I have a great difficulty in weighing up the differences between the tales of the Borders and the provable history. In speaking about the Border families, I find that the romantic view of their origins take precedence over the factual.
The Elliots/Eliotts do not claim to have sprung from a hero who rescued the king (usually Robert the Bruce) from a raging bull, a stag or in the course of a battle, but we have legends of our own whose veracity I doubt.
One belief is that we were a Highland clan who were brought down from Angus by Robert the Bruce (him again) to keep the English armies from crossing the border. This story seems to have originated from the similarity in name between the river Elloch and the name Ellet as it was and still is pronounced by Borderers.
Another suggestion is that we were descendants of a Norman knight called Alliot who came across with William the Conqueror.
Both of these could just possibly be true, although there is no way of proving or disproving these as there is no contemporary documentation.
My own theory is that we have been here in the Northumbrian/ Borders region since Anglo-Saxon settlers came across from northern Germany in the 5th to 8th centuries. I base this on the fact that most of the 36 early ways of spelling the name are Anglo-Saxon — Aelwold, Ellwald, Elaund, Elwaird etc. The name continued written as ‘Elwalde’ with its variations into the 1500s when it became Elyot, Eliot and Ellote. There are no recognisable Gaelic spellings and only one Dalliot. I rest my case, but everybody will continue to believe as they wish anyway.
The Historical Elliots
The story of the Elliots in the turbulent 16th century can mainly be found in the pages of Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials where the family got many dishonourable mentions.
The Scotts, Kerrs, Kers, Maxwells and Johnstones have equally lengthy pedigrees.
About the only time when an Elliot might have influenced the course of Scottish and British history was when the Earl of Bothwell, the Keeper of Hermitage Castle, descended on Liddesdale to show off to his lover, Mary, Queen of Scots, who was conducting a Justice Ayre in Jedburgh.
Bothwell had captured some Armstrongs and Elliots and put them in the dungeons at Hermitage, then set off to capture or kill Jock Elliot of the Park, an infamous reiver. Bothwell pursued Elliot up the hill and shot him from his saddle. Then Bothwell made the serious mistake of dismounting to finish him off. At this, Elliot got up and slashed the Earl in the face, chest and hand and took off up the hill again.
When Bothwell’s servants found the severely wounded Earl, they carried him carefully back to Hermitage to find that the Armstrongs and Elliots had broken free and had taken the castle. So negotiations were made to allow the Earl back into his own castle.
When Mary heard the news, she rode from Jedburgh to see him, riding there and back in a day. This lengthy trip nearly killed her; if it had, it would have changed the course of history.
One part of the ballad commemorating the event gave Scotland its motto.
Ah’ve vanquished the Queen’s Lieutenant,
And garr’d as her troopers tae flee;
My name is Little Jock Elliot,
And wha daur meddle wi me?
Certainly the Scottish motto is ‘nemo me impune lacessit’, but that is just the posh Latin version of the same ‘wha daur meddle wi me’, which has remained the Elliot family motto ever since.
There are so many stories of Elliot participation in the Border wars that it would take a decade of whole Southerns to give a reasonable account of their exploits. So I will content myself with one more.
There was a belief that when a monarch died, the laws of the land were suspended until a new one was crowned. So when Elizabeth of England died, the Elliots and Armstrongs of Liddesdale saw an open goal. Quickly raising a company of 400 men, they raided into England. This must have been successful as 30 complaints were made against them.
This was to be one of the final raids in force, as James VI and I decided to curb the excesses of the Border reivers. By deputising two of the most violent ruffians in the Borders, Scott of Buccleuch and Ker of Cessford, and giving them a free hand to dispose of any outlaws by whatever means they wished, the Elliots and Armstrongs of Liddesdale were soon deprived of their lands and often their lives.
In these Killing Times, the Elliots were mostly driven out of Liddesdale, but many of the survivors settled in upper Teviotdale and became quite respectable citizens.
Many of the dispossessed went to Ireland where they caused considerable trouble and two generations later, on to the frontiers of the American colonies where their aggressive skills were put to good use.
It is always a surprise to me that the Border reivers produced such an expressive folk-poetry as the Border Ballads. Of course, there were Elliots behind that too.
Sir Walter Scott, while collecting ballads for his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, acknowledges John Elliot of Redheugh as ‘a gentleman well skilled in the antiquities of the Western Border and to whose friendly assistance the Editor is indebted for many valuable communications.’
The homelands of the Elliots (various spellings) were in Liddesdale which they shared with the Armstrongs in the lower part of the valley and the Nixons and Crosiers in the upper part. In the rental of Liddesdale of 1541, 46 Elliots, 34 Armstrongs, 23 Nixons and 13 Crosiers were named as occupiers.
Liddesdale is in rather a peculiar position between Dumfriesshire and England, and yet it is an extended part of Roxburghshire, but there is a historical reason for this.
In medieval times, the border was divided into three Marches with wardens from both sides appointed to keep the peace within their territory: except that nobody wanted Liddesdale within their jurisdiction because of its unruly inhabitants. So a special Keeper of Liddesdale was selected to keep the peace there, a thankless and often impossible task.
Even at the present time when the inhabitants of the valley are comparatively law-abiding, the ancient boundaries are still preserved within the county maps. In medieval times, the chief of the family was Elliot of Redheugh, sometimes also designated ‘of Lariston’. The present head of the family is Margaret Eliott of Redheugh who is the 29th Chief in lineal descent.