Border Reivers

Law and Order

During periods of nominal peace, a special body of customary law, known as Border Law, grew up to deal with the situation. Under Border Law, a person who had been raided had the right to mount a counter-raid within six days, even across the border, to recover his goods. This was known as Hot Trod and had to proceed with “hound and horne, hew and cry”, making a racket and carrying a piece of burning turf on a spear point to openly announce their purpose, to distinguish themselves from unlawful raiders proceeding covertly. They might use a sleuth hound (also known as a “slew dogge”) to follow raiders’ tracks. These dogs were valuable, and part of the established forces (on the English side of the border, at least). Any person meeting this counter-raid was required to ride along and offer such help as he could, on pain of being considered complicit with the raiders. The Cold Trod mounted after six days required official sanction. Officers such as the Deputy Warden of the English West March had the specific duty of “following the trod”.

Both sides of the border were divided into Marches, each under a March Warden. The March Wardens’ various duties included the maintenance of patrols, watches and garrisons to deter raiding from the other kingdom. On occasions March Wardens could make Warden Roades to recover loot, and to make a point to raiders and officials. The March Wardens also had the duty of maintaining such justice and equity as was possible. The respective kingdoms’ March Wardens would meet at appointed times along the border itself to settle claims against people on their side of the border by people from the other kingdom. These occasions, known as “Days of Truce”, were much like fairs, with entertainment and much socializing. For Reivers it was an opportunity to meet (lawfully) with relatives or friends normally separated by the border. It was not unknown for violence to break out even at such truce days.

March Wardens (and the lesser officers such as Keepers of fortified places, such as the Keeper of Liddesdale at Hermitage Castle) were rarely effective at maintaining the law. The Scottish Wardens were usually borderers themselves, and were complicit in riding. They almost invariably showed favour to their own kindred, which caused jealousy and even hatred among other Scottish border families. Many English officers were from southern counties in England and often could not command the loyalty or respect of their locally-recruited subordinates or the local population. Local officers such as Sir John Forster, who was Warden of the Middle March for almost 35 years, became quite as well known for venality as his most notorious Scottish counterparts.

By the death of Elizabeth I of England, there was an especially violent outbreak of raiding known as “Ill Week”, resulting from the convenient belief that the laws of a kingdom were suspended between the death of a sovereign and the proclamation of the successor. Upon his accession to the English throne, James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England) moved hard against the reivers, abolishing Border Law and the very term “Borders” in favour of “Middle Shires,” and dealing out stern justice to Reivers.