<--Previous Review Click Here to Return to Index of Reviews
Click Here to Return to Home Page
Next Review-->
Click the Cover Picture or Title to purchase this item from Amazon.com -- a new browser window will open.
How Do You (Not) Spell "Elliott"?
The Steel Bonnets
George macDonald Fraser

In this wonderful look at a dark and fascinating period in Anglo-Scottish history, Fraser brings the same quirky attitude and deep appreciation of man's inherent rascality that make the "Flashman" books and his novel Mr American (q.v.) so imminently readable to the explication of the complex and violent history of the Border reivers.

Beginning with a Foreword that, among other things, describes the jolt he got watching Richard Nixon's Inauguration on television, when he saw Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Billy Graham standing together on the platform, he explains, in typical fashion, that Johnson, Nixon and Graham are all names that figured strongly in the reiving years, and that each, as well, wore faces that might well still be seen in the Border country today.

He delves into the history of Hadrian's Wall ("Any Englishman can tell you why it was built -- 'To keep the Scots out!'"), and speculates how Anglo-Scottish history might have been changed were the Wall a few miles north or south.

And then he dives off into the history of the Border and the Reivers.

This is not a standard, dry history text, laying everything out in a straight line,with dates and battles to memorise and all the juice sucked out of it.

No, Fraser skips around; first giving us an outline of the whole period, he then, in subsequent chapters, covers different aspects of the history in depth, and not necessarily chronologically.

He gives us fascinating details, such as why the spiral stairs in the watch towers built by the Kerr family tended to spiral anti-clockwise instead of the usual clockwise, in the process defining and explaining the origin of the term "correy fisted".

He writes of the great feuds among the reiving families, many of whom were to be found on both sides of the Border, of the practise of blackmail (somewhat different than the meaning the term has today) and in what manner one might legally pursue raiders back across the Border to attempt to retrieve one's property.

Explaining the administrative setup of the Border, he describes the careers and personalities of several of the more prominent Border Wardens, lawmen assigned by both England and Scotland to keep the peace, but never given the budgets or forces they needed, some of whom were among the bigger rascals of their day, as well. 

(He mentions how a Warden and a notorious reiver from the other side of the Border arranged for one to see a horse that the other was selling at a race meeting, and to buy the horse.)

He introduces us to several of the prominent reivers, including some of Sir Walter Scott's ancestors, and recounts their deeds.

He analyses the economy of the Border and the reiving system, as well as anyone can, at this remove and from extant records, and shows how this all affected the overall history of Anglo-Scottish relations.

And, for good measure, he includes the truly marvelous "Monition of Cursing" issued by the Archbishop of Glasgow against the reivers, a masterful piece of vituperation that runs four or more full pages depending on the edition.

Not a history text in the classic sense, not a novel, because it's all true, Fraser has presented the reader with a corking good reading experience that opens the window on another time and place whose influences still reverberate in the world today.

((About the spelling of Eliot... or Ellet ... or Eliott...: The family seemed to not mind how their name was spelt -- Fraser lists a large number of variant spellings with various permutations of "L"s and "T"s. (And vowels, for that matter.) He then points out that almost any were acceptable -- *except*, for some reason, the double "L" and double "T", a spelling the family affected, for some reason, to despise...))