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Issue 34 - The Border Reivers

Scotland Magazine Issue 34
August 2007


This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The Border Reivers

More than 300 years of theft, skirmish and plunder has left its mark on the Border lands. Jessie Anderson follows the Reiver Trail

Today the border dividing England and Scotland runs through one of the most tranquil areas of Britain. But step back a few centuries and you will find a very different scene. For this is the Debatable Land – home to the notorious Border Reivers and, from the 14th to the mid- 17th centuries, one of the most lawless regions in the country.

It was an area which neither the English nor the Scottish authorities could control and which owed allegiance to neither (hence the term ‘debatable’).

Here families lived by thieving and plunder (or reiving); stealing their neighbour’s cattle and having their own stock stolen in return. When the steelhelmeted Reivers rode abroad on their tough, little ponies, usually in the dark nights of winter, they spread destruction and terror, taking or destroying not only property but sometimes the lives of their victims, leaving ‘bereaved’ families in their wake and thereby contributing a new word to the language.

Much reiving activity took place on both sides of the border, with the Scots stealing from the English and vice versa. But Scottish reiver families happily attacked and stole from each other without feeling the need to cross the border.

Their exploits so outraged an early Archbishop of Glasgow that he gave vent to one of the most comprehensive curses ever recorded. In all it ran to more than 1500 words, which had absolutely no effect on those Border ruffians but must have made His Grace feel a lot better.

King James VI of Scotland had usually turned a blind eye to the lawless antics on the edge of his kingdom but, in 1603 when he became James I of England, he could no longer ignore the reivers’ threat to the peace of an area which was now at the centre of his new kingdom. So the ‘pacification’ of the Borders began and, with it, the demise of the reivers.

The leading law-breakers – the Armstrongs, Elliots, Grahams, Littles and many others were rounded up. Some were killed, some sent to Northern Ireland, others to fight in Europe. And peace came to the Borders, but not before much blood had been spilled and much suffering endured.

The surnames of the Reiver families – and there are more than 70 of them from Archibold and Armstrong to Yarrow and Young – are now among the most respected and distinguished of all Border names. People from all over the world visit the various heritage centres in the Borders eager to claim kinship with their notorious forebears.

Today you can take a well sign-posted Reiver Trail through the Borders either by downloading information from the internet at:, or with the help of a leaflet The Reiver Trail available from Tullie House Museum in Carlisle or from the various visitor and heritage centres in the area.

Commencing at Longtown, 10 miles north of Carlisle on the edge of the Debatable Land, the round trail is about 55 miles. Head first for Rowanburn, birthplace of Lang Sandy Armstrong. It is also the place where he was hanged along with – unbelievably – his 11 sons. Alife-sized carved wooden statue of Lang Sandy dominates the scene.

From here the trail leads north to Tourneyholme where, in a field at Kershopefoot, the local wardens from both sides of the border met to sort out disputes and exchange prisoners.

At such times a ‘day of truce’ was declared, but sometimes the truce was broken, as it was in 1596 when the notorious Reiver, Kinmont Willie Armstrong, was unfairly captured not far from Tourneyholme and imprisoned by the English in Carlisle Castle from which he was speedily rescued by Scott of Buccleuch, another famous Reiver.

Next stop on the trail is the 8ft high Milnholm Cross, the oldest relic of the Armstrong Clan. The monument commemorates the death of an Armstrong laird who was killed at Hermitage Castle in an act of unmitigated treachery by the castle owner, Lordde Soules.

The trail now heads for Newcastleton in Liddesdale, deep in the heart of Reiver country. Here the Elliots, ‘the thieves of Liddesdale,’ dominated the area from their strongholds in Larriston, Redheugh and Stobs. Along with the Armstrongs, they brought mayhem and slaughter to the whole region. It was a dangerous place for the traveller. “Are there no Christians to be found?” one asked. “No,” came the reply.

“We are only Elliots and Armstrongs.” The trail next leads to the great Castle of Hermitage, ‘the strength of Liddesdale,’ home in the 13th century to the wicked Lord de Soules. Now roofless and windswept it is still a magnificent and menacing sight, now mainly remembered as the trysting place for Queen Mary of Scotland and her lover, the Earl of Bothwell.

From Hermitage, the trail continues north to Carlenrig where the notorious Reiver, Johnny Armstrong of Gilnockie, met his death at the hands of James V of Scotland.

Johnny was becoming too powerful for the king’s liking. James invited him to a meeting in the churchyard at Carlenrig, but when he arrived the only welcome was a noose already hanging from a tree. Johnny pleaded for his life and swore he never robbed in Scotland. All to no avail. He was hanged there in the kirkyard.

From Carlenrig the trail turns south for Langholm and the Armstrong Trust Museum – a splendid resource centre for those seeking their ancestral links.

A little further south at Hollows is Gilnockie Tower, the reputed home of the famous – or infamous – Reiver, Johnny Armstrong. This is a splendidly preserved example of a Reiver’s tower house. Strong and dignified in its pastoral setting, it recalls a past of ruthless cruelty and bloodshed. But there were also brief interludes of calm when life was pleasant and peaceful. Hunting, horse-racing and football were popular. At one football match it is recorded that the score was two dead and 30 prisoners.

Today Reivers’ names appear as leading players in many walks of life, including that of the first man to walk on the moon who was, as the Armstrongs are happy to remind us, one of their number.

How to get there and where to stay
Carlisle, the nearest major city to the Reiver country, is a main railway junction for trains from both north and south.

From Carlisle there are bus, but no rail, links to Longtown. By road Longtown is on the A7, 10 miles north of Carlisle.

There is a wide range of accommodation available throughout the area, from hotels to B&B and self-catering. Accommodation information is available from Longtown Market Town Initiative on +44 (0)1228 792 778, and from Dumfries and Galloway Tourist Information Centre on +44 (0)1387 380 976

Were your ancestors reivers?
To check if yours is a Reiver name, visit Carlisle’s
Tullie House Museum which also has leaflets, maps,
books and DVDs on the Reivers:
There’s also a Reiver check list at the Clan
Armstrong Museum or you can e-mail:
Helen Sykes, programme manager of Longtown
Market Town Initiative, is keen to hear from people
wishing to register an interest in Reiver ancestry
research. E-mail her at:
For further information on the Debatable Lands visit:
For an in-depth study of the Reivers and their place
in Border history, read The Steel Bonnets by George
MacDonald Fraser

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