Border Reiver, Clan Carruthers

CLAN CARRUTHERS: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. An interview with Tom Moss, Reiver Author and Historian.

The Capture of Kinmont Willie by John Faed

The ancient proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”, has traversed time and is a phrase that would easily have been used by our reiver ancestors, whose priority and loyalty was always to their family and its allies. In some ways, it is as apt today as it was then

Tom Moss

Tom Moss

Tom Moss is one of the best known authors and historians on the Border Reivers alive today. In our opinion, he rates alongside such names as Jon Tait, Graham Robb and Alistair Moffat and as such is well respected in his field.

His website Reivers History is the go to place for everything to do with the Border Reivers and thus is seen as a source evidence based and good solid research. Following in the footsteps of such as George MacDonald Fraser, he truly brings the history of the Anglo-Scottish borders to life and allows us a taste of the social structure which existed during those violent and dangerous times.

Like most historians/historical authors, however, the time and effort that Tom puts into his research is huge and as such when plagiarism occurs it is highly frustrating. Thankfully it can be challenged and as the old proverb goes; “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

We therefore felt it appropriate that Tom, as the author of many excellent pieces on the Border Reivers is introduced to you along with his works. This is in order that you may appreciate the work of the craftsman himself, and again recognise the false claims by others.

Here is the interview with Tom telling his own story as well as giving us an insight into the depth of knowledge he has on thew Border Reivers. It will be published in two parts, which we hope you will enjoy.


This is the remains of the bastle house in the hamlet where I live. It is 16th century  and was used as the vicarage to the church which is shown below in the 17th century after the days of the Reivers.

1.Where were you born and what is your background.

I was born in Blyth, Northumberland, England. As a boy of five I moved with the family to the birthplace of my father, to a village in Lancashire, a friendly little community which nestled comfortably between the towns which, at an earlier time, had been part of that industrial revolution which changed the economic landscape of England.

I had a college education, where I excelled at nothing. I enjoyed all the subjects available in such a hallowed community but always had a great leaning to the arts especially English literature and history. Paradoxically, I was also passionate about mathematics.

This is the church, about 100 yards from the bastle. It is reputedly the oldest standing building in Cumbria. It was built from stone taken from Hadrian’s Wall after the Romans left England by the Anglo-Saxons. Some of the features are later by the Normans.

Later I followed a technical education in textiles and business management studies and worked for various weaving companies. Unfortunately, the textile industry was soon in the throes of its demise and I moved from company to company within the Lancashire area. No longer did ‘Britain’s bread hang by Lancashire’s thread’ and I looked further afield to maintain employment, ending up in Carlisle, Cumbria where I worked at a firm that produced colour woven fabrics, all of which had a world-wide reputation for design, quality and colour. Within a few years I was on the move again in a bid to enhance experience and improve my quality of life. I moved to Hawick in the Scottish Borders where I worked in the production of cashmere. The business in Hawick sadly followed in the wake of many other textile businesses in the Scottish Borders and I moved back, reluctantly, to Carlisle where I worked in a specialised weaving business which is doing very well to this day.

I now live about a mile to the south of Hadrian’s Wall on the Cumbrian/ Northumberland Border.

2. What piqued your interest in the Reivers and their history?

Riders at the Common Riding

Throughout these periods of my life some of uncertainty, others of stability but always with total enjoyment and satisfaction, I always maintained my avid interest in literature and history.

It was in Hawick that I first encountered the Border Reivers. In my first week in Hawick, I was taken a tour of the town and its surrounds and given a book to read about the Reivers to while away the evening hours confined to my hotel bedroom. It would be the second week of my employment before I threw more than a cursory look at the ‘Steel Bonnets’. Within half-an-hour I was hooked on the subject, initially because I found it hard to believe that I had never heard of the Reivers.

After a few weeks living in Hawick, I was introduced to a man who had lived in the town all his life and had always had an avid interest in its history. He walked me around the town and showed me all the places associated with its Common Riding. Outside of the town he showed me places, still to be seen, either whole or ruined, that were associated with the Border Reivers.

The Cornet of the Common Riding. 

He went on to explain to me the origins of the Common Ridings of the Border towns and I was amazed to learn that there were many able-bodied men from the Scottish Border towns who fought for their country at the Battle of Flodden. The majority of the adult male population of towns like Hawick and Selkirk answered the call to arms. The fact that very few returned following the Scottish army’s disastrous defeat on that September day in 1513 was poignantly described as we walked through the town together. I admit, English as I am, that my spirit was lifted when I learned of the heroics of the boys from Hawick, for there were only boys and old men left in the ‘auld grey toon’ when in the following year they ambushed English soldiers. These were troops still bent on causing mischief throughout the Border lands in the aftermath of Flodden. The boys, out on a fishing trip, caught them asleep at Hornshole north of Hawick.

Folklore tell us that a man called Rule from Bedrule near Hawick saved Robert the Bruce from a bull that was attacking him. Robert re-named him Turn-bull ie Turnbull, a famous name in the history of the Border Reivers.

When I delved into the history of the Borders a little deeper I learned of the aspirations of that great imperialist Edward I, who had subjugated Wales and then turned his attention to Scotland. The outcome of the relentless forays of English armies into Scotland and, in return, the retaliation of the Scots who invaded northern England on a regular basis, resulted in a Border people on both the English and Scottish side of the Border line who suffered loss of life, homes and subsistence in a land primarily best-suited to the rearing of sheep and cattle at the hands of the great hordes of soldiers moving north and south.

The statue of Edward 1 on the Cumbrian side of the Solway. He died here in 1307 whilst preparing to move into Scotland with his army.

These armies cared not a whit for the border folk, just lived off the land and animals that were there for the taking from a defenceless people. However, in order to survive, the border people would strike back and steal where they could. Initially from the other side of the Border but eventually from even their own countrymen. Within a generation or two, on realising that central power in both England and Scotland did not hold a firm hand in the Border country on either side, some of the stronger families took advantage of the lack of government control and took the law into their own hands.

They murdered, robbed at will, used blackmail as a threat and inevitably became involved in feuds with each other in their own holm-lands and across the Border line. Often, ironically, these same Border men were viewed as the first line of defence in times of animosity verging on war between the two countries and both kings and governments looked through their fingers when confronted with the nefarious practices of the Border families.

There are other reasons for the emergence of the Border Reivers including geography, gavilkind and the granting of lands in the Borders to Norman lords, but viewed in isolation I do not think that they would have resulted in the turmoil which ensued. (Gavelkind was a system of Celtic/Brythonic land tenure, also called Salic Patrimony or cyfran (Cyfraith Hywel) in Welsh/Cumbric and was designed to keep property within a particular family or clan. ed)

3. Is your interest more in one March than another and if so, is that built on your own family history?

I think my name originates in the marshes of West Cumbria. My ancestors on my father’s side are from that area, so I do not see any connection with the names of the Border clans and families of the Border lands. 

Photo of the Hole Bastle near Bellingham. English Middle March

I have walked a great many miles throughout all six Marches in the English-Scottish Border. In all I would estimate that I have covered hundreds of miles. In one period of about eighteen months, walking the Marches on most Sundays with an average of about ten miles each time.

In truth I found that the Marches, depending upon their topography, evoke differing kinds of sensibility to the present-day walker.

In the English East and West Marches and the Scottish East March many delightful villages can be encountered in the quest to visit a new Reivers site. Times have changed since the 16th century and now a pastoral peace envelops these truly picturesque places. Even to stand in front of a fortified tower, aware of its reason for being, cannot truly disturb the tranquillity of mind.

The remaining Marches have areas of a much hillier terrain often topped with wide expanses of open moorland. These places have not changed in thousands of years. What you see is exactly what the Reivers saw. These vast expanses of open plain can be dangerous, pitted with boggy and shifting morass. You must pick your way gingerly even after dry spells of weather. Here, maybe perversely on my part, I truly identify with the Reivers and my mind reverts to an earlier time when men rode these areas in the dark, perhaps following a raid.

A photo of Corbridge Vicar’s Pele. English Middle March

I have a great love for the English Middle March and have spent many days in Tynedale and Redesdale. I have camped near Bellingham  and Otterburn and marvelled at the beauty of  Elsdon. A photo of Corbridge Vicar’s Pele. English Middle March.

To this end my favourite March is the Scottish Middle March where the flat tops that follow the breast of the hills on the road to Hawick from Langholm, especially to the east of Carlenrigg often evoke a real feeling of ‘riding by moonlight’, trusting to the instinct of the faithful little hobby that was a major part of his way of life. (The Middle March is east of the West March where the Carruthers name and family originated, with a great many of us living in the area. ed.)

If I were to answer a similar question relating to the well-known characters who lived in the times of the Border Reivers I would say the same.

4. I believe you wrote a piece on the village of Elsdon in Redesdale, which eloborates on the Vicars tower mentioned above.


Yes, Elsdon is situated about twenty-five miles north-west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in Northumberland, England.

My post prior to that was about fortified pele towers which were used as sanctuary by the ministers of religious faith. No discussion on this topic would be complete without a special mention for Elsdon Vicar’s Pele Tower. It is a magnificent example of the fortified towers built on each side of the English Scottish Border as both defence and sanctuary against the Border Reivers

Elsdon in Redesdale, Northumberland has a timeless air, with many reminders of a byegone age. Here are to be found the Mote Hills which once housed the Motte and Bailey castle of the Umfravilles, Lords of Redesdale. They came with the Conqueror, William of Normandy or the ‘Bastard’ as he was known, and were granted the lands of Redesdale to hold it against his enemies and wolves. The castle was built in the year 1080 and served as the headquarters of the Umfravilles until about 1157.


The church, dedicated to St. Cuthbert, is also steeped in history. Here in 1810, purely by chance during restoration to the church footings, were found the bones of many men slaughtered at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388. Otterburn was a battle fought in the dusk and dark of an August night between the English under Henry Percy, (the Hotspur of Shakespeare fame) and the Scots of Sir James Douglas. The English were routed and lost, it is said 1800 men, many of whom were buried in Elsdon churchyard. Douglas himself, also died in this vicious encounter.

Vicars Pele Tower -Alternative view

The Vicars pele tower was built about the year 1400 for the Umfravilles but by 1415 it was in the hands of the Rector. His original home had suffered at the hands of Scottish Raiders. Not long before in 1399, a Truce between the Scots and English had ended and the North of England was very soon afterwards plundered by the Scots. Elsdon was often a target. There is documentary evidence that the tower was standing in 1415 and that it belonged to the Rector – ‘Turris de Ellysden’ belongs to ‘Rector eiusdem’.

It still preserves its character today even after many additions and renovations. The walls are massive and the original vaulted ground floor was once the pen of horses and cattle during Scottish raids or a place of refuge from feuding neighbours. The pele tower is a truly wonderous sight and dominates the village.

5. As a Scottish border family, we write so much about north of the border, but very little on how the English border folk were affected by both the Anglo-Scottish wars and also the reiver raids. This highlights how the Reiver life style had no real borders and like in Scotland, the common folk were affected by not only by Scottish Reivers, but by English Reivers as well.

Most certainly, although the tower of Elsdon was strong and fortified and offered shelter for the minister and villagers in the endless raids from the Scots, there were many times when the people suffered at the hands of the Border Reivers from both sides. 

An attack of particular note took place in September 1584 when Martin Elliot and five hundred from Liddesdale attacked the village. Such great numbers only indicated that the Scots came in reprisal for earlier raids against themselves. As the Scottish Border Reivers turned for home they left fourteen men dead, had burned down all the houses and made away with four hundred kye (cows), oxen and horses, insight (household goods), and taken four hundred prisoners.

From the records that still exist from the time it is clear that the raiding and reiving had reached an intensity that had lived on for at least a hundred years before the Liddesdale raid. In 1498 the Bishop of Durham had threatened excommunication (divorce from the Roman Catholic Church and thus eternal damnation to Hell) on the reivers of Tynedale and Redesdale, which included Elsdon.

To go back to your question, this threat was not for attacks by the English on the Scots, which was presumably part and parcel of day to day living, but for the family feuds, which like in Scotland was within the English Borders. This had reached such an intensity that God-fearing folk lived in daily terror of a raid from their own countrymen. The reiving was literally relentless and the remedy hard to come by!

Today a visit to Elsdon is a great pleasure. It is a peaceful place nestling in rolling hillside yet proud of its history, its turbulent past. The church, tower, village green and the Mote Hills are a delight to the eye. Five hundred years ago all was the same as meets the eye today. But then every man looked over his shoulder, wary of the next attack to come screaming out of the hills.

6. Is there a particular time in their history that draws you or is it Reiver history in general?

There is no particular time that draws me to the Reivers history. In fact, I wish it was easier to access information. I believe that there is an online website that will help me with this. I need more information from the earlier Stuart kings and the English monarchs before Elizabeth 1.

7. This highlights the amount of time, effort and research that goes into your own, and many others whose writing both inform and give pleasure to the readers?

I am currently in dialogue with various academic history sites for this information and await responses but my initial sources have been the Calendar of Border Papers and the many books from the 19th century onwards.

So, to answer your question I read the ever-increasing number of books I have and then try to follow the whole history.

8. Appreciating the ongoing discussion regarding brder clan over family and we use both, what are your thoughts on the collective term and where does ‘grayne’ fit in?

I didn’t know that discussions regarding clan over family were ongoing. I think that traditionally, even in the time of the Reivers ‘clan’ has referred to the inhabitants of the Scottish Borders and ‘families’ to those of the English Borders. If I remember rightly the waters have been muddied following correspondence in the late 16th century from the English Government to Scotland when some of the English were spoken of as clans.

In what I have read ‘grayne’ referred to a family of the same name which, being small in number or without an obvious leader, was often associated to a larger family which had a clan leader. There was some safety in numbers. 

Therefore the grayne itself was part of the clan. Think of a clan where the family members were dispersed over a wide area. There might be smaller, more vulnerable families some distance from the senior grayne of the family (ie in the Case of Carruthers, the main ‘house’ would have been Mouswald in its time or Holmains after 1548. ed.)


Using the Armstrongs of Liddesdale as an example, with the larger groups/graynes living at Mangerton or Whithaugh –  Liddesdale is a wild almost isolated valley even today, with often fair distances between the farms that are there now. In the time of the Reivers, families with the same name could have been miles apart, and the smaller graynes more susceptible to attack. In effect, a clan or surname comprised many graynes, but all gave due association with the ‘heidsman’ or chief of the main line of the clan/family.

9. The 1587 Act of Suppression of ‘unruly’ clans mentions 17 Border names and 33 from the Highlands and Islands. My question is what do you see as the reason for the Act itself?

James VI

Firstly, it was not an Act of Suppression as such as seems to be the common misconception in some areas. I do agree that it might be conceived as being so but for the record it was actually termed: ‘The 1587 Act of James VI’ and was registered and ratified on 29th July 1587.

I therefore speak only of the Borders in the references to the Act below and not the Highlands and Islands.

I don’t think James had any intention of total control over his Border folk, to subjugate every aspect of their lives, but simply to endeavour to eliminate feud which was the ‘canker of the Borders’. I think he wanted to promote a more peaceful way of life and bring order to their way of life to create a settled and ordered country.

The Act was set in place ‘for the quietening and keeping in obedience of the disordered subjects, inhabitants of the Borders’.

He writes of the ‘wicked inclination of the disordered subjects and inhabitants in some parts of the Borders adjacent to England, delighting in all mischiefs and most unnaturally and cruelly wasting, slaying, harrying and destroying their own neighbours and native country people’.

He further ordained that on the first day of each month there ‘shall be special and pre-empted diet for his privy council to convene for the answering and directing of all complaints’, (echoes of the fact that this was an extension of the Day of Truce).

It would appear that some of the Scottish Border Lords treated this with some contempt. Some feuds which had lasted for a generation would rumble on, the combatants ignoring the Act. The Maxwell-Johnstone feud was not concluded until well after the Union of the Crowns in 1603. It was 1613 when, with the execution of John, Lord Maxwell this century old feud would end.

Twelve years later in 1599 James V1 turned his attention once again to his Border folk with an Act Regarding Border Thefts.

In this Act he states that ‘…by the ancient laws of the Border there used to be no redress at all to be made except by the opposite wardens of this realm and England of goods taken by the subjects of one nation from the other…’   ‘that loveable law and custom in the rigorous execution of the said thieves has caused the greater disregard and contempt of his highness’s authority…’ He carries on ‘…the laws and acts of parliament made against thieves and their harbourers and cause them to be punished to the death…’

Arkleton: The Nesby Tower at Branxholme south of Hawick. Once home to the Scotts of Buccleuch a family mentioned in the 1587 Act

Here James is extending his 1587 Act to include cross Border forays and resulting international feud.

Again his ratified Acts had little effect, but at least he was endeavouring to stamp his authority. I have always been very interested in not just what James had to say in these Acts but why he chose these particular dates to enact them. 

10. That is our also understanding, but you further feel there was another reason for these Acts.

Yes, I believe there was another reason and most certainly for the timing of these Acts.

Elizabeth of England and James of Scotland started a correspondence of national importance in 1585; correspondence which has political implications even to this day..  She was 51 years old, he was 19.

The outcome of this correspondence and deliberation over most of the following two years was that Elizabeth gave James much hope that he would inherit the English throne on her death. 

However. this outcome was to be held in abeyance in the late Summer of 1586 when Anthony Babbington was arrested for conspiracy in a plot to murder Elizabeth. James’ mother Mary, Queen of Scots was implicated and beheaded in February 1587.

Goldielands Tower. Another ScottTower.

Immediately prior to the execution and thereafter, the bond between the two sovereigns was in grave danger of breaking down. James, aware of the prospect of his mother’s execution had written to Elizabeth calling her a ‘self-destructive paradox’ and ‘a monarch killing monarch’ whilst Elizabeth’s responses referred to the execution as ‘that miserable accident which far contrary to my meaning hath befallen’ and claimed that, although she had signed the order for the execution, she had been indecisive about it, and she confirmed that James would inherit her throne.

I think that six months later James, resigned to his mother’s death and seeing nothing to be gained, and in fact much to be lost in war with England, decided to put his own country to order and prove to Elizabeth that he was her worthy successor. The Act of July 1587 was the outcome of his determination.

The Union of the Crowns came after over 300 years of war, strife and animosity. (24 March 1603. ed.)

Thankyou Tom, for talking the time to do this interview with us, and we look forward to the second part.

Thank you for the opportunity.

Tom can be contacted through his website, or alternatively; TOM MOSS, ROSE COTTAGE PUBLICATIONS, UPPER HOUSE, UPPER DENTON, GILSLAND. CA8 7AG

CCSI: The individuals concerned, who have been caught stealing and using without permission artwork and content, not only from our society but also from others, is in this instance the rogue Carruthers group CC I S based in the US (LLC).

They are definately not linked with Clan Carruthers Society International, and if ‘international’ is not at the end of the society name, they are not officially recognised by either our Chief nor the clan. As such our only representation in the United states and Canada are Clan Carruthers Society USA and Clan Carruthers Society Canada, both of which have Regional Commissioners commissioned by Carruthers of Holmains, Chief of the Name and Arms of Carruthers. ed.

Also regarding Facebook:

And the rogue group, the LLC have moved to roughly their 14th name change in 4 years this has to be because people are questioning their legitimacy and plagiarism.
If you see this badge sitting on the Bruce tartan, keep well away.

1 thought on “CLAN CARRUTHERS: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. An interview with Tom Moss, Reiver Author and Historian.”

  1. By far one of the best interviews! I read and then reread this post finding so much excitement with every word. It truly is people like Tom Moss that works hard to do the research finding the facts and sharing these wonderful stories so that our history is spoken in truth and not fairy tales or fantasy. Thank you Dr. George Carruthers FSA Scot for all the hard work you have done not only with this superb interview but all you have done for our Clan Carruthers. This one is truly a keeper!!!!

    Dana Caruthers Norton FSA Scot USA

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