In the Debateable Land, near Canonbie, 1552

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While it existed, the Debateable Land from the rivers Esk and Liddel to the Sark was a sort of “ no man’s land.” On its untllled fields, subjects of both countries pastured their herds during the day, but were required to remove them before sunset—or suffer the consequence.

For over three centuries before the Union of the Crowns the entire frontier from Tweed to Solway was a battlefield. Incessant raiding went on and Borderers were unable to lead a settled life. Scot pillaged Scot, and Englishman robbed Englishman just as readily as both raided across the Border. Local reiver families included the Armstrongs, Elliots, Johnstones, Maxwells, Douglases, Scolls, Kerrs, Bells, Littles, Beatties, Carlyles—and merging into England, the Grahams, Nixons and Charltons. On occasion, towns like Langholm, Annan, Dumfries and Kirkcudbright were sacked and burnt, and castles like Lochmaben, Caerilaverock and Threave seized by the enemy.

The Devil’s Beef Tub near Moffat was used for hiding stolen cattle. In those days of plunder and terror, the Border family chief dwelt in a “ peel ’’ or tower three or four storeys high; this, with its “ barnekln ” provided a rallying point and defensive centre for his dependants and a refuge for tbeir cattle.

To help maintain law and order, the Border territory of both countries was divided into Marches, namely the East, the Middle and the West March, each controlled by a “ warden.” Unruly Annandale and Liddesdale had specially appointed “ keepers.”

On certain days of the year a truce was declared when Scot and Southron could meet without fear of reprisal, and so that wardens could pass judgement on any outstanding disputes.  The ballad ' Kinmont Willie”, tells how Willie Armstrong was wrongfully seized on such a day of truce and imprisoned in Carlisle Castle, and how a daring rescue was effected, even across the flooded river Eden, by the “ bold ” Buccleuch.

Robert Lord Maxwell, and two others, were appointed commissioners to negotiate a division of this contested territory between the two kingdoms. The result was that in September 1552 Sir James Douglas of Drumlanrig and Richard Maitland of Lethington met the English representatives, Sir Thomas Wharton and Sir Thomas Chaloner. Between them they managed to settle once for all that venerable bone of contention, the Debatable Land, by dividing it between the two countries—the more northerly parish of Canonbie being annexed to Dumfriesshire, and the more southerly one of Kirkandrews being added to Cumberland; and thus this long-contested boundary remains to this day. This settlement was ratified on December 15 by Maxwell of Herries, the warden, and the laird of Johnstone on the one side, and Sir Thomas Dacre and Sir Richard Musgrave on the other.

A trench and bank dug to mark the boundary, is still called the “Scots Dyke". Canonbie parish to the north was assigned to Scotland, and Klrkandrews parish to the south to England. At last “ Dumfriesshire ” and “ Cumberland ” knew where they

Because they were a menace to national security, James V set out on a royal punitive expedition against the Border reivers and in 1530 hanged the notorious Johnnie Armstrong, Laird of Gilnockie and his entire retinue.

It is thanks to Sir Walter Scott that many of the old ballads, in which the deeds of the reivers are immortalised, survive to the present. He collected as many of these old songs as he could and published them as "The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.” This fine collection of ballad poetry is probably the only good result of all the borders conflicts.

See also:
The Border Marches



Sources for this article include:
  • Article by James Oliphant; Dumfries and Galloway, Our Story in Pictures.
  • Drawing by William R. Martin

  • Any contributions will be gratefully accepted


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    Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024