Border Reiver, Clan Carruthers

CLAN CARRUTHERS: The Border Reiver Exhibition. Pt 1

This is part 1 of a 3 part series taken in part from the exhibition at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, which was opened in 1893. For anyone interested in our Reiver ancestry, or in fact local history going back from Roman times to the near past, it is well worth the visit. It can be found at Castle Street, Carlisle CA3 8TP, and sits in front of Carlisle Castle from which the tunnel with the cursing stone can be found.

The Anglo-Scottish Border

The border between Scotland and England marks not only the geographical split between both nations but a political divide also. History has shown us that the Romans played their part in its designation by building Hadrian’s wall in AD 122. As such it could be argued that they in fact created the lands that would later host the Border Reivers.

After the Romans left in 410AD, the power was shared between the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria and the Brythonnic Kingdom of Strathclyde. Our ancestral home of Dumfriesshire being influenced by both in culture and language.


In 1222, a deputation of knights, designated by their respective crowns, came together from Scotland and England to discuss where the border between both countries sat. An agreement was reached and the border (which runs 96 miles east to west), roughly remains as it was designated then. However, following a further border dispute, Henry III (1207-1272) and Alexander II (1198- 1249) both confirmed changes at the Treaty of York in 1237. This legally confirmed the border sat geographically between the River Tweed in the east and the Solway Firth in the west. As a side note, it was during the reign of Alexander II that the first record of the name Carruthers appears as a surname.

However, there was a patch which was to become known as the debatable lands, which seems to have slipped through the cracks and harboured some of the most dangerous criminals of their day. This led to further agreements which augmented the western border in 1333. Accepting this made little or no difference to the reiver activities in the west, a trench called the Scots Dyke was dug in 1552, right through the debateable lands to define the frontier between both countries and thus the judicial responsibilities of each country. Sadly this was 4 years after the last Carruthers chief of the House of Mouswald, as Sir Simon was killed in 1548, causing the extinction of the Mouswald line and the ascendency of the House of Holmains to the chiefship of Carruthers, where it has sat ever since.

The Reiving Began

For over 300 years the Anglo-Scottish borders became one of the most lawless places in the western world, where murder, arson, thieving and kidnapping became common place and the loyalty to the family and their alliances superseded any loyalty to country.

But what triggered it? During this period Scottish and English armies clashed regularly leaving behind them a trail of devastation and death. The peace never lasted and lands changed hands between England and Scotland, with many a peaceful border landscape of today being bloodied battlefields of the past.

Gorse-Carruthers plant badge

As such, life was harsh as borderers. Survival became a priority for those families and so reiving began. These cross border attacks, ambushes, stealing of livestock were initially encouraged by the Crown on both sides of the borders during wartime, but in peace they continued and the Reivers were born. During those late dark nights, groups of men would raid, armed to the teeth to steal cattle and horses. In the course of their ride home they would corral them over-night using gorse, which was plentiful in Annandale, to both pen them in and if viable to burn for warmth. Its therefore no surprise that as a border riding family that Carruthers uses the gorse as its family/clan plant badge.

Because of this continual raiding, feuds emerged and ongoing tit-for-tat killings and stealing occurred, which in turn excalated and spiralled out of control. This then led to Anglo-Scottish borderlands becoming one of the most violent and lawless areas for over 300 years, and home to Border Reivers. (To Reive: to forcibly deprive of).

Who were the Reivers?

Not a kilt or tartan in sight

Over time the people of the Scottish borders and North Cumbria and Northumberland in England lost the importance to be loyal to anyone other than themselves. Their identity was simply that of their family name. As such it was more important to be a Carruthers, an Elliot, a Rutherford, a Bell, an Irving, a Nixon or a Musgrave etc than it was to be English or Scots. In the reiving society, the close family bond and external alliances meant survival and security, which were obvious priorities of the time. As such, border folks followed the authority of the heidsman/laird or chief who held say over his family and their actions. (For this reason the heads/chiefs of the riding family Carruthers can date their ancestry back before 1320).

In fact despite the input and threats of punishment by the March Wardens to control the inhabitants on their side of the border, Reiver families socialised, married and worked together in a cross border fashion. Despite appeals by the crown of each country for the sake of national security to be maintained within the border of their own country, this was ignored by the Reviers and alliances with families on the other side of the border continued. This led to English and Scottish families riding together on raids, with some large Scottish families (for example the Grahams and Armstrongs), having such a foot in both camps, they could have been considered English at times. Their loyalty to themselves, however, allowed them to consider both countries evenly as their targets. It was these alliances which increased the power of the Reivers as larger raiding groups offered safety in numbers.

As previously alluded to, the family name was everything and family honour remained paramount. This often led to ongoing battles between families, leading to Reiver style ‘mafia’ wars. These fueds could last for generations and progressively became a regular feature of normal Reiver life, kept alive and passed on from father to son. In the case of Carruthers, our personal feud with the Kirkpatricks was short lived in the scheme of things and was amicably resolved after a few years.

Many border folk lived a double life. During spring and summer they farmed the land and tended to their livestock like any other land owner or tenant farmer. However, as the year turned from autumn to winter and the cold and dark nights set in, these same people transitioned into the most brutal and violent raiders, the Reivers.

But why? It was the Normans who, at the invite of David I (1124-1153), came to Scotland to settle and with them they brought their culture and society, which David absorbed into the Scottish way of life. The concept of gavelkind was used by the Celts and was reintroduced as a form of land tenure. This ensured the land was equally divided amongst all the sons and heirs, not dissimilar to what happens in French inheritance law today regarding property. This of course led to the farmsteads becoming smaller and smaller with a decrease in yield being the inevitable outcome. As such, it was forced starvation as much as anything that pushed the Border riding families to reive.

Reivers on the Ride

Well into the 1600’s the terrain over the border region was wild and remote, with access down to a few dirt tracks. This left homesteads open to raiding parties from near enough any direction and forced farmers to find away of protecting their property and family from these groups of usually around 15-20 brutal and violent men. However, they could be larger in numbers as the families such as the Elliots and Armstrongs could easily raise 3.000 men who, if on the ride, left death and devastation in their wake.

Introduction of Bastiles and Pele towers

To increase the chanvce od survival and protect their livestock, bastiles which were basically stone fortified farmhouses, became the home of many a small Reiver family and the ruins of the same can be found scattered along the borders. These fortified towers stood around 20-25 foot (7m) high with thick walls. The family lived on the upper floor with supplies kept below. In times of war or attack, the livestock would be herded into the lower floor with the entry door on the gable end of the tower, firmly secured. The family then all went to the upper floor via a ladder and trap door, to defend their property.

The Pele tower was a larger structure but also a fortified and built of stone. These reached heights of around 60 feet (19m) or so high with 5 foot (1.5m) to 10 foot (3m) thick walls, which offered a better defence to the inhabitants against fire and lance. These however were usually owned by the richer families.

19th century drawing of the old Mouswald ruins, the arms of Carruthers being replaced by those of Douglas who ‘gained’ the lands after the extinction of the House of Mouswald

Carruthers may just have just fallen into this category, with the ruins of the old Carruthers of Mouswald tower still existing but the Carruthers of Holmains tower only having the indentation of the groundworks visible by air.

These pele towers usually had an outer wall (barmkin), which protected any buildings inside the perimeter made of wattle and daub (straw. clay, mud and animal faeces). During an attack, the residents went into the tower for protection and again with people on the top and livestock in the bottom. The doors were solid oak and iron and were protected by the residents, who would not have made entry easy for any reiver who was lucky or unlucky enough to break through.

How did the Reivers make a living?

The Reivers were skilled horsemen, being considered some of the finest light cavalry in Europe at the time as well as competent in dealing with livestock. They rode small agile horses with great stamina called a hobbler which allowed them to ride the rough landscape with ease, while driving any stolen cattle before them. Their knowledge of the local terrain was second to none and allowed for a quick entry and exit during a raid, reducing the possibility of being caught. This was vital as if the attacked survived, they soon gathered men for a chase and of course the Wardens would join the hunt to ensure official justice was carried out. However their local knowledge and ability to traverse the terrain quickly was also used by the monarchs of both countries to spy on and ambush invading armies coming over the border, or before.

Reivers at Gilnockie Tower, from a 19th-century print (Wiki)

Any rustled cattle, succesfully brought home, not only fed their families during the winter months, but any excess would be sold on the black market for a pretty penny. Kidnapping was another method of acquiring monies through a ransom, which in some cases kept blood feuds and deaths at bay.

However it wasn’t only animals that were stolen. The Reivers were not choosy and sometimes families were left penniless and destitute having had everything taken from them if they were lucky, as murder was also a normal result of a Reiver raid. The term bereaved originates from such indiscriminate slaughter of whole families by these riding families.

Interestingly, the Reivers also gave us the term blackmail, notable again from the Armstrongs and Grahams who, based on both sides of the border ran a successful protection rackets which relied on threats and their violent reputation and disposition. All in all, it seems that the Scottish Border Reivers may have helped write the basic training manual for most future criminal activity worldwide.

What of Carruthers? Well, like most of the rest we rode as Reivers and also rode with the Wardens to catch them. Not as large as some riding surnames, but larger than others, as we are mentioned in the history of the Borders as a prominent family.

A proud history lies behind us, some parts darker than others it seems, but it’s our history nevertheless and should not be altered or amended as it is who we are, and more importantly who we have become. Part II to follow.

Promptus et Fidelis

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