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According to an article entitled Reiving, Feuding and Primitive Warefare, written by  P.J. Nebergall, The Anglo-Scottish REIVERS were border bandits of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Along with raiding, they carried on DEADLY FEUDS with each other. Nebergall provides his insight on Reivers and Reiving by closely examining their lifestyle as a means to explain this form of primitive warfare.

"A reef, in antique English, was a "line". A coral reef is a line of coral. A sheriff, "shire-reeve", is the minder of the shire's border-lines. A sailor learns to "hand, reef, and steer", and a line coming apart is said to unravel, thus the sailor must reeve a new one, which, upon completion of his task, is said to be rove. A traveler, one who crosses borderlines, is still called a rover, and a reiver crossed lines to raid. One who is bereaved has just lost something (or someone), and if you are bereft it is indeed well and truly lost.

The word raid, in the Anglo-Scottish Borders, was almost the imperative form of to ride...and often a reiving raid was called a rode. Ride, Raid, Rode. Reivers were the English and Scottish Borderers for whom plundering their neighbors was an essential part of subsistence.
Although, until very recently, the Anglo-Scottish Borders have never been a place of peace, the era of peak lawlessness, the "Age of the Reivers", runs from the death of James IV of Scotland in 1513 to the ascension of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603, upon the death of Elizabeth I.

The Borders were a place where economy, geography, and international politics combined to produce a bloody boondocks, a frontier, permanently submarginal, with the constant threat of invasion from either state. As armies of the time "lived off the land", residents could expect to be (and were) robbed to the bare
walls by either or both sides.

The old reivers would be amused by how much we owe them (then they'd set about collecting it--with interest). It is from them we get the term blackmail--illegal funds. (But note the honest man let his steel
amour shine, and the robber often blacked his mail, so his position would not be given away in the moonlight.) "Boggling" or "Bauchling" someone was deliberately and gravely insulting them, in a manner calculated to cause a duel--from which we get "mind-boggling". "Jeddart Justice"--"hang'em first, then ask why" finds echo in the American west: "Shoot first; ask questions later." The Lockerbie Lick was a two handed sword stroke that removed the head....and they gave us "deadlie feud".

The military history of the Borders is a fascinating study in itself. The area was a battle-zone from Roman days to the time of Bonny Prince Charlie, a bloodbath 1700 years long. But our target is the reivers themselves.

The Borders were an area neither side, England or the independent kingdom of Scotland, wanted, but both were unwilling to yield an inch to the other side. The area served as a buffer between invading armies. Both sides used the Borders as a bearpit in which to fight each other.

The forces that caused reiving to endure as a way of life were more than just military and political. The submarginal economy and remote geography were factors, and so was the weather. Cold rain is endemic 12 months of the year. For the homeless or the destitute, the climate was and is worse than unpleasant. For much of the year it is potentially lethal.  Conditions are ideal for hypothermia. Old documents and archives report frequent
traveler deaths "from exposure". The bad weather of the Anglo-Scottish Border Counties could be seen as tending to severely limit vagrancy, forcing the beggar either to depart for gentler climates, or to do something more drastic to survive, such as take up robbery. With the grim climate added to the historically-attested political instability of the region, and the poor prospects for agricultural subsistence, the vagrant-turned-robber would be forced to seek the company of like-minded others. A body of destitute men with no prospects, living in an area frequently pillaged by armies from one state or another, looking for a leader who would appeal to cohesive self-interest.....of such materials were some of the toughest reiver bands fashioned.

A complex of factors, many imposed by outside forces, conspired to make the reiving lifestyle most fit in this
immediate microenvironment. The political factors were decided in London and Edinborough, but the single biggest factor was personal security. People feel most secure when their land is at peace, and when they can trust it will stay that way. When such security ceases to exist, when an area becomes unstable and stays unstable, the locals have to alter their subsistence strategies--just to survive. A practical man alters his lifestyle when his backyard becomes a war zone. (Ask anyone from Beirut or Sarajevo.) One learns to pick up and move, to amass whatever passes for wealth in such forms as can be easily moved out of harm's way, to rebuild quickly, to present minimum vulnerability, and to exploit, to the maximum, the vulnerability of others. Failure to adopt such behaviors could interfere with one's fitness, and seriously affect one's prospects for survival.  Such "interference" might take the form of a burning barn, missing cattle, or an arrow between the shoulder blades.

You were a participant, or you were a target, and in a war zone, the survival of a pacifist is in some doubt. As the
Borderers would have put it, "the fattest sheep are the first taken".

So who reived? Conventional law-and-order was somewhere between laughable and nonexistent in the Borders. Just as in the pirating days at the end of the Bronze Age, or in the Dark Ages that followed the collapse of Rome, authority was in the hands of competing families, graynes, they were called. You might compare them to the clans of highland Scotland, or to the mob families of Sicily and New York. They fell somewhere in between. Families without great power of their own (lots of kin + political influence = power) might ally themselves with one of the major players, so as to avoid being bullied by the others. These families were led by their feudal lords.

Other reivers were outlaws, men who had been "blown out" as punishment for "march treason", the catchall definition of felonious misbehavior in the Borders. To be "blown out" was to lose the protection of your grayne, to be without kinsmen, to be no longer clannit.

There was a particular area in northwest Cumbria so notorious that neither authority, English or Scottish, would set foot in it. (That's saying quite a lot, for an area in which all were thieves to a greater or lesser degree). Both claimed it, both secretly hoped the other would invade and wash it in blood, for it was home to none but outlaws. "The Debateable Land," it was termed. Men without kinsmen gathered there, fugitives, "blown out" men, and they formed bands much like those who rode out under family banners, but these men owed loyalty only to each other. Most men avoided such people, for as outlaws, "broken men", their word could not be trusted.

But the majority of reiving was done by the families, the graynes. It didn't matter which side of the line you were from; English or Scottish, what mattered was those kin-ties. You didn't raid your kin---unless you were having a dispute with them. The wars England was having with Scotland were seen by the Borderers as unfortunate interruptions to the real business of life, which was to loot and not be looted.

One of the unique factors that helped shape the reivers was their religious conservativism. They followed that old time religion, which for them was Roman Catholic. Long after Henry VIII had succeeded in imposing Anglicanism on his realm, long after the Scots had fought a disastrous civil was amongst themselves, Catholic vs Presbyterian, even to the time of Cromwell (Puritans against everybody else), many of the Borderer nobility kept their ancestral faith. This led several of them to start rebellions against the central authority, hoping that somehow the rest of England would join in.

The Earl of Northumberland, who had started one of those useless rebellions, upon his defeat hid with reiver Hector of Harlaw, a noted scoundrel--and obviously rubbed him the wrong way--for when the royal herald came around to read the list of the fugitives and demand their surrender, Hector approached him and revealed the location of his "guest". For this one act of obedience to authority, perhaps his only in a remarkably ill-led life, Hector of Harlaw earned more undying hatred than in his entire career of crimes big and small...

But reivers had an odd streak of morality. They set great store on oaths, promises, and keeping their word. They were far more willing to raid than to lie about it. There were courts, and men were charged with raiding, indicted under Border Law for specific acts of theft. An astonishing number of these bills of indictment were "fouled by confession"--folks owned up, and paid the fine of double and sawfie = twice the value of the goods taken plus court costs.

Although reiving was specifically a form of theft, its practitioners were also frequently at feud with each other. What is the difference--how do the two infractions compare?

Reiving is the simplest form of lethal intergroup violence.  There was no "state of war"; there was no goal of destroying or punishing the target--who was not even "the enemy", any more than the zebra the lion picks out for dinner is "the enemy". One robbed "targets of convenience." Hate was not the motivator.

Reiving, like all raiding, requires emotional distance. You don't rip off your own people. You raid folks with whom you have no ties--you are feeding yourself, not "getting even". Feud is a different story. Here we encounter fighting for its own sake.   In a land where resources are scarce--so scarce you have to raid folks to get your share--it was critical to be seen as "big, strong, and fierce". Your reputation would help protect you. It conferred a selective advantage to be seen as "fierce", in that it lessened the threat of incoming raids--where one thought of as "weaker" might have to fend off reivers seven nights a week.

So how did you get it across that you were "bad news"? You strutted a lot, boasted a lot, and, in a land where oath-breaking and betrayal were frequent, you reacted violently to slights and insults. Note the goal of such violent reaction was strictly to let others know you were a bad dude--"who dares meddle wi' ME?!"
was one of their yells...

If folks locked up, killed, or interfered with your kinsmen, you, as head of a grayne, took immediate retaliation in kind. {Note the local WARDEN, in charge of law enforcement, was usually a member of one of the graynes, and actions taken in his line of duty could cause his family to be embroiled in feud--also could imperil the survival of his kinsmen} As almost all public action was taken by families, graynes, retaliation would be directed against the offender's grayne. A member of one family might, defending his property, kill a member of another family. To demonstrate that such would not be tolerated, the members of the raiding grayne might lash out at members of the killer's grayne, NOT TO LOOT, but to assure everybody that "you can't just kill us and expect to get away with it..."

This is, of course, a textbook description of deadly feud--but it is also Stage II warfare. Stage II, "display warfare", as practiced by many tribal peoples, has a sick sense of balance at its core; the desire to get even. Robert Gardner's movie Dead Birds dealt with exactly such; the feeling that if your side falls behind in the murder derby, you are in "spiritual decline". In a land where resources are scarce, where violent attack might come at any time, to "fall behind", to be seen as the "weaker party", was to invite bullying from other parties--exactly as one might challenge a weakening big man, hoping to take his place. The best defense, for big man or reiver grayne, was to seem fearsome, to be fearsome, so that only a fool would dare try to risk an attack.

Do not confuse reiving with feud. The Anglo-Scottish Borderers were perpetrators of both. Reiving, like all Stage I war, was for purpose of getting loot, of obtaining goods "by the shedding of a little blood," to paraphrase Tacitus. Deadly Feud was for purpose of intimidation, to "seem fierce", so as to avoid being a target--for reivers. The best way to seem fierce was to be fierce. Feud filled the same niche as did bluff, brag, and bluster..."Lemme alone! I'm a bad dude! I'll PROVE it!".

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As George MacDonald Fraser explains in his book, The Steel Bonnets, The Story of Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers:

"The great border tribes of both Scotland and England feuded continuously among themselves.  Robbery and blackmail were everyday professions; raiding, arson, kidnapping, murder, and extortion were an accepted part of the social system.   While 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 political reality, practising systematic robbery and destruction on each other.  History has christened them the Border Reivers. The Border lands are home to the descendants of the notorious Reivers and their marauding families: the Armstrongs, the Grahams, the Irvines, the Kerr's, the Scotts, the Elliots, the Maxwells, the Johnstones, the Musgraves, the Bells, the Fosters, the Charltons, the Nixons and the Robsons to name just some of the more feuding elements of Border society in the 16th century.  The area is liberally dotted with castles, stately homes, the ruins of historic abbeys, fortified farmhouses (bastles), the scattered remains of pele towers and the atmospheric remnants of abandoned hamlets or howfs, hidden up remote side valleys.  The many towns and settlements that were raided, the fortified churches and the defensive walls and dykes dating back to Elizabeth I and her forbears.  The fields of battle and the Reiver graveyards all bear testament to the turbulent history that marked these lands and those times.  The brutal activities of the warring families and the indiscriminate plundering and merciless cruelty that drove fear deep into the very souls of ordinary Border folk. "

Fraser also writes about a great curse that was issued against the lawless men of the borderlands.  It was hoped that this cursing issued by the Archbishop of Glasgow, Gavin Dunbar, would strike fear into the hearts of religious and superstitious men where the threat of cold steel and the gallows had not

"...the Archbishop of Glasgow, Gavin Dunbar, ... excommunicated all Border thieves. It is a remarkable verbal blast, running to over 1500 words, and for sheer comprehensive power it places His Grace of Glasgow immediately among the great cursers of all time."  click here for the curse that was placed on the Kerr's as well as other lawless men at the time.
"Reivers shouldna be ruers."
-Scottish Proverb