The relationship between Scotland and England wasn’t always as amicable as it is today. From the late 13th century to the 16th century, Scotland and England were constantly at war with each other. This created a lawless environment where crime soared, people from both sides of the border would live more like ourlaws, taking advantage of the constant fighting.
In 1249 in an attempt to deal with crime an agreement was signed between both nations, a system began called the ‘Laws of the Marches’ this was to be carried out by the ‘Wardens of the Marches’ who were appointed by their respective monarchs.
The border lands on each side divided into three marches: an east, middle, and west march. Each march had its own warden, who was responsible for the security of the area and its people Each Waarden answered to the Lord Warden. The Scottish wardens were familiar with their territories, and knew the people from the marches, and this gave them the opportunity to get involved in questionable dealings in order to further their position. However, the English wardens were not as familiar with the area and the ways of the Borderers, and often went about creating more problems than they solved when trying to administer any justice.
Examples of some of the families you would traditionally find on the Scottish side are: Hume, Trotter, Dixon in East March; Kerr, Scott, Turnbull in Middle March; and Bell, Irvine, Johnstone in West March.
Wardens from both sides of the border would meet monthly in peace on the day of truce. They would assess the complaints from either side, and administer the appropriate justice. The Wardens had to bear in mind that both countries valued things differently, and this created many difficulties when trying to solve these grievances. Many of the crimes would range from cattle rustling to murder.
To explain about how the Wardens of the Marches worked; if for example you were English, and went north of the border to Scotland and stole some cattle, it used to be quite normal to get a a pat on the back back in England, because you had committed a crime in the opposite realm. You would go unpunished. The purpose of the Wardens was to prevent this from happening. The Wardens were expected to talk to their foreign counterpart. So if someone went across the border to steal something, then the warden whose land was plundered would tell his counterpart, and the issue would be resolved on the day of truce. The task of solving each person’s grievance was a taxing and thankless task, which usually provided solutions that left no-one happy.
Those who were accused of a crime were supposedly tried by six honest Scotsmen and six honest Englishmen. However it has been said that this could never have happened because you would not have been able to find any honest men from either side of the border.
The ‘Calendar of Border Papers’ has recorded a large number of complaints that were made to the Wardens of the Marches. They go into some detail as how many of these people were wronged by raiders both sides of the border. The papers are still available to read to this day.
By 1603 the role of Warden of the Marches became unnecessary, after the union of the crowns when James VI & I, in his attempt to permanently put an end to the Border Reiver clans, got rid of the name “Borders” to represent that area, and renamed it the “Middle Shires”. Over the following 100 years you saw a gradual change of the borderers putting down the sword and picking up the plough.