The Border
The Dumfriesshire Companion
Haig Gordon



Some Historical Background

The Border

From Westerkirk to Westminster Abbey -
Thomas Telford

Robert Burns - Doonhamer

The Sage of Ecclefechan - Thomas Carlyle

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon

Other Literary Figures

The Artists

Fame and Fortune

Other Pairs of Eyes

The Border

Of the three old counties that make up the modern region of Dumfries and Galloway, only Dumfriesshire shares a land border with the 'Auld Enemy' England. Cross the Sark bridge at Gretna and you move indisputably from one country to another. But it was not always quite as clear-cut.

For centuries a sizeable chunk of this frontier territory was known as the Debateable Land, neither Scottish nor English but a lawless combat zone for the marauding mafia families of Dumfriesshire and Cumberland. We call them the Reivers and they have been romanticised in the oral tradition of the Border Ballads. In reality the phenomenon was a particularly unpleasant form of gang warfare that probably caused in total more bloodshed in the county than the periodic clashes of national armies.

It was astonishingly late in the history of Scotland and England as independent kingdoms that the border at its Dumfriesshire end came to be strictly defined. For some three hundred years prior to the Union of the Crowns in 1603 there was never much doubt about the middle and eastern sections of the boundary. The River Tweed in the east and the central massif of the Cheviots offered natural dividing-lines that were generally acknowledged - except of course in the famous east coast anomaly of Berwick-upon-Tweed, which had its allegiance changed thirteen times before finally being surrendered to England in 1482.

West of the Cheviots the situation was chronically fluid. Sometimes the line was drawn at the River Sark, at other times at the River Esk further to the south. For much of the late medieval period no one was really quite sure of the demarcation. From above Carlisle around what is now known as the Metal Bridge on the A/M74 the Debateable Land stretched about 12 miles north-east towards Langholm and Liddesdale.

Only in 1552 did the two sides finally convene a conference near Canonbie for the purpose of defining this stretch of the border once and for all. Henri Cleutin, Seigneur d'Oysel, the French ambassador to Scotland and right-hand man to James V's widow Mary of Guise, was appointed arbitrator and the borderland as we now know it was knocked into shape. The Scots wanted and got the parish of Canonbie, in return for which the English were granted the parish of Kirkandrews.

From the Solway the newly agreed frontier began by following the River Sark. Cleutin applied his outsider's Gallic sense of logic to the matter and persuaded them to divide the Debateable Land in two by drawing a more or less straight horizontal line between the Sark and the Esk. This line begins about seven miles up the Sark from Gretna. Labourers set about their masters' wishes by digging a trench and piling the spoil into a bank. This simple solution is to this day marked on maps as the Scots' Dyke. A farm that is just within the southern sector is called Englishtown!

None of this, though, interfered in any significant way with the continuation up to the end of the sixteenth century of the reiving way of life. We should remind ourselves that reiver means 'robber'. It was a criminal underworld in which the Armstrongs, the Bells, the Grahams, the Irvines, the Johnstones and the Maxwells all made a good living as livestock rustlers and extortionists. No method - murder, kidnap, arson - was considered beyond limits.

It was of course marginally preferable to mount a raid on premises clearly associated with the national enemy but inter-marriage and the natural ambiguities of a borderland meant that the killings were in many cases effectively fratricidal.

This was all very exciting stuff for the story-tellers. There is a strong Dumfriesshire vein running through the oral tradition of Scots ballads by which villains and thugs were transformed into swashbuckling mavericks. These verse tales were made as communal songs, simple in construction so that they were easy to memorise and readily understandable to the listener. By their very nature they were never written down. It was only as the tradition began to weaken in the eighteenth century that antiquarian enthusiasts began to record them.

The leading light in the collection and editing of the ballads was Sir Walter Scott. By 1803 he had produced three volumes of his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. His intention was patriotic: 'By such efforts, feeble as they are, I may contribute somewhat to the history of my native country; the peculiar features of whose manners and character are daily melting and dissolving into those of her sister and ally [ie England].'

But the way Scott 'improved' the crude originals was sometimes controversial. The mother of the 'Ettrick Shepherd', writer James Hogg, rebuked Scott for his literary meddling with works held in the collective memory: There was never ane o' my sangs prentit till ye prentit them yoursel', an' ye hae spoilt them awethegither. They were made for singing and no for reading; but ye hae broken the charm now, an' they'll never be sung mair.'

Perhaps the best-known of all the reiving rogues to be celebrated by the bards was Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie near Canonbie. He was an out-and-out terrorist but in 'Johnie Armstrang' he is presented by his balladeering biographer as a hero who was shafted by a wily monarch. In 1530 King James V set out on a military campaign to the south-west, determined to make an example of the Gilnockie vagabond. According to the ballad, James 'wrytes a luving letter,/ With his ain hand sae tenderly' asking Johnnie to meet him at Caerlanrig in Teviotdale. Johnnie hopes to entertain the royal party:

'Make kinnen [rabbit] and capon ready then,
And venison in great plentie;
We'll wellcum here our royal King;
I hope he'll dine at Gilnockie!'

Johnnie is portrayed as being quite as grand as James:

When Johnie cam before the King,
Wi' a' his men sae brave to see,
The King he movit his bonnet to him;
He ween'd he was a King as well as he.

And Johnnie has certainly dressed for a noble part:

John wore a girdle about his middle,
Imbroidered ower wi' burning gold,
Bespangled wi' the same metal,
Maist beautiful was to behold.

Sensing danger, Johnnie starts to bargain for his survival, offering a wide choice of concessions but James is unyielding:

'Away, away, thou traitor strang!
Out o' my sight soon may'st thou be!
I grantit nevir a traitor's life,
And now I'll not begin wi' thee!'

Johnnie resorts to insulting the King:

'To seek het water beneith cauld ice,
Surely it is a greit folie -
I have asked grace at a graceless face,
But there is nane for my men and me!'

The gang-leader and his entourage (estimates vary from twenty-four to forty-eight) are hanged there and then. The balladeer insists on the illegality of their executions:

John murder'd was at Carlinrigg,
And all his gallant cumpanie;
But Scotland's heart was ne'er sae wae,
To see sae mony brave men die -

Because they saved their countrey deir
Frae Englishmen! Nane were sae bauld
While Johnie lived on the Border syde,
Nane of them durst cum neir his hauld.

The ballad 'Kinmont Willie' celebrates the audacious springing from jail of another infamous reiving warlord, William Armstrong of Kinmont. His exploits were on a grand scale. He would lead up to 400 men at a time on forays through the Debateable Land, bringing back thousands of cattle and sheep and usually leaving behind a few dead bodies on the other side. Successive Wardens of the Scottish West March (see below) protected him from English demands for his suppression. In 1596 the English Warden Lord Scrope lost patience and sent his deputy Thomas Salkeld to Liddesdale to capture him. Armstrong was brought back to Carlisle Castle and locked up.

O have ye na heard o' the fause Sakelde?
O have ye na heard o' the keen Lord Scroope?
How they hae ta'en bauld Kinmont Willie,
On Hairibee to hang him up?

Had Willie had but twenty men,
But twenty men as stout as he,
Fause Sakelde had never the Kinmont ta'en,
Wi' eight score in his cumpanie.

The laird of Buccleuch, Keeper of Liddesdale and another of Armstrong's patrons, retaliated by leading a contingent of his men to the castle and rescuing Armstrong as Scrope and Salkeld slept.

'Now sound out, trumpets!' quo' Buccleuch;
'Let's waken Lord Scroope, right merrilie!'
Then loud the warden's trumpet blew -
'O wha dare meddle wi' me?'

Then speedilie to work we gaed,
And raised the slogan ane and a',
And cut a hole thro' a sheet of lead,
And so we wan to the castle ha'.

They thought King James and a' his men
Had won the house wi' bow and spear;
It was but twenty Scots and ten,
That put a thousand in sic a stear!

Armstrong was soon back to his old tricks. Shortly before his death in 1603 he was reported to have 'spoiled' a couple of townships in Cumberland.

The official attempts to police this anarchic borderland through an arrangement of march wardens were hopelessly inadequate, even after the 1552 definition of where exactly the border was. The regimes of both Scotland and England had always found it virtually impossible to have an impact through direct rule. For England it was just too far away from the centre of authority, while Scotland was often more taken up with trying to enforce law and order on the even more recalcitrant highlands and western islands. So from the fourteenth century the two countries, in a rare example of working together, jointly devolved authority to a system of border officials.

The whole border area was divided vertically into three sectors: West, Middle and East. Each sector had matching Scottish and English marches, making a total of six, each with its own warden. In the Scottish West March there was an extra sub-division for Liddesdale, the valley of the Liddel Water that goes north-east from Dumfriesshire into Roxburghshire. Liddesdale had its own Keeper, who sometimes also acted as Warden of the Scottish West March.

These royal appointees were simultaneously cooperative and competitive. Each was expected to promote the interests of his own country but at the same time to respond to representations from their opposite numbers over incursions into their territory. From time to time there would be agreed truce days when officials from both sides met face-to-face to deal with each other's complaints. A common assembly-point for these cross-border conferences was the Clochmabenstane at Gretna.

There was just one problem: the system did not work. The wardens were not dispassionate men of principle but acquisitive local landowners with their own fierce loyalties. Almost invariably self-interest overwhelmed any commonality of cause. The cops were barely distinguishable from the robbers. Worst of all on the Scottish side was the native propensity for fighting amongst themselves.

The two Dumfriesshire families who were most notoriously gamekeepers and poachers were the Maxwells and the Johnstones. Mutual hatred had been endemic to the relationship between these Annandale clans for generations, a long-running feud that George MacDonald Fraser describes in his classic study of the reivers The Steel Bonnets (1971) as 'the bitterest and bloodiest family quarrel in British history'. During the sixteenth century the wardenship of the Scottish West March largely alternated between them. But, far from being guardians of the peace, they were centrally complicit in the general mayhem. It was not uncommon for one clan to send its private army into the territory of the other and raze to the ground every building in sight. The Johnstone men were celebrated in the ballad tradition as 'The Lads of Wamphray':

'Drive on, my Lads, it will be late;
We'll have a pint at Wamphray gate.
For where e'er I gang or e'er I ride,
The Lads o' Wamphray's on my side.
For of a' the Lads that I do ken,
The Lads o' Wamphray's King o' men.'

In 1593 the Maxwell/Johnstone feud erupted into a full-scale battle at Dryfe Sands near Lockerbie. A force of some 2000 men turned out for the Maxwells. The Johnstones were substantially out-numbered but they had placed themselves on high ground and when they charged downhill the Maxwell defence collapsed. Perhaps as many as 700 Maxwell men died. The hideous face-slashings to which some of the survivors were subjected gave rise to the phrase 'Lockerbie licks'. John Maxwell, the clan chief and sometime march warden, was killed in the fighting that continued the following day. Realising he was trapped, he reputedly put out a hand in a gesture of surrender but the opposition 'did cut af baith his hands, and careit the same with thayme on speir points, as a memorial of his perfidie, and for ostentatioun of their awin glore'.

The humiliation of Dryfe Sands was never forgotten and the next John Maxwell pursued the grievance. Knowing what a loose cannon the younger Maxwell was, the Scottish privy council attempted to forestall a bloody retaliation by ordering him to stay away from the south-west. But Maxwell was contemptuous of outside authority and the first phase of his retribution came in 1602 when he slayed a Johnstone of Eschieshields and burned alive another at Dalfibble near Parkgate. For his final act of revenge Maxwell pretended to be seeking a reconciliation and in 1608 arranged to have a meeting with James Johnstone, the victor on the day Maxwell's father had been killed. The meeting ended with Johnstone being shot in the back. Maxwell fled to France. His flight abroad was the subject of the ballad 'Lord Maxwell's Goodnight':

The wind was fair, the ship was clear,
The good lord went away;
And most part of his friends were there,
To give him a fair convey.
They drank the wine, they did na spair,
Even in that good lord's sight -
Sae now he's o'er the floods sae gray,
And Lord Maxwell has ta'en his Goodnight.

In his absence Maxwell was convicted of murder and treason and sentenced to death. He finally returned to Scotland in 1612, was arrested and the following year beheaded at the market cross of Edinburgh.

From time to time King James VI personally intervened in the affairs of the south-west in an attempt to get on top of the lawlessness. In 1597 he came to Dumfries and for four weeks presided over judicial proceedings during which he 'hangit fourteen or fifteen limmers [rogues] and notorious thieves' and took into custody several dozen representative hostages as surety against the future good behaviour of their clans. He left behind an aide to carry on the purge and in the course of the following few months several dozen more local brigands were hanged. But the criminality was still not contained.

It was only after 1603 when James succeeded Queen Elizabeth of England and became monarch of the whole of Britain that he finally gained sufficient authority to eradicate the reiving way of life once and for all. The border country was no longer peripheral to two separate countries but now central to the new unitary state. The flouting of the king's writ could no longer be tolerated. The pacification proceeded with ruthless efficiency.

James started by giving the area a change of image. The Marches were re-named the Middle Shires so that 'the verie hart of the cuntrey sall not be left in ane uncertaintie'. He then set about eliminating the men of violence with a determination that came close to brutality. In the first year of his British reign thirty-two rebels were executed, fifteen banished and forty outlawed. Lord Maxwell was not alone in having to say 'goodnight'.

A new Border Commission was established and authorised to use whatever means were required to eradicate the remaining nuisance. In 1609 a mass hanging took place in Dumfries. Hundreds of others were conscripted as mercenary fighters abroad. Transportation got rid of even more. A large contingent of Grahams was compulsorily re-located to Ireland. George MacDonald Fraser claims that the treatment of the Grahams in particular was 'one of the most comprehensive and cruel examples of race persecution in British history.' Dumfriesshire's borderland, however, was 'debateable' no longer.


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

Acknowledgements     XML Sitemap     HTML Sitemap     ROR Sitemap    
Copyright © Galloway Publishing 2012.    All rights reserved