Malefactors of the Name of Graham

The chief sufferers along the whole line were the Grahams of Esk. They had been a thorn in the side of two kingdoms for as long as anyone could remember, and they paid for it terribly. Yet they would certainly have suffered less if they had not been the owners of some of the most fertile land in all the Marches, on which Lord Cumberland had cast his eye. It was enough; submission would not suffice in the Grahams' case-they would have to go.

There followed one of the most comprehensive and cruel examples of race persecution in British history. It is not easy to defend the Grahams, who were as wicked a crew as any in the Borderland, but none of their crimes could have justified the spite with which they were murdered, dispossessed, and banished by their persecutors, in the name of law and order, and with the full approval of the King, whose aversion to them seems to have been acute. One of his proclamations announces that the Grahams had confessed themselves to be "no meet persons to live in those countries, and have humbly besought us that they might be removed to some other parts". Their lands would be inhabited by "others of good and honest conversation." Cumberland was just full of good and honest conversers ready to take over.

Attached to the proclamation are the names of almost 100 Esk and Leven Grahams and their families. The Border Commission had special instructions to deal with "the malefactors of the name of Graham", and after their lands had been confiscated 150 of them were listed on April 17 1605 for transportation. In May it was announced that they would be sent to serve in the British garrisons in the Low Countries, and in that same month twenty-eight condemned Borderers who had been held in prison at Carlisle broke jail. Leigh and Cranston were ordered to hunt them down forthwith, burn their homes and expel their families. Cranston burned every house at Stakeheugh in June, and seven "principal Grahams" were posted as fugitives.

Of the 150 Grahams who had submitted and were awaiting transportation, it was decided to send about 100 to Flushing, and the remainder to Brill. of the 100, only seventy-two were shipped out, the remainder having escaped or died, but it proved easier to send them to the Low Countries than to keep them there. Within the year an estimated fifty-eight out of the seventy-two had stolen back, through Newcastle and the Forth. Some were arrested and condemned, but others made their way home to Eskdale - "if some order be not taken", observed Sir Wilfrid Lawson, one of the commissioners, "they will all be shortly at home again".

Cranston and Leigh were busily engaged in hunting the fugitives, as well as the twenty-eight condemned escapees from Carlisle; special detachments of the horse garrison were stationed in the Graham country for this purpose, and to catch fresh recruits for the Low Countries. By November Leigh was claiming that he had cleared English ground of Grahams, but that they were being received in Scotland, and despite claims by the Scottish Commissioners, that on their side they "made no bones to kill such fugitives and felons as resist", the hunted Grahams were later reported to be hiding up among the Carlisles, Johnstones and other families of the Scottish West March.

Not only that, they were riding abroad in troops armed with lances and pistols, in defiance of the disarming laws. "They had rather die at home with shame than serve his majesty' abroad with profit," the commissioners reported. Few seem to have been caught that winter, despite the searchers' efforts; one excursion against them, disguised as an ordinary fox hunt (presumably in case the fugitives got wind of it) resulted in the capture of ten Grahams, which was a poor bag to send overseas.

However, some of the most notorious of the family were in custody, including young Hutcheon Graham and the celebrated Jock of the Peartree. The latter had escaped from the Low Countries but had been caught in London; young Hutcheon had submitted and been placed in Carlisle Castle in October. Like other fugitives against whom the authorities wished to discover a capital charge, he was not only indicted for his raids in "Ill Week", and for previous offences of murder and blackmail, but actually found himself charged with his part in the Kinmont Raid, ten years before.

This gives some idea of the lengths the authorities were prepared to go to against the Grahams. Several were hanged for "Ill Week" activities. although these were supposed to have been generally pardoned-indeed, seventy-eight of them had presented a petition, admitting and repenting their crimes of "fire, sword, robbery arid murder" in that week, and praying to be banished as an "evil colony". They would hardly have confessed so much if they had expected to hang for it.

Another commonly revived charge about this time appears to have been the murder of Sir John Carmichael, the West March Warden, in 1600. Sandie Armstrong had swung for it in the spring of 1605, and now the notorious Willie Kang was also indicted, as were some Grahams.

The year 1606 opened with the hanging of five Borderers at Carlisle and seventeen at Newcastle, and the English commissioners hit on the shrewd idea of throwing into Carlisle Castle even entirely innocent members of the Graham clan, on the theory that "their restraint will not a little bridle their friends who are out". But the work of pacification was getting no easier; there does not appear to have been such perfect cooperation between the English and Scottish commissioners, or between Leigh and Cranston, as King James' notions of union demanded. On March 27 Cranston was reporting that he was having to take bonds of assurance from outlaws because he had no jails to put them in, and that his company of horse was having to be split up because he could not be everywhere at once; in May it was being alleged that he was not giving up prisoners who were wanted in England.

Cranston possibly had his hands overfull; quite apart from chasing Grahams and other ill-doers, there is a brief report of his having been in a fight outside an alehouse at the Esk sandbeds. And neither he nor his colleagues can have been greatly encouraged by a message in January i6o6 from James at Whitehall, in which His Majesty expressed dissatisfaction with the methods of his frontier administrators, which he found to be "savouring altogidder of barbarisme". Such means should not be necessary, His Majesty thought, since now malefactors had all means of escape removed.

If there was barbarism in Border administration His Majesty was chiefly to blame. The officials who reported in April 1606 that severity was better than lenity on the frontier, because "any forbearance has bred greater insolence", were simply expressing the royal philosophy. There is repeated proof of this, but one example will serve. It is an exoneration granted to Cranston by His Majesty in that same year-December 1606-and it is not the only one so granted. Its terms show clearly how James expected his Middle Shires to be pacified, and the kind of licence he was prepared to give to his officers. In its way, it is one of the most terrible documents in the whole catalogue of papers relating to the frontier.

It says that Sir William Cranston is exonerated for executing outlaws without trial, because the necessity of the service did not permit "those prolixe formes accustumed in the civil parts of the kingdom"; there might be too many dangerous prisoners, and it would have taken time to convey them to jail. So he had to make a "quick dispatche" of many notorious thieves and villains without trial. The cure may have been grievous, but Cranston's intentions were "dewtifullie groundit".

Now "Jeddart justice", which means hanging first and trying later, is a Border proverb. No one would dispute that most of the Border reivers had it coming to them. Nor is there reason to suppose that Cranston was anything but a good officer who probably did not abuse the awful trust reposed in him. But the document is not unique for the time; there were plenty of James's officials who were not of Cranston's quality, and the thought of what must have been done in the name of justice in those years makes the blood run cold. Even for James, who was pursuing a worthy end, the means were unspeakable. At the least, it was an odd way of impressing the supposedly lewd, turbulent, and lawless Borderers with the purity of the new justice, and the benefits of the rule of law.

Nor was it particularly successful at first, despite the optimistic reports being put out by officials early in 1606. The Grahams, with Leigh and Cranston harrying them, were said to be hoping for pardon, and in February Leigh reported them quiet. in March the whole frontier was "reasonably well quieted", with "oppin ryding and robreis" described as only a detestable memory, and nothing but minor crime in the Eastern Borders. But with the spring Redesdale came to life again; its inhabitants, and those of Tynedale, had complained of the severity with which they had been treated by Sir William Selby, who was working for Leigh in the east, and now word came that Redesdale was a hotbed of murderers, thieves, and outlaws living openly, "with twenty outcries for things stolen every Sabbath day".

Plainly King James had some cause for complaint, and a general shake-up of Border administration began. Plans were made for streamlining the commission, which was to be reduced to only two members from each side, with the Earl of Dunbar in charge. It was some months before the new system came into operation; in the meantime Leigh was superseded, having been pronounced "infirm", and his charge of the horse garrison transferred to John Musgrave.

Leigh, for all his energy, had perhaps been under something of a cloud-at least he had found it necessary to defend himself the previous autumn in the matter of people escaping from custody in Carlisle. One of his offices had been that of Keeper of Carlisle Castle, and following the mass break-out from the jail in May 1605 he had pointed out that while the castle was his responsibility, it was no fault of his if people escaped from the prison. And although he had spared no efforts to persecute the Grahams-a duty which he found lucrative through escheats-the problem of how to catch and dispose of them remained unsolved.

Indeed, they were showing they could still sting. Rob Graham of Meddop was rescued from Cranston in April, and one of Leigh's last acts in office was to scramble out of a Graham ambush by the skin of his teeth. He and a single companion were riding from Dumfries when they were bushwhacked by Rob's Fergie Graham, one of the fugitives. Leigh's colleague was shot in the ribs, they lost a horse and both their cloaks, and narrowly escaped with the two of them riding one mount. Rob's Fergie, it was reported, "is said to be since dead".

Plainly something had to be done about the Grahams, and quickly, and since neither licensed murder nor banishment to the Low Countries had worked, it was decided to transplant them to Ireland. Sir Ralph Sidley, a landowner of Roscommon, agreed to settle "the Greames, and other inhabitants of Leven, Esk and Sark" on his farms, on short leases unless His Majesty decided they should be extended permanently. He also undertook to provide them with a minister to teach them their duty to God. The Border Commission, who no doubt privately thought that Sidley ought to have his head examined, went to work with enthusiasm. The gentlemen of Cumberland and Westmorland were invited to subscribe to the cost of the settlement, and it is testimony to the general desire to get rid of the Grahams that £300 was raised, in contributions ranging from £5 down to 2s 6d. Not everyone approached was ready to subscribe (notably a certain Sir John Dalston), but pressure was obviously brought to bear: there is a sinister little note from the Privy Council to the commissioners, dated November 1606, saying that the King desires to know the names of those who refuse to contribute to £200 yet to be levied for transporting the Grahams. That was probably a broad enough hint.

Collecting the Grahams themselves was rather harder. The commissioners had been writing eagerly about who should be transported, with special reference to Jock of the Peartree and Jock's Richie Graham, who were safe for the moment in Carlisle Castle. In June of 1606 it had been reported that there were not above thirty Grahams in Esk fit to be transported; by September there were only three, two of them over eighty. Death, banishment and outlawry had reduced one of the biggest Border clans to a pitiful remnant; those families who could be induced to come in were herded to Workington by the sheriff and the horse garrison-it had been hard enough trying to get conductors for the Low Countries migration, when the rate of 4s a day had proved insufficient attraction, and had had to be raised to 6s-but even the troops were unable to prevent many of the poor souls escaping at the last minute. Of those who went there is no accurate estimate; fifty families are mentioned, and 124 names, but pregnant women and infants were held back to be transported the following year, presumably to spare them the hardship of winter in their new home, which was largely wasteland.

The Grahams did not take to Roscommon. They had a "prosperous voyage" to Dublin late in September 1606, and were met there by two gentlemen of their own name, Irish residents, who promised to help them to settle. Sidley was optimistic; he believed the Grahams were "a witty and understanding people"-which was one way of putting it-"and withal very civil, compared with most of their nation". But the scheme was a flop from the start. If the whole of the Graham clan had been transported, and if they could have settled as a balanced community, they might have flourished and been of great benefit to Ireland and themselves; but the best and most able-bodied of them had either died, or escaped, or been outlawed and exiled already. The Roscommon plantation were those who could be coerced, and it follows these were not the pick of the clan. But even if they had been willing, able colonists, the difficulties they faced were formidable.

The land, when they reached it, proved to have gone to waste, and lacked wood and water. They compared it with the fertile Borderland they had left, and detested it. Then the rents were too dear, labourers were few and demanded double wages, and the Grahams could not understand their language. Worst of all, they had no money, for the cash subscribed towards the cost of the settlement had never reached them, and they could get no satisfaction out of Sidley, who had evidently pocketed it. "We ...cannot get a penny to buy meat and drink withal," wrote Richard Graham of Meddop. With one voice they clamoured to be allowed home again, and in November came the first reports of desertion: the Bishop of Carlisle informed the Council that two had returned, one of whom was caught, and that others were reported landing in Scotland.

In a matter of months the plantation was disintegrating, and within two years there were said to be only about half a dozen families of Graham left in Roscommon. The rest had scattered, some of them settling with one of their Irish kinsmen, Sir George Grame, and some of the youngest males being sent into the army, but these were complained of "as being so turbulent and busy, that one of them is able to dispose a whole garrison to become so... their minds are so much at their homes, from whence they come without hope of return, that they will not like the poor soldier's life and fare

This rings true, and the disillusioned Sidley had more to add. The Grahams, he now concluded, were idle people, not only unwilling to settle themselves to any labour or industry, but also addicted to spend both the time or anything they had or might get, in drinking and on horses and dogs. It also appears that their dislike and distrust of the Irish was returned, the more enterprising of the natives suspecting that the Grahams might be more than a match for them at fighting and rustling.

Undoubtedly many succeeded in returning to the Border country about this time, but four years after the initial settlement, the scattered Grahams in Ireland were still a problem, and thought was given to the possibility of moving them to Ulster. But the Lord Deputy of Ireland had learned about the Grahams by this time, and his conclusion echoed what any West March Warden could have told the authorities in the first place:

"They are now d'spersed, and when they shall be placed upon any land together, the next country will find them ill neighbours, for they are a fractious and naughty people."

As late as 1614 a proclamation was issued forbidding any Grahams to return from Ireland or the Low Countries; there were still those who were willing to run the risk of coming home. But the policy of banishment had worked, for. the time being; the largest riding clan of the Western Border had been dispersed and broken. It had been barbarously done, even allowing for the standards of the time, and the fact that the Grahams had been a lawless and troublesome people. Perhaps, recalling the hatred they had incurred over the years in Cumberland-among enemies like the Musgraves, for example, and their allies-their persecution can be seen as the last act in the last Border feud, played according to the old deadly rules. Which is not to say that the Grahams lost in the end. There is a footnote to the story of their struggle to stay in their homeland, and it shows how little even great rulers and all-powerful governments may achieve at the last against ordinary folk who will not give in. It is said to be an invariable rule that in any city in the English-speaking world the Smiths outnumber any other surname. In the Carlisle telephone book after the Second World War the most common name was Graham.

From - George Donald Fraser

Last updated October 8, 2012