Debatable Lands

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Map showing the location and eventual division of the Debatable Lands

The Debatable Lands, also known as debatable ground, batable ground or thriep lands,[1] lay between Scotland and England. These lands were formerly in question to which it belonged, when they were distinct kingdoms. The name signifies the same thing as litigious or disputable ground.[2]


The Debatable Lands extended from the Solway Firth near Carlisle to Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway, the largest population centre being Canonbie. The lands included the baronies of Kirkandrews, Bryntallone and Morton.[1] They were around ten miles (16 km) long from north to south and four miles (6 km) wide. The boundaries were marked by the rivers Liddel and Esk in the east and the River Sark in the west. For over three hundred years they were effectively controlled by local clans, such as the Armstrongs, who successfully resisted any attempt by the Scottish or English governments to impose their authority. In his history of the Border Reivers (The Steel Bonnets (1971)), George Macdonald Fraser says that the Armstrongs alone could put 3,000 men in the field. They launched frequent raids on farms and settlements outside the Debatable Lands, the profits enabling them to become major landowners. Other clans in the area were the Elwands, Ellwoods, or Elliots who extended into Teviotdale; the Nixons who were more numerous in Cumberland; the Crossars in Upper Liddesdale, with their chief stronghold in Riccarton/Riccarton Mill (Rickerton, forms of Richardtown) Northern/Upper Liddesdale (listed in valleys of Liddesdale as locus/locality of Croyser 1376) of Hudhouse also located nearby on Liddel (It is a mistake to suppose they settled in Debatable lands on the lower Liddel though at Riccarton, and Hudhouse they were on the upper end of the Liddel Water.)[3]and the Grahams, who owned five towers in the Debatable Land. The Irvings, Olivers, Bells, Dicksons, and Littles were also present in varying numbers.[1]

In 1530, King James V took action against the lawless clans of the Debatable Lands and imprisoned the Lords Bothwell, Maxwell and Home, Walter Scott of Buccleuch, and other border lairds for their lack of action. James took various other steps, but significantly he broke the strength of the Armstrongs by hanging Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie and thirty-one others at Carlanrig Chapel, under questionable circumstances.[4]

In 1551 the Crown officers of England and Wales, in an attempt to clear out the trouble makers, declared that "All Englishmen and Scottishmen, after this proclamation made, are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, slay, murder and destroy all and every such persons, their bodies, buildings, goods and cattle as do remain or shall inhabit upon any part of the said Debatable Land without any redress to be made for the same."

In 1552 a border line was agreed by commissioners, and soon after the Scots' Dike was built to mark the line; this did not, however, stop the lawlessness.

When the thrones of Scotland and England were united in 1603, King James VI of Scotland also became James I of England, and he embarked on the so-called "Pacification of the Borders", purging the Border reivers, destroying their fortified tower houses, rounding up their families and sending them to Ireland and elsewhere.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Maxwell 1897, p. 161.
  2. Chambers 1728, p. 91.
  3. The History of Liddesdale, Eskdale, Ewesdale, Wauchopedale and the ..., Volume 1 By Robert Bruce Armstrong pg 181-2
  4. Maxwell 1897, pp. 161–167.


  • Maxwell, Sir Herbert (1897). A History of Dumfries and Galloway. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons. pp. 161–167.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Robson, Eric (2006). The Border Line. Frances Lincoln Ltd.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Mack, James Logan (1926). The Border Line. Oliver & Boyd.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • "Romanticism's Debatable Lands". The British Association for Romantic Studies, Biennial Conference. University of Newcastle upon Tyne. 28–31 July 2005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • "Debatable Lands". Border Reivers Website.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • BBC staff. "A village on debatable land... The small village of Bewcastle". BBC.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • "A Researcher's Guide to Local History terminology".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links