Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Reivers - Alistair Moffat

Over the last 14 years or so I've come to really love the Scottish Borders. It's a part of the world that's beautiful, has its own feel (neither Scottish or English, but distinctly Borders), a sense of history, and gains a stronger hold on me every time I find myself there. Sadly that's not been at all often this year, but we did spend I night in St Boswells on the way back from Inverness, and whilst there it would have been rude not to go to the bookshop on Main Street. Once in the bookshop buying something was inevitable.

I chose Alistair Moffat's 'The Reivers' because it seemed high time to become better acquainted with some of the history of the area. The remains of the great abbeys at Jedburgh, Melrose, and Dryburgh, along with the significant church ruins at Kelso speak of an historic affluence. That the place is thick with country houses (including Manderston with its silver staircase), to the extent that it feels like half the peerage must have a bolt hole in the vicinity suggests there's still money on those hills (and definitely in the salmon rivers). The distinctive Peel towers that pepper the landscape however hint at rougher fortunes. 

I suppose I had an image of the Botder Reivers as vaguely romantic robber barons who went raiding into England (encouraged by their womenfolk presenting a dish of spurs when the larder was bare as a hint to go out and steal some cattle - but that's pure Walter Scott territory). The reality is much more interesting. 

Moffat paints a picture of an area that from the earliest times had its own distinct identity, Borderers from both sides had more in common with each other than with their compatriots in the south or north, it's a useful reminder not just of how divided Britain is, but how deep the regional differences are within England and Scotland. 

The Border families, especially on the Scottish side, are generally referred to as clans, but Moffat makes the point that it's the surname that's all important to identity here (for highland clans there's also a deep allegiance to the land), and he refers to the riding families as Surnames - all incidentally still common in the area. Through alliances with neighbouring surnames the heidsmen of these surnames could put thousands of men in the saddle and have them on the march within hours. These where essentially small armies, and the families seem to have felt no particular loyalty to whoever their actual monarch was. 

Understandable when you live on the frontline between warring nations, far enough away from the seat of government to avoid close scrutiny, and powerful enough to make to much interference with you inadvisable. It wasn't a great place to try and make a living as a farmer though. When the little ice age wasn't doing for you, it seems somebody was always setting fire to your home, stealing your live stock, or trampling your crops. 

It's an entertaining journey through a period of history as brutal as it was colourful. The book is full of all sorts of asides, and Moffat clearly loves the region (his affection for it has deepened mine). If I had a quibble it would be that events aren't described chronologically; the narrative jumps back and forth between people and places in a way that can be confusing. On the whole though, I came out of this with a much better understanding of the history of the Borders, and also of Britain as a whole. It's well worth reading. 


  1. I have only passed through the Scottish Border region on a bus to Edinburgh. Sadly, like most foreign visitors I did not have time to visit, but with the speed of modern transport, it is easy to forget that a lot of regions that we pass through have their own identity and history.

    1. if you're ever back in the U.K and have the time it's worth stopping for a look around. There are lots of nice market towns, some great ruins and architecture if that's your thing (it is mine), and quite a bit to do. There's also some good walking, very pretty countryside, and decent cafés. The more time I spend there the more I love it.

  2. I have, immediately, put this book on my wish list. It is a subject that I have never, quite, been able to address properly. This book might help me. Thank you!

    I am not going back to Scotland until next April - I am devastated.

    1. Holidays aren't working out well for D and I next year, and I can no longer take time off over new year, so I don't know when I'll get yo the Borders again. Like you I'm not happy about it! I enjoyed this book a great deal, despite being occasionally confused by the shifting time lines. It made sense if a lot of things I'd noticed but not really understood, and I do feel like I've got a much better grasp of the history of the region.