Border Reivers – the ‘Great Cause’

In 1286 Alexander lll of Scotland died when his horse was blown over a cliff whilst on his way to Kinghorn in Fife on a stormy gale-strewn night. He was on his way to see his new wife, his second wife, Yolande de Dreux. So ended what is sometimes known as Scotland’s Golden Age: an age when peace reigned between Scotland and its southern neighbour England and the country prospered as a result.

Alexander had been a good king and, for the most part, was friendly with his English counterpart, Edward I. Indeed his first wife, who had died, was Edward’s sister.

Edward had often demanded fealty from Alexander. He viewed England as the superior race, but he declined forcing the Scottish king to bend to his will. Such was their friendship, cemented by the ties of marriage.

Unfortunately for Scotland, Alexander’s children, two sons and a daughter had predeceased him. One of his sons died at the age of nine, the other on his twentieth birthday. He left as his heir a granddaughter Margaret, known to us as the Maid of Norway. She was the child of the marriage of Alexander’s daughter, also Margaret and now dead, and the King of Norway.

The Community of the Realm which, following Alexander’s death, ruled Scotland through six guardians, was keen to safe-guard the minority of the Maid and thus ensure her succession to the Scottish Crown.

In negotiations with the English king the young girl, about six or seven years old, was promised in marriage to Edward’s infant son, the future Edward ll. To the Scots it was a move which sought to maintain the peace which the country had enjoyed during the lifetime of Alexander lll; to Edward l a means by which he would eventually achieve total domination of his northern neighbour. The agreement was ratified at the Treaty of Birgham.

However Margaret died in Orkney on her way to Scotland from Norway in 1290, some say of seasickness. Her death put an end to any alliance of the two countries by marriage and any consideration that Edward had for the Scots as an independent nation.

It is not known how Edward l became involved in the succession for the throne of Scotland but he was seen by the Scots to be a man who could be trusted to make the right decision. Why should they question his involvement? To that time he had always treated the Scots with fairness. More-over he was well respected. He had the authority, the reason, the power and persuasion. He was perceived as a man with a formidable legal mind, the best in Europe it is said. He would sort the wheat from the chaff and chose the rightful successor from the thirteen claimants, the ‘Competitors’, who now squared up to each other in their quest to become the king of Scotland.

Edward’s involvement would, however, come at a considerable cost. He demanded that the Scots accept that England was superior to Scotland and that he was its Overlord. Indeed before he would begin his deliberations on who should be king he had demanded fealty from the Scottish lords. Most had accepted his dictates, the Bruce included, and signed what are now known as the Ragman Rolls which still exist. One name missing from the Roll is that of Wallace, synonymous now with ‘Braveheart’, a name that would resound throughout the lands of Scotland within a few short years.

Edward, satisfied that he was about to gain more than a foothold for the Plantagenet dynasty in the lands north of the Border, gathered the thirteen claimants at Norham Castle.

Norham Castle

Norham Castle

The deliberations on who should be king lasted nigh on two years. They would become known as the ‘Great Cause’.

Both countries would suffer as a result.

The two main ‘Competitors’ for the throne of Scotland were the families of de Brus and Balliol. Eventually Edward chose John Balliol as the Scottish King. He would become a mere ‘puppet’ in Edward’s hands and eventually rebel in late 1295. In that year Edward demanded fealty from Balliol; demanded that he join the English in their wars in France. It was a move to far for Balliol; As king of Scotland he would not be treated as an ordinary English Baron whose lands were held at the behest of the King. He made an alliance with the French and invaded northern England.

The English Border people were savaged by the Scottish attacks into their lands. Not suspecting any inroads from the north, their lands were devastated by the Scots; crops and houses burned, both people and animals butchered in the merciless acts of retribution from the humiliated Scottish king.

Edward l Monument at Burgh by Sands, Cumbria

Edward l Monument at Burgh by Sands, Cumbria

Edward’s response was quick and savage. At Easter 1296 he invaded Berwick, then in Scottish hands, and put all to the sword it is said. Tytler, a historian, tells us that 17000 folk lost their lives in the English attack on Berwick. Men women and children, he said, were put to the sword. Whilst this is not true, the population of Berwick in 1296 would be little more than 500, it is an indictment of Edward l’s policy of Scottish domination, that he was utterly ruthless in his treatment of the people of Berwick: people who, for the most-part were not in a position to defend themselves.

River Tweed

River Tweed

Thus began the Scottish Wars of Independence with the emergence of William Wallace (Braveheart) and Robert the Bruce.

The Wars would last, off and on, for 250 years.

The people on both sides of the English Scottish Border would suffer untold loss for their birthright. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Vast armies of English or Scots would lay waste the lands that they inhabited; their houses, harvests and beasts were razed, burned or stolen to satisfy the hatred of the soldiers of a foreign nation or fill the bellies of an army on the move.

The Border folk lost life, limb and loved one in the relentless surge for domination and were left destitute of the basic needs of life and living.

They were nothing if not hard and obdurate and they reacted in the only way left open to them in such dire circumstances. They stole where they could, be it from erstwhile friend on the same side of the Border Line or enemy on the other.

The Borderer became the Border Reiver. His dominance of the English-Scottish Border lands would last for centuries as feud, blood-feud, murder, death and extortion and blackmail would become the norm; a result of allegiance to the only people he could trust – his clan or family. It seemed, for centuries, that there was no answer to his disreputable activities.

In 1603, the Union of the two crowns of England and Scotland would eventually bring a form of peace to a troubled land. The two nations would be united under one King, James VI of Scotland and l of England. The Border Line from the Solway Firth in the west to the North Sea at Berwick in the east would still exist, indeed it still does to this day, but it would no longer divide two peoples.

The Border country became the Middle Shires of a new United Kingdom.

The Border Reivers were summarily executed, transported to the bogs of Roscommon in Ireland or conscripted to the protestant Low Countries in their fight against catholic Spain. They would slowly disappear from the landscape.

It would take another century but peace would eventually reign in the lands of the Scottish English Border.

The Statue of Robet the Bruce at Bannockburn

The Statue of Robet the Bruce at Bannockburn


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