10 July 2018

The Role of Black Sailors in the Napoleonic Royal Navy by Philip K. Allen

My Tuesday Talk Guest
Philip K. Allan
In the heart of London is Trafalgar Square, where the figure of Nelson stands on top of his column and gazes out over the city’s traffic with his single good eye. The base of the column is decorated by four bronze reliefs which commemorate some of his victories. The one for the Battle of Trafalgar shows the admiral being carried from the quarterdeck of the Victory, moments after being shot by a French marksman. The scene has several people in it, including Nelson, one of whom is clearly a black sailor. He has been given a prominent role, standing with a musket held across his chest as he looks towards where the shot has come from, as if about to revenge the dying hero. 

The Death of Nelson at Trafalgar
the relief on the south face of the plinth
The relief was produced by the Irish artist John Edward Carew. In an era before notions of political correctness or ethnic balance could have influenced him, he chose to include a black sailor in his scene. A study of the work gives us some clues to Carew’s motivation. The relief shows a desire on his part to achieve a good level of historical accuracy. In which case, it may indicate that black sailors were a sufficiently common sight on board Royal Navy ships at Trafalgar to make the unknown sailor’s inclusion unremarkable.

Researching the prevalence of black sailors in the 18th century navy is problematic. The principle source of data on crews comes from ships’ muster books, many of which still survive. But black sailors almost always appear under their western ‘slave’ names, rather than their African ones. How are we to know which, if any, of three sailors called John Smith was black? But there is other evidence for their presence. For example, we have a letter that Captain Martin of the Implacable wrote to his brother in 1808 in which he listed the origins of his crew. From this letter it is clear that at least eleven of the hands were black, and possibly several more. This compares with twenty-five shown as Welsh.

Billy Waters 1820
Some black sailors are known to us because they became more visible after they left the service. Billy Waters was born in America during the War of Independence. He served in the Royal Navy for many years until an unfortunate accident while he was serving aboard the Ganymed. He was badly injured when he fell from the topsail yard and had to have his left leg amputated. After he was discharged he had a second career as a street entertainer in London, and was a sufficiently well know figure to have been featured in contemporary illustrations. Black sailors also appear in other contemporary cartoons and painting, as well as being mentioned in diaries and other correspondence.

Greenwich Pensioners 1854
Other black sailors lived long enough to appear in early photographs. Some veteran sailors who had particularly illustrious careers became Greenwich Pensioners and where housed in Wren’s fabulous Royal Navy hospital by the river Thames. Old sailors, often amputees, with their 18th century style frock coats and cocked hats, were a familiar site in the area. The picture above was taken in 1854, and shows some survivors of Trafalgar seated outside the hospital. The pensioner third from the left has been identified as Richard Baker, a black sailor born in Baltimore in 1770. He entered the Hospital in 1839, having served aboard HMS Leviathan during the battle. He is also thought to have started life as a slave.

Richard Baker’s case was almost certainly not unique. It is possible that the majority of black sailors in the navy were run slaves. In 1772 a landmark ruling in the case of Somerset vs Stuart, stated that slavery did not exist in English Common Law. This effectively meant that if a slave could escape from their plantation and find his or her way to a place where such law held sway, they would become free. For slaves on the sugar islands of the Caribbean, this meant the deck of a Royal Navy or British ship. In an era when manning for the navy was a problem, captains would not need much temptation to turn a blind eye to a useful looking recruit’s origins.

This was also an era where slavery was coming to an end, at least in the British Empire. The slave trade was banned in acts passed in 1807 and 1811, and progressively stronger measures were put in place until 1833, when slavery itself was finally abolished. When I was taught about the abolition of slavery at school, it was William Wilberforce and his fellow Evangelical Christians that were said to have been responsible. Later in life, I began to question the simplicity of this view. What role was played in all of this by the slaves? Did they do anything to liberate themselves, or did they wait patiently in the cane fields of Barbados for the machinations of the British Parliament to run their course? The drivers of abolition are complex, but what is beyond doubt is that many slaves did seek to liberate themselves. For some this took the form of organised slave revolts, as took place unsuccessfully in several of the British sugar islands; and happened successfully in French run Saint Dominique, later Haiti. But for most, resistance would have come in the form of an individual throwing off his chains and escaping. And to escape completely from an island, requires a ship.

It is interesting to speculate what effect all of these black sailors in the Royal Navy had on the abolitionist cause. Many naval officers, like the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham, were prominent opponents of the slave trade. Long established practices often founder when they come to seem hopelessly anachronistic in an ever-changing world. The knowledge that large numbers of former slaves were bravely fighting in the armed services of the nation responsible for their enslavement must, at the very least, have given supporters of slavery pause for thought. No case would have made this clearer than the remarkable career of John Perkins, know by the nickname Jack Punch in the service.  

'Jack Punch'
His origins in Jamaica are obscure, but naval historian Nick Rodger believes that John Perkins was probably born as a slave. He joined the Royal Navy in 1775 as a local pilot, and his career progressed rapidly. His first command was the Punch, a schooner, and was a brilliant success. In 1782 he was commissioned as a lieutenant, and by 1800 he had risen to the position of post captain. He went on to command a number of ships, including the frigates Arab and Tartar, both of which had officers and crews who were predominately white. Over the whole of a glittering career, he is said to have captured over three hundred enemy ships, and died a very wealthy man in 1812.

© Philip K. Allan

About Philip 
Philip K Allan comes from Watford in the United Kingdom. He still lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and his two teenage daughters. He has spent most of his working life as a senior manager in the motor industry. It was only in the last few years that he has given that up to concentrate on his writing full time.
‘I well remember the evening around the dinner table when I first suggested that I should give up my job to try my hand as a novelist,’ says Philip.

Philip chose to set his first series of novels on board a Royal Navy frigate at the end of the 18th century. ‘It’s a period I know well,’ he says. ‘On the one hand you have the strange, claustrophobic setting of the ship and on the other the boundless freedom to move around the globe wherever the author chooses.’

 Philip has written his novels in spite of his dyslexia. ‘No one had heard of dyslexia when I was at school,’ he explains. ‘We were labelled as inattentive or lazy, and told that if only we made more effort we would surely get better. Well, I have read thousands of books and written millions of words, and guess what? I am still dyslexic!’

Book One
After a century of war, revolutions, and Imperial conquests, 1790s Europe is still embroiled in a battle for control of the sea and colonies. Tall ships navigate familiar and foreign waters, and ambitious young men without rank or status seek their futures in Naval commands. First Lieutenant Alexander Clay of HMS Agrius is self-made, clever, and ready for the new age. But the old world, dominated by patronage, retains a tight hold on advancement. Though Clay has proven himself many times over, Captain Percy Follett is determined to promote his own nephew.
Before Clay finds a way to receive due credit for his exploits, he’ll first need to survive them. Ill-conceived expeditions ashore, hunts for privateers in treacherous fog, and a desperate chase across the Atlantic are only some of the challenges he faces. He must endeavor to bring his ship and crew through a series of adventures stretching from the bleak coast of Flanders to the warm waters of the Caribbean. Only then might high society recognize his achievements—and allow him to ask for the hand of Lydia Browning, the woman who loves him regardless of his station.

"The author writes with admirable precision and fluency. His plot construction and narrative flow are tight and compelling, never losing momentum...Jeffrey K. Walker  Discovering Diamonds

Book Two

Alexander Clay brings the battered Agrius together with her captured French prize into Barbados. He is rewarded with promotion to master and commander and his first independent command, the sloop of war HMS Rush. He is sent to blockade the French sugar island of St Lucia, and helps in its capture. But dangers surround the newly promoted Clay. When a run slave joins his crew he finds his ship divided over the growing conflict between Caribbean slave owners and the abolitionist movement. Lieutenant Windham is determined to find out the truth behind the convenient death of his uncle, the Agrius’s former captain, while blundering around the Caribbean is the rogue Spanish ship of the line , the San Felipe. 


3 July 2018

Commenting about Blog Comments and other such stuff. Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick

Those of us who are authors, especially indie authors, spend as much of our time talking, Blogging Facebooking, Tweeting and OtherMediaSites-ing about our novels as we do in writing the things in the first place - actually, probably more time! But without the talking, blogging etc there would be very little marketing and marketing is essential because otherwise there would be no sales, which makes the writing a tad pointless doesn't it? I favour Blogger for most of the stuff I waffle on about. Wordpress is more adaptable, but I find it too technical to use, Blogger is simpler. Both have their good and bad points, both have their quirks and foibles. Sometimes, very annoying ones.

Marketing for an author can be a double-edged sword, however. Get it right you get a good following of nice, friendly, enthusiastic readers. Get it wrong and you get... well, zilch or the nastier troll-type people. (See my previous post about spamming.)

GDPR has been another thorny issue. Yes the intention is for our Data Protection, so it is a good thing - but I was at screaming point with all the 'please re-subscribe to my newsletter' emails that flooded in.  I did my GDPR alert in a different and more convenient, less annoying, way: I mailed everyone on my Newsletter mailing list (heavy hint: subscribe by clicking here...)  informing  that I am well aware of GDPR regulations and that 'beyond email addresses for my own contact use, I do not collect, store or share any personal details' and that nothing had to be done  unless they wished to UNsubscribe. What took the biscuit, though, was the author who sent me three 'please re-subscribe' emails reminding me that 'you haven't re-subscribed - last chance to do so.'  Repeated pestering is called spamming mate!

I enjoy blogging, both writing my own articles and hosting guest posts by a variety of interesting people. Usually authors, yes, but not always articles on history or historical fiction / nautical adventure. The thing is, apart from glancing at the Stats (which I confess I'm not very good at interpreting) or keeping an eye on the Page View counter, I have no real way of knowing whether anyone else finds these articles interesting. Maybe my blog is a mirror of me at home, merrily chattering away unaware that no one else is listening...

So, I'm going to give a hefty nudge. Not just for this blog but for all blogs, for all your favourite authors and blogging friends. Do, please, when and where you can 

leave a...

... or at least tick the 'like' box if there is one!

It's a small thing, but it means a lot to have that interaction.

'Ah', I hear you say, 'I do try but Blogger/Wordpress won't post my comments, or the captcha validation thingy won't work,' (or a variety of other known-only-to-Blogger and Wordpress reasons.)

Hmm tricky one. I have found that people who do not use a Googlemail email address often have difficulty for Blogger. Very annoying, but I have this as my 'Please leave a comment' message:

Thank you for leaving a comment - it should appear immediately, but Blogger sometimes chucks its teddies out of the cot and has a tantrum (especially if you are a Wordpress person.) If you are having problems, contact me on author AT helenhollick DOT net and I will post it for you. Sometimes a post will appear as 'anonymous' instead of your name or avatar - I draw attention to this being a Blogger Blooper and not of MY doing... However ...SPAMMERS or distasteful rudeness will be stamped on, squashed, composted and very possibly cursed - if you spam my blog, next time something nasty happens to you just remember that I DID warn you...

Spammers take note of that last bit.

And that's another puzzling Blogger thing: 'Anonymous'. Many bloggers do not allow unnamed posts because many of these are spammers - I do allow 'anonymous'  because I'm aware that some people wish to keep their identity private. But it is annoying for the person writing the comment when their name doesn't come up but is marked as 'Anonymous' instead. This, I must stress is not MY fault, it is a Blogger quirk not a Hollick quirk.

A way to get round this particular annoyance is whenever you wish to leave a comment ... add your name at the end of the text! Hey presto, Blogger's weird quirks neatly sidestepped.

I mention this issue for a reason. A persistent spammer recently emailed me to ask why I'd 'censored' his comments on a post on my blog. Leaving aside the fact that he was referring to a post dated 2017, I had no idea what he was on about. Upon investigation it turned out that his name wasn't there, but 'anonymous' was - and he was accusing me of deliberately doing the alteration and thereby censoring his comment.

 Eh? (I think the official term is #WTF?) 

I'm intrigued. I have no idea how to alter comments left on blogger. Can you alter submitted comments? Anyone know? If something is obviously spam I delete it. If something is rude or defamatory, or completely irrelevant, ditto, delete. But why on earth would I bother to delete a name from a comment posted well over a year ago and put 'anonymous' there instead?

Blimey, I wish I had enough spare time to even think about doing such trivial nit-picky waste-of-my-valuable-time things!

On the other hand... I was stuck for a theme for today's article, so something about 'please do consider leaving a comment on a blog article you've enjoyed' fitted the bill nicely, but  the quirks of Blogger (and WordPress) are baffling. Sending senseless emails which are nothing more than  bullying, even more so. 

If anyone wants to attempt to leave a comment below, please do so. 
With or without your name.

images via Pixabay

26 June 2018

The Birth of the F-Bomb by Jeffrey Walker

My Tuesday Talk Guest... talks about that 
'F' word 
(in particular in its historical use context)
alert for readers with a fragile disposition: 
certain words in this article are censored by various symbols!

There’s an irresistible impulse amongst we humans to overestimate the uniqueness of our own time. In the USA, for example, we’re currently hyperventilating over the hideous partisanship and coarseness of our political discourse.

There’s really been nothing worse than what the Jeffersonians and the Adams-Hamilton Federalists meted out to each other 200 years ago. Adams was labeled “a hideous hermaphroditical character” by a journalist hired by Jefferson. Adams responded by throwing said journalist in prison for sedition. The happy aftermath to this story is that the journalist, a Scotsman (not surprisingly) by the name of Callender, later turned on Jefferson and outed The Author of the Declaration as father of the children of his slave, Sally Hemings. (Who was herself the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife. It all got rather complicated in Ol’ Virginny.) 

So I for one believe things could actually get much worse.

The same sense that Our Time Is Utterly Unique applies to… the F-Bomb. My kids seem to think they invented the word f@ck in all its polygrammatical guises. I beg to differ, but until recently I’d rather thought MY generation invented every day use of the word f#ck. I was woefully mistaken.


In fact, the first usage of the word f$ck in any kind of sexual sense appears to date to the early 14th century when a man from Chester in England is referred to in a writing as “Roger Fucke-by-the-Navele.” Which says something most hilarious about poor Roger’s sexual prowess, we may safely assume. The first use of the F-word in literature dates to a poem written by a Scotsman (not surprisingly) named William Dunbar: “Yit be his feiris he wald haue fukkit / Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane.” But since less than .0008% of the world’s population could even come close to understanding this, it’s kind of a “no harm, no foul” usage.

The first and second books of an historical fiction trilogy I'm writing came out last year, set during and after the First World War. Doing research for these books, I discovered that the F-Bomb, as in the carpet-bombing usage of the word f$ck in each phrase of every conversation, was probably invented by millions of English-speaking soldiers slogging around the trenches during the First World War. (I stand ready to be disproven by all you U.S. Civil War or Napoleonic War authors out there.)

reviewed by Discovering Diamonds
buy the book: Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk
It seems to have become something of a Word of Universal Usage among the Brits, Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Newfoundlanders, South Africans, and—belatedly—the Yanks. Its use even spilled over to the non-English speaking troops, including the Germans. By the end of the War, it was in the same league as “O.K.” in terms of worldwide currency.

I’ve spent most of the last two years in a deep dive into First World War soldier’s letters, memoirs, interviews, songs, cartoons, trench newspapers, poems, and novels. Much of this was consciously cleaned up by the former Tommies or doughboys or diggers for consumption back home in decent society. I then learned to decode the accepted replacement euphemisms or entendres. Some examples, by way of illustration:

Sod off/sod/sodding   equivalent to  f^ck off/ f&cker/ f&cking
Bugger/buggered/buggering    equivalent to  f&cker/ f#cked/ f&cking
Blooming  equivalent to  f&cking
Blessed    equivalent to  f#cked
You get the idea. And it quickly became obvious to me that in the trenches, about every fifth word seems to have been f^ck, f+cked, or f!cking. Or some combination or derivation thereof.

Here's a few examples from widely popular soldiers’ songs, which grew ever more profane as the war dragged through its deadly, sausage-grinding fifty-two months. As a former military aviator myself, I particularly like this Royal Flying Corps ditty derived from the children’s rhyme “Cock Robin.” Just the chorus will do:

                                 All the pilots who were there
                                 Said ‘F*ck it, we will chuck it.’
                                 When they heard Cock Robin
                                 Had kicked the f*cking bucket.

Here’s one that made it into my book, set to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Just because.

                                 Kaiser Bill is feeling ill,
                                 The Crown Prince, he’s gone barmy.
                                 We don't give a f*ck for old von Kluck,
                                 And all his bleeding army.

What I sensed from letters and memoirs that referred, either directly or indirectly to the incredibly coarse language of the trenches is that the enlisted men and the officers took the regular use of f%ck as simply part of the background noise of the soldiering way of life. Just as they stopped hearing the near-constant thrum of artillery unless it was falling directly on them, profanity just didn't register. The hideous level of violence and the omnipresence of capricious death numbed the men to anything beyond just getting by from day to day.

My favorite use of the F-Bomb? Actually, it’s not from the Great War at all. Rather, my F-Bomber Award goes to Al Pacino who, in his eponymous lead role in the 1983 film Scarface, scored the first recorded F-Bomb hat trick by using the word as verb, adjective and object of a preposition in an economical nine words: “Don’t f*ck with me you f*cking piece of f*ck.” 

© Jeffrey K Walker

Reviewed by Discovering Diamonds
buy the book: Amazon.com  Amazon.co.uk

About Jeffrey
JEFFREY K. WALKER is a Midwesterner, born in what was once the Glass Container Capital of the World. A retired military officer, he served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, planned the Kosovo air campaign and ran a State Department program in Baghdad. He’s been shelled, rocketed and sniped by various groups, all with bad aim. He’s lived in ten states and three foreign countries, managing to get degrees from Harvard and Georgetown along the way. An attorney and professor, he taught legal history at Georgetown, law of war at William & Mary and criminal and international law while an assistant dean at St. John’s. He's been a contributor on NPR and a speaker at federal judicial conferences. He dotes on his wife, with whom he lives in Virginia, and his children, who are spread across the United States. Jeffrey has never been beaten at Whack-a-Mole. 

Website: jeffreykwalker.com    
Twitter: @jkwalkerAuthor
* * *

Helen: The 'F' word is said to come from early Dutch, Swedish or German: Fokken, meaning either to "reproduce" or “to move back and forth.” It appears in the 16th century, when an anonymous monk reading through a copy of Cicero's De Officiis (a guide to moral conduct)  expressed his anger towards the abbot. He scrawled, O d fuckin Abbot,” in the margin of the text. He helpfully recorded the date, 1528, in another comment. In what context he meant his complaint, we do not know, but John Burton, the abbot, did have questionable morals!

There are at least two other instances of f*ck dated prior to the annoyed monk, but some scholars deny these as the first use, as one is Scottish and one appears in code, with a Latin verb conjugation. The Scots poet, William Dunbar, a former Franciscan friar, penned the word before his death, in 1513. The coded example is also from a poem, dated 1475-1500. But why scholars reject these uses is beyond me! It seems fairly obvious that the F word was already in widespread use by the end of the 1400s - this was, after all, a period of upheaval with various wars (end of the Hundred Years War, War of the Roses etc) and the age when trade and shipping - and therefore the World - was rapidly expanding. 

The 'F' word had become common by the late 16th century, but in 1598 it was not a swearword -  like 'swiving' it was merely a word for sexual intercourse. By the early to mid-nineteenth century it had started to be an insult, and now it usually expresses high emotion, whether angry or incredulous. So feel free to tell your teenage children that the 'F' word is actually 300 years old and can mean anything from enjoying sex, offending someone, or exclaiming that something is awesome - oh and monks used it!
My pirate in my Sea Witch Voyages has been heard to utter variants of the word on occasion! 

19 June 2018

'It isn't wrong but...' Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick

Gordon the Big Engine
"It isn't wrong - but we just don't do it ...." Edward the Blue Engine
(referring to Gordon the Big Engine's habit of being annoying by whistling long, loud and often.)

Or to put it another way.... Spamming. 
Deliberate spamming that can, in a few cases, come very close to harassment is wrong. It is irritating, intrusive and can be, in the hands of the persistent Troll, downright nasty. We've all had them, those emails that proclaim things like 'use my editing service, I'm the best' followed by another and another pestering email (because you sent the first couple straight to the junk folder) with 'Since you didn't answer I'll put a snide comment on Amazon about how many errors are in your badly written book.'  Why do these people feel the need to trash a book because their spammed offer of (unwanted) 'service' was not accepted? More baffling, where on earth do they find the time to  continue with their nonsensical spamming? Obviously their 'we're the best' business can't be very busy can it?

But where is the fine line between trying to get your hard-written novel noticed and pi**ing people off when you go on and on about it?

The answer is really quite simple. Vary your marketingDon't whistle about the same thing long, loud and oftenRepeated tweets, Facebook posts and re-mentioned-yet-again blog shout-outs can turn potential readers off quicker than Edward the Blue Engine can shunt a train of carriages into the sidings.

Edward the Blue Engine
'But', I hear you wail, 'how do we promote our books then?'
As much as we like to think that we are huge whales swimming in a small pond, most of us are only tadpoles struggling in the enormous ocean that is Amazon. I have to be honest, when someone comes up with a really good answer to that question I'll let you know. (Maybe not straight away - I'll keep it for myself for a bit.)

Readers like to know about authors, how they got started, how they discovered their characters, where they write, what their hobbies are - the interesting bits behind the scenes of that book cover. In the very pre-internet days top authors were regarded as celebs because they sold lots of books and made lots of money. (I bet you can easily name a few high-profile pre-1990s authors!) Until recently - pre 2005 I'd say as a rough guesstimate - the publishing houses took care of all the marketing for the books they published. Their best authors were seen on TV, heard on the radio, featured in newspapers and magazines. Us lesser authors, well, we got two weeks of minor publicity and that was it. If our book didn't sell (because no one knew about it) we could find ourselves dropped like a ton of broken bricks with no offer of a further contract. Advance payments were usually large, four or five figure sums. Today you're lucky if you get picked up, let alone offered a small advance!

But then computers came along with floppy disks (or cassettes prior to that!) and the World Wide Web, followed with emails, newsletters, My Space (remember that?) Facebook, websites, Twitter, Blogs ... Amazon... and Indie Writers who discovered that you didn't need a Big Publishing House to publish and market (or not) your book.

For many years, back in the mid-2000s, Indies were looked down upon as the sludge of the literary world (still are at times, though fortunately, not as often.) This is because back then we didn't quite know how to do it properly. I include myself. My first indie novel was not far short of a disaster - even down to the Comic Sans print (blushes in shame - although it wasn't my fault. It never occurred to me that the assisted publishing house I used then would not re-set the text correctly. That company eventually went bankrupt owing money to disgruntled staff, authors and printers all over the show, so it sums up their poor service.) 

Original cover
designed by an amateur artist -
attractive, but not professional quality
Present professionally designed cover
By properly I mean professionally, to produce a novel that is every bit as good as one published traditionally mainstream. Actually, in some cases, even better. Mainstream is becoming quite shoddy at times. Indie authors are taking control. Experienced editors are used, professional designs for the covers, quality printing - and good marketing. Plus if we get something wrong we can quickly re-edit and re-print. Mainstream publishers won't or can't.

Marketing your book is a subtle art. Yes of course you can tootle your whistle occasionally - but not continuously. There is a difference between pleasantly mentioning and outright heckling.

There are plenty of places on line and more than a few good books to advise about marketing but here are a few suggestions:
  • Send out a regular newsletter (I use Tinyletter it is simple to use) but again, keep it interesting. Sign up to my newsletter or I can recommend Alison Morton's newsletter (she writes alternative history - crime novels set in the fictional modern world of if the Rome Empire had survived. Brilliant books.) 
  • Tweet interesting Tweets, and make sure you re-tweet other people's interesting Tweets. They in turn might re-tweet yours.
  • Have a Facebook page. Again keep it interesting (but not too personal. Once on the Internet something stays on the Internet.)
  • Keep a Blog. OK maybe update it with a new article only once a month, but do so regularly. And no, it isn't a blog that is just about you and your books. Take at look at the index page for this blog. Note how diverse my posts are. Invite interesting guests. Then they might invite you back and automatically you are widening your audience. 

The drawback to all this? 

I wish someone would invent a 36 hour day...


12 June 2018

Tuesday Talk with Jen Black... Who were the Border Reivers

Reiver statue at Galashiels
You may well ask, especially if you live in the south of England.

The reivers lived in those counties that glare at each other across the English-Scottish Border: Northumberland, Cumbria and Durham; Berwickshire, Roxburghsire and Dumfriesshire. Some would include Selkirk. Westmorland used to be listed, but in the 1974 reorganisation the county was lost and now forms part of Cumbria. Helvellyn rises to 3,117 ft (950m), but reivers found the Eden Valley easy access to easy pickings. The Pennines that form the Durham Dales proved more of a barrier, though inroads were made. Every northerner knows the story of the monks at Blanchland in County Durham who cowered in their church until the Scots raiders passed by on their way home to Scotland and then rang the bells in thanks. The Scots heard the bells, turned back and raided the little village hidden in its deep valley.

George MacDonald Fraser described the reivers in his book The Steel Bonnets: “...they are not the most immediately lovable folk in the United Kingdom. Incomers may find them difficult to know; there is a tendency among them to be suspicious and taciturn, and the harsh Border voice, whether the accent is Scots or English, lends itself readily to derision and complaint. No doubt there are Cumbrians who are gay, frivolous folk, and Roxburghshire probably has its quota of fawning, polished sophisticates; they are in a minority, that is all.”

Qualities such as those he described were forged in harsh times that passed most of Britain by. From the late thirteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth, the Borders were frequently a war zone. During those times armies marched in both directions across the Border lands, burning, stealing and despoiling as they went; armies must eat, and the people of the Borders bore the brunt of it. 

When a man’s crops and livestock were seized, there was nothing he could do to support himself and his family but relieve his neighbours of the goods he needed. If the neighbour was in the same situation, then they joined forces and foraged further afield. Nationality was not a consideration in such desperate times; Scot raided Scot as much as the English and the English were not averse to raiding an English farm if needs must. Scots helped the English raid north of the Border and Englishmen aided Scots raids south of the Border. Families such as the Grahams had members straddling both sides of the line and no one ever knew for certain who they would support on any given day.

In times of peace, the raiding went on. Habits once formed, die hard. Feuds developed, some across the Border divide and some within it. The Maxwells feuded with the Johnstones in one of the bitterest and bloody battles known in Scotland, yet now no one knows how or why it began; possibly a power struggle for supremacy between two powerful tribes that turned the Debateable Land into a wasteland, according to Lord Dacre in 1528. Twenty years later Lord Wharton was busily fanning the flames to secure England’s interests and both clan leaders found themselves in and out of English prisons on an almost regular basis.

National policy tried to stop the lawlessness. The Borders were divided into six administrative areas known as the Marches and England and Scotland both appointed three Wardens whose task was to defend against invasion in time of war and put down crime and maintain law and order in peace time. Some were good men and others were the worst raiders of the frontier. A Warden often used one reiving family to help them catch another. Tracking thieves on horseback in the dark across trackless and boggy wastes was not an easy task and no Borderer was about to betray another Borderer unless it brought him profit or it played into his feud. Sex took no notice of national policy and intermarriages across the Border were common. Cattle rustling and protection rackets abounded. The words blackmail and kidnapping came into the English language via the Borders. Overpopulation of the more fertile dales and greedy landlords contributed to the problems and so did the Tynedale custom of dividing a dead man’s land among all his sons “whereby beggars increase and service decays.”

Their homes were makeshift things in many cases. Often burned down, they were replaced astonishingly quickly, built of clay and stones, sometimes turf sods with roofs of thatch. Larger villages had more substantial dwellings of stone and oak timbers. The Bastle was smaller, built on the same lines as a peel tower, which was more secure still; built of stone with massively thick walls. There was only one entrance at ground level, with two doors, one a yett – an iron grating - and the other of oak reinforced with iron. A narrow curving stair known as a turnpike led to upper floors. Usually they curved clockwise so a defender retreating to an upper storey had his unguarded left side to the wall; the man attacking up the stair was at a disadvantage with his sword arm to the wall. 

a Bastle house
The Kerrs, notoriously left-handed, built their turnpikes anti-clockwise. 

Smallholm Tower
The standard of living was generally higher in towns such as Berwick or Carlisle, but the daily food ration of a soldier in the Berwick garrison in 1597 would not satisfy us today; he received a daily ration of a 12 oz loaf, 3 pints of beer, 1½ lbs of beef, ¾lb of cheese and ¼of butter. If that was what the English army lived on, consider the diet of peasant farmers whose crops have been trampled into the mud by an army passing through.

The people of the Border have not changed much in four hundred years; the Elliots Armstrongs and Fenwicks, Bells and Nixons, Scotts, Maxwells and Kerrs are still where they were in the sixteenth century and it can be said that they form a distinct cultural and social bloc that is different from the rest of the British people.

About Jen Black
"I write historical romances and historical novels variously set in Scotland, Dublin or the north of England where I have lived all my life. With so many wonderful periods of history to choose from I don't stick to one; from Vikings to Victorians, I love them all! I'm rarely without a camera in my pocket and delight in displaying the pics on my blog. The beautiful Tyne Valley around Hexham features heavily, as do my holiday haunts and I can't ignore my beautiful Dalnatian dog, Tim"

Jen's Blog: http://jenblackauthor.blogspot.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jen.black.775
Twitter @JenBlackNCL

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A few of Jen's novels:

A Victorian-romance-mystery with both humour and drama!
In 1893 Daisy dreams of a career as an artist but runs up against the rock that is Adam Grey, who distrusts women and thinks wives should be content with home and family life. When a valuable painting goes missing in the country house where they are both guests, Adam turns detective and Daisy must prove that she is not the thief Adam initially believes her to be.
Does she want love and marriage or to fulfil her dreams? Can Adam get over his distrust of women?

Melanie Grey takes up a post as housekeeper to Lord Jarrow in remote Northumberland in the hope of a quiet life. Hiding her miserable past, she is surprised to discover the Master's life is not blameless and her curiosity will not let her rest until she finds out what he is doing. Unexplained night time activity involving kegs of whisky, rude Excise men, a shooting that almost kills Jarrow - will he let her into his life? Or will she always be just the housekeeper?

The bloody struggle to be king has begun for Finlay of Moray. Cheated by his grandfather, the girl he expected to marry wed to another, he rebels and faces an ultimatum from the old king - face execution or persusade Thorfinn of Orkney to join them.  His half-brother Thorfinn rules a sea-based empire from Orkney and he too wants something of Finlay - marriage to his sister and a war against kith and kin that will cost him dear.  Two women vie for his love and in the turbulent world of 1034 AD the threat of death is as close as a cold shiver down the spine. Set in present day Scotland, then known as Alba, this is an absorbing, fast moving tale of power, greed, family rivalries and one man's vision of the future for his troubled kingdom. A hero worth fighting for and an exhilarating historical thriller that will keep you turning the pages into the wee small hours.