Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Steel Bonnets

I've just finished reading George MacDonald Fraser's "The Steel Bonnets", which is still one of the very best books on the Border Reivers you can get.

First published in 1971, it still reads wonderfully, a tale of history with all the elements of a great thriller: criminal intrigue, political double-dealing and breakneck action.

Fraser is probably best known as the author of the Flashman stories, and to me it seems that this is what lifts the book from the merely interesting to the exceptional. Fraser was evidently a skilled researcher and historian, but it is this in combination with his fantastic ability to tell a great adventure story that makes The Steel Bonnets such a great read. His descriptions are vivid and full of colour, whether of the hard, harsh landscape or the harder, harsher men who lived in it. He weaves a dry, ironic wit into the stories of raid and counter-raid, bitter feuds, cynical politics and the endless efforts of men on both sides to simultaneously control and inflame an area as lawless as any to be found in a work of fiction.

Fraser has a fantastic backdrop to write his story over. Centuries of family feudsoverlay the larger feud between England and Scotland. A population, part-ruined by raiding, who took ever more to raiding others in order to survive themselves, full of astonishing but actually real characters. Fraser describes one as the sort of man that later story writers "...who had never heard of Robert Carey, found it necessary to invent..." and he does justice to them all.

The lords of rival clans, raiding one another without regard to national borders, make the Wild West seem tame. With names like Auld Wat, Jock of the Side and The Bastard Heron, these men, already larger than life, jump from the page thanks to Fraser. In the midst of them all are the appointed Border Wardens, some strong and upright, like the "rugged, short-tempered" Hunsdon, others, like Kerr of Cessford "as much bandit as peace officer", no more law-abiding than those they policed. These men frequently tried to keep order in their own territory whilst encouraging their own locals to raid across the border. Here were Scots fighting on behalf of the English, English supporting the Scots and both sides fighting and reiving one another indiscriminantly.

Fraser breathes even more excitement and drive into this, painting a vivid picture that pulls the reader along. Events like the rescue of Kinmont Willie Armstrong from Carlisle Castle and the little-known but incredibly significant fight between Hunsdon and Dacre near Brampton would be high points in any adventure yarn, and Fraser's prose brings them into sharp, thrilling focus.

The tumult of the Anglo-Scottish border in the sixteenth century is as exciting a period for a wargame as any I can think of, and anyone wanting to try it need look no further than Fraser's work for all the inspiration and background they will need.

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