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The story of the capture and rescue of Kinmont Willie Armstrong, the most notorious of the Scottish Border Reivers of the 16th century, was the last great event in their history. It was their swansong.
It would prove to be the last time the Border Reivers, adhering to a society which put allegiance to the clan first and foremost, would clash with both Scottish and English authority and monarchy on a scale which would shake both nations.
The Rescue of Kinmont Willie
by Tom Moss
Prior to the formation of the Border Line, the people who lived to the north or south of the rivers of Esk and Tweed and the great hills of the Cheviots lived in relative harmony. However by 1237 the Border Line was in place, agreed by kings whose lines of demarcation took advantage of these great natural barriers.
Its formation eventually led to aggression and strife as land which had previously been common to all, irrespective of which side of the river or hill they lived, be it north or south, was fiercely contested. The two peoples were now acutely aware of national boundaries even though they clung to the old ways where allegiance to the family or clan took precedence over loyalty to nation or monarch.
The conflict often led to death, maiming and theft as both peoples vied with each other to dominate the resources available: the richest pasture, the most fertile soil and the best areas of woodland.
Relations then were bad enough between the peoples on both sides of the Border Line but by 1296 the animosity would scale a greater height. In that year the great warrior king of England, Edward l, claimed overlordship of his northern neighbour. The stance was to lead to two hundred and fifty years of war and attrition and the people who inhabited the lands close to the Border line, both north and south, would suffer untold hardship as a result.
English and Scots armies bent on proving that ‘might was right’ did not wait until confronted by their armed aggressor. Both unsheathed the sword as soon as they crossed the Border and subjected the innocent inhabitants to fire, sword and theft. An army on the move required food and shelter. They lived off the land and cared not one whit for the poor folk they encountered and plundered.
They left the Border folk destitute, deprived of the basic means of keeping body and soul together.
The Border people on both sides of the Border Line, though, were hard and obdurate and did not lie down in such adversity. They did what they had to do to survive.
And so the Border peasant, through adversity and necessity, stole where he could and became one of the Border Reivers; became master of the art of theft. What started as a dire consequence of being left without even the basic means of livelihood, would culminate in mass thievery as the Border Reivers, turn by turn, stole from each other both along the Line in their own country, and south and north of it, in the lands of the opposite country. The necessity became a calling, a vocation. It spawned many feuds as a result even among clans of the same race as it gathered momentum. It reached a point where it seemed that nothing could be done to stop it. It seemed there was no power in either Scotland or England which would free the people from its scourge. The Borderer became the Border Reiver.
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