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Review by Hamish Coghill

In the quiet peace of the rolling fields and hills of the Scottish Borders today it is something of a surprise to think that they have seen some of the most bloody and brutal of clashes over the centuries. Feuding families have attacked and murdered, raped and pillaged without mercy; invading English armies have brought destruction by fire and sword; and Scottish soldiers have fought fiercely, and with as little mercy as their adversaries.

If all is calm now, except for the inevitable (but generally peaceful) rivalry which still exists between the Scots and the English, for hundred of years the valleys and hillsides rang with the sound of clashing swords as the Borderers, be they Scottish or English, foraged and murdered, stole cattle and women, and took on all who stood in their way.

It is a fascinating slice of Britain's history which is graphically described by Alistair Moffat, now a renowned writer and historian for the Borders, as he outlines the tales of The Reivers.

The raids the reivers carried out formed the focus of a unique criminal society, the author avers. "Over an enormous area of Britain, perhaps a twelfth of the landmass of the island, there existed a people who lived beyond the laws of England and Scotland, who ignored the persistent efforts of central government to impose order, who took their social form and norms from the ancient conventions of tribalism, who invented ever more sophisticated variants on theft, castle rustling, murder and extortion and gave them names, like 'blackmail'. And they spoke and sang beautiful, sad poetry and told a string of stirring unforgettable stories. In the modern historical period, the tale of the Border Reivers is a tale without parallel in all of western Europe."

The family names on either side of the Borders are around today Armstrong, Elliot, Ker and Maxwell to the north, and Carleton, Fenwick, Forster and Robson on the English side.

"Few fought fiercer than family bands. When fathers and sons, brothers and cousins rode side by side, none turned aside and many found courage when the names of their blood needed them at their back. Pitched battles between surnames were always the cruellest and bloodiest fights. When the Maxwells were cut to pieces by the Johnstones at Dryfe Sands near Lockerbie in 1593, the slaughter was unrelenting. More than 700 Maxwells were killed and Robert Johnstone of Raecleuch bloodied his lance that terrible day. He was 11 years old."

The reivers may have melted into the moonlight, as the author says. "But the names have endured, and Borderers have made other, better marks on history. All of these ancient qualities of bravery, dash, cheek and independent strength of will and mind seemed to coalesce in the greatest foray ever run. Neil Armstrong rode the moonlight like none of his reiving ancestors when he reached out and touched it."

This is a page-turning history, lucidly written, and it is enhanced by a selection of five famous Border ballads. One of the best reads of the year, without doubt.

The Reivers. The Story of the Border Reivers by Alistair Moffat. 16.99.Birlinn, West Newington House, 10 Newington Road, Edinburgh EH9 1QS. Tel: 0131 668 4371; Fax: 0131 668 4466.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2008 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on the tiny island of Ulva by Terry Williams.

Click here to preview our feature article on Kilravock Castle by Richenda Miers.