Border Reiver, Clan Carruthers

Clan Carruthers: The Anglo-Scottish Frontiers 1329-1603.

732px-Reivers_raid_on_Gilnockie_Tower.jpg describes the peoples of that area and time as ‘clans and families of the border hills, who took advantage of the struggle between the two Kingdoms of Scotland and England to live in a state of semi-lawlessness’. They were rugged, tough people who enforced their own brutal code of conduct and honour and became known as the Border raiders or ‘Reivers’.

Today, their descendants can be found all over the world and include British Prime Ministers, American Presidents and the first man on the Moon. The history of the Border Reivers has many similarities to the American Wild West but lasted much longer. It produced its share of outlaws and broken men, corrupt officials, greed, misery and fights for survival. Arson, murder and blood feud were commonplace in these troubled times.

440px-WatHarden.jpgThe stamp of the Reivers is still to be seen on the Border Lands – in it’s architecture, culture and people. From the fortified tower houses and farms to family names that once struck fear into men’s hearts – Armstrongs, Douglas, Grahams, Kerrs, Maxwells, Nixons, Robsons, Carruthers – the legacy of the Reivers remains. In these violent times, crops were destroyed, homesteads burnt and the people murdered or dispersed. Robbery and blackmail were everyday professions. If one member of a clan did harm to another, the issue would not simply be between the two individuals – the whole of both families would be drawn in, often with terrible consequences.

However the small piece in the Archives reads: After the death of Robert I, the conflict between England and Scotland continued in a pattern of raiding, occasional invasion, battles and ‘cold war’. The Treaty of Berwick of 1357, however, guaranteed a ten-year truce between the two countries, which began a period of uneasy peace that lasted, with frequent interruptions, until 1482.

During this period, the border region began to develop its own identity and conflict in the area became more localized. For example, the Battle of Otterburn (5 August 1388) was essentially the result of a private feud between border families as much as an English-Scottish conflict.

The Marches and Debatable Lands

The March Lands were garrisoned for national defence, but populated by clans with a history of raiding, feuding and racketeering, who operated within a chivalrous system bewildering to both crowns. (the Marches are defined as being the border or frontier area between two countries or territories, which separated one area of jurisdiction from another. The lands on the border between England and Scotland were designated ‘march lands’, and those between England and Wales ‘marcher lordships‘).


During the fifteenth century both England and Scotland tried, largely unsuccessfully, to establish legal control over their own marches and the Debatable Lands. These were described as the specific area of land between the Rivers Esk and Sark in the English and Scottish west march. This area was claimed by both kingdoms before 1603.  (It was the place that ‘outlaws’ hid and worked from. It is suggested that some members of the Reiving famly Carruthers were active in the area).

The 1480’s saw renewed attacks from England, and there were major military campaigns in the reign of Henry VIII. Numerous documents at The National Archives offer enormous detail about life in the marches after 1500, and show, above all, that local rivalries rather than national interest seem to have provided the main motivation for the border population.

This attitude was typified at the Battle of Flodden (1513), where border riders raided the camps of both sides while the main battle was fought between armies recruited elsewhere. These Graynes or Riding families, included Carruthers and were from ancient clans who inhabited the frontier lands between England and Scotland. They existed in a world of constant robbery, feuding, kidnapping and violence. This way of life became known as reiving, and the perpetrators of such crimes as reivers. Their actions have given words such as ‘bereaved’ (bereived) to the English language.

Carruthers were mentioned along with 16 other border families in the 1587 Unruly Clannis Act, which put a shot across the bows of the Chiefs, Lairds and Heidsmen of the West and Middle March.  This was simply an indication and a precursor of just what was to come in the Border cleansing.

Scots in England

440px-Failte_Scottish.jpgBut all was not one sided and the ability to cross the borders was both an advantage and a curse. Again from the National Archives: National identity was notoriously flexible on the border. In 1597 Robert Graham defied the King of Scotland in a dispute over his nationality by simply asserting that he was English, despite the contrary evidence of his birth, baptism, marriage and landholding. In 1587 Lord Hunsdon, Captain of Berwick, claimed that many of the 3,000 Scots within Northumberland passed information across the border so quickly that no plans could be kept secret for long.

Away from the border, Scots suffered much because they were seen as the perpetual enemies of the English. When major wars broke out between England, Scotland and France, as in 1513 and 1543, all unmarried Scotsmen were declared to be enemies. Together with married Scottish couples, beggars and vagabonds, they were to be expelled to Scotland. Scotsmen with English wives and English-born children, as well as Scottish servants, were allowed to remain,ut were subject to penalties and restrictions.

In order to enforce such measures, in 1543 a commission set out to identify Scots in all English counties. Some of its returns are among Henry VIII’s State Papers at The National Archives. That such measures could be taken suggests that, by this date, a large number of Scots had settled in England. This is confirmed by taxation records: taxes called alien subsidies (Taxes levied between 1440 and 1487, specifically on foreign nationals resident within England. After 1487 aliens paid higher rates than citizens on all subsidies granted to the crown by Parliament). The subsidies for Cumberland and Westmorland show numerous Scottish people working as servants within England or living as householders in their own right, despite the severe measures that were introduced during wartime.

Scots, as well as other foreigners in general were subject to considerable hostility, and at times of tension could be accused of causing disorder within England. In 1429, for example, at the height of Joan of Arc’s campaigns against the English in France, the English Parliament discussed a crimewave for which they blamed Scottish and other foreign students from Cambridge University.

At a lower social level, the interaction of the reiving families in the marches caused problems for the authorities of both countries. Officials attempted to outlaw contact across the border, which they saw as subversive because it meant that leading men of the riding clans or graynes, all had close relatives who were subjects of the opposing country. Border letters, however, show that marriage alliances were frequently contracted across the boundary between the two countries.

Marriage was also a way of switching nationalities in times of need. Tudor records suggest that many Scots – such as Peter Pierson in 1542 – claimed English nationality on the grounds that they had English wives and children.

All in all, a very precarious time and an extremely fluid place to exist, but many simply had no choice. By appreciating our ancestors, we validate their existance and in turn we validate our own.

Clan Carruthers Society WP footnote grey Final to use

1 thought on “Clan Carruthers: The Anglo-Scottish Frontiers 1329-1603.”

  1. & after (second paragraph) has sentence construction typo’s..
    Interesting article never new that about “berieved”

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