Clan Carruthers

CLAN CARRUTHERS: Border Reiver Exhibition Pt 3

This is Part III, a continuation of those previously published parts I and II. The following information is taken and stimulated by a visit to the exhibition at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, which can be found at Castle Street, Carlisle CA3 8TP, and sits in front of Carlisle Castle. The rest is from various sources, such as that of Kirsten Henton and includes Graham Robb’s research and excellent book ‘The Debatable Land: The Lost World Between Scotland and England‘, a must for all those interested in the Reiver families of the West march and of course Jon Taits; Dick the Devil’s Bairns: Breaking the Border Mafia another excellant and well researched publication.

And so it begins

According to some historians and researchers to include Robb, the roots of the debatable lands lie in an age when neither England nor Scotland nor even the Roman Empire could be imagined. Today, although some of its boundaries survive as sections of the national border, it has vanished from the map and no one knows exactly where and what it was.

The Debatable Lands

The line between Scotland and England was established with the Treaty of York in 1237. As Graham Robb writes in his 2018 book, it is “probably the oldest national boundary in Europe”. But when it was finalised, it seems that it drew a line through lands that were essentially familial, dividing some clan held territory in two. Therefore, the border symbolised state-led authority and the Debatable Lands became the flashpoint of a rebellion of sorts, where powerful families plundered each other in both Scotland and England and neither government was committed to sorting it out.

An apt description to set the mood was written by Kirsten Henton in May 2020 for BBC Travel where she describes the tiny ‘country’ between Scotland and England on first sight as: Nowhere does a brooding winter sky quite like the west coast of Scotland.

As I looked across the open estuary of the River Esk, pale yellow sunlight filtered through streaks of low-lying cloud, reflected in the mirror-like ribbons of water and ripples of sand exposed by the retreating tide.

All around, fields dipped gently to flatten out along the shore of the channel, which snakes its way westwards to the Solway Firth. The lowland coastline, flanked by rolling hills, expands until the firth meets the Irish Sea, creating a natural break in the land between Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland and Cumbria in northern England.

Standing firm against a determined breeze, I was surveying the scene from what marks the south-western end of the border between Scotland and England. Peacefully admiring nature at work, it was hard to believe that this seemingly tranquil, rural landscape was once at the edge of one of Britain’s most lawless, and for a time, bloodiest, regions: the area known as the Debatable Lands.

This strip of land in question sat between England and Scotland on the west coast which, for over 300 years in the late Middle Ages, was ‘officially’ (through a parliamentary decree by both Scotland and England), declared as lawless. The decree, was openly used and abused by the inhabitants of this small wedge of land, situated between the Solway Firth north of Carlisle and up into Langholm in Dumfriesshire. To offer a perception of its size it was about 10 miles long north to south and 4 miles wide and was contained within the flow of the rivers Liddel and Esk in the east and the River Sark in the west.

The decree (which reflected the fact that no country wanted the responsibility for it as it was far too dangerous to tame and really not worth the bother) allowed anarchy to reign stated:

All Englishmen and Scottishmen are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, slay, murder and destroy, all and every such person and persons, their bodies, property, goods and livestock… without any redress to be made for same.

Of course, this played right into the hands of the Reivers and although attempts were made to resolve this problem, to include the raid led by Lord Maxwell, Scottish Warden at the time many lives were lost. This included that of the last Carruthers chief of the Mouswald line, Sir Simon Carruthers in 1548. This led to the chiefship passing to Carruthers of Holmains, who were directly descended from the brother of Thomas Carruthers of Mouswald, first Carruthers chief of from the house of Mouswald in 1320

Interestingly, the Debatable Land was only known as such within the last two hundred years of its existence. It is however still recognised as the oldest detectable territorial division in Great Britain and the final territorial division in Britain located squarely between the Scottish and English West Marches.

For over 300 years, the Debatable Lands flourished as an anarchic no-man’s land; not independent, but too dangerous for either Scotland or England to be able – or want – to take control of. Kirsten Henton

According to Henton: While this decree was made into law, it was more of a legal “out” for England and Scotland. Neither side wanted the responsibility of dealing with the Debatable Lands; and as they could not agree on who owned it or how it was divided, neither could be held responsible for it, either. As Dr Anna Groundwater, principal curator, Renaissance and Early Modern History, National Museums Scotland, told me, “It was not a valuable piece of land, high ground and poor farming potential, so it was probably seen as not particularly worth fighting for or in fact defending.”

~Western end of the Scots Dyke (wiki)

The region’s remoteness, however, was of no concern to the reivers of their day. The Debatable Lands existed in its isolated manner until, officially speaking, 1551, when an agreement between the two countries prompted the building of ‘Scots Dike’ in 1552, which “settled the exact boundary between the countries of Scotland and England.” This man-made embankment, little of which is visible today, was a three-and-a-half-mile-long barrier that finally divided the Debatable Lands in two. It was therefore initially more symbolic than practical, as this barrier did nothing to stem the flow of reiving.

It wasn’t until 1603 that the border areas became a real focus for the unifying monarch, King James VI & I, King of Scotland and the first Stuart King of England, following the Union of the Crowns. New wardens were put in charge of tidying up the region and prominent reivers were rounded up. Some, like Lang Sandy, were hanged, many were exiled, and the process of instilling a semblance of law and order began in earnest and with severe outcomes.

Gilnockie Tower

Gilnockie Tower (wiki)

Perhaps because there are few tangible remains from the period, Gilnockie Tower is a space in which the Debatable Lands comes alive. It’s every bit the defensive tower, from its impenetrably thick stone walls to its tiny high windows and roof-top lookout where you can easily picture a guard keeping watch.

According to a tourist page, Gilnockie Tower is most certainly a stunning example of a Scottish pele tower. Built some 500 years ago, it was home to Johnnie Armstrong, a notorious border reiver. In 1530 this powerful chieftain was hanged by king James V, father of James VI/I who unified the crowns of Scotland and England and finally brought the Debatable lands under crown control. Johnnies story is romanticised by Walter Scott in a ballad of that name.

The Tower has five floors, including a vaulted chamber, banqueting hall and spiral staircase. The entrance stone is thought to be two thousand years old. Once a roofless ruin, the structure has been completely refurbished and is open as a clan and visitor attraction.

Gilnockie Tower houses reiving artefacts and the world’s largest collection of Armstrong archives. The Clan Armstrong Trust Museum, originally housed on the Lodge Walk, Langholm is now closed, and all of the original displays have been moved to GILNOCKIE TOWER, Canonbie, DG14 0XD on the Anglo-Scottish Border.

The tower, which endeavours to open all year, houses a small exhibition that is designed to take people well into the 16th Century, deep enough to give them a flavour of family life at that difficult period”, including, for example, everyday conditions and the daily chores and traditional dining habits of those living through this unruly time.


According to Robb, both from inside and outside the debatable lands: cattle reivers were not quite as fearsome as might appear — or at least Robb, as he goes native, slowly becomes more sympathetic towards them. Most inhabitants of the Borders, he claims, would only go on one raid in their whole lives as some sort of act of initiation — ‘that glorious hectic day when grandfather earned the right to be called a man by burning down a Tynedale barn or making off with a Cheviot farmer’s sheep’.

That said, in the space of a decade in the 1580s, a total of 123 houses were burned by more than 2,000 reivers in seven separate raids. Only 11 of them died, says Robb and adds that ‘by comparison with medieval sporting events, reiving of the traditional variety was a remarkably safe activity.’

So that’s all right then. Although presumably it wasn’t quite such a safe activity if you were inside the house that was being burned it has been said.


Although Carruthers were a known reiving family we were quite moderately sized. We never as a norm reached the depths of criminality and unadulterated violence as history shows was used by such as the Elliots, Grahams and Armstrongs. However it is also fair to say that our family was not all sweetness and light. According to Jon Tait in his book Dick the Devil’s Bairns, at least one of our kin was ‘in with’ the Armstrongs.

Robert Carruthers, in 1335 rode with Thomas Armstrong of Mangerton, brother of the infamous Johnny Armstrong and Chief of the clan. It is recorded that along with a band of Armstrongs and some others, Roobert was denounced as a rebel for ‘riding under the silence of night’ on John Cockburn of Ormiston and taking 70 oxen and 30 cows as well as taking 3 men hostage, and stripping them of their clothes, purses and money, thus breaking bonds made with the king.

Further, in 1607, the Chief John Carruthers 7th of Holmains and 3rd Baron wa suspected of ‘unruly courses’ was confined and removed by the Border Commissioners who replaced the Wardens from their present homes. John was sent along with Alexander Jardine of Applegarth to St Andrews in Fife, while other lairds on the list were also sent away around the country.

We were also mentioned in the 1595 Act for the Punishment of Theft, Robbery, Oppression and Sorning as well as the well known 1587 Act of nearly 10 years before for the Suppression of Unruly Clans. As such we have to assume we were not just simple farmers who stood by and observed but also played their part as Border Reivers.

With this in mind we continue to bring you the facts about Carruthers, both past and present, in order to help our readers better understand the orgins of our family, the lives our ancestors led and the people we have become because of it.

In the Bonnie Lands of Annandale

The proud Carruthers ride

Thousands of years they’ve lived there

and a thousand more they’ll bide

Their Chiefs are strong in history

their name reflects the same

No one can ever change that

As Annandale’s their ‘hame’

Leave a Reply

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