Home » Ballads »


Reiver Ballads


Text Too Small?



Reiver Ballads

These ballads reflect the most active era of the Border reivers. They are slightly different from other traditional ballads, as they use the first person singular and plural more, which tends to draw the listener into the tale and aligns both the listener and the singer with the ballad characters: these characters often have parallels in history, but the presentation of the character in the ballad must not be taken as representative of the actual person – although the ballads may provide an interesting alternative or addition to the historic presentation.
The ballads presented here are by no means the only reiver ballads. However, they offer a good cross-section of the type of tales the reiver ballads contain. There are desperate rescues, exciting chases, robbery, horse-theft, death and revenge.

The Border Reivers

While it is difficult to date precisely the emergence of the reivers, the area along the Scottish-English Border had been systematically fought over, burned, plundered by the armies of both nations, from the Wars of Independence onwards. Many of the dominant families of the area established their lands and powerbases during these troubled times, although some, like the Douglases, had lost  much of their power by the era of the reivers. While the lords and nobles may have been able to avoid some of the worst of the excesses of battles, routes, burnings and general laying waste, the ordinary people learned not to put their trust in far off royal courts and kingly treaties. They did not tend to farm land which could be destroyed by war; they did not built substantial dwellings, which could be torn down; and they did not expect wrongs done to them to be rectified by distant courts and councils. Instead, a culture developed on both  sides of the Border, which saw armed raids and counter-raids becoming a viable means to collect wealth and goods. Kinship ties were strengthened, some families became dominant within a certain area, and long-standing feuds developed – not only north and south of the Border, but within the bounds of Scotland and England. These kinship ties were often stronger than national allegiances, and on more than one occasion, the Border wardens – the men who were meant to oversee the legal framework of the areas – doubted their own men’s loyalties.

This frontier, which was often extremely turbulent, also created a buffer-zone between Scotland and England, and it may have suited certain monarchs that the inhabitants spent a deal of time preying on their neighbours. The monarchy also viewed the area a a good source of fighting men, so there were advantages to both royal courts, which could have, at times, outweighed the frustration and the cost of manpower policing both sides of the Border created.

This system of living permeated through all social tiers, for, as elsewhere in Scotland and England, certain families, through advantageous marriages, land grabbing, political expediency and so on, became more dominant than others. A reiver, then, could be a lord or a low-born man. He may have lived in a bastle or tower, he may have lived in a near-hovel. He may have lived with his family, or in what we might view as an outlaw band. The state of being a reiver was not defined by your status, and the Border reiver does not have a parallel in other area of Scotland or England.

The Families

The ballads contain characters, which carry the names of some of the most infamous families. On the Scottish side, the Armstrongs, the Elliots, the Scotts, the Maxwells, the Johnstones and the Kerrs were  some of the most dominant. South of the Border, the Musgraves, the Forsters, the Fenwicks and the Carletons were equally dominant and troublesome. The Grahams were, arguably, the most notorious of the cross-Border clans, and thanks to their intermarriages and depredations, seemed equally loathed by both the Scottish and English courts.

There were many individuals with the same surname, and there was also a limited number of first names used: there are many Johns, Roberts (also Hob and Rob), Simons, Christophers (also Christie or Creste), Williams, Walters and so on – often within the same immediate family. To provide specific identification, the Borderers used a numbers of identifiers. A man could be known by his ancestry, so you may have John’s Christie, or Sim’s Will. This could be continued a generation on, and so names such as of  John’s Christie’s Wat, or Sim’s Will’s Hob occur.  Very occasionally, you find a man named after his mother. Another form of identification was from the place where someone lived, so you can find John of the Hollace, William of Kinmont or Jock of the Peartrees. Perhaps the most interesting form of identification were the nicknames which many reivers had. Some referred to their appearance, such as Willie “Redcloak” Bell, Nebless Cleme Croser and Fingerless Will Nixon. Others seem to be related to exploits – such as Archie Fire-the-Braes, Ill-drowned Geordie or Gav-yt-hem. The source of others is less obvious, but they make for interesting reading and no doubt made it clear who was being referred to – these include the likes of Dand the Man, ower-the-Moss, Mouse, Unhappy Anthone, Hob the King, As-it-Luiks or Sweetmilk.

It should be noted that as many of the historic documents are related to land, succession and criminality, most of the information we have about the reivers relate to men. In books such as The Calendar of Border Papers, women are often referred to as someone’s daughter, sister, widow or wife.

How the Border Operated

Nineteenth century copy of Burghley's “Platt of the opposite Border of Scotland to ye West Marches of England”

In an attempt to control the area, both sides of the Border had been divided into Marches: there was the Scottish East, Middle and West March, with its English Counterpart. Each March was under the control of a Warden, who had deputies, captains and land sergeants to assist in the day-to-day running of the area. The English crown often saw fit to appoint outsiders to the posts – with the exception of John Forster, who was a Borderer through and through –  to try to avoid any familial alliances or feuding. Scotland’s view was to employ men who were Borderers, and who knew exactly what was what on the Border. As well as the three Marches, Scotland also appointed a Keeper to the area of Liddesdale, which was universally agreed to be one of the most lawless areas on the Scottish side. It was only exceeded by The Debateable Land: its inhabitants were so troublesome that neither crown wanted the responsibility of policing it – and more probably having to recompense those who suffered at those reivers’ hands. An agreement was finally reached in 1552, after a terse division of the land in which the French Ambassador had to step in and divide the area (the Scots got the largest area). A trench and bank was created on an East-West axis and to  this day, it is called the Scots Dike.

The Wardens and their superiors, such as the wily Elizabethan, Lord Burghley, were aware that local knowledge was the key to any control. Many documents were drawn up, listing who was allied to whom and where they lived. One of the most interesting is “Burghley’s Platt”, a map of the Borders, with the major players’ towers and homesteads plotted on it, as well as local towns ad rivers.

The demise of the reiver and the way of life, is easier to date. When Elizabeth I of England died, the English Borderers ran wild. “Ill Week”, which saw swathes of Cumberland preyed upon, was one of the last great outbreaks of reiving either country saw. James VI became James VI and I, and part of his earlier concerns was to dismantle the legal and judicial structures of the Borders. He dismissed the Wardens, made obsolete the March Laws, which had been created to control the area, so the riding families were subject to the same laws as the rest of his new kingdom. In 1605, a Commission was established, with its headquarters in Carlisle and from there fugitives were hunted down and the letter of the law was upheld brutally.  Some families, like the Grahams, suffered more than most – they were persecuted, thrown off their lands and many were transported to the Low Countries and Ireland. Members of other notorious families, such as the Armstrongs, found a little succour from their patron, Walter Scott of Buccleuch – known as The Bold Buccleuch – as he took many men who would have been executed to the Continent, where they became mercenaries. It took from 1603 till around 1607, but by then, force and the law had finally broken the way of the reiver forever.

Border Names in the Border Ballads

The main families names in the ballads we have included here are:


  • Johnie Armstrong
  • Thomas Armstrong, Laird of Mangerton
  • Simon Armstrong, Laird of Mangerton
  • Jock Armstrong of the Side (Jock o’ the Side)
  • William Armstrong of Kinmont (Kinmont Willie)


  • Walter Scott of Buccleuch
  • Walter Scott of Buccleuch  “the Bold Buccleuch” (Keeper of Liddesdale and Warden of the Scottish Middle March)
  • Walter Scott of Harden (Wat o’ Harden)


  • John, 6th Lord Maxwell (Warden of the Scottish West March)
  • John, 7th Lord Maxwell


  • William Johnstone of Wamphray (the Galliard)
  • William Johnstone of Kirkhill (Willie o’ Kirkhill)
  • James Johnstone (warden of the Scottish West March)


  • Sir Simon Musgrave (Captain of Bewcastle)
  • Thomas Musgrave (deputy captain and captain of Bewcastle)


  • Sir John Forster (Warden of the English Middle March)


Home » Ballads »