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The steel bonnets (1971)

– tekijä: George MacDonald Fraser

JäseniäKirja-arvostelujaSuosituimmuussijaKeskimääräinen arvioMaininnat
447741,984 (3.84)11
From the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, outlaws reigned supreme on the contentious frontier between England and Scotland. Feud and terror, raid and reprisal, were the ordinary stuff of life--and a way of survival. Power was held by the notorious border reivers (the "steel bonnets," named for their flashy helmets), who robbed and murdered in the name of family: the famous clans (or "grains")--like Elliot, Armstrong, Charlton, and Robson--romanticized by Sir Walter Scott. In The Steel Bonnets, George MacDonald Fraser, author of the bestselling Flashman novels, and himself a borderer, tells the fascinating and bloody story of the reivers, their rise to power as ferocious soldiers of horse, and their surprisingly sudden fall from grace.… (lisätietoja)
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    A Famine of Horses (tekijä: P.F. Chisholm) (Scorbet)
    Scorbet: A Famine of Horses is the first in a series about Sir Robert Carey, who features in the Steel Bonnets.
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Näyttää 1-5 (yhteensä 7) (seuraava | näytä kaikki)
George MacDonald Fraser is the author of the Flashman novels; here he takes his hand at history – and it’s very good. Fraser’s focus is the Scottish marches – the borderlands with England – in the 16th century. Raiding across the border was practiced on a large scale – up to thousands of raiders – by both sides, and “lifting” cattle was so common that it makes you wonder how often a particular cow was herded back and forth. Indeed, the Border residents didn’t even consider cattle rustling “stealing” and the Border had special rules (not codified but understood by everybody) for cattle theft; if you immediately followed the thieves, it was a “hot trod” and you could take your cattle back without repercussions; if you waited you had to go to the law, such as it was.

Fraser notes that the actions of the Border Reivers were glamorized by latter generations – like a lot of other aspects of Scottish (and to a lesser extent, English) history. According to the mythmakers and balladeers, the Reivers were Robin Hoods in kilts – they robbed from the rich, gave to the poor, eschewed violence, and were polite to women. In fact, Fraser documents: the Reivers usually were the rich (because they could afford the horses and riders it took to make a successful raid); they robbed the poor (because the poor were less able to resist); and they were quite willing to kill, maim, rape and burn if thwarted – or just for the fun of it. Certain of the “riding families” – notably the Armstrongs, Kerrs, and Elliots – became powers until themselves; even the authorities didn’t dare cross them, lest they become embroiled in a feud that might be fatal, be active for years, and involve whole families; in a sense the riding families became like organized crime families of the US.

And as in organized crime, they acquired colorful nicknames – Kinmont Willie, Willie Redcloak, Ill Wild Will Croser, Nebless Clemmie, Little Jock of the Park, Jack of the Peartree, Fingerless Will Nixon. Fraser notes that after the reivers were finally suppressed and dispersed , the names still turn up – it was an Armstrong that did the first raid on the Moon, and Nixon and Johnson figure in US political history.

At any rate, the end finally came when one of their own, so to speak, got in charge; James VI of Scotland became James I of England and decided that since both sides of the border were now ruled by him, he wasn’t going to have any more this. While the reivers may have been locally strong, they were no match for the entire power of the State; their fortified houses were smashed by artillery and their followers cut down by cavalry. James gave a lot of latitude to his field commanders, who didn’t go through the formalities with captured raiders – Jedburgh was headquarters for some of the royal forces and the phrase “Jedburgh Justice” came to mean summary execution first and trial later.

Fraser comments that the romance was gone – but that it was now possible for ordinary people to live in peace on the Marches. An easy read, as you would expect from a novelist. Illustrated by photographs of the landscape, of ruined castles, and of notable personalities; maps of the area, a long bibliography, and a good index. ( )
2 ääni setnahkt | Dec 3, 2019 |
A bold and roaring history, The Steel Bonnets is George MacDonald Fraser's ambitious attempt to impose some sort of order on scholarship of the lawless Anglo-Scottish border region of the 16th Century. Naturally, the author of the Flashman stories brings a novelistic flair to large parts of this story. Not only does he delight in all the various stirring episodes of the Border (horseback pursuits, blood feuds, raids by moonlight, larger-than-life scoundrels) but also provides his usual humour and élan to a manuscript that might have otherwise become plodding.

It is not a specialist, academic sort of history: Fraser freely concedes he is more interested in the 'human interest' angle: "The Scottish policy of Henry VIII [for example] is a fascinating thing… but I am less concerned with the effect that it had on, say, Franco-Scottish relations than with the more immediate and dramatic impact which it had on the good wife of Kirkcudbright who, during a skirmish near her home, actually delivered her husband up to the enemy for safe-keeping." (pg. 7). Nevertheless, despite this dramatic interest he does provide a great historical narrative of the Borderlands in that turbulent century, and it adds up to an accomplished and very readable history that makes a good fist of explaining what that remarkable time must have been like to live through. The central hook, as I understood it, was that this crime-ridden society considered itself normal: "… great numbers of the people inhabiting the frontier territory (the old Border Marches) lived by despoiling each other, when the great Border tribes, both English and Scottish, feuded constantly among themselves, when robbery and blackmail were everyday professions, when raiding, arson, kidnapping, murder and extortion were an important part of the social system. This had very little to do with war between the two countries, who spent most of the century at peace with each other. It was a way of life pursued in peace-time, by people who accepted it as normal." (pg. 3 – my emphasis). Getting to the root of this peculiar mindset is, as a reader, quite fascinating.

However, whilst Fraser clearly admires the reivers (outlaws) and the other roguish figures of the Border, he is no sentimentalist or romantic. Indeed, he stresses that in his research "a different picture of the Border reiver emerges. He can be seen for what he very often was, not at all heroic, but a nasty, cruel, mean-spirited ruffian, who preferred the soft mark provided by small farmers, widows, and lonely steadings." (pg. 98). He tells the story of one captured reiver who "was burned alive because he had himself burned a house containing a woman and her children; it is worth remembering things like that, when considering the heroic eminence that folk-lore has given" to the likes of these (pg. 239). He points out that the legendary – in all senses of the word – jailbreak of Kinmont Willie from Carlisle Castle was "made possible by informers, traitors and fifth columnists" (pg. 340). Above all, he notes dryly, if the old folklore myth that reivers avoided unnecessary homicide is true, "one can only comment that they seem to have found homicide necessary with appalling frequency" (pg. 122). It is prose like this – so typical of Fraser in his fiction – that makes The Steel Bonnets so engaging at times.

This is not to say that the book does not have its faults. As mentioned, the book is ambitious and tries to impose orderly scholarship on a century of events in a large and fluctuating region defined by lawlessness, oral history and violent turbulence. It is a weighty task and sometimes threatens to get the better of a writer even of Fraser's talent. Many of the raids are so similar they become indistinct. Many of the names and familial ties of the clans are hard to untangle (in a footnote, Fraser laments the 'heart-breaking complexities' of the Border relationships, "fit only for the computer" (pg. 347)). In an oft-cited criticism of the book, he quotes at length from contemporary sources – in hard-to-penetrate dialect and with, shall we say, liberal attitudes to spelling – which drags the pace of the book down as the reader is forced to switch gears to try and decipher the quotation. This latter point is exacerbated by the general structure of the book, which goes into detail about how raids were fought and how the land was governed before even providing a narrative of key events. This not only results in a first hundred pages that struggle to get going but also means Fraser is providing examples to illustrate his arguments that have no context. In this early section, he uses phrases like 'as we shall discover later' or 'which we shall discuss later' with unnerving frequency, and it does little to engage the reader. The scope of the history doesn't become apparent until near half the book has passed. Many readers won't have the patience or the stamina.

But these faults pale beside the force of the book. It is a remarkable period of British history – well-told by an accomplished writer and native Borderer – but, more than that, it is an under-reported period of our country's history. For it was in this period that the modern Anglo-Scottish partnership catalysed, whilst also providing good evidence of why the rivalry persists. In a magnificent passage on pages 22 to 24, Fraser sidebars to discuss this relationship and why it is a truly unique one, in geopolitical, social and, indeed, familial terms.

The narrative among modern tartan-wearing, Twitter-storming little Bravehearts pushing for ruinous 'independence' from English oppression shows a basic and frankly insulting ignorance of history and the nature of Anglo-Scottish fraternization. Bannockburn, Flodden and so on were largely – though not completely – tribal or regional; the ideas of nationalism and populism as we understand them now were constructs that came centuries later. People back then didn't give a damn – they had more important things to worry about: Fraser's book shows us that Scot killed Scot and Englishman killed Englishman just as often as one killed the other, and people didn't care whether the reivers burning their homes or killing their families or extorting blackmail money were Scottish or English, when they could have been either, and often were both. The border was porous, permeable, an incestuous cauldron of violence: certainly not noble Scots vs. evil English. At the end of Fraser's book, it is a Scottish king ascending (peaceably) to the English throne after the death of the childless Elizabeth Tudor. Hardly English oppression. This merger – rather than alliance – set the stage for the Act of Union and all the resultant fruits of Empire, and a relationship that continues to fire a healthy nation today. When I read in Fraser's book of a hostile pre-Union Scotland "offering a stepping-stone to England's enemies, and not infrequently joining in against England when the latter was busily engaged on the Continent" (pg. 23), I cannot help but think of Scotland's – or rather, the SNP's – recent opportunistic and cynical attempts to undermine the country's Brexit result and negotiations; exploiting the country's vulnerable moment for unfair short-termist political advantage and for the shallow satisfaction of poking their 'oppressive' English kinsmen in the eye. For kinsmen is what the two peoples are. The border is porous. There are no longer any battle-lines, and even when there were, Scots and English fought on both sides. The modern politicisation of history (by self-serving charlatans who want to get their names into the history books by foul means or fair) reduces this fascinating tinderbox of bloodlust and begrudging respect to a bland and one-note (and intellectually unsound) narrative, ignoring its richness, variety and flavour. But, fortunately, for those who are willing to seek clearer shores there are people like Fraser and books like The Steel Bonnets that are prepared to deal with these things with a cool and even hand, delighting in the fraternity and the immediacy of history. We are much the better for it, and indeed for a unified country where the violent "extremities of the old kingdoms were now the centre of the new realm" (pg. 362). ( )
  MikeFutcher | Nov 29, 2016 |
I am an ardent student of history and particularly enjoy English and Scottish history from the period 1300-1750. The author of this work is one of my favorites, having read most of his Flashman novels of historical fiction. That being the case, you would think that this work would be right in my wheelhouse. You would be wrong.

Expecting interesting stories and histories of events along the English/Scottish border, I was instead confronted with a dry, turgid scholarly treatise. Endless citing of English and Scottish village names, multiple variations of spellings and name forms, many times for the same person, illegible maps and a complete lack of any semblance of organization leaves me mystified how on earth this book has garnered so many positive ratings. Does the author have so many relatives?

Most annoying is the author’s frequently employed tendency of directly quoting many of the actors in the history. You would think this would bring an authenticity and clarity to the dialogue, but quite the opposite. For you see, the denizens of the border didn’t exactly speak the King’s English as you and I know it. For a good example, read some Robert Burns and explain to me what it says. Page after page of quotations whose meaning can only be vaguely discerned by puzzling over context and possible meanings of words spelled only slightly similar to those with which you are familiar. Loads of enjoyment and enlightenment ensue.

This is, quite frankly, one of the worst books I have ever read. ( )
  santhony | Mar 9, 2012 |
If you want to understand the complexities of living on - or near - to the English/Scottish Border, then start with its history, and this book will help you understand its bloody history. A classic work on the Reiving families of the Scottish and English Marches. ( )
1 ääni TheLRCatCCC | May 26, 2011 |
George Macdonald Fraser, author of the popular Flashman series, has turned his novelist's skills to good use in this excellent account of the sixteenth-century Border wars. A Borderer himself, he manages to produce a very balanced and readable description of a particularly troubled part of sixteenth-century history. Though the events described are quite as sanguinary as those described in "The Twilight Lords," Fraser retains enough detachment that the reader does not feel as if his nose has been rubbed in it. ( )
2 ääni staffordcastle | Jul 13, 2009 |
Näyttää 1-5 (yhteensä 7) (seuraava | näytä kaikki)
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From the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, outlaws reigned supreme on the contentious frontier between England and Scotland. Feud and terror, raid and reprisal, were the ordinary stuff of life--and a way of survival. Power was held by the notorious border reivers (the "steel bonnets," named for their flashy helmets), who robbed and murdered in the name of family: the famous clans (or "grains")--like Elliot, Armstrong, Charlton, and Robson--romanticized by Sir Walter Scott. In The Steel Bonnets, George MacDonald Fraser, author of the bestselling Flashman novels, and himself a borderer, tells the fascinating and bloody story of the reivers, their rise to power as ferocious soldiers of horse, and their surprisingly sudden fall from grace.

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