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.

18 thoughts to “The joy of researching the Border reiver families”

  1. Thanks for an interesting read. I was wondering if you can help me. Have you ever heard of the places called Greystoke and Penrith I’ve traced my line of Grahams to those places in England. One of our relatives from that region ended up a convict and transported to western Australia he then became bush ranger known as William the fiddler Graham.

    1. My daughter married a Kiwi Graham and my wife has traced the roots of the family back to north of Carlisle were they appear to have been for a very long time

  2. Penrith is a town about 25 miles south of the parish of Kirkandrews in England, the main area where the border Grahams lived up to 1603. Greystoke is a small village about 4 miles from Penrith.

    After 1603, the English authorities tried twice to forcibly transport all the Grahams that they could find firstly to Holland and then, when that failed, to Roscommon in Ireland. Ultimately it failed and many made their way back to Cumberland.

    So over 200 years later your William hadn’t really moved far until of course his transportation to WA which was clearly more effective than the previous attempts !

    1. Thanks for the info, yep my Grahams are bad to the bone its in the blood. Even as a young fellow my best friends had riever surnames such Armstrong, Elliot, and Bell not knowing about our family histories on the other side of the planet. Many convicts and early settlers took aboriginal wives my family included sadly devastating the ancient original culture and the lawful marriages that were central to a very cohesive and relatively peaceful society.
      Jeff Graham.

  3. I’ve got my Elliott ancestry back to 1765 (well a relative of my father has!): one John Elliott born that year who married one Dorothy Dawson, born 1768. I have not yet tried to go further back. I also have the reiver surnames Grahams, Turners and Charltons (the later on my Mother’s side) in my ancestry.

  4. Interesting. Is the Calendar if Border papers available for research. I’m related to the Forster’s of Stonegarthside and I’m curious to find if the Ro Forster mentioned on the map was the first Forster there and whether he was related to the Forsters of Bamburgh.

    1. Robert, there are two volumes for the Calendar of Border Papers. Volume 1 covers the years 1560-1594 and Volume 2 covers 1595-1603. You can find pdf copies of it on the internet (it’s well out of copyright !). For example I can find volume 1 here – and volume 2 here – They’re indexed so you can find the specific names you’re looking for easily. I think they’re fascinating.

    2. I have just seen your message re the Forsters of Stonegarthside, I too am related to these Forsters,and finding it quite hard going as they all seem to give their children the same names, ie Elizabeth, William, Andrew and John. I would appreciate any hints or tips to help find out about my family. Many thanks, Sheila Stuart.

  5. My Surname Redden is often said to originate from Reddenburn near the borders of Scotland and England.I even found a farm named redden from there currently!!!,,,Is that a family name that can be traced to the Borders?

    1. Yes John you can consider yourself as a Borderer now ! The bible for Scottish surnames is ‘The Surnames of Scotland’ compiled by George F.Black. He says it comes from Redden near Sprouston which itself is near the town of Kelso. This is now a farm with a number of cottages on it. Black says that the very first recorded bearer of the name was Henry de Reueden who witnessed a charter around 1170.

      Redden is one mile from the English border (and I’m writing this no more than 7 miles from Redden now).

  6. My ancestors are Thompsons, Milburns and Charlton.I have found information about Milburn and Charlton but I am stuck on the Thompsons.They are all from Northumberland so I am assuming they must be defended from Reivers

  7. Can you give me any info on the Wilkinsons. Originally from Norham and it’s surrounding area. Why can’t I find the surname on the border Reiver map

    1. Sarah, my interest has been mostly on the Scottish side and therefore the Wilkinsons don’t feature. But looking at the Calendar of Border Papers which records many of the misdeeds committed by the reivers, especially of the Scottish side, the name Wilkinson crops up many times as part of local musters in some English villages and towns mainly in Cumberland. There are also a few Wilkinsons in the East March although not in Norham. It does also mention one Christopher Wilkin having to pay blackmail to Richie Graham at one point. So from the evidence I can find they are the victims rather than the perpetrators !

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