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...))