Border Reiver, Clan Carruthers

Clan Carruthers: Reivers, our history


REIVE: Vb. (Military) (intr) dialect Scot and Northern English; to rob or plunder, to go on a plundering raid.

Reivers is the name given to those clans and families on both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border who lived, loved and died from the late 13th century to the 17th century in one of the most lawless areas in British history. Cattle rustling, feuding, arson, murder, pillaging, kidnapping, extortion and robbery were commonplace and a way of life.

West March mapThe Reivers homeland’s fell into three regional areas, which covered both sides of the borders. These were known as the Marches and were defined by West, Middle and East and by the country in which they sat e.g. English East March to the south east of the border and the Scottish West March to the northwest. These regions and the lawlessness basically came to an end, just after the Union of the Crowns in 1707 and become known as the Middle Shires. This came about through the unification of Scotland and England by James VI of Scotland who was to become James I of the united kingdom’s or as it was to be known; Great Britain.

Newer version:The country in which they lived and the loyalty to the same, did not supersede the loyalty they felt towards their own blood, and in some cases a ‘Name’ would be represented in both Scotland and England.

It is recorded that at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, an observer (William Patten) noticed that the Scottish and English borderers were talking to each other in the midst of battle, and on being spotted by their officers, only put on a show of fighting each other.

Reivers fighting as levied soldiers played extremely important parts at the battles of Flodden Field and Solway Moss. When fighting as part of larger English or Scottish armies, Borderers were known to be difficult to control as many had relatives on both sides of the border, This was despite laws forbidding cross-border marriage. They could therefore claim to be of either nationality, describing themselves as; Scottish if forced, English at will and a Reiver by the grace of blood. They were badly behaved in camp, frequently plundered for their own benefit instead of obeying orders, and there were always questions about how loyal they were to the leaders or the cause.

Life wasn’t easy for them, the lands they lived on were harsh and made worse due to the constant war between the two countries. This was especially in and around the West March. Reiving therefore became the norm by which the family were fed, a necessity that turned into a way of life. It is interesting to note that those involved in reiving crossed the full class spectrum, from great landowners carrying titles, to the common farm labourer, as both were as skilled as the other when it came to horsemanship.

As soldiers, the Border Reivers were considered among the finest light cavalry in all of Europe. It is reported that after meeting one Reiver (the Bold Buccleugh), Queen Elizabeth I is quoted as having said, “with ten thousand such men, James (VI) could shake any throne in Europe.”

iu-11.jpegReivers also served as mercenaries, or were forced to serve in English and Scots armies in the Low Countries and in Ireland. Such service was often handed down as a penalty in lieu of that of death upon their families. They were used in many cases also for their skills in guerrilla warfare, which at least on their home ground, was based on their local knowledge of the highways and byways of the land in which they existed.

iu-2 copy 2.jpegThe horse of choice and now extinct was small, sturdy and fast. The ‘hobbler’ as they were called, had superb manoeuvrability and turns of speed. If Carruthers were ever to have a ‘clan’ horse, or in fact any other Reiver family, it would have been this. Some have suggested that the hobbler used by the Reivers, was in fact the Irish ‘hobelar’, however there are others who suggest it was a distinct breed taken from the Galloway Pony, which, originated from the neighbouring shire.

Border Collie

As an aside, there is a misconception that ‘Border Collies’, were used by the reivers and in fact our own family. These dogs originated in Northumberland and were bred to herd sheep and cattle, but only from the late 1800’s, long after the reivers were history. The Collie breed come from a sire called ‘old Hemp’ who was bred from two existing sheepdogs of the time and is claimed that he was progenitor of the Border Collie. 

Modern bloodhound running

It is of course more than possible and in fact highly likely, that our family used different breeds of dogs to hunt and to herd, as well as to track down other reivers or outlaws. The latter of course was known to be the now extinct ‘sleuth hound’ (slewe dogge), a Scottish canine, which looked a bit like the English Bloodhound, but with differences. These dogs were originally bred for hunting deer and boar but since the Middle ages, people.   It was this dog that it is chronicled as having been used to hunt both Sir Willam Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

However, there is really no such thing as a ‘Clan Dog’ as some would incorrectly claim and most certainly not in our family.

Reiver Clothing and Weapons

220px-Late-medieval_jack,_National_Museum_of_Scotland_collection.jpgiu-10Progressively, one part of the Reiver attire was what was to become their tag line; the steel bonnet. This was accompanied by a quilted leather jacket, which was worn high on the neck, called a Jack or brigandean. The Jack was further reinforced by metal plates or pieces of horn stitched between the linings.  This offered a lighter and more flexible alternative to chainmail, important for light cavalry, which offered some protection against a lance or sword but less so against a musket or pistol shot. It is said that in some old sales inventories, that a good jack would be worth as much as a good horse.

Reivers NEVER, ever wore kilts, nor in fact tartan as a sign of family and it was only in the early 1800’s that any tartan was ‘registered’ against the name of a border family, that being Armstrong. They did however wear close fitting, thick, naturally oiled woollen breeches with a cod piece over the groin for added protection. As riding families, they wore leather thigh high riding boots, again offering some protection in any conflict.

iu-9.jpegTheir weapons of choice, excluding the ‘Lang Spear or Pricker’ which they were famous for, were either rapiers if one could afford them, or back swords made in the cavalry style. Both of these were usually foreign made and passed from one generation to the next. The sword would normally have been used in the right hand while the left held a dagger called a ‘main gauche’, the hilt being designed to protect against and lock an attacking blade.

The move away from the heavier broad swords was progressive and specific to the change in fighting styles, both on and off the horse. No longer were heavy weapons needed to deal with the heavier armour so lighter styles came into play.

Not all chose swords and/or prickers, some chose the jeddart axe, a type of polearm weapon with a glaive like blade on the end. In the latter stages crossbows, pistols and muskets were used by those who could afford them.

Reiving therefore, was not specifically the Scots against the English, but also Scots against Scots, and English against English. It was simply a way of life for the border clans where alliances and allegiances to include those between the English and Scots themselves, were in some cases as fluid as the rivers that ran through the countryside.

Because of their constant preparedness for war and their knowledge of the terrain, any reive/raid would have been planned with military precision. This would be whether small incursions of hours or long raids of many days, going deep into the territories of their chosen victims. For many years, the governments of both countries, attempted to establish law and order under the direction of the Wardens of the Marches, but politics, family ties and allegiances played their role.

Some borderers do not enjoy by classed as clans as they see that collective term, which was historically interchangeable throughout Scotland to describe family groups, as being used by the ‘rough uncouth highlanders’ in the north. Yet the life of the Reiver was no less violent or lawless. Both the Highlanders and Borderers were subject to ‘clearances”, both fought for their blood kin before country and both were considered troublesome by the Scottish Crown. The latter of which led to the Unruly Clans Act of 1587, naming both Highland and Island Clans and Border Clans of the West and Middle Marches. Conversly to this however, was that the Reivers were seen as a solid barrier against English insurgency, especially up the west coast and into and through the West March. Tjhis led them to be seen on occasions as a necessary evil by the Scottish Crown.

Carruthers, the Reivers:

 tartan and reiver .jpgAccepting yDNA testing can only go back 1000 years or so, to mirror the onset of surnames in Scotland, and accepting Carruthers is a topographical name first recorded in the 12th century, we are lucky enough to have recorded evidence of who and what we are. We can therefore say, with total conviction, that Carruthers are a Scottish Border Reiver Clan and Family, having been in and around the area known as Carruthers for many centuries.

As far back as 1398, Sir John of Carruthers appeared as a bond to Douglas along with other knights such as Sir John of Johnston, Sir John of Carlisle, Sir William Stewart of Castlemilk as well as some others for breaking their bonds with the King, through the act of reiving.

In 1535, according to the ‘charge sheets’, Robert Carruthers was part of a raid led by Thomas of Mangerton, of Clan Armstrong and denounced as a rebel for ‘riding under the cover of night’ on John Cockburn of Ormiston to the East of Edinburgh. This was a fair trek on horseback in those days yet they took 70 oxen and 30 cows, while stripping three hostages of their clothes, purses and money. As one would suspect, this was all taken as ‘breaking the bonds made to the King’ and thus a criminal offence.

What began and continued through the existence of the House of Mouswald up to July 1548, was continued by the new chiefly line; John the 5th of the House of Holmains, and of course their cadet lines.

IMG_0354In 1607, John Carruthers of Holmends (Holmains), was part of a group ‘confined or removed from their present homes’ by the Border Commissioners and was sent to St Andrews in Fife.

Amongst those ‘named’ as the ‘last of the border backguards’ in 1618, which records show they weren’t to be, were listed William Carruthers of Danebie (Denbie) and his son John. It seems that throughout the 300 plus years of the tumultuous Reiver history, Carruthers appeared quite a bit through the list of ‘pledges’ for their deeds.  In 1623, Tom Carruthers in Mutham, was hanged for reiving along with members of other Reiver families such as the Elliots, Bells and Johnstons.

In fact, as previously alluded to, Carruthers still remained on the wanted list in 1642. The names of George Carruthers, Ludovic Carruthers of Wormibie and John ‘Jock” Carruthers of Raffles were listed as some of the most notorious, still being sought by the law at that time.

There is a great possibility therefore that all ten Chiefs of Carruthers of Mouswald were Reivers, and probably a large percentage of the House of Holmains culminating in John the 8th whose second wife was the sister of the first Earl of Queensbury. His grandson John the 9th, who succeeded his grandfather in 1659, was the Chief who moved the seat of the clan from Holmains to Kirkwood and registered the Chiefly arms with the Crown after the Lyon Act in 1672. These Arms have always remained the property of the Chief of our clan, and are currently held by Simon Peter Carruthers of Holmains.

The Act of Unruly Clans

Reiver Marches.jpgOne cannot talk about the reivers without mentioning the ‘Act’. The Act of 1587 names Carruthers as a ‘clan headed by a Chief’ as even before the 16th century, the appellation “Clan” began to be used by the authorities to describe Scottish family units in other than the Highlands. The list under “Elleventh Parliament of King James the Sext, xxix of Juli, 1587,” gives the name of the Clan and indicates that the Carruthers were under Patriarchal Chiefs rather than Feudal Superiors and this was taken into account in August of 2019, when the Lord Lyon confirmed our Chief, the most senior descendant of the House of Holmains.

The Act was passed “for the quieting and keeping in obedience of the disorderit and subjectis inhabitants of the Borders, Highlands and Isles” and contains “The Roll of the Names of the Landislords and Baillies of Landes dwelling on the Bordoures and in the Hielandes, quhair broken men hes dwelt and presently dwellis. To the quhilk Roll, the 95 Acte of this Parliament is relative.” Then follows, “The Rolle of the Clannes that hes Captaines and Chieftaines, quhom on they dependes, of times against the willes of their Landes Lordes, alsweill on the Bordoures, as Hielandes, and of sum special persons of Braunches of the saidis Clannes, West Marche, Scottes of Eusdaill, Beatisonnes, Littles, Thomsonnes, Glendunninges, Irvinges, Belles, Carrutheres, Grahames, Johnstones, Jardines, Moffettes and Latimers.” (Reference APS, III, p 466).


As a clan and family, CARRUTHERS are exceptionally proud of their Scottish Heritage, history and our culture. According to historical researchers, it would seem that our people have been in Scotland since the earliest migrations and are predominately of Celtic and Brythonic descent.

We have inhabited the area around King Ruther’s fort (Caer Ruthers) since well before the Norman invasion and were in the dale of Annan along with the oldest families of the area: Armstrong, Kirkpatrick and Irving and well before some famous names in Scottish history. These include Bruce, Comyn and Stewart and to name but a few and we can rightly say with a great deal of pride that Scotland is deep set in our blood.

However, as a Society we try and work with the current evidence rather than assumptions and the records show the first mention of Carruthers was, like many other clans and families in the area, taken from the time surnames started to be used in Scotland, in the 12th Century.

What is known without any doubt, was that we were also Reivers of the West March, we were part of that culture and we fought and died for family first, country second, The last chief od Mouswald, Sir Simon Carruthers was killed on a border raid in 1548, bringing to the end the House of Mouswald and passing the Chiefly line to Carruthers of Holmains. What also remains interesting is that according to the author Jon Tate (Dick, the Devil’s Bairns), Carruthers were still ‘named’ as Reivers and listed as wanted men by the authorities as late as 1642.

As the reader can see, our history dictates that we an ancient Scottish family, retaining pride in that fact to this day and are happy to proclaim that our family were Scottish Border Reivers of the West March with all that comes with it.

Clan Carruthers Society WP footnote grey


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