Middle Shires

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The Tweed at Coldstream

The Middle Shires is a name given by King James VI of Scotland and I of England to those counties clustered about the meeting of Scotland and England which before his time were the Scottish Marches and the English Marches; the lawless borderlands. The term "the Middle Shires" may best be attributed to the shires which were under the jurisdiction of the Lord Wardens of the marches until King James's time.

These shires, when they were a borderland, were notorious, unquiet and dangerous. The joining of the lands brought a complete change; peace followed soon by prosperity. The border of the two Kingdoms ran through these lands even after the Union of the Crowns in King James's person until the union of the two kingdoms themselves on 1 May 1707.

The Middle Shires are today a feast for the senses, their natural upland geography and the richness of their dales dotted with small towns and villages forming a charming land.

The shires

The Middle Shires are:

Also a part of a county:


The Cheviot, Northmberland

The Middle Shires are a hilly region with the Southern Uplands to the west, Cheviot Hills and Lammermuir to the east, the Pennine hills of the Durham Dales in the south and the Lake District fells the highest of them all in the southwest, all in truth forming the same system.

The Lake District is a famed wilderness of soaring fells interspersed with beauteous ribbon lakes spread across Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire north of the sands and which understandably attracts vast numbers of fell walkers and visitors every year. The visitors to these peaceful lands may miss the past here, to which bear witness many abandoned peel towers, the farmers' defence against the reivers and armies which once ravaged the land.

Splitting the hills are a number of famous valleys ending in rich coastal plains. The River Tweed waters five of the shires and is joined by the other rivers which produce rich dales. The mouth of the Tweed opens into a broad coastal plain from eastern Berwickshire to Alnwick in Northumberland, with Berwick-upon-Tweed at its focal point. In the west, the Sark and the Esk with their tributaries open into the Solway Firth and a coastal plain in northern Cumberland and southern Dumfriesshire. Dumfriesshire itself is characterised by its famous dales; Liddesdale, Annandale and Nithsdale (the latter the county boundary).


The countless rivers of the Middle Shires include:


Establishing a border

Berwick-upon-Tweed, from south of the river

From the early Dark Ages there was no border between England and Scotland; the English lands stretched to the River Forth; the first recorded use of the name Engla land refers to Abercorn in West Lothian and these lands were part of the Kingdom of Northumbrians, while the Kingdom of the Scots was confined to Argyllshire and the islands. Powers changed in the early Middles Ages; the union of Scotland and Pictland, the smashing of Northumbria by the Vikings shifted the reality of power and the lands north of the River Tweed were ceded to the King of Scots, possibly a cession by King Edgar I to Kenneth[1] or a later conquest by Malcolm II: whenever it happened, it left the Kingdom of the Scots as English as Gaelic. The eastern stretch of the border remained on the Tweed for some time; Henry of Huntingdon describes Roxburgh as lying on the border. In the west, most of Cumberland and Westmorland were Scottish until Carlisle was conquered by William II.

A border more generous to Scotland was established in 1237 by the Treaty of York between England and Scotland.[2] Notwithstanding many wars in the Middle Ages, that border remained unchanged until the Union, with the exception of the English occupation of Berwick upon Tweed and the lands about it, which changed hands several times before Richard of York secured Berwick for England in 1482, and the settlement of the Debatable Lands in 1552.

The Marches

During late mediæval and early modern eras the borderlands of England and Scotland were known as the Scottish Marches. In the late 13th century, King Edward I of England appointed the first Lord Warden of the Marches to watch and try to enforce law in the borders, and in time wardens were appointed by the Scottish kings also to patrol the north side of the border.

Border clashes were common and the monarchs of both countries relied on Scottish Earls of March and English Lord Warden of the Marches to defend and control the border country.

On both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border there were the West March, the Middle March and the East March. These regions nearly mirrored each other but there was some overlap between the Scottish and English regions. The Lord Wardens of the Marches who oversaw these regions were tasked with keeping their monarch's domain secure. However when it was in their interests, the Wardens would encourage cross-border raiding or even full scale war.


Preston Tower; a peel tower

The fluid nature of the border, and the frequent wars between Scotland and England, made the marches into fertile ground for many bandits and reivers (robbers or border raiders) who exploited situation. The Wardens of the March on either side of the border were entrusted with the difficult task of keeping the peace and punishing wrongdoers, and the Scottish and English Wardens would meet to co-ordinate their efforts against freelance reivers.

For centuries until the Union of the Crowns though, despite the efforts of the wardens, the Marches were a lawless territory suffering from the repeated raids in each direction of the Border Reivers. The families had mixed and shifting allegiances, switching to which country or side they supported as suited their family interests at that time, and lawlessness abounded. Before the two kingdoms were united as the Kingdom of Great Britain, the Border clans would switch allegiance between the Scottish and English thrones depending on what was most favourable for the members of the clan. For a time, in the Debatable Lands where the line of the border had not been agreed, powerful local clans dominated and neither monarch's writ was heeded.

The great citadels of the English Crown at Carlisle and Berwick served as garrisons, prisons and places of execution. The gibbets of Berwick and Carlisle would often be filled with reivers.

Debatable Lands

The Debatable Lands, also known as debatable ground, batable ground or thriep lands was the land lying between Scotland and England, formerly in question to which it belonged when they were distinct kingdoms. In the Debatable Lands, neither monarch's writ was heeded as neither side could agree to which kingdom such lands belonged, and thus these lands were inhabited by the most intransigently lawless families.

The Debatable Lands extended from the Solway Firth near Carlisle to Langholm in Dumfriesshire, the largest population centre being Canonbie. They were around ten miles long from north to south and four miles wide. The boundaries of this disputed territory were marked by the rivers Liddel and Esk in the east and the River Sark in the west. For over three hundred years they were effectively controlled by local clans, such as the Armstrongs, who successfully resisted any attempt by the Scottish or English governments to impose their authority. In his history of the Border Reivers, George Macdonald Fraser says that the Armstrongs alone could put 3,000 men in the field.[3]

In 1551 the Crown officers of England and Wales, in an attempt to clear out the trouble-makers, withdrew all protection of the law of England from the Debatable land and declared that:

All Englishmen and Scottishmen, after this proclamation made, are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, slay, murder and destroy all and every such persons, their bodies, buildings, goods and cattle as do remain or shall inhabit upon any part of the said Debatable Land without any redress to be made for the same.

In 1552, a border line was agreed by commissioners, and soon after the Scots' Dike was built to mark it the line; this did not, however, stop the lawlessness, which was ended only with the effective end of the border itself in 1603.

Union of the Crowns

On 24 March 1603, King James VI of Scotland became James I of England also and thus unified England and Scotland in his own person. Although it would be 104 years before the two kingdoms were legally united, the union of the crowns permitted the unification of jurisdiction in enforcing the law.

King James VI & I decreed that the Borders should be renamed 'the Middle Shires'. In 1605 he established a single commission of ten drawn from equally Scotland and England to bring law and order to the region. Reivers could no longer escape justice by crossing from England to Scotland or vice versa.An Act anent fugitive persones of the borders to the in countrey in 1609 recited:

Forsamekle as the kingis majestie is resolved to purge the mydele schyres of this isle, heirtofoir callit the bordouris of Scotland and England, of that barbarous crueltie, wickednes and incivilitie whilk be inveterat custome almaist wes become naturall to mony of the inhabitantis thairof...

(Forasmuch as the king's majesty is resolved to purge the middle shires of this isle, heretofore called the borders of Scotland and England, of that barbarous cruelty, wickedness and incivility which by inveterate custom almost was become natural to many of the inhabitants thereof...)

The rough-and-ready Border Laws were abolished and the folk of the middle shires found they had to obey the law of the land like all other subjects.

In 1603 the King placed George Home, 1st Earl of Dunbar in charge of pacification of the borders. Courts were set up in the towns of the Middle Shires and known reivers were arrested. The more troublesome and lower classes were executed without trial; known as "Jeddart justice" (after the town of Jedburgh in Roxburghshire). Mass hanging soon became a common occurrence.

In 1607 James felt he could boast that "the Middle Shires" had "become the navel or umbilic of both kingdoms, planted and peopled with civility and riches". After ten years King James had succeeded; the Middle Shires had been brought under central law and order.

Borders were also to find a role in another of King James's projects. The King planned the Plantation of Ulster, which is to say the settlement of Ulster by Protestant Britons to pacify this formerly unquiet province. In this effort, the men of the Middle Shires were prominent, and many of the common surnames found today in Northern Ireland are those of border families.

End of the troubles

Turton Tower, Lancashire; a peel tower become domestic

By the early 1620s the Borders were so peaceful that the Crown was able to scale down its operations.

Nevertheless, the Joint Commission continued it work, and as late as 25 September 1641 under King Charles II a local laird, Sir Richard Graham, was petitioning the Parliament of Scotland "for regulating the disorders in the borders".[4]

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The romantic poets transformed the popular view of the fells, from one of a fearsome aspect to be dreaded to a picture of natural beauty. Sir Walter Scott led the way with his tales of adventure. Wordsworth's poetry followed. The railways in the later nineteenth century brought visitors in vast numbers; anglers to Annandale and the Tweed, fell walkers to Westmorland and Cumberland. The railways also transformed western Cumberland with heavy industry, fed by the coal found here and the port at Whitehaven.

Reiver legacy

The reiver period has produced one unique architectural feature in the counties in the old reiver country; the peel tower found on many great houses (and indeed on Carlisle Cathedral) as a defensive structure. The peel tower might be a form of defence against the reivers, or a defence for a reiver against the forces of the Crown.

The reiver period has also produced a great deal of romantic literature, most famously in the works of Sir Walter Scott. George Macdonald Fraser wrote a history of the reivers (The Steel Bonnets) but as his last work a comedic work, The Reavers, satirically imitating the romantic literature which has grown out of this time.



Though the word "clan" is more usually associated with the Highlands, being a term from the Gaelic language of those lands, it was applied too to the families of the English-speaking border lands (a 16th century Act of the Scottish Parliament talks about the chiefs of the border clans and a late 17th century statement by the Lord Advocate also uses "clans" and "families" interchangeably).

Historic Border clans include the following families:

  • Armstrong
  • Beattie
  • Bannatyne
  • Bell
  • Briar
  • Douglas
  • Elliot
  • Graham
  • Hedley of Redesdale
  • Henderson
  • Irvine
  • Jardine
  • Kerr
  • Little
  • Moffat
  • Nesbitt
  • Ogilvy
  • Porteous
  • Scott
  • Tweedie


Daniel Defoe wrote in A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain:

The first town we come to is as perfectly Scots, as if you were 100 miles north of Edinburgh; nor is there the least appearance of any thing English, either in customs, habits, usages of the people, or in their way of living, eating, dress, or behaviour; any more than if they had never heard of an English nation; nor was there an Englishman to be seen, or an English family to be found among them. On the contrary, you have in England abundance of Scotsmen, Scots customs, words, habits, and usages, even more than comes them; nay, even the buildings in the towns, and in the villages, imitate the Scots almost all over Northumberland.

Now however, Cumberland and Northumberland have amongst the largest Scottish-born communities in the world outside Scotland and London. Likewise, Berwickshire and Dumfriesshire have attracted many from outside the historic families of those shires.


Aspects of culture and dialect in the Middle Shires, whether distinct to one area or shared across the counties, include:

  • Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling
  • Bagpipes, amongst which local variants include:
    • Border pipes
    • Northumbrian smallpipes
  • Rapper sword dancing
  • Border tartan
  • Local dialects:
    • Scots language
      • Southern Scots dialect
    • Northern English dialects


  1. Anderson, Marjorie O
  2. National Archives, retrieved 3 April 2007
  3. Macdonald Fraser, George: The Steel Bonnets (1971)
  4. Petition of Sir Richard Graham regarding the middle shires: I am desired by Sir Richard Graham to move your majesty and this house of parliament that some present course may be taken for regulating the disorders that are now in the middle shires, this being the best time whilst the English commissioners are here that order may be given to the commissioners of both kingdoms to call the border landlords now in town to inform themselves what course has been formerly held for the suppressing of disorder and apprehending of felons and fugitives.