Journeying into the past

The New Collins Dictionary defines the word ‘reive’ as North Britain dialect meaning ‘to go on a plundering raid’. Therefore the noun ‘reiver’ means raider. The reivers inhabited the hills and valleys on both sides of the border between England and Scotland for hundreds of years up to the end of the sixteenth century, hence they became known as ‘the border reivers’. From tribal leaders to ordinary peasants they systematically robbed and pillaged from each other. Their weapons were swords, knives and lances.


Stories handed down through history tell of raiding, arson, kidnapping, murder and extortion as a normal part of the lives of border families. They stole from each other so often that no-one knew what belonged to whom. The wardens or Lord Lieutenants of the border regions/marches spent a lot of time trying to sort out the disputes regarding ownership of flocks and herds. A wardens job was to keep the peace, a difficult job indeed in these so-called ‘debatable lands’ where such lawlessness abounded. Unsuspecting travellers were murdered and robbed. Those who knew this were terrified for their lives and would not venture into reiver territory if it could be avoided.


The reivers lived in fortified dwellings known as bastles (a cross between a barn and a castle) with three feet thick walls. The upper floors accommodated people and the ground floor housed the animals. Towns and farms were fortified but still the stealing of cattle and sheep went on. Today the reivers legacy remains in words such as blackmail and bereaved, surviving architecture, dialect and the names to be feared, the most famous of which were the Armstrongs, Grahams, Kerrs, Nixons, Robsons, Milburns and many others. The Hetherington clan was a notorious reiver clan in the English West March. Their clan chiefs dispensed justice in that locality. Their ancient clan feud was always with the English Grahams and those north of the border in Scotland. They were deeply involved in the plot to murder the Bishop of Carlisle in 1569. Notable amongst the family at this time was Thomas ‘the merchant’ Hetherington. Any relation? Who knows. Records don’t go back that far.


Inspired by the ITV programme ‘Who do you think you are?’we embarked on a search for Jack’s ancestors, having always harboured the romantic notion that there might be a link to the border reivers. Internet Broadband access and online ancestry search sites made it possible for us to look through the National Archives from the comfortable chair in front of our computer. This led us back to George Hetherington who was Jack’s 6 x great grandfather born in 1690. By that time strong measures had been put in place by King James 2nd to enforce laws which prevented the continuation of reiving activities along the border between England and Scotland. People were scattered or deported and many families were peacefully resettled. (see “The end of the Border Reivers” on the border reivers web site at www.borderreivers.co.uk)

We discovered that most Hetheringtons settled in Cumbria, from there moving to wherever work was available in and around the Cumbria/Durham/Northunbria areas. Thus it was that we found a number of Jack’s ancestors who lived in Medomsley, County Durham and Allendale, Northumberland. A visit to these places gave us a feeling of what life may have been like there in days gone by. Allendale in particular has changed little. But there is nothing left of old Medomsley except the Hat & Feather Inn which still exists facing onto fields where once Medomsley Colliery and Derwent Cottages were. The 1837 census lists several Hetherington families living and working here.


Complications occurred when tracing which line led to Jack through repetition of christian names, lots of Johns and Roberts. One name was certainly an ancestor of Jack’s. He was Isaac, born in 1807, listed in the 1869 census as a licensed victualler which, after much searching through old records at Newcastle library, turned out to be a butcher and farmer in Allendale Town.


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Page 9


Hat & Feather Inn

Allendale Town