While most images of old Scotland are of Highlanders living in rugged mountain terrain, that is not really an accurate image for the Maxwells. Our family is rooted in the Scottish Borders, a stretch of land that separates Scotland from England and has a history as rich as any that our Highland countrymen might claim. It even included an area that was for more than three centuries called “the Debatable Lands,” effectively belonging neither to Scotland nor England but ruled by the various chiefs of clans.
The Borders stretched from the Solway Firth on the West to Marshall Meadows Bay on the East, a 96 mile border that was established in 1237 by the Treaty of York. But the independent spirit both of lowland Scots and inhabitants of England’s hilly north made the area difficult for either side to rule. Clans and families often switched sides, pledging allegiance to whichever country served their personal interests at the moment, and the porous border made it common for families to have members living on both sides.
Because the Borders were so difficult for either country to control, Scotland and England agreed to an arrangement that left the area largely self-ruled. The Borders were divided into six areas called Marches, three on either side. Each Marche was administered by a Warden, and Lords Maxwell were appointed Wardens of the West March, the region around Caerlaverock Castle, for a large part of 3oo years. As Wardens for the Scottish West Marche, they worked together with the Wardens of the English side to administer justice and keep the peace in their third of the Borders.
Of course, the fact that the West Marches included most of the Debatable Lands made “peace” a relative thing. That was where the legendary Border Reivers thrived, mounted raiders who engaged in cattle theft, kidnapping, extortion, and other activities that were permitted under loose rules accepted as Border Law. Border Reivers would conduct raids from one side of the border into the other to carry out their nefarious activities, and their victims could form posses to pursue the offenders back across the border and exact their own “justice” as long as they were back to their own side of the border within certain time limits. If they were unsuccessful when time ran out, the Reivers were entitled to keep their ill-gotten gains.
When the Wardens determined that punishment was appropriate, they took care of it themselves. On the Scottish West Marche, that often meant “justice” being dispensed on Wardlaw Hill, adjacent to Lord Maxwell’s Caerlaverock Castle. Legend has it that Wardlaw Hill was used for hangings as well as for the signal fires that rallied the Maxwells’ allies.
When King James VI of Scotland became King James r of England d, in 1603, the two countries united and the king began a “Pacification of the Borders.” He destroyed many of the fortified tower houses that dotted the countryside, purged the Border reivers, and rounded up offending families, many of which were sent either to prison or to Ireland. That may have calmed the fiery Borders to some extent, but the independence of the Borderers could be seen long afterward, even in the poetry of Robert Burns and the then-subversive anti-royalist pursuits of his good friend William Maxwell of Kirkconnell.
Today the Borders are calm, but ancient landmarks remind us of the area’s colorful past, as does the literature from the adventure tales of Sir Walter Scott to the historical accounts of George McDonald Fraser.
(scanned and added by Tony L Damigo, Co-Webmaster)
— Taken from “The House of Maxaxwell” newsletter, August 2015
(photos not used pending permission)