The Scottish Marches

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The Scottish Marches is a term for the border country on both sides of the border between Scotland and England. From the Norman conquest of England until the reign of James VI of Scotland, who also became James I of England, border clashes were common and the monarchs of both countries relied on March Lords to defend the frontier areas known as the Marches.

The border lands onThe border lands onThe 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 Warden 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.

Berwick-upon-Tweed, a strategic town on the north bank of the River Tweed, (the traditional border in the East March), is slightly closer to Edinburgh than Newcastle. It was fought over many times (between 1147 and 1482 the town changed hands between the two nations more than 13 times), as late as the reign of Elizabeth I of England, the English considered it worth spending a fortune on the latest style of fortifications (trace italienne) to secure the town against Scottish attack.

The Marches were also fertile ground for many bandits and raiders who exploited the fluid nature of the border for criminal activity. One of the most successful and notorious was Geordie Bourne whose gang exploited the English East Marches in the 1590s. Bourne was captured and executed in 1597

The Lord Warden of the Marches was an office in the governments of Scotland and England. The holders were responsible for the security of the border between the two nations, and often took part in military action. The Marches on both side of the border were traditionally split into West, Middle and East, each with their own warden answerable to the Lord Warden. The offices became unnecessary after the union of the crowns of England and Scotland under King James in 1603.

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 Border Laws were amended many times down to the Union of the Crowns in 1603 when they were abolished by the new king of England, James Vl and lst. In the sixteenth century there was more than one way to try a criminal at the Day of Truce. Yes there was that of assize where six honest men of each of the nations of England and Scotland (they did have a sense of humour!) would try the felon brought to the Truce. But there were others ways. The man on trial could be tried on the word of the March Warden, where the Warden would swear to the guilt or innocence. Then there was trial by Avower where some-one would stand up and certify guilt or innocence. This was a brave man indeed given the feud and bloodfeud that prevailed. I would suppose there were few takers to this scenario. A fourth method was that of compurgation where a group of men would pronounce guilt or innocence. This method went back many centuries into religious law. Again I suspect few takers.

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.

It is interesting to note that often, on the inauguration of a new March Warden, he would wipe the slate clean and not be party to any crime that had been committed before the commencement of his Wardenry. And so it went on, justice even at a Day of Truce, was hard to come by.

Border heidman warden English and Scots Wardens   


This document is damaged and incomplete.]Letter from the [2nd] Earl of Douglas and of Mar to the King of England, complaining about the lack of an English warden of the East March to do justice on those who have acted against the truce, after the discharge of the Earl of Northumberland at the feast of the Assumption last, and before Lord Neville took up the post two days before the following Easter: so that no justice can be done on malefactors during that period. He asks the King to send his letters patent to Lord Neville and the Earl of Northumberland, or to one of them, to be at Lyliat Cross on 29 June next to do justice on these people, so that the lords who will be present at the great day shortly afterwards will not have to concern themselves with it; and to write back let him know his will on this matter.” 1383 

Notable Wardens:

  • Archibald Douglas, 3rd Earl of Douglas In 1364 he was appointed Warden of the Western March. This was an uneasy appointment as the English held Annandale, which formed the greater part of his new jurisdiction. In the following years he carried out numerous raids against the English. In 1368 he was appointed Lord Warden of the Marches and was successful in ousting the English from Annandale completely by 1383.
  • Archibald Douglas, 4th Earl of Douglas resumed his duties as Lord Warden of the Marches soon after his return to Scotland from France, c1414. On the Border he had a free rein to defend it and to keep the peace. However, it appears that Albany was not prepared to pay for this, so Douglas recovered his costs from customs fees on all trade goods entering the country.
  • William, 8th Earl of Douglas was deprived of the office of Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom, but King James, unwilling to come to an open rupture with his too-powerful subject, appointed him Warden of the West and Middle Marches
  • William Douglas, 2nd Earl of Angus held the office of Warden of the Middle Marches in 1433
  • Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus In March 1525 he was appointed Lord Warden of the Marches, and suppressed the disorder and anarchy on the border.
  • William Douglas of Cluny in 1464, King James appointed him Warden Douglas of the Eastern and Middle Marches, in succession to his brother the 4th Earl of Angus before 1475.
  • James Douglas (The Good) Warden of West March, 1314
  • Sir William, Knight of Liddesdale, Warden of Middle March, 1343
  • Sir James Douglas of Drumlanrig, who negotiated the division of the Debateable Lands, was appointed Warden of the West Marches from Annandale to Galloway on 31 August 1553.  The appointment was renewed on 23 October 1555. In 1568, as Warden, he held briefly Hoddam Castle.

    Further reading

    Howard, Pease (1912). The lord wardens of the marches of England and Scotland: being a brief history of the marches, the laws of march, and the marchmen, together with some account of the ancient feud between England and Scotland. London: Constable. pp. 194–201bsp;


    Ipdf logo am indebted to Sally Douglas who has compiled a history of the Douglases and the Scottish Marches. This can be downloaded as a pdf.


    It is also available as a Flip Book. (Updated 8th November 2011)


  • See also:

    The Debatable Lands



    Sources for this article include:
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    Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024