. The most easily read and useful book on the period is the 'The Steel Bonnets' by George Macdonald Fraser, himself a native of Carlisle and of mixed Scots-English ancestry. He has also graphically drawn the then living conditions of the peoples of the Cumbrian Border lands in his short novel 'The Candelmass Road', which describes a vengeful Reiver raid in all its piteous brutality. Both books are available in most Cumbrian bookshops.

From both sources (books and Tullie House Museum) you will be introduced to the world of Border Surnames. Our forthcoming article on Cumbrian families and Surnames will deal fully with this subject, but if your surname is among the following your ancestors were almost certainly nefarious Border raiders:

Armstrong, Nixon, Elliot, Scott, Johnston, Maxwell, Bell, Hall, Charlton, Milburn, Dodd, Robson, Graham, Noble, Irving, Irvine, Routledge, Forster, Rutherford, Croser, Musgrave, Dacre, Carleton, Ridley, Salkeld,Clifford, Kerr, Turnbull..

If your surname is among the following your ancestors were among the victims or followers of the bandits:

Little, Tweddle, Tailor, Taylor, Hetherington, Barnfather, Skelton, Tordiff, Tremble, Hodgson, Henderson, Story, Davison.



Copyright EDGE1997