Friday, July 22, 2011

Those Big Bad Border Boys

We all love to hate to love us a bad boy. The border reivers of medieval Scotland, however, might just be the exception. These lads put the original bad into bad boy, they used to ride out in groups (gangs) with little expectation of any reprisals for their dastardly actions.



The strip of land between England and Scotland was known as the Debatable Land. Raiding and warfare was rife between the English and the Scots, and more than one Scottish clan (and, to be fair, the English Border families did the same) used this chaos for their own merry-making shennanigans. I make good use of these reivers in my medieval romances, but so far only as the villians. I've not yet figured out a way to turn one of these lads in a romantic hero.

My favourite bad lad has to be Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie. He had a protection racket going on long before the Mafia came along. He made a fortune in collecting 'fees' in exchange for not raiding and killing families - this practice was known as Black Rent and earned Johnnie the nickname of 'Black Jok'

Sir Walter Scott gives us a somewhat romantic ballad of the tale of Johnnie Armstrong, when he was summoned by King James. Now, in truth, King James had promised him safe conduct, and ruthly had him and his men attacked and hung as soon as they arrived at the meeting spot. Not very honourable, but then one must assume poor ol' King James had his hands full with these troublesome reivers and was at his wits end.

Here's snippets of Sir Walter Scott's The Ballad of Johnnie Armstrong

So, to start with, King James had been doing a little cleaning up through his devious means (he'd just summoned both Cockburn and Scott and had them executed) before summoning Johnnie, so poor ol' Johnnie should have suspected something

                Is there never a man in all Scotland,
                From the highest state to the lowest degree,
                That can shew himself now before the king?
                Scotland is so full of their traitery

But Johnnie had never been before a king before, and he was slightly smitten with the idea

                The king he writ a lovely letter,
                With his own hand so tenderly,
                And has sent it unto John Armstrong,
                To come and speak with him speedily

                When John he looked the letter upon,
                Then, Lord! he was as blithe as a bird in a tree:
                ‘I was never before no king in my life,
                My father, my grandfather, nor none of us three

And it all ends very badly with King James declaring...

                Away with thee, thou false traitor!
                No pardon I will grant to thee,
                But, to-morrow before eight of the clock,
                I will hang thy eightscore men and thee

Johnnie, being Johnnie, didn't go down without a fight,

                Said John, Fight on, my merry men all,
                I am a little hurt, but I am not slain;
                I will lay me down for to bleed a while,
                Then I’le rise and fight with you again

And perhaps, most surprisingly of all, Johnnie had a wife and son waiting at home to receive the bad news of his death. Seems even the baddest of the bad found some romance in his life

                But when he came up to Guiltknock Hall,
                The lady spyed him presently:
                ‘What news, what news, thou little foot-page?
                What news from thy master and his company?’

               ‘My news is bad, lady,’ he said,
                ‘Which I do bring, as you may see;
                My master, John Armstrong, he is slain,
                And all his gallant company

The villian in my upcoming medieval is based on Johnnie Armstrong's character and his reiving gang. The borderland history is so full of colourful characters like this to strike my muse. One day, perhaps I'll attempt to turn one of these big bad border boys into a hero


7 comments:

Nancy J. Parra said...

Thanks for the great post. Love interesting history. Cheers~

Wendy Soliman said...

The English and Scots still don't like each much!

Interesting post, Claire. I didn't know about Debatable land.

Taryn Kincaid said...

Ooooh. This takes me back to one of the first romance novels I ever read, Jude Devereaux's Highland Velvet.

Claire Robyns said...

The English and Scots have a lot of bad blood history between them. On one trip up to Scotland, a cab driver had a good ol' rant about the English swines, gotta love their passion and vocality :)

Judy Croome said...

I must have Scots blood in me somewhere - I love the Highlands and the big bad border boys (especially when they're in romances!) Can't wait to read your next medieval romance!


And doesn't Sir Sean Connery - the second best James Bond, after Daniel (swoon) Craig - still fight for Scotland's independence from England?
Judy, South Africa

Claire Robyns said...

Ooh, Sean Connery *drool* and doesn't he get better with age? As far as I'm aware, the fight for Scottish independance has been won. They've broken away from the English parliment (or at least the process has started) and they'll have an independant government.

Interesting to remember, though, that James VI of Scotland (Queen Mary of Scots' son), who then became James I of England, was a Scottish king who inherited the English title and joined the two countries.

Fraoch said...

Claire, actually James VI didn't join the two countries, that happened in the 1707 in the act of union. He just ruled both countried which were still seperate in all ways including their own governing parliamen. And yes the Scots now have their own parliament again with their own MPs who over see domestic issus such as education and such which they had always retained since the Act of Union, They also have mps in the Westminster Parliament in London.

Btw the original reviever who did "protection" money was King Robert Bruce who offered the service to the English in the north who were being revieved by their neighbors and the the Scots. Edward II did't protect them so they paid Bruce and stoped paying taxes to Edward. Bordering is a time honored traditons which was not for personal gain but for sheer survival over the Borders not just in the small strip of land in the western marches called the dabatable lands. Read Alistair Moffats books or BORDER FURY by Sadler.