Coldstream and Flodden

For all of its existence the town of Coldstream has been a crossing point over the border into England, with the fords over the River Tweed being the first upstream crossings unaffected by the tidal variations in the height of the river.

For this reason it is only since the beginning of the 17th Century and relative peace between Scotland and her larger neighbour that the town has been left unmolested by armies invading and retreating over the border. This is why very little of the early origins of the town can be seen today.

Coldstream was, however, the site of a Cistercian Priory for many years, its Nuns often playing an important role in patching up the injured from retreating/advancing forces and they played an important role following the defeat at Flodden when many of the fallen Scottish nobility were buried within the Priory grounds.

In the time of peace, Coldstream became a prosperous market town and the fine buildings that line the High Street and the Market Square reflect this era of prosperity.

Today Coldstream has a population of 1,700 and is a popular holiday location for tourists, fishers, cyclists and those who enjoy the unspoilt countryside of the Eastern Marches of the Scottish Borders and North Northumberland.

A highlight of our year is the Thursday of Coldstream's Civic Week when a cavalcade of upwards of 250 horse-riders are led by the Coldstream callant, the 'Coldstreamer', to Flodden field, there to remember the greatest military defeat suffered by Scotland and a pivotal moment in the history of our country.

The battle of Flodden Field, six miles from Coldstream near the English village of Branxton was fought in 1513. In an afternoon of ferocious carnage upwards of 10,000 Scots and 1,500 English perished. You can find out more about Flodden at the website of the 1513 Club and here.
Flodden was a disaster for Scotland. A battle that didn't really need to be fought resulted in the loss of one of our most able Kings, James IV and almost every leading member of the Scottish aristocracy and establishment. After Flodden, Scotland was never able to field a single, comprehensive and effective military force for its defence. It was left with an infant King, James V and was wracked by divisions over who should hold power and by religion. By the end of the century, Scotland shared a King with England, James VI and I and c.100 years after that the two countries were 'united' by the act of union. Although other factors played their part, the defeat at Flodden never really allowed Scotland to keep pace with a rapidly increasing change in events, religion and power and from it you can chart the major events that led to the creation of modern Scotland as we now know it.

The site of the battle of Flodden is relatively unchanged and a visit is recommended if for no other reason than to experience the eerie silence of the place. A simple monument made of granite stands atop pipers hill, one of the pivotal features of the battleground, upon which is inscribed "to the brave of both nations".

For the Borders, Flodden was the gravest of military disasters. After 1513, what had always been a lawless and tough frontier, essentially a military no-mans-land between England and Scotland, fought over, invaded, despoiled and generally beaten about, imploded into one hundred years of anarchy and violence interrupted only occasionally by an uneasy peace, the period has been called 'the long good night'. To add spice to the mix, in the 1540's England began to exert enormous pressure on Scotland for a marriage of convenience between the son of Henry VIII, Prince Edward, to the young daughter of James V, Princess Mary; later Mary Queen of Scots. This period in Scotland's history is known as the 'rough-wooing', with bands of English soldiers and mercenaries sent to destroy the beautiful Abbeys of the Borders and generally intimidate all of southern Scotland.

This was the heyday of the Border Reivers, the outlawed men who lived in the wild and remote places like Liddesdale and the Debateable Land and others who were outwardly respectable but available at a moments notice to raid elsewhere. These were men who responded to the desperate state of the border by living on their wits, thieving and robbing wherever possible. The author Sir Walter Scot helped to give them the reputation of men who did not like to kill or destroy unless they had to, but they were really as tough as any outlaw bands there has ever been, the James Gang of the American West, the Triads or the Mafia all followed the tactics of the Armstrongs, Grahams or Elliots, Charltons, Hetheringtons and Milburns.

The Reivers dominated both sides of the Border and feuded with each other and everyone else, Scot against Englishman, Scot against Scot, town against country; but their principal activity was theft and plunder. Blackmail and racketeering, robbery and extortion, kidnap and ransom, protection rackets and cross border smuggling became a way of life. Hundreds of years before Chicago was built, Al Capone would have been quite at home anywhere in the Borders, although with the dodgy suit, fedora and spats he might not have lived long enough to admire the Reivers handiwork. You can still see the products of these times throughout the Borders today, peel towers and fortified bastles dot the landscape, many common ridings reflect battles fought and won and even the names of the people remain unchanged, the pipe band itself reads like a reiving band, Kerrs, Bells, Cockburns, Hyslops, Lauders, Moffats and Scotts all represented.

So troublesome had the Borderers been to both countries that when James VI, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, took control of both thrones in 1603 one of his first acts was to crush the Reiving families with all the military might available to him. Few were spared and although many families rushed to deny their reiving pasts, some very successfully when you look at the leading modern-day aristocratic families of the Borders, many family surnames were expelled from Scotland and Northern England to Ireland.