The Steel Bonnets - George MacDonald Fraser

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The Steel Bonnets - George MacDonald Fraser

Post by Graham on Thu Mar 22, 2018 1:42 pm

Subtitled The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers this is the definitive history of the families who lived by cattle rustling, kidnapping and blackmail along the Scottish-English border into the early 17th century. MacDonald Fraser is better known as the author of the Flashman novels and aside from his Hollywood History of the World and two books of memoirs this is his only foray into non-fiction. I acquired it because an Australian acquaintance asserted it proved my name ‘Graham’ was of English origin and that of the two spellings ‘Graeme’ was Scottish and ‘Graham’ English. This I told her was bollocks. You decide which of us was the more tactless.

I read a lot of history and it can vary from the turgid to factual books written with the narrative drive of novels. This doesn’t quite fall into the latter category, but it is a page turner. Like any Scot weaned on Sir Walter Scott I was aware of the lawlessness of this region in days gone-by, but I had no idea that in sheer scale the reality surpassed Hollywood’s more fantastic versions of America’s Wild West. Scott’s forebears were among the wilder elements. Gangs of raiders could number up to three thousand, virtual private armies. Gangsterism and violence outdid Al Capone’s Chicago. Indeed, the protection racket reached its apogee here and gave its name to blackmail. ‘Mail’ from the meal or grain which is all families could afford to pay as rent for the dubious protection of the reivers and black because of its evil nature. Wardens were appointed on either side to police the evil doers but were often just as villainous. The raiders had no compunction about murder in the course of their raids and like-wise the authorities would hang first and ask questions later - ‘Jeddart Justice’. Despite this, there is undoubted romance in the reivers exploits. Famous tales celebrated in ballads are recounted here and are no less lively for the forensic analysis of a historian. There is also satisfactory explanation of the historical processes and policies that led to this state of lawlessness. The book ends with the union of the English and Scottish Crowns under James I and VI and the ruthless extermination of the reiving families.

I can thoroughly recommend this book if you have even the slightest interest in these places or times. And no, Graham is not an English name unless you go back to the Norman invasion.

Graham
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