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The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  657 ratings  ·  81 reviews
"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, Maxwell ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published March 1st 1998 by HarperCollins Publishers (first published January 28th 1972)
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Dave/Maggie Bean
Jun 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Had it not been for fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, I’d never have discovered Fraser. During the dreary winter of 1981, I found myself imprisoned in the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters in Patrick Henry Village (Oftersheim, Federal Republic of Germany), with no friends and f**k-all to do. Fortunately, there was a Stars and Stripes bookstore ten minutes’ walk from the glorified tenement we called "home."

I suppose my parents felt sorry for me (and reckoned that if I had spending money, I’d go somewhere
J.M. Hushour
Oct 27, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have a lot of books. I can't remember where most of them came from or what drove me to bring them home. They sit around for years and then, every so often, my eye drawn to one in particular that I've always meant to "get around to", I'll snag it up and read the damn thing.
I don't remember why I picked up "The Steel Bonnets". Maybe it was the awesome phrase "border reivers" right there on the cover. Maybe it was its lawless color scheme? Whatever the case, it's a damn fine read. It is exactly w
Tim Pendry

This nearly fifty year old account of the Anglo-Scottish borderlands in the sixteenth century is still frequently reprinted for good reason and deserves re-reading today by anyone with an interest in organised crime and what we now call 'homeland security'.

The author, a journalist, creator of the 'Flashman' series of popular novels, film script writer, former soldier and part-Anglo-Scot borderer himself, writes well and has an eye for a story so the book is generally a good read - although Frase
Daniel Polansky
The author of the Flashman series overviews the violent history of the Scottish/English borderlands. I enjoyed mulling this bloody history of raids and counter raids from the small English cottage in which I spent most of September and which rested in the heartland of what was once violently disputed territory, entertained by the thought that the stolid English elders who drank cider in village pubs and walked glumly through the endless the rain are the descendants of such brutal bandits as Crac ...more
Aug 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. It's a history, written by one of my favourite authors of either Fiction or Non-Fiction George Macdonald Fraser, the writer of the "Flashman" Series, and the writer of the 3/4 Musketeers Films' Screenplays- the Classics from the 70s. Here he covers rich ground- the last 400 years of the Anglo-Scottish Border -before first union under King James 1. Apparently there was beaten zone 50-75 miles on either side of the border, where raiders attacked any settlement worth raiding- and ...more
Peter Ellwood
May 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
An excellent account of an almost completely unknown and extraordinary phenomenon (there’s no other word for it) that occurred on the England-Scotland border over some 300 years, from around 1300.

Be prepared for tales of a wild and unexpected race of people who burned and plundered, blackmailed and killed, without compunction, for generation after generation, on either side of the border. This isn’t the occasional, romanticised violence of Braveheart, it’s an ethics-free culture that really exi
Sep 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I have always had an interest in the Border Reivers as my family, the Trotters, were a reiving clan in the Eastern March. The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser is now in my top five history books of all time. A fascinating read which really dissects the subject at hand. Fraser was a Scottish Borderer who lived in Carlisle and it really comes across he has a real sense of the people, place and culture on both sides of the Border. I am from Dumfries and was totally engrossed in the Maxwell- ...more
Pat Carroll
Jan 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Very good overview, oddly organized but imbued with Fraser's fighting man's insight. Good stuff for Brits et al. ...more
Mike Futcher
May 14, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
[This review was written in November 2016, hence its reference to certain political events in the present tense.]

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 (horseb
Sherwood Smith
Reread: On this read, it struck me how many times Fraser sees fit to remind the reader that the Borderers were not romantic at all--that in fact they caused more mayhem than the mafia or like groups. I wonder if the impetus behind this book was the proliferation of romantic border stories inspired by Dorothy Dunnett.

Whatever the impetus, it's a fascinating study of a small group of people whose descendants have had a proportionally enormous impact on the English-speaking world. Not English, not
Mysti Berry
Feb 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorite-writers
Fraser's writing is a treat. He helps even a daft American like me feel like I understand the Border Wars and the terrible events that created modern-day Scotland. ...more
Tom Nixon
Oct 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It's been gathering dust on my bookshelf for years, but finally, I sat down and read The Steel Bonnets, which tells the story of the border reivers that dominated the border between England and Scotland for centuries- their peculiar, rough and tumble way of life reached it's peak in the 16th Century before being swept aside by the forces of political unification that united the two kingdoms when James I took the throne of a united kingdom following the death of Elizabeth I.

Why read a book about
Joshua Green
Fraser's book gives an extremely detailed account (more an anthropological view) of the life and times of the relatively lawless Anglo-Scottish border c 1200-1600. He mostly focuses on the 16th century. In short, I would have given this book three or more stars if it weren't for the damned length.

I found that, for the casual reader of English and Scottish history like myself, the author made his main points about the reivers and their society within the first 150 pages or so, and then more or l
Jan 29, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fraser does an amazing job of with this forgotten (but fascinating) episode in British history involving explosive family feuds and international intrigue. He tells the story largely through the first-hand accounts left by Wardens (who were charged with the almost-impossible task of bringing order to the English-Scottish border in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). To this he adds informed guesswork of his own, based on his deep familiarity of the personalities involved. The larger-than-l ...more
Mike Hall
Jun 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
The author starts by describing a photograph of Richard Nixon's inauguration, also in the photograph is Lyndon Johnson and the Reverend Billy Graham. The Nixons, Johnsons and Grahams were all notorious Reiver families. A somewhat later comparable operation was the Wild West though that had a better division of the "goodies" and the "Badies". The Reivers were either depending on the circumstance that day.
But it is well worth reading about the little known Reivers that often operated in hundreds a
Bryan Kerr
Apr 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is the definitive work on Scottish border clans. Fraser does a great job bringing ancient tales back to life, as well as connecting contemporary figures with their familial place of origin and ancestors. One can actually get a sense of the attitudes and personal characteristics of folks living 500 years ago. Throughout the book I felt myself relating to historical individuals that Fraser mentions, despite the gulf of time separating us. Thanks to Fraser, I had little trouble imagining my li ...more
Apr 08, 2018 rated it liked it
When reading a novel titled "A Famine of Horses" this book was recommended background reading. The sixteenth century on the English - Scottish border was characterized by unending violence, with raids and counter raids, stealing and murder. The Border Reiver is defined as robber, raider, marauder, plunderer. The term is obsolete but lives on in words like bereave. Clans were organized to protect themselves and to take revenge as appropriate. As history, the book does a great job of highlighting ...more
Gary Fellows
Mar 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Gary Animosity between Scots and English only exists in the minds of those wishing to look for such; and perpetuated by trash media and gratuitous patriarchal ignorance.
GMF has actually countered those lazy superficial notions, not with opinion, but rather with fact; no doubt to the annoyance of misguided “romantics” who cannot possibly be certain of their own ancestry,
If you want unbiased historical facts, then this is the book for you. If not, then you probably haven’t even read this far int ...more
Jun 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Highly readable and entertaining popular history of the border reivers on either side of the Scottish/English border and particularly it's height and decline during and immediatey after the Elizabethan years. The lawman and the lawless, with often little water beteen them, battle it out, chasing each other up and down mountains after cattle and sheep and horses. Raids, kidnappings, blackmail, murders, and the unique and strange and terrible culture that made these things a way of life superbly s ...more
Feb 08, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: british-history
This was a very informative book, written with the characteristic tongue-in-cheek humor of George MacDonald Fraser.

That said, I must admit that it was at times a bit of slog, merely for the multifarious cast of characters, many of which with the same surname (and many of those with the same given name).

Nonetheless, as one who bicycled through the border country, I found this book to tell a little-known story in an enjoyable and empathetic fashion. It was also a good primer on English-Scottish
Rich Carney
Apr 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Game of Thrones makes a lot more sense after readings this, as silly as that sounds. A lot of interesting stories that I've never read elsewhere, to the extent that the scottish-english border seems very much like the old west.

I did feel that parts of the story were told out of order which left me having to flip between sections a few times.
Nov 30, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Fascinating history during the 15th and 16th century of people living near the English/Scottish border and how a big part of their lives was involved with family raiding across the border - that means stealing livestock, murder, theft, and vandalism. This could happen with very large groups of horseback raiders, 400 plus, and involved certain specific families on both sides of the border.
Russell McCreight
Feb 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
A splendid history of the Anglo-Scots Border region and the rather frightening people who inhabited this area of nearly constant conflict. Written by one of my favourite authors, MacDonald Fraser's prose is as enjoyable and lively as it is in the Flashman Papers, as well as the companion novel to this historical study; The Candlemass Road. ...more
Al Lock
This is an interesting book, but not an easy read. It isn't written in a consistent manner, switching about from chronological to subject-based, and reads as if the same story is being told again and again (and in a way, it is) and as a series of anecdotes. It may very well be the most complete history of the area for the period, but it is a bit of a slog. ...more
Andrew Weitzel
May 16, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A long look into the people and politics of the English-Scottish border from about 1500 through the early 1600s. I learned that a lot of people I know are likely descended from Scottish criminals from the Middle Ages.
Kim Zinkowski
An interesting look at political conditions and people of this region in what is now Great Britain in (mostly) the 16th century.
Stuart Smith
May 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is just a rollicking good time of a book! An in-depth, funny, history and study of a little corner of the world.
Dec 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
Very interesting book about the Border reivers in reality , popular memory and literature.
Jul 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating stuff about the Reiver clans on the England-Scotland border from the 13th to 17th centuries. Definitive book on the subject.
Garry Nixon
Aug 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Read at a time when I was beginning to wonder who the hell I was.
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He is best known for his Flashman series of historical novels, purportedly written by Harry Flashman, a fictional coward and bully originally created by Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown's School Days. The novels are presented as "packets" of memoirs written by the nonagenarian Flashman, who looks back on his days as a hero of the British Army during the 19th century. The series begins with Flashman, and ...more

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“Most of us do not think of ourselves as criminals, but possibly there are things in our daily lives which we regard as our “inheritance” which will move future generations to critical disgust.” 3 likes
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