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the Complete Review
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The Steel Bonnets

George MacDonald Fraser

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To purchase The Steel Bonnets

Title: The Steel Bonnets
Author: George MacDonald Fraser
Genre: History
Written: 1971
Length: 394 pages
Availability: The Steel Bonnets - US
The Steel Bonnets - UK
The Steel Bonnets - Canada
  • The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers
  • Includes two appendices:
    • The Archbishop of Glasgow's "Monition of Cursing" against the Border reivers
    • The ballad of Kinmont Willie
  • With an Afterword by Thomas Meagher

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Our Assessment:

B : solid, broad survey of Border reiver history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 6/11/1971 .
The New Yorker . 1/7/1972 .
TLS . 7/4/1972 .

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The complete review's Review:

       The Steel Bonnets is one of George MacDonald Fraser's more unusual books. History dominates his books -- most notably in the Flashman-papers (see our review of the first installment), but also most of his other fiction, and even his wartime memoirs, Quartered Safe Out Here (see our review). The Steel Bonnets, however, focusses almost exclusively on history; indeed, it passes easily as a history textbook (though certainly not a dryly academic one). (Fraser did also go on to use much of this material in his 1993 novel, The Candlemass Road.)
       The Steel Bonnets is a broad survey of the Border reivers: "the tribal leaders from their towers, the broken men and outlaws of the mosses, the ordinary peasant of the valley" who plundered, robbed, and destroyed each other's lands back and forth across the Anglo-Scottish border.
       It is an odd border that divides England and Scotland, set in stone (Hadrian's Wall) in Roman times and enduring to this day. There has always been enmity across the two sides of the border, but, as Fraser points out, the whole region is also one that kept its distance from the rest of both Scotland and England, the reivers often closer to each other (certainly in spirit) than to distant Edinburgh or London. The reivers were a different breed, regardless of their nominal nationality.
       Fraser introduces the history of the region -- from ancient times -- and the people who lived there, focussing then specifically on the tumultuous 16th century. He introduces the various clans and families that dominate the region, and the various customs, traditions, and expectations of the Border-folk.
       Much of reiver history has to do with their constant raids on each other, and Fraser covers this subject in painstaking detail. He doesn't romanticize the reivers (as many do), making clear that they could be brutal, lazy, and didn't always have much sense of honour (or, at best, a very skewed such sense). They were willing to kill, and did. As Fraser puts it: there is "not much evidence to suggest that the Borderers were, for robber, unusually humanitarian."
       The details Fraser offers are often fascinating -- from the "hot trod" ("the right to recover one's property by force, and in practice to deal with the thieves out of hand") and the cold (i.e. not immediately undertaken) trod to the quite different reprisal raid. Examples galore are also given, giving a broad idea of all the possible horrors perpetrated in that place and that time.
       Fraser also presents the reivers well as separate from the governments that supposedly had authority over them, and the trouble London and Edinburgh had in exerting much influence in this strategically important frontier area. From hapless Wardens installed to set things right (an idea doomed to failure) to various laws that were largely unenforceable, the governments had a tough time of it.
       History around the Borders changed, however, and Fraser carefully follows it (in a section appropriately titled The Long Good-night, 1503-1603), showing the local effects and the gradual transition that did ultimately change life in the area for good.

       The Steel Bonnets is a history book: a large, solid introduction to the Border reivers, and Anglo-Scottish history in specifically the 16th century. Fraser covers almost all aspects of Border life, from everyday domestic life to the role of the people and the region in international politics. A wild bunch of people, the reivers offer a good many good stories, and Fraser presents these well.
       It is perhaps somewhat of a specialist book, and not quite as riveting a read as Fraser's fiction (though rich in incidents and local colour). But for anyone interested in Border history -- or even English and especially Scottish history generally -- it can certainly be highly recommended.

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The Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers: George MacDonald Fraser: Other books by George MacDonald Fraser under review:

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About the Author:

       English author George MacDonald Fraser was born in 1925. He is most famous for the books in the Flashman series, but has also written numerous other works of fiction and non-fiction.

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