Do You Have a Border Reiver in Your Family Tree?

Yesterday, I was on and received an email from a distant relative. She had a question about her great-great-great-grandfather, John Hetherington. She wondered if I knew his wife’s name. I answered her inquiry, and yet, there was a sentence in her email that had caught my eye.

She said: “I live near to the Cumbrian border and the original ancestral home of the Hetherington Border Reiving Family – a dangerous and desperate lot!”

I wondered to myself what “border reiving” meant, so I went online. Border Reivers were families that raided the border area between England and Scotland. The practice of “reiving” or raiding started in the late 13th century and ended in the early 17th century.

There were raiders on both sides of the border. Many groups would make forays into the other country. Others felt no remorse in stealing from people residing in neighboring lands. Reivers found equal opportunity in taking from Scots and Anglos alike. They would fill their coffers to meet their needs, raiding again when their stores were empty.

Reiver clans were always feuding with other family groups. Arguments would often lead to theft, rape, and murder. The local authorities could do little to enforce the law or punish would-be offenders.

At the time international marriages were illegal in both countries. Yet, many a reiver crossed the border to kidnap a bride. The union would ensure loyalty and protection for both sides against the other.

My distant relative had mentioned the “Hetherington Reiving Family.” I went online and found the Border Reivers Website. The site has a listing of known reiving family surnames. I clicked on the Hetherington name and here is what it said:

The more common variations of the name: Hetherton.

The family came from the Brampton Region of Cumberland about 10 miles east of Carlisle. More specifically the village of Hethersgill (map ref: 86 4767) and the villages nearby. These villages are about 6 miles northwest of Brampton.”

The family are not regarded as a prominent reiving family, probably because of it being relatively small in numbers, however, records indicate that it was involved in feuding and local reiving with its neighbours. It was especially prominent in the protection racket (known as blackmail) when it apparently insisted on ‘protecting’ more vulnerable groups at a price.

George Fraser, in his book The Steel Bonnets states that they were heavily involved in conspiracy to murder the Bishop of Carlisle in 1596.

I found an article online entitled “The Joy of Researching the Border Reiver Families.” The author explains that documentation for this time was almost nonexistent, except for royalty and the clergy.

The article does make note that the borderlands were an exception. Because the area was in constant turmoil, the local authorities kept meticulous records. They would document all activities about these families. They would even send spies to track these families and report back to them.

The English government compiled these notes into volumes entitled The Border Papers. Scotland has a collection known as The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland.

And, as most genealogists know, finding records for this era in history is quite rare. Most documents are unreadable or were destroyed by the elements. The English and Scottish notes make researching the reiving families legacy possible today.

In 1603, James I united England and Scotland under the “Union of the Crowns.” And, because of this act, the reiving era came to an end. Many families, forced from their lands, moved south to Northumberland and Cumbria. Others moved farther south, and some even immigrated to America.

Do you have one of the distinguished border family names? Check out the Border Reivers Website for their listing of all known reiver surnames. If your ancestor’s name is not on the list, you can submit documentation to have it included.

Websites like the ones I have listed above are critical for genealogical research. If you have one that you would like to add, please leave a message in the Comments Section of this page. Thank you, Donna.

Photo contributed by Kim Traynor of Wikipedia Commons.