Citizen Ship Belfast 2013. Nos 22. The Reiver and the Gael. New Discovery!…

Citizen Ship Belfast 2013. Nos 22.

The Reiver and the Gael. New Discovery!

It never ceases to amaze me, the ignorance of our divided community in the North of Ireland (with all its plethora of titles). The general lack of knowledge about our origins, our history and who we are, is mind boggling. Our disinterest, unsurprising. Many of us have the historical knowledge, the width of a cigarette paper, yet we will, and have, fought, rioted, looted and killed “For God and Ulster” or “ The Fields of Athenry” at the drop of a hat, like performing circus animals, for hundreds of years. At least . . . some of us have.

In many cases, we wave flags, adopt political positions and riot, without fully understanding why we do so. Some of us end up in prison, damage our lifelong job prospects and deprive our children of income, safety, parents and a more stable existence, for what? The visual presence of a flag?

I wrote a song a few years ago, called “The Reiver and the Gael”, that I originally used in storytelling workshops, to explain a really vital missing piece of our history, rarely taught in any of our schools. “The Reiver & the Gael” is about how many of the people who came to Ulster, around the time of the Plantation, were, in fact, exiled “criminals”, from the borders of England and Scotland.

When I say criminals, I mean from the point of view of the authorities of the late 1500’s. It’s up to you to decide whether they were criminals or not. For these people had learned a very violent way of life, through living where they did, and for suffering the regular traumas of war between England and Scotland. To and fro. Up and down dale, across, and over their lands. Because of this they found it difficult, if not impossible, to farm, raise crops or tend to their own livestock.

The Reivers lived in clans, the biggest of whom were called Graham, Armstrong and Elliott. Three influential and powerful families. The names of some of the other clans, above and below the borders, were Kerr, Lyttle, Maxwell, Johnson, Hume, Nixon, Robson, Beattie, Huddleston, Hall, Herron, Irvin (Irvine), Charlton and many, many more. This list of these names reads like a role call from my school, when I was growing up in Belfast in the 1970s.

The Reivers were fighters. It was natural to them. The word “Reiver” means, raider. To raid and steal the belongings of other people was how they existed, as they could not farm land that kept on being burnt and destroyed. So necessity took a hand in their daily lives.

These border country people could not be governed effectively. This area was like a war zone. The borders were divided into six marches (areas). Three above and three below the border. This “no man’s land”, a sizeable area, had remained this way for 300 years before the Plantation of Ulster, in which many Reivers took part. However, it seems to me that all the exiled Reivers have since been re-branded “Planters”. Quiet, well organised colonists, coming to Ulster, to farm and to keep the law, rather than violent, murderous thieves. This re-branding prevents the telling of the full story of how the Reivers gained their foot hold in Ulster and other parts of Ireland and how they were enabled to stay.

In fact how could these war like people just change their ways overnight? Did they change completely, or is part of their culture and ways of living still there amongst us, today?

What were the Reivers like? Violence was certainly their common currency, used in many activities like the raiding of livestock from farms, by these men, on horseback. Like early cowboy rustlers, in gangs of up to 300 horsemen at a time. Can you imagine the thundering of the hooves as they arrived at your farm?

They wore light armour and steel helmets, (steel bonnets), with coloured scarves to protect their necks. They rode small horses called “hobblers” or “bog trotters” with small shields, long spears, swords and daggers.

The Reivers were involved in inter-family feuds, murder, blackmail (they invented the term), extortion, cattle and sheep theft, racketeering, smuggling, robbery. To “be-reaved” was to be raided, often resulting in killings. The Reivers were so feared and hated, that the Bishop of Carlisle actually lay a curse upon them.

Did this curse stick? And if it did, how do we rid ourselves of it now?

As King James the 6th of Scotland (and now James the 1st of England) wanted rid of these subjects, many were hung, drowned (drowning was cheaper), sent to be mercenaries in the Low Countries (the Netherlands/Belgium), or exiled to Ulster, where they prospered.

Yet, here’s my key point. The Reivers were all exiled and technically they were all Catholic, as the Reformation had not reached them. Consequently they fell onto both sides of the community here, as the next 400 years passed by, like a street procession. It is well worth considering the implications of these important points.

The bulk of the Plantation in Ulster is always described as Lowland Scots. What percentage of that “bulk” were the Reivers? The maths is fascinating along with the colourful history, as it tells a different story from the one that we have been led to believe.

I’m tempted to ask is Reiver culture still alive and well in Ulster today? Now, here’s that song . . .

The Reiver and the Gael

Down the silken valley
We wend our merry way.
The jangle of the stirrup
The burning of the hay.

The rattle of the swords now.
The armour we have on.
The wind blows off the hillside
As we ride to meet dawn.

Tiddley aye-um Tiddley aye-ay.
Tiddley aye-um Tiddley aye-now boys.
Tiddley aye-um Tiddley aye-ay.
The Reiver and the Gael.

Were fit to trod the land now
Were fit to take your life.
Like Vikings up on horseback.
Take care your lovely wife.

We leap across the borders
And now we cross the sea.
King James he wants to hang us
But in Ireland we are free.


It’s hard to change our ways now.
Three hundred years or more.
Sent to farm the Ireland.
Or King James’s warrior.

The rattle of the swords now.
The armour we have on.
The wind blows off the hillside
As we ride to meet dawn.

Chorus. Repeat

Copyright R.S.Hall ©

Citizen Ship Belfast 2013. Nos 22.