Border Reivers – Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead

Reiver in Despair at Theft of his Cattle Gets Help from the Clans

Jamie Telfer lost all when raided by the English of Bewcastle. His despair would change to delight when help from the Scotts of Teviotdale brought him an unexpected gain.

English Reivers Raid

Bewcastle lies just south of the English Scottish Border; the remains of a once formidable castle still stand as a stark reminder that it had been a dangerous place to live in times gone-by. The Bewcastle Waste was a hunting ground of the Scottish Border Reivers and a direct route for them in their relentless raids into Northumberland, in particular Tynedale. The castle was well garrisoned in an effort to thwart the Scots as they headed for the Tyne valley.

Late in the sixteenth century the Captain of Bewcastle ventured forth to teach the Scots a lesson. Reprisal was on his mind as he sought to counter the many inroads into England of the Border Scots clans.

 Bewcastle was strategically important. There has been a fortress there since Roman times

Bewcastle was strategically important. There has been a fortress there since Roman times

High in Ettrickdale, a lovely Border valley on the Scots side, once stood the home of Jamie Telfer. Here he lived with his wife and bairns in a somewhat isolated location. The family had little in the way of possessions, and as for many another Borderer of the time, life was harsh. They had only ten cattle and but a meagre smallholding of land which proved hard to tame to provide for almost all their needs. Yet they were happy in their lot; they asked for nothing but to live in peace and tranquillity in their little parcel of heaven.

The Captain of Bewcastle and his marauding band soon came upon the scene and, having gauged the lie of the land and the absence of close neighbours, laughed raucously at their good fortune. They saw only easy pickings.

The clash was but a scuffle; Much as the parents strove to combat the superior English force they were soon overcome, left face down in the mire as their children looked on in howling distress. The Bewcastle horde had soon made off with Jamie’s little herd.

Jamie Seeks Help from the Reiving Clans

After the English had left, Jamie ran the ten miles to Stobs Castle and sought the help of Gibby Elliot, a man of power in the neighbourhood. Elliot would have none of it because Jamie did not pay him blackmail. Blackmail was rent paid for protection against the more powerful reiving clans of either England or Scotland who made their living at the expense of the weak and defenceless: men who could not call on the aid and succour of a powerful overlord or clan chief. Elliot suggested that Jamie move on to Branxholme as it was to the Laird there that Jamie paid his blackmail. In despair, Jamie then ran from Stobs to Branxholme where he received a fairer reception.

This is the Nesby Tower at Branxholme south of Hawick. It was one of four towers joined by curtain walls high above the river Teviot

This is the Nesby Tower at Branxholme south of Hawick. It was one of four towers joined by curtain walls high above the river Teviot

Scott, the Laird of Buccleuch and Branxholme had very soon called out his neighbours at Goldielands, Harden and Allanhaugh, also by the name of Scott. Together they rode hard to intercept the English before they should reach the Rutterford, a passage across the river Liddel that led into English ground.

jamie3The English, slowed by the ponderous pace of the beasts, were eventually caught up with, still on Scottish ground.

A Border Reiver Skirmish

In the ensuing melee a Scottish reiver named Willie was felled when his head was clove in two by an English sword. Wat Scott of Harden swore revenge and roused the Scottish party by his audacity and aggression. The Captain of Bewcastle was to come off badly when his leg was broken by a massive sword swipe onto his upper thigh. This, it is said in the ballad of Jamie Telfer, rendered him ‘useless’ to a woman for the remainder of his days. The Scots soon retrieved Jamie’s cattle.

The Scottish Reivers Move into England

A Scottish Reiver by the delightful name of Watty with the Wudspurs suggested that, as they were near the very Border Line, the Scots should move on to Stanegarthside (pronounced Stingerside) on the English side and chance their luck at the Captain of Bewcastle’s home there. This they duly did. After breaking down the door of the barmkin ( a wall, high and thick, which surrounded the tower), they soon outfought the English garrisoned for its defence and made away with some of the Captain’s cattle.



A Poor Man’s Despair Turns to Delight

After leaving Branxholme Jamie had made his way home slowly to the Fair Dodhead, lost in wretched thought. He found his wife and bairns forlorn and in despair, huddled together in a corner of the single room that once was filled with laughter but now succumbed to a cheerless state. He was taken aback by the sorrowful sight and soon joined their wailing. What would tomorrow bring, what was their future?

Imagine the relief then when the Scotts of Teviotdale soon brought home their ten beasts. The relief turned to delight when Jamie counted thirty- three kine (cows), twenty-three of which had formerly been pastured at the home of the Captain of Bewcastle.

The Captain must have rued the day he ever looked at the Fair Dodhead. Loss of cattle and manhood was a poor return for a reive which had set out with such high expectations.

An Afterword

There is more than one rendition of this story. From the ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ by Sir Walter Scott to the Child Ballads and other versions whose sense is now lost. The location of the Fair Dodhead has never been conclusively proved. There is certainly more than one site with the name in the Scottish Borders. Different versions also cast a shadow over who aided Jamie. Was it the Scotts of Teviotdale or just maybe the Elliots of Stobs?

The original ballad, now lost, was certainly tinkered with down the years as the Scotts and Elliots endeavoured to prove their magnanimity. It matters little now. It is a stirring story of the days of the Reiver.


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5 thoughts on “Border Reivers – Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead

  1. Nick Telfer

    Your account seems to be much more fanciful than any I have gleaned from the several conflicting accounts in various versions of the ballad I have read, particularly your account of the actual raid on the Dodhead. Aiblins it’s ‘aa juist havers

    ‘an blether.

    I am a descendent of the Telfers Talefords etc. of the North Tyne valley and trying to find a connection between Raldolphus Taleford (possibly a direct ancestor in the male line) and the Scots side of the border round about 16th/17th century.

    I cannot believe that the Dodhead in questions was on Etrrick side. The version where ‘Jamie…ran THREE mile afoot’ make more

    geographical sense. Why would he run TEN mile to the Stobs Hall when Branxholme was nearer.

    Also it certainly should be ‘In the FD’ not ‘Of’…. Jamie was just a poor teneant farmer (if indeed he ever existed, about which there must be some doubt)

    I’d be interested to know where all the embellishments to the story came from. Have you used poetic license as the ballad writers of old did to make it a better story.

    It would make a good movie (as long as Hollywood was not involved!!!)


    Nick Telfer

    • tommoss Post author

      Hi Nick
      No poetic licence. All based on what I have read.
      Sir Walter’s involvement in the ballad had its influence. He didn’t like to think that Jamie would bypass Branxholme ( a Scott residence) so reworked parts of the story which makes it illogical as you say.
      Don’t forget please this just a story based on a ballad that changed over the centuries.
      My version is just for entertainment based on folklore not fact.
      Anyway, thanks for the interest,

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  4. Alastair Cunningham

    The Dod burn in question would not be the one up Ettrick but at Skelfhill. And when Buccleuch’s men went from Teviotdale over the Priesthaughswire to rouse the Scotts of Gorrenberry they would have gone right by the Fair Dodhead!


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