How will these resources help you?

It probably hasn’t crossed your mind to teach about the Border reivers. They don’t feature in the standard textbooks and often it’s only those teaching in the Elizabethan ‘badlands’ who know what an exciting light they can shed on the 16th century. Between 1513 and 1603 the Anglo-Scottish borderlands witnessed a period of lawlessness more intense than any seen elsewhere in Europe. Economic distress, brought about by the Battle of Flodden in 1513, caused English and Scottish families, who had previously co-existed peacefully, to raid and counter-raid. They burned homes, rustled cattle and horses, and left a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Families who didn’t participate lived in fear for their lives and were frequently blackmailed. On occasion, Scottish reivers penetrated England as far as Chorley in Lancashire, and English reivers got as far as Edinburgh. The situation was so serious that Elizabeth I’s ministers seriously considered reinforcing Hadrian’s Wall. Our teaching of Anglo-Scottish relationships tends to focus on Bannockburn (1314), Mary Queen of Scots, the union of the crowns in 1603 and the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745. The activities of the Border reivers would add a depth of understanding to the teaching of Anglo-Scottish relations in general as well as more specifically to the ways in which the Elizabethan state struggled to maintain law and order. The Border reivers would also make a valuable addition to any preparatory teaching for the GCSE thematic paper ‘Crime and Punishment’.

An excellent starting point

Border Reiver 1513–1603

by Keith Durham, published by Osprey, (2011), 9781849081931

A large part of the book, which is excellently illustrated throughout, addresses the equipment, dress, weaponry and campaigns of the Border reivers. Before this, the section Life on the Border Marches makes a good starting point as it contextualises the reivers’ activities and provides excellent contemporary material in support of the vicissitudes suffered by ordinary people. This is followed by Crime and Retribution, an invaluable section for teachers wanting to look at the vast profits made by reiving and the attempts of government to establish law and order.

Authoritative and comprehensive

The Steel Bonnets

by George MacDonald Fraser, published by Harper Collins, (1989), 9780002727464

This full, descriptive analysis provides fascinating detail of the outlaw bands that terrorised the Anglo-Scottish frontier more than four hundred years ago. Chapter XVIII – The Wardens of the Marches – is invaluable for understanding how authorities tried, and mostly failed, to enforce law and order. Part Four – The Long Goodnight – focuses on the 1503–1603 period and so is probably more directly relevant to KS3 teaching. Here, Chapter XXIV – Flodden and After – provides interesting detail on the situation after Flodden that drove the reivers to violence, while Chapter XXXV – Queen of the Marches – sheds new light on Mary, Queen of Scots, as she tried to control the Marches before her flight to England. 

Lively individuals

The Border Reivers

by Godfrey Watson, published by Northern Heritage, (2013), 9780957286054

The focus of the book is on the reivers themselves, the kind of people they were and how they lived. A range of people are contextualised into the history of raiding, murder and arson in the Borders throughout the 16th century. For KS3 teachers, it provides fascinating insights into the lives of a range of individuals that can be used to good effect in a classroom situation. For example, there is Kinmont Willie (Chapter 5), who outwitted Lord Scrope (the warden of the English West March) for many years, and the Armstrongs (Chapter 8) who succeeded in plundering the English countryside more successfully than any other clan.

Audiovisual clip

In Search of Medieval Britain: Smailholm Tower and the Border Reivers

published by BBC, (2008)

This video takes the watcher to the border between Scotland and England where reivers operated, and shows how they managed to carry out their activities in spite of the constant menace coming from the law officials.

Further Materials


The Reivers: The Story of the Border Reivers by Alistair Moffat, published by Birlinn Limited, (2017), 9781780274454 Find this book
A Fortified Frontier: Defences of the Anglo-Scottish border by Iain MacIvor, published by Tempus, (2001), 9780752414287 Find this book
Rosemary Rees is an experienced teacher of history to students in the secondary, further and higher sectors of education. She has worked as an examination-board administrator and a chief examiner, and served as a governor of a primary school and chair of governors of a comprehensive school. She now spends her time writing and editing text books for Key Stages 3, 4 and 5. 

Text © Rosemary Rees, 2020.