Reiver Families of Liddesdale and Canonbie in 1630

I’ve often seen it suggested that what with the wholesale hanging of reivers in the years following 1605 and the considerable exodus of reiver names to the Ulster Plantation after 1609, that areas like Liddesdale and the Debateable Lands of Canonbie were radically changed in the years that followed. And indeed most of the killing, plundering, blackmail and moonlight riding did stop. But what if we were able to see what families were living there in place of the reivers some twenty years later ?

By 1621, the Earl of Buccleuch had acquired pretty much all of Canonbie and much of Liddesdale. And thanks to the historical rental records of the Buccleuch estates we can see exactly who was tenanting all their farms in Liddesdale and Canonbie as early as 1630. I have transcribed the information as best as I can and the results may surprise you. The rental lists are shown in the two links below.

Liddesdale farm rentals in 1630

Canonbie farm rentals in 1630

In Liddesdale you can see that it’s pretty much all Armstrongs and  Ellotts with some Crosers , Nixons and Hendersons

In Canonbie it’s Armstrongs, Irvings and Bells with a few Grahams, Beatties and Littles for good measure. So pretty much the same mix of names that would have been found 30 years earlier.

What’s also noticeable is a smattering of the most infamous reiver families live on – there’s no less than 3 sons of Kinmont Willie and also Lancie Armstrong of Whithaugh. There’s a Clement and a Quentin Croser – definite echoes of their distinctively named reiver forebears.

For some families at least tenanting under  Buccleuch estate management  brought stability and longevity. My own family were Buccleuch tenants in Canonbie for at least 250 years.











Local Militia Lists

At the end of the 18th century, there was considerable concern in Great Britain that the post-revolution French might attempt to invade the country. As a result, names were collected locally, parish by parish , of able-bodied men who could form a militia if required to do so. At first it was a voluntary activity, until by 1802, it was expected that all 18-45 year old men would have their names put forward in the parish for a ballot to form a local militia. A very few occupations were exempt such as doctors.

Quite a number of these parish militia lists survive today, sometimes in local archives, or sometimes buried in estate papers and the like. Roxburghshire is extremely fortunate in that not only has an entire Lieutenancy Record book survived with militia lists from all parishes in the county from 1797 through to 1802, but it’s all posted online as part of the Scottish Archive Network resource at .  Have a look for your own family – all the common Border names feature heavily.

The extract above shows an example from the Kelso parish list – we see names and occupations, sometimes family relationships are mentioned and sometimes employers are named. It really is a valuable ‘census substitute’ for family historians. I was intrigued by no. 172 shown in the extract described as ‘William Young  Mugger’ .

It turns out that William was not someone who hung around dark alleys waiting for a victim, but , as I learned from the Concise Scots dictionary, was in fact an itinerant tinker. The name derived from someone who at one time sold earthenware mugs.


The Three Brethren

Migration and the Borders

In the last few months I’ve received a lot of enquiries from descendants of people who left the Borders and emigrated overseas. They left for their own reasons and frustratingly we don’t always know why that was.

But while the largely forced departure from the Highlands is widely known about and understood as ‘The Clearances’, much less is known about emigration from the South of Scotland which has been going on since about 1600. In the Highlands , we know that many of the landowners (often clan chiefs) chose to evict their tenants so that sheep could make more money for them. In the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, there were many different reasons for departure and it happened over more than 300 years.

After 1603, the Border crackdown by King James VI & I meant that many former reivers were forced to leave hurriedly for the Ulster plantation to avoid possible execution. Many of their descendants chose to emigrate to the United States or Canada in the 18th century. Military service often gave Borderers a taste of life and opportunities in other parts of the world and I believe this to be fairly significant when viewed over a 250 year window from 1700 through to 1950.

Many whose families had been pretty much static over hundreds of years moved from rural parts into the bustling mill towns like Hawick, Galashiels and Selkirk in the 19th century. Having made that initial move, there was then less reluctance to consider a move further afield, particularly with any downturn in the wool industry over the years. Of course it wasn’t just one way as the later 19th century saw immigration into important woollen centres like Hawick and Galashiels from other mill towns in Scotland like the Hillfoot villages of Clackmannanshire and Stirling and places like Lanark. Quite a number also came north from Cumbria and Yorkshire. Just take a look at the different places of birth of the residents of Hawick in the 1871 or 1881 census and you will see what I mean.

But if you have a story or even a mystery about your own ancestors leaving the Borders then please share it with us by replying to this post.

Old maps for family history

For over 150 years we’ve been spoiled by the marvellous accurate, detailed general maps of Scotland produced by the Ordnance Survey. Before that, many maps were produced perhaps for a wealthy landowner or for some specific purpose such as clarifying town and burgh boundaries.  They were often surveyed by a single surveyor with the minimum of assistance. On the one hand they are a unique record of a district at one moment in time, before the provision of central government-sponsored countrywide mapping. On the other hand, they can be hopelessly inaccurate, inconsistent and just plain misleading.

Thomas Kitchin for example was a prolific London-based, 18th century map maker who produced county maps for many parts of England and Scotland. However his map of Dumfriesshire which does in places show the smallest of villages fails to include larger places like Lockerbie and Thornhill. This basic error is typical when the map maker is somewhat distant from the surveying process and relies on others for survey information.

On the other hand, Matthew Stobie was an Edinburgh-based surveyor who was not known for producing many maps. But as well as a number of maps of parts of the Highlands though, he did produce an excellent detailed map of Roxburghshire over four sheets in 1770. Unlike many contemporary mapmakers, he attempts to map each and every house in the rural areas. This can be a real boon for family historians trying to work out exactly where their ancestors might have lived. A small part of his map showing the Jedburgh area is shown below – click on it to go to the full-size map. At this time others were able to avoid having to survey everything by using stylised representations of small groups of houses on a farm or in a hamlet which may not have represented the actual layout on the ground (cf. Crawford’s Map of Dumfriesshire, 1804)


For genealogists interested in any early 19th century Scottish burghs , John Wood produced a beautiful set of maps showing not just a detailed layout with all the street and close names, but often the names of all the property owners too.  Take a look at part of the John Wood map of the burgh of Selkirk dating from 1823 below.

selkirkwood And best of all is that all of these resources can be accessed free of charge from the comfort of your own home. These and many other maps are available on the National Library of Scotland’s website at .  And one of the more recent innovations on the site is the availability of geo-referenced overlays – the ability to overlay a modern map on top of an old map to see what has changed over time. This is infinitely fascinating for those of us with a love of maps and you can easily spend hours comparing old and new.





Migration to the Borders in the 19th Century

The Scottish Borders are often portrayed as an area of ancient traditions and people strongly wedded to their local communities. And while this is essentially still true, it belies the fact that in Victorian times , the migration of people into the mill towns of Hawick, Galashiels and Selkirk was every bit as dramatic as that we associate with coal, iron , steel and shipbuilding areas like Clydeside and Tyneside.


In Hawick it all took off in the late 18th century when Baillie John Hardie introduced early framework knitting machines (see left) . The Border hills had always been a natural home for sheep and the rivers provided a source of power for the mills and the industry took off in a big way. It grew constantly over the next one hundred years across the main Border towns. The population of Hawick increased more than four fold during the 19th century.

The Censuses show us that people moved from all parts of the United Kingdom to live and work in Hawick during this time. In 1901 over 800 residents of Hawick had been born in England. Perhaps surprisingly there were less than 200 from Ireland. Over 1000 though came from Dumfries and Galloway and almost 600 from Edinburgh and the Lothians. In fact there were woollen industry workers there from every county in Scotland. Throw in watchmakers and butchers from Germany, some ice cream sellers from Italy and returning Colonials from Australia and Canada and there is a cosmopolitan mix in Hawick, Galashiels and Selkirk at that time.

And that’s one of the reasons that keeps things interesting with family history research in the Borders. It is not just about the Scotts , Turnbulls, Olivers and Laidlaws but about the diverse surnames from across the countries of Scotland, England and beyond. It could just as well feature Spreng, Gaylor, Virtue and Nardini, all established names in Hawick in 1901.

Top Ten Kelso Surnames of 1780

For anyone interested in the history of Kelso and its people we are very fortunate to have a unique set of records dating from the later 18th century.


The Kelso Dispensary was set up in 1777 by local landowner, the Honourable Mrs Baillie of Jerviswood as a charitable hospital and surgery for everyone in Kelso and the surrounding area, paid for entirely by voluntary subscription from some of the wealthier members of the community. It treated hundreds of local people every year and thankfully almost all of the patient records survive to the present day. They are deposited in the archives of the National Records of Scotland and a project to index them fully has been started (see

The records detail exactly which parish each patient came from, their age, ailment and the result of their treatment – whether ‘Cured’, ‘Relieved’, or in occasional cases ‘Dead’. Indeed, while searching for someone else, I stumbled upon a record for my wife’s direct ancestor Christopher Black from Sprouston who is recorded as having died in 1827 , the result of ‘pulmonary affection’. This is the only place that I have found his death recorded. He was just 27 years old, and his youngest child Christian was yet to be born.

This was very much the local NHS of its time and one of only a handful of such institutions in Scotland. The popularity of the Dispensary across the age and social spectrum means that patient records are useful in documenting the local Kelso community of the time. A look through the surnames throws up many names still familiar in Kelso in 2015. I’ve analysed names for all those attending in the first 5 years (1777 – 1782) who are listed as from Kelso parish and have been able to come up with a Top 10 of the most popular surnames. They are as follows

Top Kelso Surnames of 1780

  1. Ker
  2. Dickson
  3. Stuart
  4. Lamb
  5. Craig
  6. Rutherford
  7. Watson
  8. Bain
  9. Turnbull
  10. Cockburn

At least 5 of these surnames (Ker, Dickson, Rutherford, Turnbull, Cockburn) have distinctive Border origins and so would be expected in 18th century Kelso.  But the presence of so many names from elsewhere is perhaps typical of a prosperous market town where traders had been coming and going for centuries. It would be interesting to follow up with a later sample of names from 50 years later in 1830 to see what has changed. The Dispensary records continue right into the 20th century so there is plenty of scope for investigation !

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.

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


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]