Chapter 12


The Charter-Hemphill Story


Chapter 12

The Scottish forces of Robert the Bruce defeat the English under King Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 allowing Scotland to retain its independence. Longshanks dream of a unified Britian had evaporated. Indeed, it had been easier to take a kingdom from the son than a yard of ground from his father.

Before there were English and Scots, it was the Romans who decided where the border between the Scots and the English would be. They built a wall from Solway to Tyne, a dividing line between civilization and barbarism, between safety and danger, between the tamed and the wild, between the settled country and the outland which was too hot to handle and not worth fighting over anyway. Wildings, anyone?

Thirty years or so after the Roman departure, the  Germanic-speaking  Anglo-Saxons  began a migration to the eastern coast of Britain, where they began to establish their own kingdoms, and the  Gaelic-speaking  Scots migrating from  Dál nAraidi (modern Northern Ireland did the same on the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Man.

The war instigated in 1296  by King Edward I, also known as Longshanks and whose ambitions included the total annexation of Scotland, was culminated in 1314 when Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland, defeated  his son, Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn. It was a brutal war. Longshanks was ruthless. In his opening bid his army killed 7,000 to 8,000 Scots; it does appear that Edward deliberately killed every man capable of bearing arms. On the other hand, it has been suggested that the English slaughtered everyone in the town, regardless of age or sex. Edward made a triumphal tour, left behind an elderly and incompetent governor, and hoped for peace. What he got was William Wallace.

Patrick McGoohan gives a magnificent performance as King Edward I

The borderland was in flames. Cumberland was laid waste and then Annandale. So it went, to and fro. Edward and Wallace left a terrible legacy, and to the people of the Marches it hardly mattered who had started it all. One thing the war ensured, there was never again to be quiet along the frontier while England and Scotland remained politically separate countries.

Following the English defeat at Bannockburn, Scottish forces poured into the English East March; Northumberland was pillaged again, and Durham only escaped similar treatment by paying a mighty ransom. Yorkshire and Westmoreland were less fortunate, being plundered of cattle and prisoners; Appleby was sacked and burned, along with other towns; Redesdale and Tynedale, favorite targets of later raids, were ravaged, and Cumberland was forced to disgorge tribute to the Scottish King.

Burning was one of the mainstays of reiving

Consequently, during this bitter war of attrition the Borderland became a buffer zone between the two kingdoms. Each government offered its subjects land and low-rent tenancies in return for military service as and when required. In addition, Borderers were actively encouraged  to make raids on their erstwhile neighbors across the “line,” burning their homes, rustling their livestock and leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Raid begat raid and by the beginning of the 16th century, for a great many  Borderers “reiving” became an accepted way of life.

Cattle-raiding and all the associated violence that went with it was essentially a way of life for the border clans, often called the Border Reivers. They shut themselves up in high stone towers, robbed, burned and murdered their neighbours, and were robbed, burned and murdered in their turn. Their only security was their immediate kinship group, and that not always; Graham would happily murder Graham if the need arose. . . . The border areas were fought over by England and Scotland, to and fro, for hundreds of years, and when the invading armies weren’t reiving them, the locals couldn’t imagine any other way they could possibly live, so they reived each other. Extortion and protection rackets were a profession, and one popular method of execution was drowning, it being cheaper than hanging as no rope was needed.

Young Hutcheon (Hutchin) Graham ran a lucrative protection racket at the expense of the village of Cargo, which was thereby spared his burning and looting spree during “Ill Week” in 1603. Likewise, Richie Graham of Brackenhill – an outlaw wanted for several murders – was reportedly blackmailing more than 60 tenants in the Lanercost area.

The most important part of a reivers equipment was his horse. “They reckonit a great discrace for anyone to make a journey on foot,” wrote Leslie, Bishop of Ross,

The list of Graham misdeeds appears endless. At different times they had blood feuds with the Musgraves, Bells, Irvines, Carlisles and Maxwells, although personal allegiances were sufficiently complex that different Grahams might find themselves on opposing sides and end up killing one another. A coroner’s document of 1584 shows how some Grahams were killing others of the same name in a ‘miserable family dispute about land.’ The Grahams were no friends of authority, either. In 1596, when a Warden officer – assisted by ten Grahams and a bloodhound – overtook two Scottish cattle raiders that they had been chasing, the Grahams stood idly by while the thieves cut the officer down and stole his horse and dog. When Wattie, brother to Jock Graham of the Peartree, was on trial at Carlisle for horse-stealing, Jock kidnapped the sheriff’s six-year-old son from outside the officer’s home and used him as hostage to secure Wattie’s release. In an attempt on the life of land-sergeant John Musgrave at Brampton, a group of Grahams set upon him and his followers with dags and guns, and tried to burn him alive in a house. And so on, and on. In 1592, Lord Maxwell complained against the Grahams of Netherby and other of Lang Will’s descendants in respect of their ‘violent and masterful occupation’ for 30 years past of Kirkandrews (birthplace of John Graham, 4th Great Grandfather, b. 1750, and Annandale, and 25 years similar oppression and exploitation of five other named districts.

Hermitage Castle is a semi-ruined castle in the border region of Scotland. Fraser described it as a “medieval nightmare . . . a gaunt, grey Border castle standing in the lee of valley side, with a little river running under its walls.” It is in the Debatable Land. To me, it looks like the forerunner of Brutalist architecture, or Brutalism, that emerged in the 1950s.

The roll of the Graham’s “misdemeanors,” compiled in 1600, was an appalling one. No fewer than sixty Grahams were outlaws, for murder, robbery, and other crimes; they had despoiled more than a dozen Cumbrian villages, sheltered felons, fought the Warden’s troops, murdered witnesses, extorted money from their enemies, and in one specific instance burned the house of one Hutcheon Hetherington to force him out into the open so that they could cut him to pieces. Add to this blackmail [extortion], kidnapping, and ordinary reiving, and their account was a long one.

The Grahams were mostly English (so far as Border history goes),  but notoriously ready to be on either side. Originally Scottish, and famous outside the Border area, they mainly lived in English West March, Scottish West March and the Debatable [Disputed] Land.

Apart from the Armstrongs, the Grahams were probably the most troublesome family on the frontier. Their dual allegiances caused confusion, and they were cordially detested by their own English authorities. At one time they were the most numerous clan in the West Marches, which was usually more violent than either the Middle or Eastern March. They had 500 riders in 13 towers in 1552.

When King James VI became King James I of England in 1603 after the death of Queen Elizabeth, an event that ignited the border known as “Ill Week”, in which the riders broke loose all along the frontier, looting, burning, reiving, and driving deep into England in search of plunder.

King James was determined to unify the two countries. With a ruthless hand he tamed the old, wild, and bloody Border, making it a fit place for ordinary folk to live. No longer could the reivers play one side off against the other. Those who resisted went either to the gallows or to exile. Almost one-hundred-fifty Grahams and their families were sentenced for transportation to a plantation in Ireland. Dumfriesshire continued to the end to be the last outpost of turbulence, the final refuge of thieves and outlaws, but in the face of an authority whose policy was wholesale hanging, there was no great amount of armed resistance. It took him about seven years, all told, but the back of reiving was broken in the first four, from 1603 to 1607.

The chief sufferers of King James' war on lawlessness were the Grahams along the whole line the river Esk. They had been a thorn in the side of two kingdoms for as long as anyone could remember, and they paid for it terribly. Yet they would have suffered less if they had not been the owners of some of the most fertile land in all the Marches, on which Lord Cumberland had cast his eye. Submission was not enough in the Grahams’ case—they would have to go.

If any Englishman steal in Scotland, or any Scotsman steal in England, any goods or cattels amounting to 12d, he shall be put to death.


Decended from these Grahams, preumably now pacified, was George Graham, 5th Great-Grandfather, born in 1738 in Langholm, Dumfries; John Graham, 4th Great-Grandfather, born 1750 in Kirk-Andrews-Upon-Esk, Cumberland, England; and his daughter, Mary Graham, 3rd Great-Grandmother, born 1792 in Graitney, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Other decsendants of the reiving Grahams are the Rev. Billy Graham and Alexander Graham Bell. Of other reiving families, some notable descendants are: Robert Burns, T.S. Eliot, Sir Walter Scott, the astronaut Neil Armstrong, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon B. Johnson.[1]

Mary Graham married William Ferguson but unfortunately no record of their marriage has been found. The next chapter will take a closer look at the Fergusons and the Terrys.

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End Notes

[1]At one moment when President Richard Nixon was taking part in his inauguration ceremony, he appeared flanked by Lyndon Johnson and Billy Graham. To anyone familiar with Border history it was one of those historical coincidences which send a little shutter through the mind: in that moment, thousands of miles and centuries in time away from the Debatable Land, the threads came together again; the descendants of three notable Anglo-Scottish Border tribes—families who lived and fought within a few miles of each other on the West Marches in Queen Elizabeth’s time—were standing side by side, and it took very little effort of the imagination to replace the custom-made suits with leather jacks or backs-and-breasts. Only a political commentator would be tactless enough to pursue the resemblance to reivers beyond the physical, but there the similarity is strong.

Lyndon Johnson’s is a face and figure that  everyone in Dumfriesshire knows; the lined, leathery Northern head and rangy, rather loose-jointed frame belong to one of the commonest Border types. The only mystery is when the “t” which distinguishes Border Johnstones from the others of the name was dropped from his surname. Billy Graham has frequently advertised his Scottishness, perhaps a little thoughtlessly, since there are more Grahams on the southern side of the line than the northern, but again the face is familiar.

Richard Nixon, however, is the perfect example. The blunt, heavy features, the dark complexion, the burly body, and whole air of dour hardness are as typical of the Anglo-Scottish frontier as the Roman Wall. Take thirty years off his age and you could put him into the front row of the Harwick scrum and hope to keep out of his way. It is difficult to think of any face that would fit better under a steel bonnet.

None of this, possibly, is capable of definite proof, but one can say that the names go with the faces, and that Johnson and Nixon especially are excellent specimens of two distinct but common border types.

It seems reasonable to suppose that the people of the Border country have not changed a great deal, particularly on the English side. A good half of the people of Carlisle are at least partly Scottish; there are as many Armstrongs and Johnstones as there are Forsters and Hetheringtons. But the racial composition of the Borderland generally has not altered so very much; the Elliots and Fenwicks, Bells and Nixons, Littles and Scotts, Maxwells and Kerrs (and Carrs) are still where they where in the sixteenth century, and although the Border is in many ways an even greater barrier than it once was, one can say that both sides together form a distinct and separate cultural and social bloc which is apart from the rest of the British people.

. . . They are not the most, to put it as tactfully as possible, the most immediately  lovable folk in the United Kingdom. Incomers may find them difficult to know; there is a tendency among them to be suspicious and taciturn, and the harsh Border voice, whether the accent is Scots or English, lends itself readily to derision and complaint.

. . . Perhaps the highest compliment that one can pay to the people of the Anglo-Scottish frontier is to remark that, in spite of everything, they are still there.

From the Introduction to Steel Bonnets: The story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers, by George MacDonald Fraser. He was born in the borderland in Carlisle, England to Scottish parents and educated at Carlisle Grammer School and Glasgow Academy.

Primary Sources:

  • Fraser, George MacDonald. Steel Bonnets: The story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers. Kindle Ed., Skyhorse Publishing, 2008.NY., London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1971