Clan Tartan
The Johnstones
The Border Reivers
DNA Project

Border people did not necessarily think of themselves as either English or Scottish : in general they considered themselves to be Borderers before all else. The line of the Border had changed several times throughout history, from Roman times up to the 16th century, and its position was established more from an attempt to conserve the territory of the English and Scottish kings than from any consideration of the safety and well-being of the inhabitants of the region. The kings and governments of both countries had made political use of the Border families as mere elements in a "buffer state" destined to take the brunt of almost incessant warfare waged throughout their lands. Vast areas of the Border region were often devastated whenever one or other of the rival armies chose to pass through them on foraging or punitive missions. Each mission brought its inevitable reprisal raid, and so it went on, with the local inhabitants paying most of the price for each event.

Nor did either of the two kings hesitate to call upon his Border subjects to help him out in his campaigns against the other. In time of war the English king expected his subjects on the Border to mount up and ride with him against people who were their near neighbours. The Scottish king used his Border subjects in the same way.

Neither the king in London nor the king in Edinburgh had any conception of what it meant to be a Borderer. There is something special about living on the Border separating two nations, especially when there is a kind of "empathy" between the two groups of people, brought about by such things as kinship, intermarriage and, not least, a sharing of common problems and hardship. Without attempting to excuse, if you like, the people of the Borders for some of their unruly and often reprehensible, lawless behaviour, we must acknowledge that they did, at times, have good cause to act in the way they did.

Well now, just how did they act ? Expert horsemen, whose mounts literally took very difficult terrain in their stride, they were used by their king in time of war as extremely effective light cavalry. In time of peace their skills were not allowed to become rusty. The families -- riding families, as they were called -- often lived in fairly overpopulated upland river valleys, where they grew their sparse crops and tended their cattle and sheep on the bleak slopes. The problem of survival was always with them, and their "official" foraging in time of war became "unofficial" in time of peace. It was not only Englishman against Scot, but often Englishman against Englishman, Scot against Scot, family against family as well. In fact any combination of adversaries was possible. In the darker days and nights of late Autumn and Winter, when the sparse grain harvests (if they had not already been destroyed by passing armies) had been consumed, what else was there but to eat meat ? And where, after one’s own larder had been depleted, could that be obtained ?

Reiving, that is, the wholesale raiding and rustling of neighbouring livestock was the only solution open to them, and so, almost every riding family went out looking for cattle and sheep to lift and bring back home, often in the dead of night. Not without a fight, of course. Homes were often pillaged and burned, their occupants killed or wounded, and reprisal raids to recover stolen livestock were undertaken as soon as possible. And so it went on.......

Between them, the two kings attempted, albeit without too much real commitment, to maintain some semblance of law and order on the Border by dividing the Border regions into Marches, three on the English side (West, Middle, and East) and three on the Scottish side (again West, Middle, and East) with their borders approximately, but not exactly, facing each other.  The king appointed a Warden to each of his Marches and the Wardens were charged with the task of maintaining good order and justice(!) in their own area by co-operating with their opposite number over the Border. Complaints were heard and justice was dispensed by the two Wardens at meetings called Truce Days. Such events were held periodically, and, all in all, were quite successful in achieving suitable redress for proven crimes. There were occasions, however, when all did not go according to plan, but that’s another story. Suffice to say that even the Wardens themselves were not averse to a bit of reiving when the occasion arose.

These families, or Clans, engaged more or less continuously in thieving and pillage, and for two hundred years their activities "shook loose the Border." Their allegiance was always first and foremost to their family and its dependants. Any allegiance to their monarch came well down their list of priorities. Even in time of war, they were not averse to carrying the colours of both St. Andrew and St. George in their knapsacks, just in case things went badly wrong. As we have already indicated, they were neither English nor Scottish : they were BORDERERS.

The Church did its best to exert some calming influence, but it, too, often drew a blank. On one notable occasion, even the Archbishop of Glasgow lost his patience completely and issued a written curse against all Reivers, and ordered that this document be read out in every church on the following Sunday. The Archbishop’s Curse given below is lengthy, but it is included in its entirety because it is not without a certain amount of humour, if only in the frenzied language in which it is couched. You don’t have to understand every single word to get the message, but how’s this for a tantrum ?

The Archbishop of Glasgow’s Curse upon all Reivers

I denounce, proclamis, and declaris all and sindry the committaris of the said saikles murthris; slauchteris, brinying, heirchippes, reiffis, thiftis and spulezeis, oppinly apon day licht and under silence of nicht, alswele within temporale landis as kirklandis; togither with thair part takaris (partakers), assistaris, supplearis, wittandlie resettaris (knowing receivers) of thair personis, the gudes reft and stollen be thaim, art or part thereof, and their counsalouris and defendouris, of thair evil dedis generalie CURSIT, waryit (execrated), aggregeite, and reaggregeite, with the GREIT CURSING.

I curse their heid and all the haris of thair heid; I curse thair face, thair ene, thair mouth, thair neise, thairg toung, thair teith, thair crag, thair schulderis, thair breist, thair hert, thair stomok, thair bak, thair wame, their armes, thair leggis, thair handis, thair feit, and everilk part of thair body, frae the top of their heid to the soill of thair feit, befoir and behind, within and without.

I curse thaim gangand (going), and I curse thaim rydand (riding); I curse thaim standand, and I curse thaim sittand; I curse thaim etand, I curse thaim drinkand; I curse thaim walkand, I curse thaim sleepand; I curse thaim rysand, I curse thaim lyand; I curse thaim at hame, I curse thaim fra hame; I curse thaim within the house, I curse thaim without the house; I curse thair wiffis, thair barnis, and thair servandis participand with thaim in their deides. I wary thair cornys, thair catales, thair woll, thair scheip, thair horse, thair swyne, thair geise, thair hennys, and all thair quyk gude (livestock). I wary their hallis, chalmeris (rooms), thair kechingis, thair stanillis, thair barnys, thair biris (cowsheds), thair bernyardis, thair cailyardis (cabbage-patches), thair plewis, thair harrowis, and the gudis and housis that is necessair for thair sustentatioun and weilfair.

All the malesouns and waresouns (curses) that ever gat warldlie creatur sen the begynnyng of the warlde to this hour mot licht apon thaim. The maledictioun of God, that lichtit apon Lucifer and all his fallowis, that strak thaim frae the hie hevin to the deip hell, mot licht apon thaim. The fire and the swerd that stoppit Adam far the yettis (gates) of Paradise, mot stop thaim frae the gloir of Hevin, quhill (until) thai forbere and mak amendis. The malesoun that lichtit on cursit Cayein, quhen he slew his bruther just Abell saiklessly, mot licht on thaim for the saikles slauchter that thai commit dailie. The maledictioun that lichtit apon all the warlde, man and beist, and all that ever tuk life, quhen all was drownit be the flude of Noye, except Noye and his ark, mot licht apon thame and droune thame, man and beist, and mak this realm cummirless (free) of thame for thair wicket synnys. The thunnour and fireflauchtis (lightning) that set doun as rane apon the cities of Zodoma and Gomora, with all the landis about, and brynt thame for thair vile sunnys, mot rane apon thame, and birne thaim for oppin synnis. The malesoun and confusion that lichtit on the Gigantis for thair oppressioun and pride, biggand (building) the tour of Babiloun, mot confound thaim and all thair werkis, for thair oppin reiffs and oppressioun. All the plagis that fell apon Pharao and his pepill of Egipt, thair landis, corne, and cataill, mot fall apon thaim, thair takkis, rowmys (places) and stedingis, cornys and beistis. The watter of Tweid and utheris watteris quhair thai ride mot droun thaim, as the Reid Sey drownit King Pharao and his pepil of Egipt, persewing Godis pepill of Israell. The erd (earth) mot oppin, riffe and cleiff (deave), and swelly (swallow) thaim quyk to hell, as it swellyit cursit Dathan and Abiron, that ganestude (withstood) Moeses and the command of God. The wy1d fyre that byrnt Thore and his fallowis to the nowmer of twa hundredth and fyty, and utheris 14,000 and 700 at anys, usurpand aganis Moyses and Aaron, servandis of God, not suddanely birne and consume thaim dailie ganestandand the comandis of God and halykirk. The malediction that lichtit suddanely upon fair Absolon, rydant contrair his fadcr, King David, servand of God, throw the wod, quhen the branchis of ane tre fred (parted) him of his horse and hangit him be the hair, mot licht apon thaim, rydand again trew Scottis men, andhang thaim siclike that all the warld may se. The maledicitioun that lichtit apon Olifernus, lieutenant to Nabogodonoser, makand weair (war) and heirchippis apon trew cristin (Christian) men, the malediction that lichtit apon Judas, Pylot, Herod and the Jowis that chucifyit (crucified) Our Lord, and all the plagis and trublis that lichtit on the citte of Jherusalem thairfor, and upon Symon Magus for his symony, bludy Nero, cursit Ditius Makcensius, Olibruis, Julianus Apostita and the laiff (rest) of the cruell tirrannis that slew and murthirit Critis haly servandis, mot licht apon thame for thair cruel tiranny and murthirdome of cristin pepill.

And all the vengeance that evir was takin sen the warlde began for oppin synnys and all the plagis and pestilence that ever fell on man or beist, mot fall on thaim for thair oppin reiff, saiklesse slauchter and schedding of innocent blude. I dissever and pairtis thaim fra the kirk of God, and deliveris thaim quyk to the devill of hell, as the Apostill Sanct Paull deliverit Corinthion. I interdite the places thay cum in fra divine service, ministracioun of the sacramentis of halykirk, except the sacrament of baptissing allanerlie (only); and forbiddis all kirkmen to schriffe (shrive) or absolve thaim of theire synnys, quhill they be first absolyeit of this cursing.

I forbid all cristin man or woman till have ony company with thaime, etand, drynkand, spekand, prayand, lyand, gangand, standand, or in any uther deid doand, under the paine of deidly syn. I discharge all bandis, actis, contractis, athis (oaths) and obligatiounis made to thaim by ony persounis,. outher of lawte (either of loyalty), kyndenes or manrent (personal fealty), salang as thai susteine this cursing, sua that na man be bundin (bound) to thaim, and that thai be hundin till all men. I tak fra thame and cryis doune all the gude dedis that ever thai did or sall do, quhill thai ryse frae this cursing. I declare thaim partles (excluded) of all matynys, messis, evinsangis, dirigeis or utheris prayeris, on buke or beid; of all pilgrimagis and almouse dedis done or to be done in halykirk or be cristin pepill, enduring this cursing.

And, finally, I condemn thaim perpetualie to the deip pit of hell, the remain with Lucifer and all his fallowis, and thair bodeis to the gallowis of the Burrow Mure, first to be hangit, syne revin and ruggit (then ripped and torn) with doggis, swyne, and utheris wyld beists, abhominable to all the warld. And their candillis gangis frae your sicht, as mot their saulis gang fra the visage of God, and thai rgude faim fra the warld, quhill thai forbeir thair oppin synnys foirsaidis and ryse frae this terribill cursing, and mak satisfaction and pennance.

The worthy Archbishop's instructions were dutifully carried out by the clergy, but alas! the Reivers weren't there to hear the curse : they were busy playing football at the time!

When did all of the reiving finally come to an end ? The short answer is : when Queen Elizabeth the First died in 1603 and King James the Sixth of Scotland became King James the First of England and Scotland. The new king had no further need for any border and so abolished it altogether, redesignating the region as the Middle Lands.

But what about the Reiver families ? The king forbade any further reiving activities, declaring known Reivers to be outlaws who were to be hounded and persecuted, imprisoned and/or hanged, or sent into exile. Some of the families were dispersed to seek a means of survival, some finding work at home, along the Border or away from it, some even emigrating to find their future in Ireland, Europe, the New World and elsewhere. That they have made their mark can be seen by casting even a cursory glance at any list of names of prominent people in almost every profession and calling throughout the world.

Our ancestors were survivors and that’s what we must be. Let us be proud of our surname, whatever its spelling. Let us also remember that we belong to the CLAN JOHNSTONE and endeavour to support it always.