Border Reivers –  House of Harden/Synton

The Blades of Harden                                      (A Poem by William. H. Ogilvie ,1869-1963)




Ho! For The Blades of Harden

Ho! For the driven kye!                            (cattle/cow)

The broken gate and the lances hate

And the banner red on the sky!

The rough road runs by the Carter;

The white foam creams on the rein;

Ho! For the blades of Harden!

“There will be moonlight again!”


The dark has heard them gather,

The dawn has bowed them by,

To the guard on the roof comes the drum of a hoof

And the drone of a hoof’s reply.

There are more than birds on the hill to-night

And more than winds on the plain!

The threat of the Scotts has filled the moss,

“There will be moonlight again!”


Ho! for the blades of Harden!

Ho! For the ring of steel!

The stolen steers of a hundred years

Come home for a Kirkhope meal!             (Ettrickbridge)          

The ride must risk its fortune,

The raid must count its slain,

The March must feed her ravens.

“There will be moonlight again!”


As we read of, at the beginning of the month, on my article on the ancient seat of the Scotts of Harden, they contributed several characters and accompanying anecdotal stories surrounding them, none more so than-

 Auld Wat of Harden  (by Barry Harden, Baron of Cowdenknowes)

 (A Painting By Tom Scott RSA )


 Walter of Synton was the ancestor of this Walter of Harden, a celebrated border reiver during the time of Queen Mary and renowned in Border tradition as "Auld Wat," who succeeded his father as Laird of Harden in 1563.Kirkhope Tower, in the Ettrick Valley, was the home, in his youth, of Auld Wat.

This most famous border Reiver, Walter Scott of Harden, commonly known as “Auld Wat”, was a renowned marauder and many of his exploits have been commemorated in Border traditions and ballads.  His stronghold was the old castle of Harden just to the west of Hawick which is still in a good state of preservation

In the dark recess of the glen on the edge of which the mansion stands, Auld Wat kept his ill-gotten gains, which helped to feed and maintain his followers. Many anecdotes are preserved by tradition on the borders. He was a renowned freebooter, and used to rude with a numerous band of followers. The spoil which they carried off was concealed in a deep precipitous glen, on the boundary of which the old tower of Harden was situated, in the deep narrow vale of Borthwick water.

Legend has it that when the food supply, the last bullock, was devoured and food running low, Auld Wat would be served a clean pair of spurs under a covered dish, as a hint from his wife, that they were getting hungry and that it was time to replenish the food supply with fresh beeves(cattle) from Northumbria.



‘And loud and loud, in Harden tower

The quaigh gaed round wi’ mickle glee;

For the English beef was brought in bower,

And the English ale flowed merrilie.

They ate, they laughed, they sang and quaffed,

Till nought on board was seen,

When knight and squire were boune to dine,

                                             But a spur of silver sheen’


Sir Walter Scott the celebrated poet and novelist, who was probably the most famous of the Hardens, refers to Auld Wat’s bugle-horn, and an engraving of it is given in the “Scotts of Buccleuch”, it shows it’s surface completely covered in initials, cut or burned into the horn. Sir Walter Scott, who must have often seen this interesting relic, describes it in the “Reivers Wedding”;  

'He took a bugle frae his side,

With names carv’d o’er and o’er,

Full many a chief of meikie pride

That Border bugle bore.


He blew a note baith sharp and hie,

Till rock and water rang around;

Three score of moss-troopers and three

Have mounted at that bugle sound.’

Sir Walter Scott the celebrated poet and novelist, who was probably the most famous of the Hardens, relates in connection with this custom “Upon one occasion when the village herd was driving out the cattle to pasture, the old laird heard him call out loudly to drive out Hardens cow. “Hardens cow”! Roared their affronted chief. “Is it come to that pass? By my faith, they shall soon say Hardens Kye” (cows).  With that he blew hard on his horn, set out with his followers, and the next day returned with a bow of kye and a bassened (brindled) bull.

Upon returning with his gallant prey, he passed a large haystack and it occurred to the old laird that the haystack would be extremely convenient to fodder his new cattle, but as no means of transporting it were available to him, “he was fain to take leave of it”, with the apostrophe, which has now become proverbial, “By my saul, had ye but four feet ye should not stand long there”, As Froissart says of a similar class of feudal robbers, nothing came amiss to them that was not too heavy or too hot.


In the spirit-stirring ballad of ‘Jamie Telfer’ there is a most picturesque description of old Harden weeping for very rage when his kinsman, Willie Scott of Gorrinberry, was killed in the fray.


‘But he’s taen aff his gude steel cap,

And thrice he’s waved it in the air;

The Dinlay snaw was ne’er mair white,

Nor the lyart locks of Harden’s hair.


"Revenge! revenge!" Auld Watt ‘gan cry;

"Fye, lads, lay on them cruellie!

We’ll ne’er see Teviotside again,

Or Willie’s death revenged sall be."’


Sir Walter Scott wrote in another note to the ballad of “Jamie Telfer” that Walter Scott of Harden, (Auld Wat), was married to Mary Scott of Dryhope, celebrated in song by the title of the “Flower of Yarrow”, and reputed to be the most beautiful woman of her time.

By their marriage contract, the father of that lady was to supply Sir Walter with horse meat and man’s meat for a year and a day, after the marriage, at his tower of Dryhope; but five barons pledged themselves that at the end of that period the son-in-law should remove without attempting to continue in possession by force--- a strange condition which was referred to as a curious illustration of the unsettled character of that age.  According to another traditionary account, Sir Walter Scott of Harden, for his part, agreed to give Dryhope the profits of the first Michaelmas moon. His castle upon the brink of a dark and precipitous glen was the storehouse of the fruits of many a raid across the border, the spoil from which served for the maintenance of a large body of followers.

In his writings Sir Walter adds that the original contract is in the charter-chest of the present Mr. Scott of Harden, and that a notary-public signed for all the parties to the deed as none of them could write their names.


Auld Wat has himself left record that the Flower of Yarrow was "a curious hand at pickling the beef he stole;" and the service of a pair of clean spurs on the usually well provided platter was notice to his retainers that the time had again arrived to sally forth a-reiving.



Sir Walter Scott evidently had this striking picture in his eye when he wrote the famous description of Hardens appearance at Branksome, in the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’;


'An aged knight, to danger steel’d,

With many a moss-trooper came on;

And azure in a golden field,

The stars and crescent graced his shield,

Without the bend of Murdieston.

Wide lay his lands round Oakwood tower,

And wide round haunted Castle-Ower;


High over Borthwick’s mountain flood,

His wood-embosom’d mansion stood;

In the dark glen, so deep below,

The herds of plundered England low;

His bold retainers’ daily food,

And bought with danger, blows, and blood.

Marauding chief! his sole delight

The moonlight raid, the morning fight;

Not even the Flower of Yarrow’s charms

In youth, might tame his rage for arms.

And still, in age, he spurn’d at rest,

And still his brows the helmet press’d,

Albeit the blanched locks below

Were white as Dinlay’s spotless snow.

Five stately warriors drew the sword

Before their father’s band;

A braver knight than Harden’s lord,

Ne’er belted on a brand.’


Auld Wat of Harden died about 1629, at a great age, his eldest son, Sir William, succeeded him as Baron of Harden. William, apparently followed in the foosteps of his father, for he was captured "lifting" the cattle of Murray of Elibank and condemned to be hanged on the Elibank gallows tree, an appanage of every well-equipped border stronghold.

In his youth, engaging in a foray upon the lands of Sir Gideon Murray of Elibank, he was overpowered by that barons’ retainers, and carried prisoner to his castle, now a heap of ruins, on the banks of the Tweed. Elibank was on the point of ordering him to be instantly hanged, when his more considerate dame interposed, suggesting that he was heir to a good estate, and that they had three unmarried daughters. To save his life, young Harden consented to wed the plainest of the three, called Agnes, who rejoiced, or otherwise, in the descriptive name of "Muckle-Mouthed Meg."

William had been given the choice between the gallows tree and a wife and chose what seemed to him the lesser evil, securing his life and liberty by a marriage with Meg. Another and more romantic version of William's marriage tells of his refusal to wed the unseen Muckle-Mouthed Meg as an alternative to hanging and of how Meg, posing as the gaoler's daughter whose duty it was, each morning, to take the prisoner his can of porridge, won the bold reiver's heart. Browning records that William, while actually under the gallows tree, obstinately refusing marriage with Meg, is answered by the supposed gaoler's daughter:


' "Not Muckle-Mouthed Meg! Wow the obstinate

Perhaps he would rather wed me !"

"Ay would he with just for a dowry your can!"

"I'm Muckled-Mouthed Meg," chirruped she.'




The eldest son, called ‘Little Sir William,’ was knighted by Charles II. immediately after the Restoration. The second was Sir Gideon of Highchester, whose posterity carried on the line of the family. Walter, the third son, called ‘Watty Wudspurs’ (or Mad-spurs), figures characteristically in the ballad of ‘Jamie Telfer.’ He was the ancestor of the Scotts of Raeburn (hence Sir Walter Scott-the author’s ancestor). The fourth son was James of Thirlestaine; and from John of Woll, the fifth son, the family of Woll  are descended.