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Episode 14: Weaving a Reiver Tale of the Nixons

Updated: Nov 6, 2021

Tuesday March 9, 2021

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In a memorandum to the Scottish Privy Council, it was stated that the Reivers be controlled and made to behave like civilized men. Of specific concern were families on a blacklist that was supplied to council. The Nixon family was on that list. The Nixon’s were Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers. The word “reive” means to rob and plunder. In this 14th episode and season finale of the Maple Family Treehouse I want to tell you about a branch of my family that has the most well documented roots, but is for me personally, an unfinished story – the story of the Nixons. I am Kael Sharman, Thank you for being here, and welcome, to the Maple Family Treehouse. I also want to thank the Attiwonderonk people whose traditional lands became a safe haven for the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations who were displaced after the War of 1812, but also a safe haven for the Nixons who where also pushed from their traditional lands in the Anglo-Scottish Border Region. Thank you - In the spirit of peace, caring, and sharing. And the story I want to share with you today is the Nixon migration story, which is nothing short of an epic saga that starts with my grandma Bessie. My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Nixon. This name is associated with he border regions between England and Scotland. Their official, and most accurate, designation was the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers but these rustlers were known by a host of names: the Borderers, the Raiders, the Steel Bonnets, the Riding Clans, the Reivers.[i] Nixon is one of the oldest family surnames in the region of Lancashire, England, as such This surname is traced back to 2 tribes: The Novantae tribe, who were farmers and herders, evidence of the Novantae tribe dates back to early Roman occupation, and the Selgovae tribe of hunters, who were conquered in 79-80 CE by the Roman army. Both tribes existed in Northumbria. The various tribes of Northumbria became allied together with a series of advantageous marriages between leaders of the tribes that unified them politically and socially. This is really where our story begins, because the unification of Northumbrians is not only a strength, but plants the seeds of the cultural foundation that gives rise to the border reivers. After centuries of Roman and Viking invasions, borders and reginal titles changed. When the dust settles the Nixon’s continue to occupy the traditional territories mentioned, but these places are eventually called Upper Liddesdale and Bewcastle which straddle the Scottish-English border. In 1246 CE, the chiefs of the tribes from across the English-Scottish borderlands met and agreed on a code of law for the border territories that would assist them in taking care of their own regardless of the larger political struggles that occurred between England and Scotland. It was this Reiver code that would last centuries. The code represented not so much a code among thieves as some sources might suggest, but rather a way to keep things in the family when internal or external forces served to divide. Alistair Moffat, explains the reiver perspective at the time in the following way: “The tribal surnames and their feral power were very old, reaching back across millennia into the mists of pre-history. When the pioneer families came north after the end of the last ice-age, and hunted, trapped and gathered a wild harvest, they probably enjoyed customary rights over wide swathes of the ancient wildwood. As farming pinned growing populations to more defined areas on the early map of the borders, the beginning of the surnames slowly began to form. DNA studies show tremendously long lineages, particularly in rural areas and many border families of the 16th century had been on their land since a time out of mind.”[ii] This quote by Moffat brings us into the mindset of the Reiver. Amidst a fault line that divided clans and families, they devised their own code to survive in what must have seemed like a temporary political set-back to their traditional ties, to each other, and to the land. Now, without getting in a long and detailed history of English and Scottish political relations, plus I it is a history I do not know. Suffice it to say that the cultural and political differences between the Scots in the North and the English in the South left the Border families and clans in a position where they simply had to survive as best they could on land continually war torn at the hands of larger forces. As time went on the violent survival tactics became a way of life. If Reivers could not grow their own food or keep their own possessions under the imposed uncertainty of war, Reivers…wel…took to reiving. Allegiances rested only with your own family and the families you were aligned with, clans for lack of a better term. It was an attitude that took hold in the border lands as a way of survival. And no family was more representative of this ethos than the Nixons were. More than a few sources noted that the Nixons had a reputation for adhering to the code and their clan allegiances fiercely. On the border the Nixon’s were known as “loose men” they created their own family and built a tradition of adopting into their clan to build strength and offer protection. The Nixons were part of a confederacy of clans known as the Armstrong-Elliot-Nixon-Crozier confederacy. The Nixons also united with the Thomsons, Glendennings, and Hunters for protection. The Nixon’s had developed an effective strategy for life in the borders, and more than a few Nixon’s made their way into the cannon of border reiver history. Some of the noted Nixon’s include Fingerless Will Nixon, Archie of the Steile, and Ill-Drowned Geordie Nixon. It is characters like these, that became a concern to the state, as noted by Moffat, “The late 1520’s saw Liddesdale increasingly became the central focus of lawlessness, the Armstrongs, Elliots, Croziers, and Nixons ignored and even publicly belittled…royal authority. The skills Reivers needed to survive became a longstanding way of life, but also had the effect of creating hardened soldiers who were valuable to both England and Scotland, and were often used as mercenaries.”[iii] But when the lawlessness became threatening to the heads of state and the use of mercenaries was no longer needed, a more concerted effort was used to break up the stronghold within the borderlands. In other words the Border Reivers were a sort of Frankenstein and we all know how that ended. Robert Bell explains what was at stake: To give some idea of scale, the Armstrongs, at their height in the sixteenth century, could put 3,000 men in the saddle at forty-eight hours notice, a sizeable force, all of whom would have been well versed in guerrilla warfare. And if the Armstongs were to ride out with the Elliots, Nixons and Croziers, nothing less than a royal army could send them home again.”[iv] In 1603, the union of the Scottish and English Crowns represented the beginning of the end for the border Reivers. That is when Queen Elizabeth the 1st died, and King James III of Scotland, became King James I of England. With James accession to the throne of England, the Scots Borders erupted. In what would long be famous as’ ‘III Week’, mayhem broke loose all along the border and raids were carried out deep into England in search of plunder. Ill week brought a swift and violent response from King James. The Graham family was singled out as an example. Partly because they were the most hated clan on both sides of the border, and partly because their lands in Eskdale were among the most fertile in the border region. The Border Commission had special instructions to deal with ‘the Grahams’. Their lands were confiscated and they were hunted down and hanged for their activities during ‘Ill Week’, for which a general pardon had supposedly been granted to encourage non-violent relocation to Northern Ireland, Northern Scotland, England and the colonies. [v] Many Nixons were sent to Northern Ireland. A cursory search of several census’ in and around Fermanagh from 1766 – 1901 showed 2 Nixons, William Nixon in Cookstown, and a James Nixon in Devenish. But by 1901 there were well over 200 Nixons listed in the towns around Fermanagh. A few sources I read stated that it was common for families to accept relocation and then return after a contract of indentured servitude was fulfilled. I am not sure how the Nixons I am descended from managed to stay in Lancashire, or if they left and returned after a short exile somewhere else. My 4 greats grandfather James Nixon was born in Lancashire in 1788. He moved to London Ontario sometime before 1851. His father William Cuthbert Nixon was born in Lancashire as well in 1760. And William’s father, also named William, was also born in Lancashire in 1731. I am still working on documentation for William, my 6 greats grandfather. What I do know is that James Nixon still had connections to other Reiver Families. He came to Canada with his wife my 4 great grandmother, Margaret Sommers who is descended from Bell’s on her maternal side and Grahams on her paternal side. A look back the book my Grandma Bessie Nixon gave me of Founding Families in Westminster, shows dozens of Bells, Routledges, Grahams, Elliots, Thomsons, Hunters, 7 Glendennings, and 3 Crozier families.[vi] There is most certainly a story here and my next step is to connect the dots between my 6 greats grandfather William Nixon, to the tribes of the Selgovae and Novantae. Perhaps the answer is in my DNA. Stay tuned for the next season of the Maple Family Treehouse in October 2021, when I will hopefully connect those dots through research and information gained from my genome mapping. Could a Reiver reunion be in the Works – Look out London Ontario! Thank you for listening to season 1 – until we meet again in the fall – Cheers! [i] Roger Bell. (Winter, 1994). Sheep Stealers from the North of England the Riding Clans in Ulster. History Ireland: Ireland’s History Magazine. Issue 4, Volume 2. [ii] Alistair Moffat. (2008). The Reivers: The Story of the Border Reivers. West Newington House: Edinburgh. 14. [iii] Moffat, 2008. [iv] Bell, 1904. [v] Bell, 1994. [vi] Delaware and Westminster Townships, Vol. 2. (2006). The Westminster Township Historical Society.

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