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Existence depended upon stout fortifications and a ruthless spirit of independence, or a very astute understanding of complicated negotiations and the ability to react swiftly, even changing sides at a moment’s notice. Border families became extremely adept at survival even flourishing in a region where many lived very short lives. One of the chief sources of income at the time was crime, mainly the theft of cattle and for a few more violent and adventurous families kidnap and extortion. Survival often depended upon who you could ally yourself too and how much influence you could exert. Border families were renowned in changing allegiances to suit the prevailing times. The area became known as a safe haven for hunted criminals to seek sanctuary from the authorities from both countries, which bolstered the ranks of the mercenaries or raiders for hire who became known as the Rievers. These notorious individuals were renowned well beyond the region and their exploits were so well documented still to this day we know their names. One unusual circumstance made the virtual independence of the area unique. The owning of an estate carried considerable local power, conferring rights normally reserved for the office of sheriff. With this came the right of “Pit and Gallows”, making it legal to intern anyone who displeased the baron or Feudal Chief or to string them up in the gallows, or Iron Maiden. These feudal rights were hereditary ensuring the same families became very powerful warlords often acting with impunity, often with tacit Royal approval. Coupled with this were two unique factors peculiar to the borders. Firstly inheritance, unlike the English system of property passing to the eldest male heir, Scotland had a system where land was divided amongst all the heirs, often splitting farmland into small unprofitable plots. Secondly the system of clan allegiances was far more complicated than the usual practice further north. In place was something called “manrent” which allowed anyone to swear allegiance to a clan; even with no relation or connection. Many who found themselves in a vulnerable situation could swear allegiance and come under direct protection of the clan chief, or hedesman. This explains why some border raids could have thousands of participants. Once an oath was pledged the individual was expected to undertake his hedesman orders to the letter, failure to do so would result in severe punishment and to be declared “a broken man” akin to being excommunicated. The authorities on both sides eventually tired of the lawlessness and constant raids from this virtually autonomous region that a series of meetings were held under truce to work out how to curtail the border families. It led to one of most unique series of draconian legislations being imposed. The imposition of pledges was made law. Each clan or family had to hold up hostages, or pledges, to ensure the behaviour of their particular followers. It became a criminal offence to sell a horse to a Scotsman. Anyone crossing the border had to have safe conduct papers signed by the relevant Warden; failure to comply earned a year of imprisonment. Jails became so crowded that unsuitable buildings were hastily commandeered often resulting in prisoners escaping or being freed by armed gangs. 4


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