Border Reivers and the Rescue of Kinmont Willie – The story of the Smailholm Panel

The Reivers and the Rescue of Kinmont Willie… The story behind the Smailholm panel.

Last summer (rather foolishly as I am NOT an embroiderer) I agreed to take part in a huge project called ‘The Great Tapestry of Scotland.’

It is to be the longest tapestry in the world at over 130 metres, and will tell the story of the history of Scotland from pre-historic times to the present-day, the panels being stitched by volunteer community groups all over Scotland.

My group, excitingly for us as Smailholm village lies in the centre of the Borders, was given the panel depicting ‘The Border Reivers and the Rescue of Kinmont Willie’. This is our panel as we received it, our target was to be finished by the end of May.

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But who were the ‘reivers’ and why are they significant in the history of Scotland?

They were ‘a people who lived beyond the laws of England and Scotland, who ignored the persistent efforts of central government to impose order, who took their social form and norms from the ancient conventions of tribalism, who invented ever more sophisticated variants on theft, cattle rustling, murder and extortion…

…And they spoke and sang beautiful, sad poetry and told a string of stirring, unforgettable stories.’
Alistair Moffat: ‘The Reivers’

Many of the notable ‘reiver’ surnames including Armstrong, Elliot, Graham, Scott, Johnstone, Kerr and Maxwell are still common in the Scottish Borders today.

Central to the reivers’ activities was an area delightfully termed the ‘Debatable Land’. Straddling the border between Scotland and England, for over 300 years its inhabitants effectively answered to neither government.

Beyond the Debatable Land a wide stretch of territory on both sides of the notional ‘border’ was divided into ‘marches’ and officials, called ‘wardens’, were appointed by both governments. Thus, for example, there was a warden of the English middle march and a corresponding warden of the Scottish middle march. Equally disregarded by the reiving families, the wardens sometimes co-operated across the border in seeking to maintain order.

Customary law forbade the building of any permanent dwelling in the Debatable Land. But one of the methods used to enforce this was interesting, to say the least. In 1551 the Crown officers of England and Wales made the declaration:

‘All Englishmen and Scottishmen, after this proclamation made, are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, slay, murder and destroy all and every such persons, their bodies, buildings, goods and cattle as do remain or shall inhabit upon any part of the said Debatable Land without any redress to be made of the same.’

More likely to add to rather than reduce the lawlessness, it didn’t clear the area of inhabitants: one notable family: the Grahams, who were present in large numbers on both sides of the border, are known to have had five tower houses there and they were not the only ones.

The sandstone tower on our panel (the part that I embroidered) depicts one of the Armstrong fortified houses – Gilnockie – belonging to Johnnie Armstrong, hung on the order of James V along with thirty or forty (depending on which account you believe) of his followers at Carlanrig, near Hawick. The circumstances of what seems summary justice (all the records state that they were hung on growing trees rather than gallows, and it was likely therefore to have been an impulsive and possibly dishonourable act) are unclear.
One result was a spawning of ballads that turned a ruthless thug into a Robin Hood figure of almost heroic proportions.

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The grey tower on the opposite side represents Hermitage, an isolated but imposing castle, home to James Hepburn, Lord Bothwell, who later became Mary Queen of Scots’ third husband.

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In 1552 a compromise solution to the vexed issue of jurisdiction was proposed – to draw a straight line from east to west where Armstrong and Graham land met. The result was the building of ‘ The Scots Dyke’: a four-mile long earthwork approximately nine feet wide and eight feet high. It would have been hard to miss, but whether it had any positive effect is another matter. Especially as it wouldn’t take very long on horseback to ride around either end!

Far from the wardens being in control of the borderland, it was the heads of local clans who were the authority, their power in proportion to their numerical strength. Which in some cases was considerable – George Macdonald Fraser, in his book ‘The Steel Bonnets’, suggests that the Armstrongs alone could muster 3000 men. Not a force to be lightly challenged.

The number of reivers involved in an individual raid, would of course be much smaller, but still considerable, typically anything from thirty to around a hundred men. In the centre of our panel are two reivers wearing their normal garb of steel bonnets (hence Fraser’s book title) and padded jerkins,

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the sheep and cattle imprisoned in their gauntleted fists, symbolizing their core activities of cattle-rustling and sheep-stealing.

Seeing a hundred or more of them thundering across the moor towards your door, one hand on the reins, the other holding the long spears that flank the panel, must have been a terrifying sight.

Interestingly the three-year-old grandchild of one of the ladies involved in sewing the panel stared at them for a moment, then said, before running away, ‘I don’t like those men’.
An instinctive reaction that may be an echo of hundreds of children before her.

The ‘Day of Truce’ mentioned in one of the scrolls at the top of the panel, was a day when Scots and English came together to witness the trials of criminals from both sides of the border. The jury comprised six Scots – chosen by the English; and six English – chosen by the Scots. There were agreed penalties for perjury by witnesses, an attempt at ensuring honest testimony; interestingly the most important and effective wasn’t a fine or imprisonment, but a formal statement that no future testimony would be accepted or believed. Honour among thieves was a part of the reiver code. All witnesses and those who came to the Truce were to be given safe conduct through others’ territory and were honour-bound to refrain from confrontation and not to offend by ‘word, deed or countenance’ as long as the Truce lasted. When large numbers of sworn enemies attended, it isn’t surprising that tempers often frayed, the wardens struggling to maintain order. What is surprising is that most, though not all, Truce Days appear to have passed without major incident.

Although the main design of each panel has been done by a wonderful artist called Andrew Crummy, the stitchers are allowed some input. In our case it is the mane and raindrop infill on the horses and most of the wording.

The curse which links the two reivers:

‘I curse their heid and all the haris of their heid’

comes from the ‘Great Monition of Cursing against the Border Reivers’ by Gavin Dunbar, Archbishop of Glasgow 1525 – a lengthy and comprehensive ‘cursing’, which should have put the fear of God into all who heard it.

The quotation at the foot of the panel:

‘My hands are tied but my tongue is free and who will dare this deed avow’

comes from ‘The Ballad of Kinmont Willie.’
At sixty-six Willie had, by the time of his capture, been reiving successfully for some fifty years and led a notorious gang called ‘Kinmont’s Bairns’. Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 14.24.59
While his imprisonment in Carlisle castle was undoubtedly deserved, given a lifetime of crime, his seizure was illegal – captured on his way home from a Truce Day in March 1596. One month later a carefully planned and perfectly executed plan to rescue him was carried out by Scott of Buccleugh, himself a law officer on the Scottish side. Buccleugh had first protested the illegality of the capture and requested Willie’s release, but when this was denied he acted. A clear indication of the flexible attitude to reiving among border folk, even those appointed to uphold the law.

He rode on Carlisle castle and with a small party of men entered the castle by a locked postern door, having levered out the stone in which the bolt was shot. Without discovery or a shot being fired they spirited Willie away – a daring rescue that was to be one of the last significant border raids.

Sir Walter Scott’s ‘The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ brought together many of the ballads, including that of Kinmont Willie, along with the tunes to which they were sung. Although the tales are often romanticized, they do provide a flavour of the reiving lifestyle and the superstitions and beliefs of the time.

But the writing was on the wall for the reivers. James I’s accession to the English throne in 1603 abolished the border between Scotland and England. Re-naming the area the ‘Middle Shires’ James set in train a dismantling of the reiver way of life and a bringing of law and order to this most unruly part of Great Britain.

The reivers have left their mark on the border landscape in various ways. In the form of innumerable and mostly ruinous tower houses. In literature and music through the Border Ballads. And on tradition, in the annual festivals in all the major and some of the smaller border towns which commemorate the riding of the marches.

They have left their mark too on the English language: the words ‘blackmail’ and ‘bereave’ derive from their activities. A sombre legacy indeed.

For those wanting to read more on the reivers and this turbulent part of Scottish history, I recommend The Reivers by Alistair Moffat and The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser.

We finished our panel on time and it is now with all the other finished panels waiting to be revealed at an exhibition in the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh on the 3rd September – we’re all hugely looking forward to it!

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(One of these days I’ll manage to manipulate the photos to appear where I want them in the post!!)