The Battle of Carter Bar, otherwise known as ‘the Raid of the Redeswire’ (Reidswair; Reidswyre) or ‘the Redeswire Fray’, took place on the 7th of July, 1575.
This battle is most often referred to as ‘the Raid of the Redeswire’ and was one of the last major battles fought between the English and the Scots. It isn’t really a very well known battle, compared to many others in the long list of raids, skirmishes, battles and other conflicts in the wars between Scotland and England. It wasn’t a raid either and neither did it take place in the Redeswire. Well, we could argue that, but no matter. The Redeswire was a drove road that criss-crossed the River Rede, essentially following the river right up to the head of Redesdale, climbing up over the watershed of the Rede and crossing into Scotland. The protagonists arrived at the scene of the battle no doubt having followed the Redeswire from their respective starting points, but the fight didn’t take place on the road. It took place at a meeting point below a ridge of the Cheviot pass, which enters Redesdale above the hamlet of Carter Bar, hence its proper name.
The battle was commemorated in a ‘Border Ballad’ called ‘Raid of the Reidswire’, which is how it came to be known by that name. Sir Walter Scott also wrote an account of the battle, which can be found in ‘The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’. However, the opposing sides met at Carter Bar in an arranged meeting under what was meant to be a truce, so there was definitely no cross border raid.
The meeting was initially scheduled for Kemelspeth, but was subsequently rearranged for the convenience of the Scots. It was to be between the respective Wardens of the Marches, ironically, those nobles responsible for keeping the peace on the border. These kinds of meetings were fairly regular occurrences in times of relative peace, where the violence was limited to thieving and plundering across the border – the routine pastime of border reiving. The object of such meetings was to clear up grievances on either side and settle any disputes. Sir John Carmichael was the deputy Keeper of Liddesdale, representing the Scottish Warden and he arrived at Carter Bar with a small band of pikemen and gunmen. These were predominantly men of Liddesdale, led by Elliots and with others from Teviot, Rule Water, and Hawick. There were also Turnbulls and Rutherfords present from Jedburgh.
Sir John Forster was the Warden of the English Middle March and he arrived with Sir George Heron of Chipchase, the Keeper of Tynedale and Redesdale, and a sizeable force consisting mainly of bowmen. Forster was known for double-dealing and Carmichael knew he couldn’t be trusted, although the meeting wasn’t to be avoided. To make matters worse, the Scottish contingent included members of the Crozier family, who were arch-enemies of the English Fenwicks of Wallington. Any sort of an argument could set off the powder keg if matters were not handled properly. Arrogance and hot-headedness were set to rule the day, particularly that of Forster, the English Warden.
In the course of the proceedings a true bill was found against a notorious English Freebooter named Farnstein. Forster claimed that he was a fugitive from justice, whereupon Carmichael, taking this as a pretext to avoid payment, shouted out, "Play Fair". Forster retorted with some Anglo-Saxon insults and insinuations regarding Carmichael's family and pedigree. His retinue, chiefly men of Redesdale and Tynedale, perhaps looking for any old excuse, reacted in support by discharging a flight of arrows amongst the Scots. All hell was then let loose.
The ‘Ballad’ describes the scene changing from an initially friendly encounter to a bloody battle rather well:
Some gaed to drink and some stude still
And some to cards and dice them sped
Till on ane Farnstein they fyled a bill
And he was fugitive and fled.
Then was there nought but bow and speir
And every man pulled out a brand;
"A Schafton and a Fenwick" thare:
Gude Symington was slain frae hand.
Notwithstanding the English began the fray with a cowardly attack and considerably outnumbered their foes, the Scots ultimately got the better of the conflict. Several notable border warriors were celebrated in the ‘Ballad’, including George Douglas of Bean Jeddart, Rutherford of Hundlie, and Sir Andrew Turnbull of Bedrule upon Rule Water. Casualties on the English side included Sir George Heron, his brother John and many other notable English Nobles, and Fenwick of Wallington, who was merely severely wounded. The prisoners were taken to Dalkeith, but the Regent Morton, ruling for the young King James VI, had one eye towards the succession of Elizabeth I and, as a consequence, treated them well and eventually sent them home.
Now, every year in June-July, the good people of Jedburgh celebrate the Callants’ Festival, which was inaugurated in 1947. The festival is part of the Common Ridings, which these days celebrate border history and legend, and commemorate the tradition, dating back to the 13th and 14th Centuries, of riding the parish boundaries, or 'marches' to protect common lands and prevent encroachment by neighbouring reivers. ‘Ridings’ take place from several border towns and the most important from Jedburgh is to Carter Bar. The story goes that the timely arrival of a contingent from Jedburgh, with its battle cry of “Jethart’s here”, turned what might have been a defeat for the men of Liddesdale into a famous rout of the English.
Redesdale, in the vicinity of Carter Bar, was also the site of an earlier battle, in 1400, when Sir Robert Umfraville routed a less fortunate Scottish force. Redesdale includes the settlements of Carter Bar, Elsdon, Rochester, Byrness and Otterburn, which last was also the site of an historic battle, fought under moonlight, in 1388, between the armies of England and Scotland. Nigel Tranter covers the events at Carter Bar in his novel ‘A Rage of Regents’, with John Carmichael as the story’s main character.