History 1

First true Border toun


Coldstream’s Geography - Strategic Position - ‘First’ and Nulli Secundus – Border Line – Border Reivers – Friendly Rivalry/Accents  

Coldstream’s Geography

The town, one hundred feet above sea level, stands on the north bank of the broad winding River Tweed and its tributary the Leet Water, forty seven miles south east of Edinburgh by road. Smeaton's fine five-arched bridge (1763-66) across the Tweed leads the traveller one and a half miles south-eastward to Cornhill village in Northumberland. This was the location of Coldstream station on the North Eastern railway, thirteen and a half miles west of Berwick-upon-Tweed and ten miles east of Kelso.

In south-east Scotland, only the towns of Jedburgh, Kelso and Eyemouth can rival Coldstream in being placed near the Border. While they can see the Border, only Coldstream is actually located right on the Border. On a summer’s day the views from the Tweed Green towards the Braeheads and the Coldstream Bridge are beautiful whereas the views from ‘Charlie’s Monument’ looking up the River Tweed are equally as impressive, especially for visitors stopping to admire the vista. In a lot of respects Coldstream can be regarded as beautiful, and locals fully appreciate the town’s many attractive spots. There’s something magical about Coldstream nestling right on the Border, being able to the see lands of the ‘enemy’ across the river and to consider the centuries of mayhem on this most important of frontiers.

On the social side, it is interesting to note that in 1922 Coldstream was regarded as somewhat of a ‘health resort’, with many visitors coming to the town to enjoy the splendid walks and scenery. Just north of Coldstream lies one of the most productive areas of farmland in Scotland, particularly in the growing of cereal crops. In 1862, reference was made in Underhill’s map of Coldstream that the town skirted a wonderful agricultural district (the ‘Merse’) which was regarded as the ‘Leicestershire of Scotland’. On a clear day, looking from the heights above Coldstream, locals can see the Eildon Hills, the Cheviot Hills and the Lammermuir Hills. Officials of Coldstream Football Club often remark that the trophy cabinet is not, or may never be, laden but it has the best view in Scotland from the pitch in Home Park!

Strategic Position

In considering and writing about Coldstream, the first question to ask is regarding the importance of Coldstream’s position on the Border Line. There is also consideration required on the impact this has had on its role in Border life and in fact Scottish life. Whether Coldstream’s position right on the Border, where some local residents can throw a stone into the River Tweed from their gardens, is particularly advantageous remains a speculative subject. For example, in 1930 the Automobile Association couldn’t make up its mind whether Coldstream was a town or a village. It went one better in 1970 when it completely missed Coldstream off the map, with the Town Clerk William Main asked to complain. Locals today will remember the furore in the early 1990s over the closure of the Tourist Information Centre. Coldsteam had a portakabin in Henderson Car Park; not exactly a wonderful piece of tourist infrastructure and even that was lost!

However, these are relatively minor thoughts compared with more important images of Coldstream as a true frontier town. Whatever the analysis, Coldstream’s history and that of its neighbours like Wark, Birgham, Lennel, Cornhill and Carham, seems assured and has more than a lot to do with its location. ‘Nulli Secundus’ (Second to None) is a dominant, central theme and this motto of the Coldstream Guards is well-loved and respected. If we wind the clock back to the formation of the Guards, they would not have our name without Coldstream’s unique, geographical position on the Border. 

On the English side are the ruins of Wark Castle, the field of Flodden and the scene, some fancy, of the `Hunting of the Chevyat' (Chevy Chase involving the Percy and the Douglas).  The crucial point is that Coldstream itself derived importance from its ford, one of a few of importance above Berwick. By this passage Edward I invaded Scotland in 1296. Through to 1640, when Montrose led the Covenanters southwards, many other armies, Scottish and English, crossed thereby to ravage the country of their respective foes. The present bridge at Coldstream was built to enable the Crown to move artillery quickly northwards in the eventuality of another Jacobite rising in the Highlands after 1745. This confirms the town’s continuing strategic importance. The ford was located nearby today’s Leet Point where the Leet joins the Tweed.

Later, in 1856, its physical location made Coldstream a ‘rival’ venue to Gretna Green for a chapel of ease and among the more notable of its runaway marriages was that of Lord Brougham (1819). Not one stone remains of the wealthy Cistercian priory, which was only one hundred yards from the ford across the Tweed. It stood a little eastward of the Market Place. In 1834, many bones and a stone coffin were dug up in its burying-ground, where, according to tradition, the prioress had given sepulture to the foremost of the Scottish slain at Flodden. The present town of Coldstream, irregularly built, is very pretty, with its attractive modern houses and gardens but it seems to have grown in accordance with the priorities of the area. When looking at all the available evidence, it appears therefore that the precise, physical location of Coldstream has little to do with chance and more to do with the needs of the day. There is also the notion that the River Tweed at Coldstream (the border being a potential barrier) actually encouraged trade between England and Scotland, rather than hindering it.

Coldstream seems to have long been used to roguish traffic. Before the Coldstream Bridge was built in 1776 the fording of the Tweed was of great importance. ‘When the river was in spate and crossings impossible, it would have been a crowded Scottish frontier town. It apparently hummed with gossip and was enlivened by the scurrying of rats and spies. It became one of the main listening posts on the border. In its ale houses and alleyways, titbits of rumours would be exchanged and paid for. Feuds would be reported and alliances hinted at. The position of advancing armies would be plotted on beer-swilled tables, whether it be Edward I on his way to the slaying of Berwick or Hertford’s brutal ‘foreplay’ ahead of the ‘Rough Wooing’’ (Eric Robson).

Today the busy A697 winds it way through Coldstream. Travellers enter or leave Scotland here, and most days the town has difficulties with traffic. Car parking is a problem too, but then again the ‘Berwickshire Advertiser’ of 1959 reported the same problem. However, Coldstream can go back further than this to June 1895 when the town’s Police Commissioners (who were the town’s decision-makers) had the opportunity to create street crossings, but the suggestion never materialised. 1930 saw the Town Council place restrictions on the stopping-off points for heavy vehicles like buses and lorries. The town is therefore suffering from its illustrious past. The busy arterial road into Scotland brings heavy vehicles thundering along the town’s narrow main street and Coldstream is now paying heavily for being such a strategic crossing place!

‘First’ and Nulli Secundus

Coldstream folk like the motto ‘Nulli Secundus’ (motto of the Coldstream Guards and the town’s motto) and the word ‘first’, as it conjures up images of self-importance, warranted or not. Coldstream is often referred to as the ‘First True Border Toun’ and the word ‘first’ crops up time and again, but clearly not in the minds of the Automobile Association or the Tourism Authorities. Coldstream’s strategic crossing point meant that travellers took their ‘first’ steps into either England or Scotland. Moreover, there are many ‘firsts’ with our beloved Coldstream Guards, having an important role in the British Army and being the ‘first’ to gain the Freedom of Coldstream Burgh. Our position on the Border Line has to have a few ‘firsts’ and by all accounts Coldstream was the ‘first’ in Scotland to have natural North Sea Gas installed in houses. In 1970 the newspapers reported that Kelso was actually the first but it was using imported gas from the Arabian countries and North Africa, while Coldstream was tapping into North Sea Gas. The rest of Scotland followed later.

In 1898, Coldstream was, at that point, the only place in the district to have a telephone connection with the Chief Office at Berwick - not a bad ‘first’.  There is some argument that Gourock was the ‘first’ Scottish town to have gas street lamps and if that is the case, then Coldstream was second. However, Coldstream hasn’t given up on that one! The Coldstream Gas Works were apparently the ‘first’ of its kind in Scotland. The town even had a champion greyhound, Westpark Mustard, which became a ‘Nulli Secundus’ in its own right; ‘hammering’ everything in sight and setting records.

The Stone of Destiny returned to Scotland in 1996, and the ‘first’ sight the official party saw was Coldstream Bridge. Coldstream also had the quirky situation of its station being in England (at Cornhill), perhaps a ‘first’ too! Then there is a clear ‘first’ when the Free Bible Press opened up the sales of cheaper bibles. Not many towns in Scotland, if any, can boast a Prime Minister (Sir Alec Douglas-Home), except that the home towns of Ramsay MacDonald (Lossiemouth) and Gordon Brown (Kirkcaldy) might have something to say on this. The Marriage House had to be a ‘first’ if one forgets about that dastardly Gretna Green. In May 1787, Robert Burns took his ‘first’ steps into England, crossing the Coldstream Bridge. On top of this, Coldstream Burgh took a significant bashing during the ‘First’ World War, contributing heavily to the waste of young life. Exiles comment that Castrum is ‘first’ in their childhood reminiscences.

There also has to be a ‘first’ in having had a football World Cup winner play on the football pitch in Home Park (Osvaldo Ardiles, the Argentinian World Cup Winner 1978, played in Home Park in 1991 for Newcastle United). Coldstream also has ‘firsts’ in its football role in the East of Scotland Football Association and the football club holds the record for the longest journey ever in the Scottish Cup, to Wick - surely a ‘first’. Staying on the sporting theme, not many towns have had the Formula One race doctor in their midst. Coldstream has, one Professor Sid Watkins who lived at Belmont House. These snapshots are merely an appetiser and are discussed further in the book. Of course, other towns have firsts too and modest little Coldsteam has no intention of being boastful. But, getting back to the main point, a great many of these ‘firsts’ are because of Coldstream’s physical location on the Border.

Border Line

For a number of miles east and west of Coldstream, the border between England and Scotland is in the middle of the River Tweed. For many years, locals and historians have been intrigued by the parcel of land between Wark and Cornhill ostensibly in England that is deemed to be in Scotland. For some strange reason the border line leaves the Tweed and takes in a field commonly referred to as the ‘Baa Green’. This field is just a little way up the Wark Road, opposite the junction with the road to West Learmouth. In his wonderful book of 1924, entitled ‘Border Line’, author J.L. Mack is intrigued by this and provides an analysis. Mack was puzzled as he viewed a map showing the quirky deviation of the Border Line, and he felt there could not be a piece of Scotland in England. Mack found the remains of an old trench which he was in no doubt preceded a boundary hedge at that time. Suggestions that the River Tweed had changed its course have regularly been scotched. Mack wrote to the Factor of the Lees Estate who confirmed that the piece of land was in the Parish of Coldstream. About 50 years prior to Mack writing his book, English authorities attempted to have it included in the rating area of Northumberland, but failed to do so. The land formed part of an area called the ‘Dry Tweed’ and was owned by the Lord Grey, Earl of Tankerville, and the owners of the Lees Estate.

In Armstrong’s map of Northumberland, dated 1769, it is recorded as the ‘Scotch Haugh’ but Mack suggests that for a long time in history this alienated parcel of land is not mentioned in historical documents. However, Mack traced records belonging to a Bishop Pococke, who was a regular visitor to the area and he wrote several letters to his sister and others. In one of these, written in Selkirk in 1760, he referred to his visit to Coldstream, not being too complimentary about the town, and he mentioned the ‘Baa Green’. In other correspondence of that time he wrote that the parcel of land had been part of Scotland for one hundred and sixty years. It is said that football matches between the two countries were played on the ‘Baa Green’, cultivating the romantic notion that these were the first Scotland versus England football internationals! It is said that the young men of Coldstream became too powerful for the young men of Wark and Scotland claimed the land.

As a topic, the Border Line has a long history and has fascinated many. Those who have studied the Border Line indicate that the Anglo-Scottish Border line was established more or less in its present position in the course of the tenth and eleventh centuries AD. Before that, there was no such thing as ‘Scotland’ and ‘England’, and Coldstream would have been in the middle of the English-speaking Kingdom of Northumbria, which stretched all the way from the Humber River to the Firth of Forth. The trade of Coldstream (and irregular marriages at the Marriage House) would have been very much shaped by its position on the Border in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Slight differences in Scottish and English law created certain advantages and disadvantages. It has been said that the little railway station at Carham did a roaring trade before the Second World War (unlike Coldstream/Cornhill station) because English manufacturers of farm equipment would send their goods by rail to their customers free of transportation charges to ‘anywhere in England’. So, canny Scottish farmers would get their orders sent to Carham, and go to pick up their goods there!

Smuggling, particularly of whisky, was an important activity on the Border between 1603 (Union of the Crowns) and 1707 (Union of Parliaments). It has been said that the illicit trade of Jedburgh was ruined by the Union of 1707 because it brought into line the Scots and English tax on spirits. There are some published sources (not specifically on Coldstream) on this smuggling activity. There are a number of court cases relating to ownership rights over the River Tweed, some of which are very old indeed, dating back to the twelfth century. Many of these are very interesting and involve the Border Line, usually relating to the valuable salmon fishing rights. The Home family are often prominent in these.  One case involved a dispute between the Earl of Home and the Tankervilles of Wark. Home’s Newfoundland dog was allegedly taking salmon from Tankerville’s side of the water and Tankerville sued. The case hinged on whether the alleged offence took place in Scotland or England, because that determined whether the case would be heard in the Scottish or English courts. Of course, if the case was heard in the Scottish court, the act of taking salmon must have taken place in Scotland and therefore the dog was not guilty. However, if the case was heard in the English court, the act of taking the salmon took place in England and the dog was therefore guilty. So it must have been difficult to give the dog a fair trial!

In 1951, Coldstream town councillors observed that a sign stood on the north bank of the River Tweed displaying ‘Gateway to Scotland’ but they wondered if visitors knew that the Border Line actually ran down the middle of the Tweed and technically half the Tweed Bridge was in England and half in Scotland. The Council considered placing a plaque in the middle of the bridge but this did not materialise. The Border Line continues to fascinate many and, with a possible impending referendum on Scottish independence, it would be interesting to speculate upon the impact of Scottish independence on the Borders, and of course on Coldstream in particular. Surely barriers and sentries posted at Coldstream Bridge to keep the English at bay would not be the answer but clearly Scotland would not be under British rule and British laws, and a true national boundary would exist at Coldstream Bridge. Food for thought!

Border Reivers


England and Scotland were frequently at war during the late Middle Ages. During these wars, the livelihood of the people on the borders was devastated by the contending armies. Even when the countries were not at war, tension remained high and royal authority in one or the other kingdoms was often weak. The uncertainty of existence meant that communities or peoples kindred to each other would seek security through their own strength and cunning, and improve their livelihoods at their nominal enemies' expense. Loyalty to a feeble or distant monarch and reliance on the effectiveness of the law usually made people a target for depredations rather than conferring any security.

There were other factors which promoted a predatory mode of living. Among them was the survival in the Borders of the inheritance system of gavelkind, by which estates were divided equally between all sons on a man's death, so that people owned insufficient land to maintain themselves. Also, much of the border region is mountainous or open moorland, unsuitable for arable farming but good for grazing. Livestock was easily rustled and driven back to raiders' territory by mounted reivers who knew the country well. The raiders also often removed "insight," easily portable household goods or valuables, and took prisoners for ransom.

The attitudes of the English and Scottish governments towards the border clans alternated between indulgence or even encouragement, as these fierce families served as the first line of defence against invasion from the other side of the border, and draconian and indiscriminate punishment when their lawlessness became intolerable to the authorities.

The popular story handed down within reiver families is that from earliest times reivers would visit the homesteads prior to wars or invasions and remove the cattle and items of value to a place of safety. Lords and Wardens unable to guarantee their masters' supply lines would claim wrongdoing by ruffians and broken men. It is easy to conjecture that this attitude of defiance to authority would grow into outright lawlessness.

"Reive" is an early English word for "to rob", from the Northumbrian and Scots Inglis verb reifen from the Old English rēafian, and thus related to the archaicStandard English verb reave ("to plunder", "to rob").

The reivers were both English and Scottish and raided both sides of the border impartially, so long as the people they raided had no powerful protectors and no connection to their own kin. Their activities, although usually within a day's ride of the Border, extended both north and south of their main haunts. English raiders were reported to have hit the outskirts of Edinburgh, and Scottish raids were known as far south as Yorkshire. The main raiding season ran through the early winter months, when the nights were longest and the cattle and horses fat from having spent the summer grazing.

The inhabitants had to live in a state of constant alert, and for self-protection, they built fortified tower houses, such as the bastle houses and Peel towers which are characteristic of this area and period. Smailholm Tower is one of many surviving Peel towers.

Impact on Coldstream

Coldstream’s involvement in reiving is not quite clear. During the 1500s the region was a lawless, no-man’s land, without much rule of law, where the reivers and mosstroopers held sway. There were differences in lawlessness because in the Central Borders, the Cheviot Hills separated England and Scotland and in the West, the Solway provided a significant obstacle. Here in the East, the barriers to reiving and lawlessness were different and being situated on the Eastern March, some historians contend that Coldstream avoided much, if not all, of what became known as the sixteenth century Border ‘reiving’. Compared to the Middle March (Teviotdale) and the Western March (Liddesdale), Berwickshire was apparently fairly tame. Other historians tend to dispute this. However, one account from 1590 refers to the effects on this area:-

By and large, both Scots and English raiders conducted their business with the arrogant disregard for the forces of law and order, whose job it was to stop them. An indication of how confident they were is reflected in the desperation which is clearly evident in this account of repeated Scottish incursions into the English East March in 1590:-

In February last, 200 Liddesdale thieves burned Mydrome (Mindrum), the barns, corn and cattle, carrying off goods worth £300 or £400. I have had no day of truce with the Scottish Warden since last October, which is one great cause of the thieves’ boldness. These Liddesdale men are the most disordered in the Border – they come in great bands through Tevedall (Teviotdale) and the ‘mare’ (Hawick) into these East Marches and return with their booty, going the same way without resistance…. Also they dwell so far within their country from the East Marches that revenge by us is almost impossible’.

According to one historian, no one in the records researched by him ever rode a Border raid from Coldstream (or anywhere else in Berwickshire for that matter). Yet in contradiction, and on the subject of reiving, Sir Robert Bowes in his 1542[1] report on the Tweed fords, said that all the reiving and stealing were committed by way of the fords and he wanted them dammed up. Presumably he included Coldstream ford in this. Furthermore, in the ‘Steel Bonnets’, a definitive book on reiving, Sir John Ker of Spielaw/Hirsel took a party across to Mindrum where he asked for a person by name. He killed him where he stood in the field. He then proceeded to take two prisoners and on his return he drowned one in the Tweed and hanged the other on the Gallowesknowe. This was considered to be ‘reiving’.

The central bit of conjecture surrounds the consideration of what defined a reivers’ raid. For example, because King James IV fought at Flodden historians do not consequently think of him as a ‘Border reiver’. Nor do they really think of the Borderers that fought under Home on the left flank at Flodden as fighting a ‘Border raid’ on that occasion either. The same logic applies to much earlier episodes when William Wallace camped at Carham, King David’s invading as far as Durham, the many sieges of Wark and Norham, or the Wars of Independence generally and likewise the major English invasions and occupations of Scotland.

The consideration is that the ‘Border raid’, properly so-called, was an unofficial, private enterprise affair and the raider or ‘reiver’ was someone who was committing an indictable offence (usually theft and/or murder) on their own account (and not their country’s) in their neighbouring kingdom. The crime being brought to the attention of the designated legal authority, the Warden of the Marches, a record was made and a trial of sorts often conducted. Where they survive, it is these records that constitute the evidence of ‘Border raiding’. When searching these records certain names and places recur and other names and places not mentioned at all. Berwickshire is scarcely mentioned in these official papers yet the alleged (and often repeated) misdeeds of specific people from identifiable places up the nearby Bowmont and Kale valleys are frequent.

Large scale incursions (of one hundred horses say) were often organised by the Wardens themselves. Sometimes they had a royal warrant or a wink and a nod.. Sometimes the Wardens themselves were accused of crimes committed in the neighbouring country and occasionally royal authority backed them up subsequently..

An excellent work on border reiving is Margaret Meikle’s ‘A British Frontier: Lairds and Gentlemen in the Eastern Borders 1540-1603 (2004)’. In it she suggests it was usually quiet and civilised in this neck of the woods. Whatever the story, as the decades passed, and the Union of the Crowns (1603) and the Act of Union (1707) transpired, the influence of prominent local families either side of the border was not diminished. They merely transformed from military leaders to civil leaders. North of the Tweed, the Earls of Home dominated, while to the south, the Earls, later Dukes of Northumberland were in charge. Numerous lesser gentry, such as the Dicksons, Swintons and Kers ran Berwickshire, while in Northumberland the Collingwoods, Herons, Forsters and Selbys led the transformation from war to peace. Mayhem on the Border came to an end. 

Friendly Rivalry and Accents

Coldstream is one of several small to medium sized towns in the Borders that make up border life. We have our friendly rivalries with these towns, Duns being one, and this makes the Borders very special. Rivalry with England is tangible, colourful but friendly and dialects can change within the space of a few miles. Travel from Coldstream to Cornhill-on-Tweed, Tillmouth, Branxton, Donaldson’s Lodge or Crookham, and the English language takes on a completely different accent. Travel a few miles further to Wooler and the broad Northumbrian (burr) kicks in. A conversation with a resident of Berwick upon Tweed (12 miles away) produces a quite unique twist in the English language. It would be remiss not to mention the idiosyncrasy of pubs closing earlier in Scotland than in England. Nowadays drinking establishments are well-nigh open all day but as recently as the 1980s, there was, as one author observed, a proper difference between the two nations of England and Scotland. In the ‘bad old days’ pubs in Scotland closed earlier than those in England, and on Sunday pubs in Coldstream didn’t open at all. So at Scottish closing time and on the Sabbath, Coldstream drinkers would, like the reivers before them, head across the river to lift what they could in the shortest possible time - in this case, as many glasses of ale as possible!

References and Sources

JL Mack, ‘The Border Line’ 1924

Keith Durham and Angus McBride, ‘The Border Reivers’  

Eric Robson, ‘The Border Line’ 

Underhill’s Map of 1862

David Welsh, Lecturer, Northumbria University

Margaret Meikle, ‘A British Frontier: Lairds & Gentlemen in the Eastern Borders 1540-1603 (2004)

[1]In 1542 he accompanied Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk on his plundering raid into Scotland, and was sent with 3,000 men to harry Jedburgh. He was attacked on his way at the Battle of Haddon Rig, and was made prisoner, but soon released. In 1550 he was made warden of the east and middle marches.