Border Reivers: They were often romanticized in art.*
Growing up in Montreal in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, I was often asked, “Are you related to HIM?” They were referring to Richard Nixon, President of the United States from 1969 to 1974, also a Vice-President from 1953 to ’61. To this I would reply an emphatic “No! I’m English. He’s Irish.” I always wanted to add, “Do you ask everyone named Johnson if they are related to Lyndon?”
My father was the one who insisted we were not related to Richard Nixon. Dick was an Irish Nixon, Daddy said. Our Nixons were English. My father also told me, with a sly self-effacing wink, that our Nixons were sheep stealers. It all sounded a bit cockeyed to me.
Today, 50 years on, I am engaged in working out my genealogy. I’ve had my DNA tested at Ancestry and I’m growing a tree. It seems that my dad was right on two points, about the sheep and, possibly, about Richard Nixon’s Irishness, but not about our family’s relationship to the late American President.
We probably do come from the same ancient stock.
I’ve just learned the Nixons of Northern England are descended from Border Reivers, families from the lawless, burnt out Scottish/English border regions of the British Isles (Cumberland and Northumberland) who raided other people’s livestock for a living. If you are a Nixon, Forster, Graham, Armstrong, Bell, Eliot, Robson, Crozier, Kerr, and yes, Johnson, you might be descended from these 13th to 17th century outlaws. Apparently, the Nixon Administration was full of them.
As it happens, I am both a Nixon and a Forster. An alleged ancestor of mine, illustrious Border Reiver Sir John Forster of Northumberland, was knighted for his service to Queen Elizabeth I in 1557. Sir John was lucky to be on the winning side of two key battles. His castle was in a strategic location on the “middle march” section of the border, so, apparently, he enriched himself with his share of the spoils from all local cattle raids, in England and Scotland.
The Nixon Clan has an even sketchier reputation. According to some accounts, they were “rude borderers” from Carlisle, Cumberland, who held no allegiances (except to the Armstrong Clan) and felt at home on either side of the border. They were real baddies who were exiled to Ireland and, then, kicked right back to England. Many in the clan were hanged for their transgressions at Carlisle Castle.
That is likely where my father got the idea that Richard Nixon was an Irish Nixon. I suspect my great grandfather, Robert Nixon ( 1863-1937), a sawmill worker in Helmsley, Yorkshire in the 1920’s, filled his young grandson’s head with many a grand, romantic tale of their burly, bearded ancestors, skilled light horsemen on fleet-footed stallions, engaging in strategic, daring cattle raids on the Scottish border.
It appears that these Border Reiver families can be described as reckless ruffians on horseback and/or heroic defenders of the monarchy; scoundrels or heroes; charming rascals or organized crime. It’s only point of view.
Just don’t blame these people for their wild way of life. In the 13th to 17th centuries, the area around the English/Scottish border was ravaged by warfare and not suitable for farming. Raiding sheep and cattle was just a way to earn a living. Also, the exact location of the border was disputed.
The BBC paid homage to these Border Reiver families with a TV show in 1968 called “The Borderers,” featuring a young and handsome Michael Gambon. The adventure series never came to North America, but I have found it on YouTube. If the BBC series had come to Canada back in 1968, when I was 13, I doubt it would have appealed to me any more than any other small screen horse opera.
But my father would have been mightily impressed.
* Illustration at top from book Border Raids and Reivers, Robert Borland. Available on Archive.org and in the public domain.
Here’s Sir John Forster’s Wikipedia page.
You can read more about the Border Reivers on the Historic UK website, where I got some of my info.
Read about their connection with the Nixon Adminstration here.