Border Reiver, Clan Carruthers

Clan Carruthers: Anglo-Scottish Border Law – A brief Synopsis

A great piece from Anglo-Scottish Borderlands History 500-1603, taken from “Border Reivers from the 13th to the 17th centuries“. Shared by kind permission.

All Pics are from the original Post


Border Reivers at Hollows Tower. (Bill Ewart of Langholm.)

In the eleventh century the Border Line between England and Scotland was very different to that we know today.

In the east the Angles of Northumbria (originally from Germany who invaded following the departure of the Romans in the 5th century) held sway in the lands between the river Humber (Hull, south Yorkshire) and the river Forth (Edinburgh).

In the west the kingdom of Strathclyde Cumbria (Celtic then Scots) stretched from the head of Loch Lomond (north of Glasgow) to at least present day north Lancashire (Lancaster, England). There is, I believe, evidence that it might have even had its southern confines as far south as the river Mersey (Liverpool).

Thus in the west, what is now England was in the hands of the Scots; in the east what is now Scottish was English.

All this was to change.

In 1018 Malcolm 11 of the Scots invaded the lands of the Northumbrian kings in the east, defeated a great Angle army at Carham, now a village not far from Berwick, and claimed all the lands north of the river Tweed. Thus the Tweed became the Border Line.

In 1092 William Rufus, son of William the Bastard, Conqueror of England in 1066, marched from York, crossed the Pennine Hills and forced the Scots north and out of Cumbria. He dictated that lands south of the river Esk were now English.

Thus a Border Line was created by force. Diplomacy and agreement did not enter the reckoning. The creation would bring strife and confrontation to the peoples who lived north and south of the new divide.

A century and a half later this Border Line was ratified at the Treaty of York in 1237. There, Alexander 11, king of Scots and Henry 111, king of England, agreed the line of the Border. Hope that the line of demarcation would bring order and organisation, understanding and tolerance were high on the agenda at York but the deliberations and agreement did little to settle the people who lived each side of its confines. On both sides of the Line they still contested every inch of ground, fought over land which had previously been shared: the pasture, forest or crop growing soil of their forebears. The dictates of kings who were merely bywords in their daily lives, had changed the relationship for all time.

By 1249 the strife and confrontation had reached such a pitch that Henry 111 sent twenty-four knights of England to meet with an equal number of their Scottish counterparts at the Border Line. His dictate was that the line should be ‘perambulated’, walked, viewed and agreed. Moreover,he determined, they would agree certain laws which would appertain to both peoples, both English and Scots.

Both England and Scotland had their own legal systems by this time and what held good for one might not for the other. The Border Laws were an attempt to remedy this situation by creating an international law. It was to apply to the English and Scots who lived in the country directly to the north and south of the Border Line. (The modern day counties of Cumbria and Northumberland in England, to the south, and the Borders of Scotland to the north: Dumfriesshire, Selkirkshire, Roxburgh District and Berwickshire).

The River Tweed at Coldstream. Anglo-Scottish Border (East March)

I am not an academic and I am still endeavouring to understand the Border Laws in their intricacy and depth. I have a lot still to learn about the differences between Scots and English law as it was applied in the thirteenth century. Yet, should I try to put myself in the place of a man living on the Border in either country, I think I might be able to understand the problems that confronted his daily life and the frustrations that the existing laws of the country might experience.

A little scenario:

A man from England crosses the river Esk into Scotland and cuts wood. He needs wood for building, for fuel. He needs a house, he needs to keep warm. He is cutting wood in the same forests that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather did before the formulation of the Border Line in 1237. He re-crosses the Esk, back into England and puts the fruits of his labour to work. He sees no wrong in what he has done, neither do his neighbours, nor the English fraternity in general. In England there is no law on the statutes that can challenge his actions, nor charge him with breaking the Law. He was in Scotland.

In Scotland there is resentment, fury. Should the Englishman endeavour to repeat his actions at a later date he might just be caught and suffer for his temerity. Death might even be the outcome in the heat of the confrontation but who on the Scots side of the Border would ‘shop’ the Scot who dealt the fatal blow? How would Scot’s Law deal with this should they even know of the encounter?

The River Esk at Canonbie, Dumfriesshire,  Scotland. Anglo-Scottish Border (West)

And so the Border Laws were formulated, the Border country divided into administrative sections known as Marches: West, Middle and East on each side of the Border, and men responsible for the maintenance of law and order, the March Wardens, put in place.

Just looking back on the fiery and aggressive meeting between the knights of England and Scotland in 1249, it is as well to consider, even though they argued about the line of the Border, that they put certain laws in place. Their considerations of the new Laws were based on observation and the experience of the years that had elapsed since the Border Line had been agreed.

In the wonderful verbiage of the thirteenth century, their main concerns were ‘wanton disregard and prejudice’: the Border Line was ignored, justice for crime was prejudiced because of the differences in English and Scots Law. They then considered the crimes that were rife and formulated the new laws, the international laws that would apply.

Between 1249 and 1596 these laws would be added to and amended many times as in any society that becomes slowly more sophisticated but here I give the original laws that stated that the following were crime:

The pasturing of cattle in the opposite realm.

•Ploughing and sowing corn in the opposite realm.

•Felling timber in the opposite realm.

•Hunting game in the opposite realm.

•Receiving cattle or goods.


•Wounding and maiming.


Moreover, our illustrious knights who included the Sheriff of Northumberland on the English side and the Justiciar of Lothian on the Scots decided that felons should be brought to ‘knowledge of Marche’, in other words to the very Border Line for trial, in the open. Justice for a Scotsman could still be ‘prejudiced’ in an English court and likewise for an Englishman in Scotland. A court at the very Border Line was viewed as impartial. The judicial meeting held there, presided over by the March Wardens of both the relevant English and Scottish Marches would become known as the ‘Day of Truce’

I’m sure I have more to say on the subject of the Border Laws, their relative effectiveness, their updates and their demise. I will deal with these later. Hope what I have said so far is of interest.

Peter Graham

Clan Carruthers Society WP footnote grey

1 thought on “Clan Carruthers: Anglo-Scottish Border Law – A brief Synopsis”

  1. You did not ask permission to use this, my blogpost, in your post nor the photographs that are contained within it. They are also mine. Please take it down. I have permission to use Bill Ewart’s paintings, you don’t.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.