The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser

The Steel Bonnets 001The full title of this book is The Steel Bonnets: the Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser. It’s a detailed account of the Border between England and Scotland up to the accession of James VI’s succession to the English throne in 1603.

The people living in the Borders, both English and Scottish feuded amongst themselves, Scots against Scots, English against English, and Scots against English – robbery, blackmail, raiding, arson, kidnapping, murder and extortion were regular events during that period, amongst a number of families, including Armstrongs, Johnstones, Forsters and Hetheringtons, Elliots, Fenwicks, Bells and Nixons, Littles and Scotts, Maxwells and Kerrs. Some families had both English and Scottish members, making it all very confusing. Fraser searched many sources in compiling this history, including State and Border papers and letters, listed in the Bibliography.

There is a map showing the six Marches that made up the Border – three on each side, East, Middle and West. Each March had its own Warden. It’s not very easy to see on my copy of this map, but it shows the general locations:

Border Marches map

The seamen of the first Elizabeth might sweep the world’s greatest fleet off the seas, but for all the protection she could give to her Northumbrian peasants they might as well have been in Africa. While young Shakespeare wrote his plays, and the monarchs of England and Scotland ruled the comparatively secure hearts of their kingdoms, the narrow hill land between was dominated by the lance and the sword. The tribal leaders from their towers, the broken men and outlaws of the mosses, the ordinary peasants of the valleys, in their own phrase, “Shook loose the Border.” They continued to shake it as long as it was a political reality, practising systematic robbery and destruction on each other. History has christened them the Border Reivers.*

*Reiver, reaver – robber, raider, marauder, plunderer. the term is obsolete, but lingers on in words like bereave. (page 3)

The book is divided into five parts:

  • Part I a brief historical sketch up to 1500 from the Roman period.
  • Part II describing what the Border was like in that century, the people who lived there, who were the leading robber families, how they lived, ate, dressed, built their homes, the games they played (football, the fore-runner of rugby, soccer and American football, horse racing, hawking, hunting, fishing and gambling), and the songs they sang – Border ballads.
  • Part III – about the reivers, how they rode their raids, conducted their feuds etc and the Border Law, and how the March Wardens tried to keep order, what it was like for ordinary folk living in the frontier country.
  • Part IV – historical survey of the reiving century from 1503 – 1603, how the reivers fitted into the history of their time and the part they played in the long-drawn Anglo- Scottish struggle..
  • Part V – how their story ended when England and Scotland came under one king, and the old Border ceased to be.

James became the King of all Britain in 1603:

… he was determined to make one country where there had been two before, to bury the old quarrels, and to keep the peace. (page 360)

Fraser makes the point that whilst James pacified the Borders using a

‘heavy hand and it makes an ugly story’, … ‘at the end of the day he left the old, wild, bloody Border a fit place for ordinary folk to live. If the border riders were harshly dealt with, it is not irrelevant to point out that they had dealt fairly harshly in their time. Undoubtedly injustice and atrocity took place in settling the frontier, but the victims are not to be accounted any nobler just because of that.

It is also wrong to suggest that James was ignorant of Border conditions. He knew a great deal about them, from first-hand experience – certainly more than any occupant of the English throne since Richard III. He may be charged with cruelty, indifference and dishonesty in his attitude to Border affairs, but not with ignorance or stupidity. (pages 360 -361)

It’s taken me since the beginning of December to read this book. I read it slowly in small sections as there is a lot to take in and I found the structure of the book a bit confusing and disjointed, as inevitably it meant that information was repeated. There are a large number of footnotes, which interrupted the flow of the text if I paused to read them – which I did, as they contained much relevant information. I would have preferred it to have been incorporated into the main body of the book.

However, I’m glad I read it – it’s a tour de force, and a mine of information! An ideal book for Read Scotland 2014 if you are interested in the history of the region and/or the families, or like me, you live there.

George MacDonald Fraser (1925 – 2008) was a Scot born in England (Carlisle), a Borderer himself. In 1943 he enlisted in The Border Regiment and served in the Burma Campaign. He was later granted a commission into the Gordon Highlanders. After the War he became a journalist. He was the author of the ‘Flashman‘ books, other novels and movie scripts.

Saturday Snapshots

Coldstream Old Marriage House

This is the 18th century Old Marriage House in Coldstream. It was also the Toll House for the bridge, which crosses the River Tweed from Coldstream in Scotland to Cornhill-on-Tweed in England. The Old Marriage House is at the Scottish end of the bridge and is now a private home. But from 1754 until 1856 it was popular (like the Smithy at Gretna Green) for runaway marriages, because during that period under Scottish law couples could get married without parental consent and without giving prior public notice.

In the 19th century 1,446 ‘irregular’ marriages, valid in Scots law were conducted by ‘priests’, whose numbers included local men such as shoemakers and molecatchers. During that period five earls and at least two, maybe three, Lord Chancellors of England were married there.

Coldstream Bridge P1060422This is the Coldstream Bridge, built between 1763-6, designed by John Smeaton. It replaced the old ford across the river.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alyce’s blog At Home With Books.

Saturday Snapshot

On a grey, dismal day in May we visited Smailholm Tower in the Scottish Borders. It’s a four-storey tower house on a base of volcanic rock, a stark feature on the skyline between Kelso and Selkirk in the Tweed Valley.

(click on the photos to enlarge)

It was built in the 15th century by the Pringle family on Smailholm Craig, providing protection from the elements and from raiding parties of English reivers (raiders).

Standing 650ft (200m) above sea level, it’s walls are 9ft (2.5m) thick and 65ft (20m) high and it has one small entrance in the south wall and tiny windows.

Inside it’s quite dark and most of my photos inside aren’t very good. There’s a spiral staircase giving access to all five floors and the battlements.

In 1645 the Pringle family sold the tower and Smailholm Craig to the Scott family. Sir Walter Scott lived at Smailholm for a while with his grandmother and Aunt Janet after he’d had polio because they thought the fresh country air would be good for him. It was his aunt who told him tales of the Border countryside which gave him his passion for folklore and history.

The three upper floors house an exhibition of costume figures and tapestries to illustrate Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Borders, his collection of ballads. The photo below is of the Queen of the Fairies:

and below is one of little Walter Scott and his Aunt Janet:

I was fascinated by the roof of the tower, because it’s covered in turf, making a living roof:

There are spectacular views of the surrounding countryside on the way up. Below is the view of the Eildon Hills through a window:and even more panoramic views from the battlements:

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alyce’s blog At Home With Books.