Andrew’s Blog

The joy of researching the Border reiver families

What are the chances of being able to research ordinary Scottish ancestors from the 16th century ? Normally, the answer has to be next to none. If you weren’t nobility or titled then almost certainly no records will survive to even hint at your existence. Its too early for almost all surviving church records , except perhaps for the minister himself. Almost no headstones survive from that era. And what about property transactions, however unlikely that may be for an average ancestor ?  Well the  register of sasines was only started properly in 1617. A DNA test might demonstrate genetic succession but it wouldn’t tell you anything about 16th century lives.

1590map
A 1590 map of strong Scottish towers on Liddesdale drawn by an English ‘spy’.

But what if your actions presented a real risk to national and international security ?  What if your area was considered to be beyond the law ?  Then , not so different from modern times, the state was interested and your actions would be spied upon, noted and reported to the highest authorities in the land. And thankfully, most of this intelligence has survived to the present day.  As a result, there exists a marvellous legacy of information about the actions of many families who lived close to the Anglo-Scottish border and supplemented their meagre incomes with cross-border crimes of theft, blackmail, ransom and murder on a regular basis throughout the 16th century.

The Calendar of Border Papers is a compilation of intelligence gathered on the English side of the Border between 1560 and 1603 which includes complaints made by English residents about crimes committed against them mainly by Scottish reivers, letters between various English officials and indeed the Queen herself on occasion, and reports from spies and other Border officials about key individual troublemakers. On the Scottish side, the Register of the Privy Council of Scotland deals with pressing matters from the southern frontier and names many border troublemakers too.

These sources and others have allowed us in modern times to examine the importance of kinship in defining how the Border reivers operated and how the various families, closely allied to very particular territory on the Border , interacted with one another. Genealogy is all about family relationships and nothing defined the Border more than the fierce family loyalties of the time.  The use of To-Names in official descriptions helps us to imagine the character,appearance and indeed humour of some of our ancestors whether it’s Willie ‘Redcloak’ Bell, Ill Will Armstrong or Archie ‘Fire the Braes’ Elliot. The ringleaders played a long strategic game with the authorities. The calculated way in which many of them married girls from across the Border succeeded in undermining the authorities of each country by creating important cross-Border family alliances.

So the study of the genealogy of the Border reiving families allows us a unique insight into 16th century life however untypical it may have been. Like Sir Walter Scott before us (who was directly descended from a notorious reiver) , we may choose to romanticise this undoubtedly brutal lifestyle , but if that helps to bring our history alive and make it feel relevant for us today then is that such a bad thing ?  I contend that the story of the reiving families of both Scotland and England that we can construct from contemporary sources is an absolutely fascinating one and one that I’m delighted to be involved with. We may not always be able to identify specific individual ancestors in this era but we can build up a considerable picture of their kinsfolk and where and how they lived. For me genealogy is as much about understanding contemporary lifestyle of the greater family groups than it is about a single name in a family tree.

Bondagers in Berwickshire and Roxburghshire

bondager1

One of the fascinating things about looking at old censuses is the glimpse that you get into a world which has entirely disappeared. Return to around 1860 and large numbers of rural women and girls were working as bondagers in a system peculiar to the Eastern Borders and Northumberland. A married ploughman (known as a hind) would require to engage another person willing to work long hours in the fields in order to get a contract of employment with a farmer. This was normally a woman. It could be his wife, daughter or a complete stranger. In the case of a stranger being taken on, the hind was required to provide bed and board for the woman and pay her for work done. This ancient feudal system was deeply unpopular with the hinds who felt they got a raw deal. They often only had one room for the whole family and the bondager to live in and were expected to provide her with food and clean her clothes too.  After much unrest in the middle of the 19th century, matters came to a head in 1866 and finally the system of bondage started to be done away with, with the woman continuing to work hard outdoors, but with a direct contract of employment with the farmer. They were then normally referred to as ‘out workers’.

One notable feature of the bondager was the distinctive costume that they wore with extravagant hats and often colourful skirts and wraps. The costume continued beyond the end of the bondage system and could be seen in Border fields up until the period between the 2 World Wars. More information on The Bondagers website.

If you had ancestors who were agricultural labourers in the arable fields of Berwickshire or Roxburghshire in the 19th century then its quite likely that they will have been involved in this system. The census enumerator doesn’t always use the term ‘bondager’ but when you find a record of a family of agriculural labourers apparently with an unrelated servant girl living with them, then that is very likely to be a bondager household.

[photo shows bondagers and hinds in Lowick, Northumberland from thebondagers.com]

Dr Guthrie’s Schools, Edinburgh

One of the great joys of researching family history on behalf of others is when you encounter archives previously unknown to you in the pursuit of your quest. I’ve discovered via health board records that my client’s grandmother was resident in a Dr Guthrie’s school in the 1930’s. I previously had not encountered this name but have since become familiar with the organisation. Dr.Thomas Guthrie was a Victorian minister and philanthropist who established the Edinburgh Original Ragged Industrial Schools in 1847 to educate some of the destitute children found on the city streets.  Over time the schools evolved, coming into the state education system around 1920 and later becoming ‘approved schools’ for the care of juvenile offenders and children requiring protection.

Although some of the personal records for these schools are closed for 100 years, I’ve obtained permission for my client to access the admission registers herself at the National Records of Scotland which will hopefully give her information about the family that her grandmother came from. The NRS catalogue suggests that these registers record the pupil’s name, age, birthplace, where, when, and by whom ordered to be detained, with what charged, term of detention, when admitted, name/address/occupation of parents, birthplace, parish, state of instruction and disposal. I look forward to accompanying my client to access these records very soon. As there are no other family links available this is the only way that my client can trace her family background so we are very hopeful of a positive result.

Records of Dr Guthrie’s schools covering the period of 1852 to 1985 are kept by the National Records of Scotland under reference GD425. Details of how to get permission to access specific records is included on the NRS Catalogue