The word ‘reive‘ means to rob or plunder. Livestock was the main focus of the raids, although anything portable and of value could be stolen. Border Reivers were not outlaws in the fugitive sense of the word and although some may have lived separate, most lived with the main community.
They were often either farmers or land holders, but ‘reiving’ was not limited to any particular social class. Many nobles, including some of the March Wardens, were themselves some of the most notorious raiders.
The lives and deeds of the Borders Reivers were celebrated in the famous Border Ballads, popularised by Sir Walter Scott in the 18th century. The ballads portray the Reivers in a romantic light and as brave, noble and honourable but Scott would have been well aware, as a keen historian of the area, that the Reivers lived in harsh, unforgiving conditions and were undoubtedly courageous but also ruthless and at times cruel.
The heads of powerful families in the area, such as Douglas, Pringle and Scott, built strongholds to protect themselves. The ruins of their towers can still be seen today, over 400 years later, throughout the landscape. A few have been rebuilt as homes whilst the Pringle stronghold of Smailholm Tower, near Kelso, which later also belonged to the Scotts, now portrays Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders.
To find out more about the bleakness of the Reiver history, visit Hermitage Castle, near Newcastleton. Magnificently preserved, it was once home to Mary Queen of Scots‘ lover and husband, the Earl of Bothwell.
Today’s residents commemorate these historic times with Common Ridings festivals throughout the summer. These events mark the times when their forbearers patrolled the boundaries of their settlements on horseback, defending against these fearsome marauders.