© 2007-2014 Clan Thompson

Borderlands and the Law
Reprinted with permission of the author
Sean Barbour

The Monarchs (of Scotland and England) helped to develop the concept of a Borderland, as each attempted to set up an area to act as a bulwark against intrusions from the other. It was also in their interests to foment discontent in the border region of each other's country. It was not, however, in their own interests to have lawlessness inside their own kingdoms. In 1249, in an attempt to produce a semblance of order in this extraordinary Borderland region, the governments of the two countries came to an agreement whereby special laws would be developed, on both sides of the Border. These laws, known as the Leges Marchiarum, the Laws of the Marches, would be peculiar to the Border and would not be enforced in other parts of the country. To enable the administration of these laws the Borderland was to be split into six regions, known as Marches, three on each side of the Border.

The Marches were arranged along geographical lines - an English West,  Middle and East March and its corresponding equivalent on the Scottish side, with its own West, Middle and East Marches. The Marches were not of the same size, the East Marches of both countries being smaller than the others.  Like the East Marches, the West Marches were better farmland than the Middle Marches and, given that they lay astride the main route were taken by invading armies as they entered each other’s country, they were better defended in terms of large, powerful castles such as Carlisle in the English West march, Caerlaverock and Lochmaben in the Scottish West March and Berwick in the English East March.

The Middle Marches were dominated by the wild, hilly country of the Cheviot and North Pennine Hills. This land gave the Reiver free rein to ride, through its passes and mosses and over its fells, on raids against targets on either side of the border and so the Middle Marches tended to see the worst of the lawlessness.  

The Scottish East March consisted of Berwick (until, after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing this was subsumed into England in 1482) and the fertile area known as "The Merse" i.e. the Eastern portion of Berwickshire. The Scottish Middle March was made up of the county of Roxburghshire and the remaining part of Berwickshire. Kelso, Hawick and Jedburgh (Jeddart) being the principal towns. The Scottish West March extended from the "Debateable Land" (see below) as far west as the River Cree in Galloway, taking in the Stewartries of Kirkcudbrightshire and Annandale plus the valley of Nithsdale encompassing the town of Dumfries with its Sheriffdom.

The English East March, like its equivalent March over the Border, was the smallest, consisting of the north-eastern part of Northumberland. It was governed from Berwick, which was pivotal in the defence of this the eastward corridor between Scotland and England used by invading armies. In reiving terms, however, it was more raided against than raiding, so to speak (again like its Scottish equivalent). The Middle March encompassed the areas of Coquetdale, Redesdale and Tynedale and so contained some of the worst elements on the English side of the Border. It was administered from Alnwick castle with garrisons kept at Chipchase and Harbottle. The English West March consisted of the counties of Cumberland and Westmorland with their good agricultural land in the low-lying areas bordering the Solway. Edging on to the Debateable Land and Liddesdale they presented a prime target yet the Middle March tended to suffer more from the raids of the Western reivers. One reason for this was the presence of Carlisle, England's bastion in the west, mirroring that of Berwick in the east. Again, because of its strategic position as an inter-national invasion route, it was more strongly defended, with its great castle at Carlisle, as the hub of the area and with garrisons at Bewcastle and Rockcliffe.

Two areas of the Borders were special in that they were so lawless that special measures had to be taken over them. The first is a strip of land barely 4 miles wide and 12 long running roughly along the line dividing the Scottish and English West Marches. This was the Debateable Land. Called 'Debateable' because of the dispute in its ownership between the two countries. This was due to the fact that the area had originally been part of Scotland, until wrested from her by force by William Rufus (William II, son of the Conqueror). It became a source of annoyance and irritation to both countries, due to the activities of those living there. Neither country would take responsibilty for those living there and so it became, in effect, a lawless area.

Such an inviting area soon became a magnet for the worst elements and riff-raff of the Border, mainly Grahams, Littles, Bells and elements of the Armstrongs, and so great was the amount of trouble its inhabitants caused that the Wardens of the West Marches eventually issued a decree which said that anyone could steal the goods, including livestock, of anyone living there or even kill any of the inhabitants with impunity. There would be no law to protect the lawless elements who chose to live there. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Even a general devastation of the area in 1551, by the Scottish Warden Lord Maxwell, failed to deter the hard men (and women) who chose to live there. Eventually, in 1552, both countries called for arbitration and the French Ambassador was brought in to decide where the line of the Border should be placed. Although he gave the lion's share of it to Scotland (which is hardly surprising given that the Scots and French were allies against the English) the English did not demur - possibly since administration of the worst part of the area would now land Scots. If they wanted the land they could have all the responsibilities that went with it. To mark the Border a ditch was dug, with the spoil being used to form a bank. This still exists, and to this day is called the Scots Dyke and still marks the line of the Border. (CTS note: The Thomsons were included in those listed with Lord Maxwell, the Bells, Armstrongs, etc. in the Scottish Parliament Act of December 1585)

The second area was a valley which rivalled the Deabateable Land for the debateable and decidedly dubious nature of those who lived there. Liddesdale was originally part of the Scottish Middle March, but such was its lawlesness that it became a separate administrative area. A sub-Warden, known as the Keeper of Liddesdale, was appointed. The onerous task facing him can be estimated from the fact that when William Kerr of Cessford became Warden of the Middle March and Keeper his salary as Warden was £Scots100 (about £20 sterling) and as Keeper was £Scots500. The valley was the base of operations for the Armstrongs, together with the other major family with whom they shared it, the Elliots and the other smaller families associated with them the Nixons and the Crosers. The valley was ideally suited to raiding in the English West and Middle Marches, or the Scots equivalent as well since reivers were never fussy as to which side they stole from.

A castle, called Hermitage, had been built here in the 13th century to block the advance of anyone attempting to enter Scotland by force of arms through the back door, as it were. It was extensively re-built in the late 1300s and was fought over by both Scots and English so that additional fortifications were continuously built around the core until it reached its final form in 1540. The Douglases and the Bothwells are among the families who were its tenants, and it eventually became the headquarters of the Keeper of Liddesdale.  

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