by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the March 2005, A.S. XXXIX issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
In popular imagination, the Scottish border region during the Middle Ages had the same sort of atmosphere as the American Old West. But like the legends of the Old West, the tales of the borderlands, while containing the kernel of the truth, are exaggerations of reality. While the reality is more complex then what can be contained in this essay, it can show a less melodramatic version.
The Scottish borderlands lie roughly between the Tyne River to the south (the trace of Hadrian’s Wall) and the Tweed River on the north. In-between are the Cheviot Hills. The hills made travel both north-south and east-west difficult. Therefore the population centered along the coasts and river valleys. The border lies here not so much because the geography is impassable but because it was an economic wasteland, with little wealth to fight for, or support military operations.
The history of the eastern half of the region begins around 547 when the Angle Ida founded a settlement at Bamburgh which would become the kingdom of Bernicia. Ida came from the kingdom of Deira situated around the Humber River. These two kingdoms would later merge to form Northumbria. For its first fifty years, Bernicia fought a seesaw war with the local Britons. That all changed under the Northumbrian king Aethelfrith shortly after 600. Victory at Degsastan in 603 allowed expansion to the Scottish Southern Uplands to the north. Another victory in Chester around 614 opened lands to the Irish Sea to the west. While dynastic struggles lasted through the 7th century, life did not change much in the borderlands till the Danes crushed Northumbria in 866.
The western part of the borderlands formed the British kingdom of Rheged. The kingdom is best known as the home of the poet Taliesin, who lived during this period. One of his prime subject matters was of King Urien and his struggles against the Angles of Bernicia. While the death of Urien ended Celtic hopes of driving out the Saxons in the north, a form of independence lasted until 1018.
The coming of the Vikings at the end of the 8th century causes considerable damages as monasteries and coastal settlements were sacked and looted. Yet local control remained in the hands of the Celtic kings in the west and the family of the Bernicia kings in the east.
Change came in 1018. With the death of the last of the Celtic rulers, Malcolm II of Scotland seized the western reaches as far south as Lancaster. In 1031 Cnut marched north to retake those lands, forced Malcolm’s submission, and reduce the independence of the Bernicia family. He left after putting these lands under the jurisdiction of Siward, the Earl of Northumbria.
In the aftermath of 1066, the Scots reasserted their claim until 1092 when William Rufus refixed the boundary. In 1137 during the chaos of the reign of King Stephen, the Scottish king David I again claim the land, only for his son Malcolm IV to be compelled to give it up by Henry II. Since that time the acknowledged border between Scotland and England has largely remained unchanged.
Except for the coasts and river valleys, the primary means of living was pastoral. And even where crops were grown, the harvest was barely enough for local consumption. The nobility was largely absentee, reflected by the low numbers of knight service required from the region, and the low number of castles in the area.
Prior to 1300 the borderland was a land to itself. While the local population was aware of the border it was little hindrance. Herds moved back and forth, and trade was conducted in the nearest urban center regardless of side of the border it lies. In 1249 a special Anglo-Scottish commission created the ‘Laws of the Marches’ to handle cross-border criminality. And the local nobility and religious establishments had estates on both sides of the border. Allegiances were more a function of lifestyle then location with respect to an imaginary line. As one person put it: “our lawless people will be Scottish when they will, and English at their pleasure”.
In the beginning years of the Scottish War of Independence with William Wallace and Robert Bruce, the borderlands were little affected other then being marshaling points for the English thrusts northward. However, beginning in 1318 the Scots began a series of raids which routinely reached Durham to the south and further, and harrowed the eastern lands. More lasting was the lost of lands across the border by various nobles on both sides of the conflict.
Herein lie the seeds of that most notorious time of the borderlands, the time of the rievers. The dispossessed Scottish lands were given to the Douglases, while in England, the eastern lands were given to the Percys, and the western to the Nevilles. By the 1360’s these marcher lords were going at it as much as for personal gain as they acted as national surrogates. For should they lose, their new lands would revert to the older claimants from the other side. Much of this activity ended by 1410 as the conflict between Scotland and England shifted to other fields.
What followed for the next century was a sort of ‘cold war’ of occasional raids. While it formally ended in 1502, the raids continued late into the century. In an unusual twist, the standard stronghold of the region was not a castle or fortified manor, though they did exist, but the local church. Priests were expected the lead the local defense as well as worship. It was only as the Reformation penetrated the region and reformed the clergy that the borderlands calmed down.
The ballads and tales of the Scottish borderlands are filled with raids and counter-raids, of ambush and revenge, a pervasive atmosphere of outlawry. And these things did happen. But they were only occasionally things, when a momentary weakness of the enemy presented an opportunity. The borderlands were too lightly populated, too poor to long sustain such activity. And most of that was prompted by events outside the region. Like the American West, the borderland was a frontier. And like the American West, violence was more prevalent in literature then in reality.
Barrow, Geoffrey. " Frontier and Settlement: Which Influenced Which? England and Scotland, 1100-1300" Medieval Frontier Societies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989: 3-22.
Brown, Michael. The Black Douglases: War and Lordship in Late Medieval Scotland, 1300-1455. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 1998.
Chadwick, Nora. The Celts. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1970.
Fisher, D.J.V.. The Anglo-Saxon Age c. 400-1042. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992.
Goodman, Anthony. "Religion and Warfare in the Anglo-Scottish Marches." Medieval Frontier Societies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989: 245-266.
Paterson, Raymond Campbell. For the Lion: A History of the Scottish Wars of Independence 1297-1357. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1996.
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