Bloody Ties — My Link To The Border Reivers And Carlisle’s Cursing Stone
Original Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash.com
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to travel in the far north of England, the moors and hills of the Cheviots and Pennines, though beautiful, are not the most hospitable of environments. Modern residents, with access to contemporary innovations like properly surfaced roads, well-stocked supermarkets, and internet service of a sort, are still cut off by snow and ice on occasion in winter, even when they don’t live too far from the beaten track.
Living up in the wilds does favor those of a more pragmatic bent even now. It’s not the sort of situation that those who are reduced to jelly by the first signs of adversity would be able to cope with.
That is also true of the historical residents of the Borderlands of Northumberland, Cumbria, and Southern Scotland. I can only imagine the privations involved in living there from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century. The logistics of basic survival in those times truly boggle the mind. Apart from the usual suspects of short life expectancy, infant mortality, poor land that makes subsistence almost impossible, and disease, there was the added risk of being murdered or beaten while having your livestock rustled and having your money, supplies, and occasionally relatives stolen by your fractious neighbors.
These neighbors and robbers, known as the Border Reivers, are my ancestors and also the ancestors of a significant number of my friends and acquaintances. You’ll notice that I haven’t divided these groups out into innocent people scratching out an existence on the hostile moors and vile brigands. That’s because Border families were both scratching an existence on the inhospitable moors, and robbing and killing those next door.
By CompleteAnonymity — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82386107
As part of the Millennium Celebrations, the city of Carlisle in England commissioned a sculpture to stand in pride of place in the underpass between Tullie House Museum and Carlisle Castle. On the stone is carved a curse originally written by the then Archbishop of Glasgow, Gavin Dunbar.
This was to blight the Border Reivers, whose family names are all too familiar. The entire curse is worth a read if only on the grounds of its sheer viciousness and adept closure of all possible loopholes. There is literally no piece of a Reiver that remains un-cursed. I haven’t quoted it all here, due to its length, but the first verse alone gives you a taste of the spirit of pure rage in which it was written.
“I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain (innermost thoughts), their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their leggs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without.”
BBC - Cumbria Features In 1525 the reivers had become such a nuisance that the then Archbishop of Glasgow, Gavin Dunbar, put a curse up all… www.bbc.co.uk There is a long list of names carved into the walkway leading from Tullie House to the site of the Cursing Stone itself.
Anderson, Armstrong, Beattie, Bell, Blackadder, Bromfield, Burns, Carlisle, Carnaby, Carr, Carruthers, Charlton, Collingwood, Cranston, Craw, Croser, Crozier, Curwen, Dacre, Davison, Dixon, Dodd, Douglas, Dunn, Elliot, Fenwick, Forster, Gilchrist, Glendenning, Graham, Gray, Hall, Harden, Hedley, Henderson, Heron, Hetherington, Hodgson, Hume, Hunter, Irvine, Jamieson, Jardine, Johnstone, Kerr, Laidlaw, Latimer, Little, Lowther, Maxwell, Medford, Milburn, Mitford, Moffat, Musgrave, Nixon, Noble, Ogle, Oliver, Potts, Pringle, Radcliffe, Reed, Ridley, Robson, Routledge, Rowell, Rutherford, Salkeld, Scott, Selby, Shaftoe, Simpson, Stamper, Stapleton, Stokoe, Storey, Tailor, Tait, Thompson, Thomson, Trotter, Turnbull, Turner, Wake, Wilkinson, Wilson, Witherington, Yarrow, Young.
You can’t get moved for people who hail from the old Border Reiver families from the Solway to the Tweed. Like a lot of people whose ancestors are named and condemned by the Archbishop, I’m unsure about my feelings regarding being one of the accursed, and there are certainly a lot of us around. I’m also fairly certain that the curse hasn’t worked all that well otherwise, about 60% of the local population are having a truly terrible time.
A little lockdown genealogy led me to find out a little more information about my own ancestors. It came to light that my great-grandmother’s family were called Graham and hailed from Redesdale in Northumberland, in the parish of Corsenside. This used to have a higher population, but now only the villages of Ridsdale, West Woodburn, and East Woodburn remain with about 600 inhabitants.
The wider Graham clan also lived in Liddesdale across the border in Scotland. It’s quite a leap to reconcile my tiny deaf-as-a-post, ardent Methodist and TV-wrestling-loving Nana Kate with the scourge of the Scottish/Cumberland/Northumberland border, but it’s clear from the records that the family was resident in this area since time immemorial and only started drifting away from the area in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.
The people of Redesdale also played an important role in the Tudor monarchy’s military strategy to resist Scottish Invasion due to their experience of border warfare; however, the Tudor military was acutely aware that they were walking on profoundly sketchy ground with the Borderers. The Reiver families' alliances with royal armies were expedient at best, with their greatest loyalty being to their familial ties. Those who sought to engage them in their military endeavors knew of their ruthlessness and that they were fundamentally not to be trusted.
Sometimes giving a label to something gives the mistaken impression that there is some unifying feature, and so it is with the Border Reivers. The one unifying characteristic appears to be a willingness to ride out to rob the people who lived nearby, rather than it being a movement. The Border Reivers ravaged the “Debatable Lands”, a stripe across the far north of England and Southern Scotland where the ties of sovereign government were weakest.
As no-one could trust the crown to protect them on either side, the people banded along familial lines to offer them a bulwark against the predations of their rivals. Due to the demands, and sometimes the brutality, of traversing armies, a group or family that decided to hitch their wagon to one side or another would create an excuse to rob a neighbor of land and property and engage in tit for tat revenge.
Due to the ruggedness of the terrain and its unsuitability for arable use, it was a precarious existence that left a stark choice between sticking with the people who held power in the area and starving.
It was the sheer scale of the banditry that makes it stand out. These so-called ne’r-do-wells, rustlers, highwaymen, and scoundrels (survivors to put it another way) were the bane of all from Bowness-on-Solway in the west to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the East. That is pretty impressive on its own, but when you consider there were times where English raiders made it as far north as the outskirts of Edinburgh, and Scottish raiders made it down to Yorkshire, you realize the sheer bloody-mindedness and determination involved.
Notably, during the Great Raid of 1322 led by Robert the Bruce, the raiders made it as far south as Chorley in Lancashire. These were scary men and women forged in brutal and uncompromising times.
Borderers were encouraged by both the Scottish and English crowns to engage in pre-emptive skirmishes, as well as forming a backdrop to events such as the Battle of Flodden in 1513. James IV of Scotland disastrously engaged English forces near Branxton, Northumberland, resulting in James’ death, leaving his infant son on the throne. This was due to Scotland’s allegiance to the “Auld Alliance” with France, which meant that Scotland was on much better political terms with the French crown, rather than their immediate neighbor.
The Scots sent a large number of their infantry to support the French against the English to the South who did not make it back in time, which meant that the Scottish force that met the better-prepared English forces at Flodden was made up of a significant number of Border Reivers.
As befits wily survivors, in later years, those same families would be fighting alongside the English up until, and sometime after the unification of the Scottish and English Crowns in 1603.
On a lighter — if somewhat bloodthirsty — note, the Graham family also gets a mention in one of the more famous apocryphal Reiver Stories.
There is a well known tradition that the Robsons of North Tynedale once made a foray into the Scottish valley of Liddesdale and stole a large flock of sheep belonging to the Graham family, which they brought back into Northumberland. Later it was discovered that the Graham sheep were infected with scab, which spread like wild fire through the Robson’s flock. The Robsons were so angry that they returned to Liddesdale in another raid, where they caught seven members of the Graham family and hung them until they were dead. They left a note to the effect that; “The neist time gentlemen cam to tak their schepe They are no te’ be scabbit!” = “The next time gentlemen come to take their sheep, they’d better not have scab.” (Source — www.dandt-graham.me.uk)
That said, due to necessity, the Reiving life made sense in that families often gave as good as they got and, over time, got better at defending themselves. The 15th century saw a surge in the building of Pele Towers and Bastle Houses, in contrast to the less sturdy dwellings that could be destroyed when settlements were raided, though it also helped that both the Scottish and English could see a distinct benefit in encouraging fortifications on its boundaries after centuries of invasions and retreats by both sides. The Gatehouse Gazetteer is a good source of information if castle hunting is your thing (Obviously when this pesky pandemic is over).
There’s still some easily detectable “fire in the belly” features to the northern character that others can find disconcerting, not least because in this stripe across the UK we’re a linguistic gradient or a blend between English and Scottish, so comprehensibility can be an issue.
I also suspect there’s also always the fear that those of us descended from brigands have allegiances that are entirely our own, as being hardy and practical makes us difficult to subdue. Oddly enough, living on the edge of history for centuries tends to have that effect and folk memory ripples into the present.
www.gatehouse-gazetteer.info The Gatehouse website list of medieval Pele Towers in England Acton Hall, Felton le Bastle Northumberland no visible Adderstone Tower Turris de Ederston Northumberland no visible… www.gatehouse-gazetteer.info Northumberland's ruined border reiver village - and where to find it Evistones in the rolling Northumberland countryside lies in ruins and is long-deserted - but it was once home to… theworldnews.net Site Details - Keys To The Past Interior of Church of St Cuthbert, Corsenside. Photo by Harry Rowland. This medieval church dates back to the 12th… www.keystothepast.info Border Bloodshed - Dr. Neil Murphy, Northumbria University - Revitalising Redesdale Dr. Neil Murphy, Head of History at Northumbria University, has been awarded funding to delve into Redesdale's… www.revitalisingredesdale.org.uk History of the Graham name Although Graham is generally regarded as Scottish the general opinion is that our Grahams were Irish.Apparently the… www.dandt-graham.me.uk
Adams, Simon. “Battle of Flodden”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Sep. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Flodden. Accessed 24 January 2021.