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Issue 67 - Border Rieving

Scotland Magazine Issue 67
February 2013


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Border Rieving

James Irvine Robertson looks at one of the cross border feuds

In July 1592, Willie Johnstone stole a black horse from William Carmichael at Gretna on the Scottish side of the border with England. Carmichael's cousin was Sir John Carmichael who had recently resigned as Warden of Scotland's West March and he wrote to Willie's chief Sir James Johnstone asking that the horse be returned, which it was. But Willie now had no horse and a Borderer was nothing without a horse to carry him on raids. So he stole another, this time belonging to a Crichton. This annoyed them so they sought retribution against the Johnstones and in the ensuing skirmish 15 Crichtons were killed.

The Crichtons were allied with the Maxwells and to say that bad blood existed between the Maxwells and the Johnstones would be a gross understatement. The heads of the two families lived some 20 miles apart, the Johnstones at Lochwood Tower, Lord Maxwell at Caerlaverock Castle near Dumfries. Depending on the political seesaw in Edinburgh, each family often supplied Warden of the local West March.

There were three marches, each with a Warden on the English and Scottish sides of the border and they supposedly kept order. But the boundary was of little interest to the people who lived either side of it, any more than the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan is to the tribes there today. It was just as anarchic and brutal. Kinship links and alliances straddled the demarcation line. Blood feuds lasted generations. Theft, pillage, skirmishes and murder were constant. This bizarre situation was tacitly accepted in London and Edinburgh. It suited both governments to have a barbarous cordon sanitaire between them. Each side could recruit from amongst the most effective light cavalry in Europe when it suited them.

Lord Maxwell was the new Warden in the summer of 1592 and he had just entered an agreement with Sir James Johnstone to end their feud, but the widows of the 15 dead Crichtons paraded their bloody shirts through Edinburgh to shame the king into taking action. Maxwell was under pressure and he joined with the Crichtons, the Douglases, the Kirkpatricks and others in an army of some 2,000 men and marched under the royal banner to teach the Johnstones a lesson. But there were no secrets in the Borders and Sir James had warning that his enemies were coming.

He scoured the country for an army of his own, recruiting Englishmen as well as Irvines, Grahams, Eliots, Scotts and even an 11 year-old kinsman Robert Johnstone of Raecleuch. He gathered together a force less than half the size of the Warden's. Maxwell offered a reward of £10 for anyone one who brought him Sir James's head. Sir James made a counter offer for Maxwell's head, but could only afford a £5 bounty.

Maxwell marched towards Lockwood Tower with the intention of extirpating the whole clan. Johnstone’s men beat an advance party and killed their leader. The survivors sought shelter in Lochmaben kirk. It was set on fire and those inside were forced to surrender.

This was a set back, but the Warden's main force still outmatched the Johnstones and their allies and they set up camp a few miles south of Lockwood Tower. A contingent from went to burn a Johnstone tower house at Lockerbie. The next morning the invading army formed itself on the banks of the river Dryfe between Lochmaben and Lockerbie and moved out.

Johnstone concealed most of his men on high ground overlooking his enemies on the river. He led a few horsemen down to provoke them. Maxwell's vanguard took the bait and attacked them. Johnstone retreated, luring them in a running battle into his ambush. His men swooped down, smashed their way through the protective advance party and fell upon the main army. Constricted by its position by the river, it was thrown into confusion and routed. The slaughter continued through the streets of Lockerbie.Survivors of Maxwell's men suffered terrible face wounds caused by slashes from their mounted enemies. These became known as Lockerbie Licks. Upwards of 700 men were killed.

Maxwell himself tried to surrender but the hand he raised in appeal was hacked off. One version has the coup de grace being delivered by the wife of Johnstone of Kirkton, less than a mile north of Lockerbie, who beats out his brains with the key to her tower. Sir James is said to have fixed Maxwell's head and his hand to the battlements of his tower.

Since Maxwell was Warden of the West March and thus was representing the king, one would have thought that royal retribution would have swiftly followed. After all the battle took place only a decade before James succeeded to the throne of England as well as that of Scotland. But the extraordinary lawlessness of the Borders is shown by the appointment of Sir James Johnstone as Warden of the West March only four years later as commanding the only force capable of keeping any sort of order.

In April 1608, a meeting was arranged under truce between Sir James and the new Lord Maxwell to broker peace between the two families. Each man was only to take with him one attendant to minimise the risk of trouble. In spite of this a quarrel broke out between the two followers. Johnstone turned to sort it out; Maxwell drew a pistol and shot him in the back, killing him.

But James was now king of Great Britain and ruled on both sides of the border. Anarchy was being ruthlessly suppressed; those who perpetuated the traditional rieving culture were being hanged or deported en masse to Ireland. Maxwell was arrested, locked in Edinburgh Castle from where he escaped and fled abroad. He returned in 1612, was captured. On 21st May 1613 'John Lord Maxwell of Caerlaverock was taken from the tolbooth of Edinburgh to the market cross of the same, where, on a scaffold, he had his head chopped off his body for the slaughter of the Laird of Johnstone.'

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