Sunday, February 6, 2011

Elliott and Foster, the Border outlaws!

So, the connection between:

1. Fermanagh’s Unionist luminaries, Tom Elliott and Arlene Foster
2. Legendary Workington ("Pride of all Cooombreia") 90s rugby league player, Buck Armstrong
3. King James 1?

Answer below the fold…
Elliott, Foster and Armstrong are all names of infamous Border Reiver families; descendants of outlaws who were exiled by King James 1 from the border region between England and Scotland to what is today the border region between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Who were the Reivers?

They were professional rustlers, smugglers and general all-round rascals who operated in the borderlands of England and Scotland from the beginning of the 14th to the end of the 16th century.

They were the product of the continual Anglo-Scottish conflict, which basically had by the year 1400 turned the borders into an agricultural wasteland. If you planted crops there would be a very good chance that before long someone would be giving you a visit in order to burn them down- a situation, which along with the topography of the area led to a concentration on pastoralism. And pastoralism means cows, sheep and goats just ripe for plundering, or in the local dialect, “reiving”.

Reiving was accepted (except, presumably, by those who were on its receiving end) as a way to earn a living rather than as the traditional Scottish v English conflict. Scottish and English reivers would quite happily raid their own countrymen and on occasion English and Scottish gangs (when I read this, for some reason, the infamous “Blues Brothers”, the Chelsea-Rangers hooligan alliance came straight to mind) would join up to raid on either side of the border. Basically anyone outside your own family or kin was fair game.

The Scottish Highlands were the last part of what is today Great Britain to be brought under central control, the Borders weren’t that far behind though. After Elizabeth 1 died, the Armstrong, Elliott and Graham families basically went radge (bit of a W Cumbrian flashback there) and launched a week of raids into Cumbria, quoting to any of their victims who was still alive to listen the ancient belief that when the monarch died, all laws of the land were suspended until the new king was proclaimed.

King James VI of Scotland, now James I of England, was not a happy man when news started filtering out of the liberties being taken by his Scottish subjects, liberties which were being taken, by and large, upon his new English subjects. James promptly issued a proclamation against “all rebels and disorderly persons”. The Reivers said; “ Aye, right you are, bonnie lad” and completely ignored him and his orders. By 1605, James’ patience had finally run out and in the wake of the “Union of the Crowns”, the new British state went on its own rampage in the area.

The captured outlaws were:

1. Executed
2. Asked politely to “volunteer” as mercenaries in mainland European armies or...
3. Sent to South-West Ulster

By 1620, the borders were a bit like an earlier version of today’s Kent or Surrey, largely gentrified but with some remaining displaced nutters, isolated in their sink estates in the suburbs.

Those exiled to Ireland became the stout defenders of the outposts of the Plantation; three of the most commonest names today in Fermanagh remain of Reiver origin- Johnston, Armstrong and Elliott. Names still very familiar in Cumbria- Bell, Foster, Graham, Kerr, Nixon and Scott are also well-known names in Cumbria and Northumberland.


The Border Reivers website

The Ulster Scots Agency and

Alan Steel, the Treasurer of one of my old drinking haunt, the Egremont Conservative Club- he was the guy who first told me about the story and legends of the Reivers


The Aberdonian said...

I think you have committed a typo O'Neil. It was James VI not his great-grandfather James IV who succeeded to the English throne although James IV did succeed in getting an English arrow in his throat at Flodden.

As for "James I" - which one - to a Scot James I is the king who wrote love poetry, killed lots of nobles, introduced legal aid and was stabbed to death in a monastery sewer. He is also fancifully portrayed on the library wall at the Chapel of Siena.

"For as God grants me life, I shall make sure the key keeps the castle and the bracken bush the cow"

James' view on law and order.

James V, James VI's grandad also held similar views and had a famous tangle with the Armstrongs. Grandson proved himself a bit less violent than his grandad.

O'Neill said...

You are 100% correct, I got my IVs and my VIs mixed up- can't even blame my sources on this one unfortunately!