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The Steel Bonnets The Story of the…

The Steel Bonnets The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers (original 1971; edition 1974)

by George MacDonald Fraser

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388639,215 (3.94)11
Title:The Steel Bonnets The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers
Authors:George MacDonald Fraser
Info:Cox & Wyman Ltd, (1974), Paperback, 346 pages
Collections:Your library, Working on
Tags:Biography, __scan_cover, !dunno

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The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser (1971)

  1. 00
    A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm (Scorbet)
    Scorbet: A Famine of Horses is the first in a series about Sir Robert Carey, who features in the Steel Bonnets.

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A bold and roaring history, The Steel Bonnets is George MacDonald Fraser's ambitious attempt to impose some sort of order on scholarship of the lawless Anglo-Scottish border region of the 16th Century. Naturally, the author of the Flashman stories brings a novelistic flair to large parts of this story. Not only does he delight in all the various stirring episodes of the Border (horseback pursuits, blood feuds, raids by moonlight, larger-than-life scoundrels) but also provides his usual humour and élan to a manuscript that might have otherwise become plodding.

It is not a specialist, academic sort of history: Fraser freely concedes he is more interested in the 'human interest' angle: "The Scottish policy of Henry VIII [for example] is a fascinating thing… but I am less concerned with the effect that it had on, say, Franco-Scottish relations than with the more immediate and dramatic impact which it had on the good wife of Kirkcudbright who, during a skirmish near her home, actually delivered her husband up to the enemy for safe-keeping." (pg. 7). Nevertheless, despite this dramatic interest he does provide a great historical narrative of the Borderlands in that turbulent century, and it adds up to an accomplished and very readable history that makes a good fist of explaining what that remarkable time must have been like to live through. The central hook, as I understood it, was that this crime-ridden society considered itself normal: "… great numbers of the people inhabiting the frontier territory (the old Border Marches) lived by despoiling each other, when the great Border tribes, both English and Scottish, feuded constantly among themselves, when robbery and blackmail were everyday professions, when raiding, arson, kidnapping, murder and extortion were an important part of the social system. This had very little to do with war between the two countries, who spent most of the century at peace with each other. It was a way of life pursued in peace-time, by people who accepted it as normal." (pg. 3 – my emphasis). Getting to the root of this peculiar mindset is, as a reader, quite fascinating.

However, whilst Fraser clearly admires the reivers (outlaws) and the other roguish figures of the Border, he is no sentimentalist or romantic. Indeed, he stresses that in his research "a different picture of the Border reiver emerges. He can be seen for what he very often was, not at all heroic, but a nasty, cruel, mean-spirited ruffian, who preferred the soft mark provided by small farmers, widows, and lonely steadings." (pg. 98). He tells the story of one captured reiver who "was burned alive because he had himself burned a house containing a woman and her children; it is worth remembering things like that, when considering the heroic eminence that folk-lore has given" to the likes of these (pg. 239). He points out that the legendary – in all senses of the word – jailbreak of Kinmont Willie from Carlisle Castle was "made possible by informers, traitors and fifth columnists" (pg. 340). Above all, he notes dryly, if the old folklore myth that reivers avoided unnecessary homicide is true, "one can only comment that they seem to have found homicide necessary with appalling frequency" (pg. 122). It is prose like this – so typical of Fraser in his fiction – that makes The Steel Bonnets so engaging at times.

This is not to say that the book does not have its faults. As mentioned, the book is ambitious and tries to impose orderly scholarship on a century of events in a large and fluctuating region defined by lawlessness, oral history and violent turbulence. It is a weighty task and sometimes threatens to get the better of a writer even of Fraser's talent. Many of the raids are so similar they become indistinct. Many of the names and familial ties of the clans are hard to untangle (in a footnote, Fraser laments the 'heart-breaking complexities' of the Border relationships, "fit only for the computer" (pg. 347)). In an oft-cited criticism of the book, he quotes at length from contemporary sources – in hard-to-penetrate dialect and with, shall we say, liberal attitudes to spelling – which drags the pace of the book down as the reader is forced to switch gears to try and decipher the quotation. This latter point is exacerbated by the general structure of the book, which goes into detail about how raids were fought and how the land was governed before even providing a narrative of key events. This not only results in a first hundred pages that struggle to get going but also means Fraser is providing examples to illustrate his arguments that have no context. In this early section, he uses phrases like 'as we shall discover later' or 'which we shall discuss later' with unnerving frequency, and it does little to engage the reader. The scope of the history doesn't become apparent until near half the book has passed. Many readers won't have the patience or the stamina.

But these faults pale beside the force of the book. It is a remarkable period of British history – well-told by an accomplished writer and native Borderer – but, more than that, it is an under-reported period of our country's history. For it was in this period that the modern Anglo-Scottish partnership catalysed, whilst also providing good evidence of why the rivalry persists. In a magnificent passage on pages 22 to 24, Fraser sidebars to discuss this relationship and why it is a truly unique one, in geopolitical, social and, indeed, familial terms.

The narrative among modern tartan-wearing, Twitter-storming little Bravehearts pushing for ruinous 'independence' from English oppression shows a basic and frankly insulting ignorance of history and the nature of Anglo-Scottish fraternization. Bannockburn, Flodden and so on were largely – though not completely – tribal or regional; the ideas of nationalism and populism as we understand them now were constructs that came centuries later. People back then didn't give a damn – they had more important things to worry about: Fraser's book shows us that Scot killed Scot and Englishman killed Englishman just as often as one killed the other, and people didn't care whether the reivers burning their homes or killing their families or extorting blackmail money were Scottish or English, when they could have been either, and often were both. The border was porous, permeable, an incestuous cauldron of violence: certainly not noble Scots vs. evil English. At the end of Fraser's book, it is a Scottish king ascending (peaceably) to the English throne after the death of the childless Elizabeth Tudor. Hardly English oppression. This merger – rather than alliance – set the stage for the Act of Union and all the resultant fruits of Empire, and a relationship that continues to fire a healthy nation today. When I read in Fraser's book of a hostile pre-Union Scotland "offering a stepping-stone to England's enemies, and not infrequently joining in against England when the latter was busily engaged on the Continent" (pg. 23), I cannot help but think of Scotland's – or rather, the SNP's – recent opportunistic and cynical attempts to undermine the country's Brexit result and negotiations; exploiting the country's vulnerable moment for unfair short-termist political advantage and for the shallow satisfaction of poking their 'oppressive' English kinsmen in the eye. For kinsmen is what the two peoples are. The border is porous. There are no longer any battle-lines, and even when there were, Scots and English fought on both sides. The modern politicisation of history (by self-serving charlatans who want to get their names into the history books by foul means or fair) reduces this fascinating tinderbox of bloodlust and begrudging respect to a bland and one-note (and intellectually unsound) narrative, ignoring its richness, variety and flavour. But, fortunately, for those who are willing to seek clearer shores there are people like Fraser and books like The Steel Bonnets that are prepared to deal with these things with a cool and even hand, delighting in the fraternity and the immediacy of history. We are much the better for it, and indeed for a unified country where the violent "extremities of the old kingdoms were now the centre of the new realm" (pg. 362). ( )
  MikeFutcher | Nov 29, 2016 |
I am an ardent student of history and particularly enjoy English and Scottish history from the period 1300-1750. The author of this work is one of my favorites, having read most of his Flashman novels of historical fiction. That being the case, you would think that this work would be right in my wheelhouse. You would be wrong.

Expecting interesting stories and histories of events along the English/Scottish border, I was instead confronted with a dry, turgid scholarly treatise. Endless citing of English and Scottish village names, multiple variations of spellings and name forms, many times for the same person, illegible maps and a complete lack of any semblance of organization leaves me mystified how on earth this book has garnered so many positive ratings. Does the author have so many relatives?

Most annoying is the author’s frequently employed tendency of directly quoting many of the actors in the history. You would think this would bring an authenticity and clarity to the dialogue, but quite the opposite. For you see, the denizens of the border didn’t exactly speak the King’s English as you and I know it. For a good example, read some Robert Burns and explain to me what it says. Page after page of quotations whose meaning can only be vaguely discerned by puzzling over context and possible meanings of words spelled only slightly similar to those with which you are familiar. Loads of enjoyment and enlightenment ensue.

This is, quite frankly, one of the worst books I have ever read. ( )
  santhony | Mar 9, 2012 |
If you want to understand the complexities of living on - or near - to the English/Scottish Border, then start with its history, and this book will help you understand its bloody history. A classic work on the Reiving families of the Scottish and English Marches. ( )
1 vote TheLRCatCCC | May 26, 2011 |
George Macdonald Fraser, author of the popular Flashman series, has turned his novelist's skills to good use in this excellent account of the sixteenth-century Border wars. A Borderer himself, he manages to produce a very balanced and readable description of a particularly troubled part of sixteenth-century history. Though the events described are quite as sanguinary as those described in "The Twilight Lords," Fraser retains enough detachment that the reader does not feel as if his nose has been rubbed in it. ( )
2 vote staffordcastle | Jul 13, 2009 |
Fairly good on the last years of the border in the 16th century. I was disappointed that he did not do more with
the two centuries or so of raiding before that, from the eary 14th century onward. ( )
1 vote antiquary | Sep 4, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0002727463, Paperback)

"If Jesus Christ were amongst them, they would deceive him," it was said of the plunders, raiders, and outlaws who terrorized the Anglo-Scottish Border for over 300 years. Theirs is an almost forgotten chapter of British history, preserved largely in folktales and ballads. It is the story of the notorious raiding families--Armstrongs, Elliots, Grahams, Johnstones, Maxwells, Scotts, Kerrs, Nixons, and others--of the outlaw bands and broken men, and the fierce battles of English and Scottish armies across the Marches. The Steel Bonnets tells their true story in its historical context-- how the reivers ran their raids and operated their system of blackmail and terrorism, and how the March Wardens, enforcing the unique Border law, fought the great lawless community. A superb work of scholarship and a spellbinding narrative. George MacDonald Fraser is the celebrated author of the Flashman novels, The Candlemass Road, The Pyrates, and the Private McAuslan stories.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:34 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"Rogues, criminals, family honor. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, outlaws reigned supreme on the contentious frontier between England and Scotland. Feud and terror, raid and reprisal were the ordinary stuff of life--and a way of survival. Power was held by the notorious border reivers (the steel bonnets, named for their flashy helmets), who robbed and murdered in the name of family: the famous clans (or grains )--like Elliot, Armstrong, Charlton, and Robson--romanticized by Sir Walter Scott. In The Steel Bonnets, George MacDonald Fraser, author of the bestselling Flashman novels and himself a borderer, tells the fascinating and bloody story of the reivers, their rise to power as ferocious soldiers on horseback, and their surprisingly sudden fall from grace." -- Provided by publisher.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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Skyhorse Publishing

2 editions of this book were published by Skyhorse Publishing.

Editions: 160239265X, 1632204568

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