Reivers and Heroes: Borders in the Romantic Age

Border Ballads

Ballads are narrative verse and those borne of the border regions celebrate lives and events from both the Anglo and Scottish sides. As James Reed points out:

“The Borders is not a line but an area, in many respects historically and traditionally almost an independent region, certainly so in the eyes of the inhabitants who gave us the Ballads”1.


Most ballads date from the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries but continued to be sung for hundreds of years and are being revived today. Many tell of real incidents, others give folklore stories a local setting. They belong to a popular art form, and thus for many centuries to an oral tradition, and are sung or spoken in either Scots or North-East dialect.

Until the Nineteenth Century, no one regarded border ballads as something that could be taken seriously, or even as something that merited interest - either for their own sake, the culture they told of, or their art. Few therefore existed in print.

Titlepage of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border

Scott, W. - Minstrelsy of
the Scottish Border
Click to see a larger image

The Romantic Movement occasioned an increased interest in folk art, antiquarian and 'primitive' poetry, the lives of ordinary people, and history. Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) wrote his ‘Rowley’ poems in the late Eighteenth Century, which purported to be the works of a fifteenth-century poet and which were believed to be such even by the likes of Horace Walpole; James Macpherson (1736-1796) wrote epic poems that he passed off as translations of an epic in Gaelic by ‘Ossian’, supposedly dating from some vague period of early Scottish history, and widely accepted as such.

Poets such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote about common life, most recognisably in Lyrical Ballads (1798). Walter Scott (1771-1832) was the first to attach cultural-historical significance to the border ballads.

He produced a collection of them in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3), stating in his introduction that with these volumes he wanted to:

“contribute somewhat to the history of [his] native country; the peculiar features of whose manners and character are daily melting into those of her sister and ally” 2.

Bewick, T. - Ms. of a poem in Tyneside dialect

Bewick, T. - Ms. of a poem
in Tyneside dialect
Click to see a larger image


The popularity of this publication testifies to Romantic readers´ tastes for the local and the historical, as well as for a ‘primitive’ art form.

The influence of border ballads on local society and traditions is variously attested to.

They were sung to the whole family.

Thomas Bewick recalls how, in his childhood:

“the winter evenings were often spent in listening to the traditionary tales and songs, relating to men who had been eminent for their prowess and bravery in the border wars” 3.


They became integral to regional culture. The names of the border families are still to be found in the region today, those such as Armstrong, Graham, Robson, Elliot, Fenwick, Rutherford, Noble, and Reed. Words specific to the ballads and the lives they depict became part of local dialect, and often still are.

In The Fray Of Hautwessel, for example, the verb ‘to reave’ is used, which locals still use for ‘to rob’:

“The limmer thieves o´ Liddesdale
Wad na leave a kye in the hail countrie;
But an we gie them the caud steel,
Our gear they´ll reive it a´ awaye;
Sae pert they stealis I you say:
O´ late they came to Hawtwessyll,
And thowt they there wad drive a fray,
But Alec Rydly shotte tae well.”4


A main characteristic of border ballads is thus their local setting and impact on local culture.

1 Reed, p. 10.
2 Minstrelsy, 1821 ed., p. cxxxvii.
3 Thomas Bewick, A Memoir (published posthumously in 1862) p.10; here quoted from Reed, p.13.
4 The Fray Of Hautwessel; An Ancient Border Ballad, (Newcastle: Richardson, 1842), p.7.