The English and Scottish borderlands had a legal system all of its own, established in 1249 and called the Leges Marchiarum, separate from the laws of either England or Scotland and based on the customs of the people who had lived there for thousands of years. The English and Scottish national boundaries were later constructs put in place long after the borderlands had their own cultural customs and system of self-government.
The March justice system established what compensation those guilty of crimes gave to victims of those crimes, and the use of hostages or ‘pledges’ to prevent offended parties from engaging in reprisals or feuds. It also described procedures to recover stolen goods and the steps to establish local police forces.
To make administration easier, the system divided the borderlands into six marches — three on the English side and three on the Scottish side — and their respective Crowns chose an appointed administrative warden for each march. Unfortunately, not all wardens were equally up to the job. Many were corrupt, cowardly, or inept, and not a few were reivers themselves. Often the worst disasters of border administration occurred because a “fox was minding the chicken coop” or no one was minding it at all.
Periodic gatherings of the reiver clans were venues for making often contentious legal decisions about crimes and property disputes. Once a year rival clans would come together for a ‘common riding’ of their adjacent borders to determine clan boundaries and adjudicate disputes. Only one area, about 13 miles long and 8.5 miles wide at its widest point, known as the Debatable Lands, was so lawless that no one was called to account for crimes committed there. The authorities encouraged residents in the Debatable Land to move elsewhere for safety, but few did since the land they occupied had been in their families for many generations.
Lochmaben Stane, a group of nine standing stones near Gretna on the north bank of River Esk (shown on the map as a red pin), was often the site for gatherings of the Scottish West March. Only one of the nine stones remains in place. Lochmaben Stane features in THE LALLANDER as it was then, with all nine of its stones, an ancient landmark in the middle of a farmer’s field.
For nearly four hundred years, March Law, this very decentralized system of criminal justice helped keep the peace where no central authority existed to mete out justice between families both within and across borders who were complete enemies. That ended in 1603 with the Uniting of the Crowns, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England.